A checkerboard cake is as impressive as it is tasty, and really easy to make. Bake a cake to celebrate a holiday, your favorite team, or just that special someone with these complete step-by-step assembly instructions!
[May, 2021: I've reworked the recipe and updated this post with all new pictures. Enjoy!]
Why this recipe works
- The component cakes are really easy to bake
- You can customize the flavors/colors to suit your needs
- You don't need a special pan. Just use two different cookie cutters or make your own stencils.
A checkerboard cake is a cake layered in a bull's-eye of alternating cake colors with the pattern reverse for each layer. When sliced, the bull's eye layers form that checkerboard pattern.
You will need two different cake colors to make it work. Here I'm using a chocolate and vanilla cake. You can also make two vanilla cakes, coloring each a separate color.
The trick is to make the concentric rings of equal widths from the cake layers. When they're stacked, the checkerboard will come out looking even (more or less, depending on how tall the cake layers rise).
What you need
For this cake you'll be making a chocolate cake, a vanilla cake, plus vanilla buttercream icing to bring it all together.
The chocolate layer is adapted from my Port Wine Chocolate Cake. Espresso powder deepens this fudgy cake's flavor, and it won't taste like coffee. It's optional, but recommended.
For the vanilla cake, the ingredients are pretty straightforward. You do need buttermilk to react with the baking powder.
I use sweet cream buttermilk powder (with water) because it's shelf-stable and keeps indefinitely, but you can use straight buttermilk or a buttermilk substitute.
The vanilla buttercream frosting ingredients are just powdered sugar, butter, milk, and flavorings. Nothing fancy required.
How to make a checkerboard cake
Step 1: Make the vanilla cake
Sift the flour, buttermilk powder, leaveners, and salt (photo 1).
Beat the butter and sugar together until creamy (photo 2), then add the eggs in, one at a time (photo 3) before adding in the vanilla (photo 4).
Alternate adding ⅓ of the flour mixture (photo 5) with ½ of the water (photo 6), mixing after each addition until the batter is just incorporated. Try not to over-mix the batter so you keep the cake nice and tender.
The batter will be smooth and thick, so use a small offset spatula to smooth out the top after pouring into the two 9-inch round cake pans (photo 7). Bake until a cake tester comes out clean, about 25 to 30 minutes.
If the top of the cake has a dome on it, level it off with a serrated knife (photo 8). You'll need even layers to keep the checkerboard pattern from drooping.
Step 2: Make the chocolate cake
Stir together the flour, sugar, cocoa powder, leaveners, espresso powder (if using), and salt (photo 9).
Mix in the eggs, milk, canola oil, and vanilla, then slowly add the boiling water (photo 10). Stir on low speed, again until just combined.
This batter will be thinner than the vanilla batter, so tap out the air bubbles after dividing the batter between the two cake pans (photo 11). The cake is fudgy, so it's ok if a cake tester comes out with a few crumbs (photo 12). You don't want to over-bake the layers.
I use Bake-Even Strips to insulate the cake pans as the batter bakes. As a result, they keep the cake layers even without needing to trim off the tops. You can see how flat the top of the chocolate cake is when I use them.
Here I split the cake into two layers because I baked the cake in one round baking pan instead of two (photo 13). This step isn't necessary if you use two cake pans.
Step 3: Make the buttercream
The vanilla buttercream frosting is easy to throw together. Just beat the butter until it's creamy. Add the powdered sugar, heavy cream, vanilla extract, and salt and beat at high speed until the buttercream is light and fluffy (photo 14).
If you prefer, you can use different flavors of buttercream to complement your chosen cake flavors (like Dark Chocolate Buttercream Frosting) or make a different version with Italian Meringue Buttercream Frosting.
Assemble the cake
Step 4: Cut the two cakes into rings
For a standard 9-inch cake, cut a 6-inch and 3-inch circle from the chocolate cake layers, either by tracing a pattern cut from parchment paper or using cookie cutters. I chose the latter (photo 15).
Repeat with the vanilla cake layers (photo 16).
Step 5: Alternate the rings for each layer
Next, carefully separate the cake circles and put the middle ring from one color inside the outermost ring of the other color with center circle matching the outer ring.
Frost the layer with the buttercream before continuing (photo 17).
When you stack the next layer, use the opposite color rings, the checkerboard effect will show when you slice into the cake (photo 18).
Repeat the pattern two more times, frosting between each layer with the buttercream.
Step 6: Decorate the cake
Use the remaining buttercream to frost the top and the sides of the cake, then decorate as desired. I created a stencil for a heart cutout and a scalloped edge from paper, then dusted with cocoa powder.
This is a four layer cake, so you don't need to go overboard with the decorations. The surprise is on the inside!
Questions asked and answered
Here are some questions you might have...
There are two easy buttermilk substitutes you can use. You can either stir together ½ cup each water and sour cream (or plain Greek yogurt) or take 1 cup of milk, remove 1 teaspoon, and stir in 1 teaspoon lemon juice or white vinegar. Let this mixture sit for 5 minutes before using.
Yes! Divide the cake recipes in half and bake each color in two 6-inch round cake pans. Use a 4-inch round cookie cutter and a 2-inch round cookie cutter to make the rings. Assemble the checkerboard as described. You can even make it only three layers, and use the other half of one of the cake recipes for another use.
Sure! Bake the cakes and let them cool, then wrap the layers individually with plastic wrap and refrigerate or freeze until you’re ready to assemble. Let the cakes defrost in the refrigerator before using.
Yes, just keep it refrigerated, covered in plastic wrap. Allow the buttercream to sit on the counter for an hour or so to get to room temperature. Stir it well to get it nice and fluffy again.
Checkerboard cake wins dessert!
This cake is as impressive to look at as it is tasty. Both cake flavors are rich and moist, and the buttercream isn't too sweet.
A checkerboard cake is a great way to show you're a fan of a sports team, a school, a house in Harry Potter (my favorite is Ravenclaw)...anything that has official colors.
Or celebrate a holiday in a new way. Make red & blue cake layers for a patriotic spin, orange & black for Halloween, or pink & white for Valentines Day.
Let your creative juices flow!
Slainté! L’chaim! Cheers!
When you pair cake and frosting, the results are magical. Here are a few ideas to get you started:
I hope you like this recipe! Do you have any questions I can help with? Let me know! Or, if you made the recipe, I'd love for you to leave a comment and rating. Thanks!
For the chocolate cake
- 2 cups all-purpose flour
- 2 cups granulated sugar
- ¾ cup cocoa powder, sifted
- 2 teaspoons baking soda
- 1 teaspoon baking powder
- 1 teaspoon espresso powder, optional, but recommended
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt
- 2 large eggs, at room temperature
- 1 cup milk, at room temperature
- ½ cup canola oil
- 2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
- 1 cup water, boiling
For the vanilla cake
- 3 cups all-purpose flour
- 2 tablespoons buttermilk powder, see Recipe Notes
- 2 teaspoons baking powder
- 1 teaspoon baking soda
- ¼ teaspoon kosher salt
- 2 cups granulated sugar
- 1 cup unsalted butter, at room temperature
- 4 large eggs, at room temperature
- 1 tablespoon pure vanilla extract
- 1 cup water, see Recipe Notes
- ⅔ cup sprinkles, optional, see Recipe Notes
For the vanilla buttercream frosting
- 1 recipe vanilla buttercream frosting, homemade or store bought
- Preheat oven to 350 °F. Spray two 9-inch round cake pans with baking spray and line them with 9-inch parchment paper rounds. Spray the parchment paper rounds. Set aside. See the Recipe Notes if you only have one 9-inch round cake pan.
- Soak the Bake-Even strips (if using) in cold water for 5 minutes. Press out the excess water (do not wring), and wrap them snugly around the cake pans. These will help the cake bake evenly, so there's no need to level them later. Set the pans aside.
- Make the chocolate cake: In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment (or a hand mixer and a large bowl), whisk together the flour, sugar, cocoa powder, buttermilk powder (if using), baking soda, baking powder, espresso powder, and salt.
- Add the eggs, milk, canola oil and vanilla to the bowl and mix well. Slowly add the boiling water. Mix on Low speed until just combined. Don’t over-mix the batter.
- Divide the batter equally between the two prepared cake pans (about 3 cups of batter per pan). For the most accurate method, weight the batter with a large bowl set on a kitchen scale. Calculate half the measured weight. Place each cake pan on the zeroed-scale and measure that calculated amount of batter into both cake pans.
- Tap out the pans on the counter to release any trapped air bubbles. Bake for 25 to 30 minutes or until a cake tester comes out with a few crumbs. The cake is fudgy, so be careful not to over-bake the layers.
- Remove the cakes from the oven and allow them to cool for about 10 minutes, then transfer the cakes to cooling racks to cool completely.
- Make the vanilla cake: Clean the cake pans, then spray them with baking spray. Line the pans with parchment paper and spray with baking spray. You can reuse the parchment paper circles from before or put in new paper.
- Re-soak the Bake-Even strips (if using). Once again press out the excess water (do not wring), and wrap them snugly around the cake pans.
- In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, buttermilk powder, baking powder, baking soda, and salt.
- In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment (or a hand mixer and a second large bowl), beat the sugar and butter together on medium-high speed until the mixture is creamy and smooth. If needed, scrape down the sides of the bowl with a spatula.
- On medium speed, add eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition, then mix in the vanilla extract.
- Alternate adding ⅓ of the flour mixture with ½ of the water, mixing after each addition until the batter is just incorporated. The batter will be smooth and thick.
- Divide the batter into the prepared cake pans. Use a small offset spatula to smooth the top, if necessary.
- Bake the cakes for 25 to 30 minutes or until a cake tester comes out clean. Remove the cakes from the oven and allow to cool for about 10 minutes, then remove to cooling racks to cool completely.
- Assemble the checkerboard cake: The cakes must be completely cool before assembling the cake. If you didn't use the Bake-Even strips, trim the cake tops to level them.
- Using a 6-inch round cookie cutter, cut a circle into each cake layer. Using a 3-inch round cookie cutter, cut a circle out of the 6-inch circle. You will have four 3-inch circles (the centers), four 6-inch rings (the inner rings), and four 9-inch rings (the outlines). Use the video to see how this step will look.
- Place one vanilla 9-inch outline of cake onto a serving plate or cake stand. Fill with a chocolate 6-inch ring, then a vanilla center for the first layer. Spread the buttercream evenly on top using a large offset spatula. Use a cake lifter to transfer the outer ring if the cake is soft.
- The next layer will be a 9-inch chocolate outline filled with 6-inch vanilla ring and 3-inch chocolate center. Spread the buttercream evenly over this layer. Repeat the pattern for next 2 layers using the opposite cake flavors each time.
- Cover the top and sides of the cake with the remaining buttercream. Decorate the top and sides of cake as desired. For neater slices when serving, refrigerate the cake for at least an hour before serving to let the buttercream set.
- Serve and enjoy the amazement of your family and friends!
- Storage Instructions: This cake can be stored at room temperature for 1 to 2 days, or well covered in the refrigerator for up to a week.
- Make Ahead Tips: You can make the cakes ahead of time, then wrap the layers individually with plastic wrap and refrigerate or freeze until you’re ready to assemble. Let the cakes defrost in the refrigerator before using.
- Stir together ½ cup each water and sour cream (or plain Greek yogurt).
- Take 1 cup of milk, remove 1 teaspoon, and stir in 1 teaspoon lemon juice or white vinegar. Let this mixture sit for 5 minutes before using.