Allow me to introduce you to Zebra Cake! If you’ve never heard of it before, homemade vanilla and chocolate cake batters are layered in pans to create a stunning stripe effect, which makes the inside of the cake resemble zebra stripes. I fill and frost it with a silky smooth chocolate frosting that will knock your socks off. I’m going to teach you how to make it (it’s not hard at all!) and share tips for using different colors or flavors – there are so many possibilities! You’re going to LOVE this recipe!
When you hear “zebra cake” do you think of this striped chocolate-and-vanilla cake, or does your mind immediately go to the nostalgic Little Debbie zebra cakes (hello, freshman and sophomore years of high school!)?
Both are delicious, but today I am going to show you how to make this absolutely gorgeous dual-flavored two-layer cake that is perfect for any birthday or celebration (even if you’re celebrating surviving a random Tuesday!).
What is zebra cake?
A zebra cake is a mixture of yellow and chocolate cake that, instead of being marbled, is poured into the pan in such a way so as to create stripes as you would see on a zebra.
The zebra stripe effect is achieved by dropping alternating spoonfuls of batter into the pan. The weight of each additional dollop of batter forces the ones below it to spread out, creating rings of alternating color.
I start with my favorite homemade yellow cake recipe, portion out about half, and add cocoa powder and just a little milk to create the chocolate batter. It’s so much easier than you might think and you’ll wow everyone once you cut into this cake!
How to use a box cake mix
If you prefer to use a box mix for your cake batter, you’ll still use the same method as below for separating the cake batter and layering it into the pan.
Because not all cake mixes are the exact same size, you should prepare the cake mix as instructed on the box, then measure the amount of batter and transfer half of it to a separate bowl. Add the cocoa powder and milk to one of the bowls and then proceed with the recipe as directed, following the baking times indicated on the box you are using.
How to make different colors and flavors
I love this recipe because it’s super versatile and can be adapted in a ton of different ways!
If you want to do different colors and not necessarily chocolate, simply omit the cocoa powder and milk step, and instead use food coloring to tint the cake your desired color(s). I always recommend using gel frosting versus liquid food coloring so that it doesn’t impart too much liquid into the recipe. I use Americolor gel food coloring for cake batters, frosting, everything!
You can play around with different flavors, as well. Simply add different flavored extracts to one batter or the other; the possibilities when it comes to flavors and colors are really limitless.
The best frostings to use
I always opt for a chocolate frosting to pair with the zebra cake; the one I’ve included in the recipe below is the same one I use to fill and frost the original yellow cake recipe. It’s so wonderfully silky smooth and an absolute dream!
However, if you want an alternative, I recommend my classic chocolate buttercream frosting – a simple American-style buttercream that’s more buttery than sugary and only requires butter, vanilla, powdered sugar, and melted chocolate.
Storage tips and freezing instructions
Zebra cake stores like any other layer cake; keep it covered at room temperature for up to 3 days.
If you want to freeze it, wrap individual slices in plastic wrap, then place in a freezer-safe zip-top bag for up to 3 months. Thaw at room temperature. You can also freeze the cake layers before frosting; wrap them in plastic wrap, then aluminum foil, and place in a zip-top bag for up to 3 months. Thaw at room temperature before filling and frosting.
Make the Cake: Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Grease and flour two 8-inch round cake pans; set aside.
In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt; set aside.
Using an electric mixer, cream together butter and sugar until light and fluffy, about 3 to 5 minutes. Scrape down the sides of the bowl and beat in the eggs, one at a time, beating for 1 minute between each addition. Beat in vanilla extract.
Add the dry ingredients all at once and beat on low speed until just combined.
Add the buttermilk and beat on low for 1 minute, then increase the speed to medium and beat for 3 additional minutes.
Make the Chocolate Batter: Transfer 2 cups of the batter to a separate medium bowl. Gently whisk in the cocoa powder and milk until completely incorporated.
Drop a large spoonful (I use a medium cookie scoop for this!) of one batter in the center of each pan. Top with a spoonful of the other batter. Alternate spoonfuls on top of each other until you’ve used all of the cake batter. Give each pan a gentle shake to level out the batter.
Bake for 28 to 32 minutes, or until a skewer inserted into the center of the cake comes out with a few moist crumbs attached. Remove from the oven and cool for 10 minutes in the pans, then turn out onto wire racks and cool completely before frosting.
Make the Frosting: In a food processor, process the butter, powdered sugar, cocoa powdered, and salt until smooth, about 30 seconds, stopping once to scrape the sides of the bowl. Add the corn syrup and vanilla and process until just combined, 5 to 10 seconds. Scrape the sides of bowl, then add the melted chocolate and pulse until smooth and creamy, 10 to 15 seconds.
Assemble the Cake: Place one of the cake layers on a serving platter and spread 1 cup of the frosting evenly over the surface. Place the second cake layer on top. Use the remaining frosting to frost the top and sides of the cake. The cake can be kept at room temperature for up to 1 day before serving. Once cut, leftovers should be stored in an airtight container at room temperature for up to 4 days.