Zebra Cake

How to make chocolate and vanilla zebra cake! Topped with creamy chocolate cream cheese frosting, this easy, moist, and delicious cake is a showstopper! Recipe on sallysbakingaddiction.com

There’s a zebra loose in our kitchens!!

You’re looking at chocolate and vanilla cakes baked together in a striking striped pattern. Pretty, right? Much easier than you think to pull off, too. Like marble cake but a little more flashy. Zebra cake is often baked as a single layer cake or a bundt cake, but I needed a fun and towering cake for our friend’s birthday. And an excuse to make chocolate cream cheese frosting.

And if you came here looking for a Little Debbie zebra cake, so sorry! Man those little things are good.

How to make chocolate and vanilla zebra cake! Topped with creamy chocolate cream cheese frosting, this easy, moist, and delicious cake is a showstopper! Recipe on sallysbakingaddiction.com

Let me walk you through my mindset as I was preparing and testing this zebra layer cake. Beware: my mind is a very jumbled space.

Recipe Testing

I started with a basic vanilla cake/yellow cake hybrid recipe: my checkerboard cake. I ADORE this cake. Somewhere between a mega buttery yellow cake and light vanilla cake, I’m really proud to have a base cake recipe that’s as moist as box mix cakes. And you can make it 3 layer or 4 layer, just adjust the baking time slightly. But if I’m not careful, I can over-cream the butter + sugar or over-mix the batter (since there’s so much of it). This can leave me with a denser tasting cake. I wanted to avoid all that, so I slightly reduced the flour and added a little more baking powder for lift + airiness. Does this make sense? To see if I could get away with it, I added some sour cream too. Just for a little extra moisture. Totally worked. This cake is so moist!

Vanilla cake batter for zebra cake on sallysbakingaddiction.com

Made From 1 Batter

So now I have a solid starting point for my zebra cake, let’s figure out how to make the chocolate portion.

The chocolate cake is made from the vanilla batter, so you don’t have to prepare two completely separate batters. YAY! I wanted a suuuuuper dark chocolate stripe for contrast. I was going to use chopped chocolate, like in my marble cake, but that never gives me a very dark chocolate batter. And if I added *more* chocolate to darken the shade, the texture of the chocolate batter would be compromised. So let’s use cocoa powder. How about a dark cocoa powder like Hershey’s special dark? Gorgeous! But since we’re adding a dry and bitter ingredient to the chocolate batter, it will dry out the cake. A little sugar and milk solved that problem. Both the vanilla cake and chocolate cake are so moist. We did it!

Oh and one more thing! I added a little espresso powder to the chocolate batter. Just to help bring out the chocolate flavor. This is an optional ingredient.

You’ll end up with about 8 cups of vanilla batter. Pour 4 cups of it into a separate bowl for the chocolate batter. Add the cocoa, sugar, milk, and espresso powder. You’ll have some little lumps– that’s ok.

Chocolate cake batter for zebra cake on sallysbakingaddiction.com

Now here’s where the zebra shows up! We create a zebra stripe pattern by layering the batters on top of each other. Start with a spoonful of 1 batter in the center, place a spoonful of the other batter on top, then alternate until you’ve filled the pans. I did a horrible job explaining this, so here’s a fancy iPhone video to show you.

Give the pans a shake every now and then to level the batter off. And, after the cakes are baked, level them off with a knife to create flatter tops. Why? So your layer cake isn’t all topsy turvy! You want nice flat-topped surfaces.

Zebra cake batter on sallysbakingaddiction.com

Creamy chocolate cream cheese frosting on sallysbakingaddiction.com

Moving onto the frosting. Let me show off my latest obsession: chocolate cream cheese frosting. Regular cream cheese frosting is one of my favorites because it’s not as cloyingly sweet as buttercream. It’s the creamiest of frostings with a silky smooth and velvet-y mouthfeel. With carrot cake, red velvet cake, hummingbird, banana, spice cake, and pumpkin cake… it’s just the best!!!

But if we think regular cream cheese frosting is the best, we’re definitely backwards. Because this chocolate cream cheese frosting is, in fact, the best in the biz.

Creamy chocolate cream cheese frosting on sallysbakingaddiction.com

Creamy chocolate cream cheese frosting on sallysbakingaddiction.com

Now the moment of truth. Let’s cut into the cake to see how our zebra stripes look!!

How to make chocolate and vanilla zebra cake! Topped with creamy chocolate cream cheese frosting, this easy, moist, and delicious cake is a showstopper! Recipe on sallysbakingaddiction.com

How to make chocolate and vanilla zebra cake! Topped with creamy chocolate cream cheese frosting, this easy, moist, and delicious cake is a showstopper! Recipe on sallysbakingaddiction.com

How to make chocolate and vanilla zebra cake! Topped with creamy chocolate cream cheese frosting, this easy, moist, and delicious cake is a showstopper! Recipe on sallysbakingaddiction.com

Update: See my daughter’s 1st birthday cake. 🙂

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slice of zebra cake on a teal plate

Zebra Cake

  • Author: Sally
  • Prep Time: 30 minutes
  • Cook Time: 27 minutes
  • Total Time: 4 hours, 30 minutes
  • Yield: 10-12 servings
  • Category: Cake
  • Method: Baking
  • Cuisine: American

Description

This easy, moist, and delicious swirled chocolate and vanilla zebra cake is topped with creamy chocolate cream cheese frosting.


Ingredients

  • 3 and 1/2 cups (400g) sifted all-purpose flour* (spoon & leveled)
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 3/4 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 and 1/2 cups (3 sticks; 345g) unsalted butter, softened to room temperature
  • 2 cups (400g) granulated sugar
  • 5 large eggs, at room temperature
  • 1/3 cup (75g) sour cream, at room temperature
  • 1 Tablespoon pure vanilla extract (yes, Tbsp!)
  • 1 and 3/4 cups (420ml) buttermilk, at room temperature

Chocolate Batter

  • 1/3 cup (26g) unsweetened natural cocoa powder
  • 2 Tablespoons granulated sugar
  • 2 Tablespoons milk or buttermilk, at room temperature
  • 1 teaspoon espresso powder (optional)

Chocolate Cream Cheese Frosting

  • 12 ounces (335g) full fat cream cheese, softened to room temperature*
  • 3/4 cup (175g) unsalted butter, softened to room temperature
  • 3 and 1/2 cups (420g) confectioners’ sugar
  • 2/3 cup (52g) unsweetened natural or dutch-process cocoa powder
  • 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
  • 12 Tablespoons milk or heavy cream
  • pinch salt
  • sprinkles for decorating, if desired

Instructions

  1. Preheat oven to 350°F (177°C). Grease and lightly flour three 9-inch cake pans.
  2. Make the vanilla batter: Whisk the flour, salt, baking powder, and baking soda together in a large bowl. Set aside. Using a handheld or stand mixer fitted with a paddle or whisk attachment, beat the butter and sugar together on high speed until smooth and creamy, about 3 minutes. Scrape down the sides and up the bottom of the bowl with a rubber spatula as needed. On medium-high speed, add 1 egg at a time, beating well after each addition. Beat in the sour cream and vanilla extract. Scrape down the sides and up the bottom of the bowl with a rubber spatula as needed.
  3. With the mixer on low speed, add the dry ingredients in three additions alternating with the buttermilk, beginning and ending with the dry ingredients, and mixing each addition just until incorporated. Do not overmix this batter. The batter will be smooth, velvety, and slightly thick.
  4. Make the chocolate batter: There will be around 8 cups of batter total. Transfer half of it to another bowl. Whisk in the 4 chocolate batter ingredients until combined. A few small lumps are ok.
  5. First, watch the video above to see exactly how to layer the batters into the cake pans. Drop a large spoonful of 1 batter in the center of the pan. Top with a spoonful of the other batter. Alternate spoonfuls on top of each other. Give the pan a shake to level it all out. Repeat with each cake pan until all the batter is used. There’s about 8 cups of batter total, so each cake pan will have a little less than 3 cups of batter in it.
  6. Bake for around 25-27 minutes or until the cakes are baked through. To test for doneness, insert a toothpick into the center of the cake. If it comes out clean, it is done. Allow cakes to cool completely in the pans set on a wire rack. The cakes must be completely cool before frosting and assembling.
  7. Make the frosting: In a large bowl using a hand-held or stand mixer fitted with a paddle or whisk attachment, beat the cream cheese for 1 minute on high speed until completely smooth and creamy. Beat in the butter until combined. Add the confectioners’ sugar, cocoa powder, vanilla extract, 1 Tablespoon milk, and salt and beat on medium-high speed until combined and creamy. Add 1 more Tablespoon of milk to slightly thin out, if desired. Taste, then add another pinch of salt if desired.
  8. Assemble and frost: First, using a large serrated knife, slice a thin layer off the tops of the cakes to create a flat surface. Discard (or crumble over ice cream!). Place 1 cake layer on your cake stand or serving plate. Evenly cover the top with frosting. Top with 2nd layer and evenly cover the top with more frosting. Top with the third cake layer. Spread the frosting into a thick layer all over the top and sides. Garnish with sprinkles, if desired. Refrigerate for at least 45 minutes before slicing. This helps the cake keep its shape when cutting– it could slightly fall apart without time in the fridge.
  9. Cover leftover cake tightly and store in the refrigerator for 5 days.

Notes

  1. Make Ahead Instructions: The cake layers can be baked, cooled, and covered tightly at room temperature overnight. Likewise, the frosting can be prepared then covered and refrigerated overnight. Let it sit at room temperature to slightly soften for 10 minutes before assembling and frosting. Frosted cake can be frozen up to 2-3 months. Thaw overnight in the refrigerator and bring to room temperature before serving.
  2. Special Tools (affiliate links): KitchenAid Stand Mixer | KitchenAid Hand Mixer | Glass Mixing Bowls | 9-inch Round Cake Pan | Icing Spatula
  3. Flour: Sift flour before measuring.
  4. Buttermilk: If you don’t have buttermilk, you can make a DIY sour milk substitute. Add 1 Tablespoon of white vinegar or lemon juice to a liquid measuring cup. Then add enough whole milk to the same measuring cup until it reaches 1 and 3/4 cups. (In a pinch, lower fat or nondairy milks work for this soured milk, but the cake won’t taste as moist or rich.) Stir it around and let sit for 5 minutes. The homemade “buttermilk” will be somewhat curdled and ready to use in the recipe.
  5. Cream Cheese: Make sure you’re using the blocks of cream cheese, not cream cheese spread. They’re typically sold in 8 ounce blocks, so you’ll need 1 and 1/2 blocks.
  6. Room Temperature Ingredients: All refrigerated items should be at room temperature so the batter mixes together easily and evenly. Read here for more information.
How to make chocolate and vanilla zebra cake! Topped with creamy chocolate cream cheese frosting, this easy, moist, and delicious cake is a showstopper! Recipe on sallysbakingaddiction.com
Creamy chocolate cream cheese frosting on sallysbakingaddiction.com

270 Comments

Comments are closed.

  1. I’d like to make this next week for a baby shower I’m organizing. As delicious as chocolate cream cheese frosting sounds, I’d like to use a Swiss meringue buttercream so I can tint the frosting in order to decorate the cake with stripes and piped teddy bears. I would put chocolate ganache between the layers. My question is: do you think these flavor combinations would work for this cake? Thanks Sally!

    1. Yes that would work well! I hope you love the cake!

  2. Hi Sally! Can the cake layers be baked a few days ahead and frozen? I noticed you only mention being able to freeze the frosted cake. Would they lose moisture or not be as good?

    1. Yes, you can freeze the individual layers also. This is exactly how I freeze cakes.

  3. Hi Sally I just sent a question but am afraid I wasn’t clear in what I’m asking. What I’m wondering is if non-frosted cake layers can be made ahead of time and frozen. And if so, do they have to be thawed in the refrigerator the day before frosting them or can they be frosted while frozen. Thanks!

  4. I was disappointed in this cake because the texture was too moist and buttery – borderline mushy – and there wasn’t much flavor other than butter. I couldn’t add espresso powder due to someone’s food sensitivities, but still I could hardly taste the chocolate. All I could taste was butter, and the dense crumb made this cake resemble pound cake. I was meticulous in measuring the flour and in following all the other steps, and I’m not a novice baker. Also I made ahead of time and froze the cake, but I followed the instructions for freezing and thawing to the T. The stripes looked awesome and I love the zebra idea. I wonder if the recipe would be more to my taste if made with 2 or 2.5 sticks of butter and/or without the sour cream?

  5. Sarah Helmanseder says:

    Dear Sally,

    First of all: I am deeply in love with your recipes. Your blog is my one and only go-to place when looking for inspiration or just wanting to enjoy some beautiful food pics.

    I wanted to bake your zebra cake for my colleagues a few days ago. Although I exactly sticked to your measurements and instructions it turned out totally moist and greasy and with no zebra stripes left at all. And with me left a bit helpless.

    The only thing I can imagine that would have possibly been able to make a difference to your exact ingredients is the buttermilk – IF it is the case that buttermilk is something different in the US than in Austria where I live. Do you know if there are any differences like that between the products that could have caused my cake fail?

    Or maybe you have another idea why it didn’t work out?

    I would be really grateful for some tips because I want to try again. I can never ever accept a cake fail without trying again. 😉 And furthermore I do absolutely want to eat this cake. 😀

    Thank you Sally and best wishes,
    Sarah

    1. Hi Sarah! You are so sweet, thank you so much! Something must be up– the only way this batter would be greasy and not bake up into those beautiful stripes is if the batter was too thin. I wonder if there simply wasn’t enough flour? Did you spoon and level and/or weigh it for measuring? Buttermilk should be the same where you live, so that wouldn’t be the issue. I’m concerned about the flour. You can even try adding another 1/4 cup to help bulk up the batter. Was it a thin batter? Thank you again!

      1. Hi Sally,
        If we can exclude the buttermilk it must have been the flour that caused the problem. I weighed it for measuring and the batter was not enormously thin but still thin. I will definitely try it again with about 1/4 cup additional flour.
        Thank you so much for your advice!

        All the best,
        Sarah

  6. Hi I’m wondering if this recipe can be made into cupcakes and if so how many?

    1. Hi Heidi! Use this amount of batter (which is basically half of this recipe): https://sallysbakingaddiction.com/1st-birthday-cake/
      Then alternate spoonfuls of batter on top of each other in the cupcake liners. Let me know how they turn out!

  7. Measured the sifted flour with a food scale and was cautious about trying not to over mix the batter and it still turned out way too dense. This was not light and fluffy like I had hoped.

  8. Sally, thank you for this cool and easy technique! I omitted the cocoa & used pink & green food coloring to make an Easter cake. My 11 year old son helped & said “I like that this is a cool, not boring, way to make a cake.” This same son has also made 2 batches of your soft pretzel recipe during the coronavirus shut down. 🙂 The cake is in the oven right now.

  9. Hey Sally, I have 3, 8 inch pans, would this recipe work for that? I am making this cake for my daughter’s 1st birthday on Thursday, I wanted to make a bigger cake rather than the 6inch. Not to mention it’s hard to get a hold of cake pans right now during this shut down and I don’t have 6 inch pans. I have the 3 eight inch pans… Or 2 nine inch…help!!!

    1. Hi Neha, you can use the 8 inch cake pans. The cakes will be thicker and need a little extra time in the oven.

  10. Absolutely incredible. I made this yellow cake for a cookie dough 4 layered cake. I had a ton of cookie dough balls on top too and this cake is moist, sturdy, rich and just amazing. It doesnt need anything with it. I could eat the whole batch!! Love love love!!

  11. Made this today for my husband’s birthday tomorrow. When I leveled the cakes I noticed that two were raw in some places. Hopefully I can salvage them by putting them back in the oven covered in aluminum foil.
    One thing I also noticed was how dense this cake is. Like others have commented, almost like pound cake. That’s not necessarily bad, just not what I was going for.
    I love your site, and it is the first place I always visit for recipes. Unfortunately this cake did not turn out like I hoped.

    1. Hi Christine! Thank you so much for trying this zebra cake recipe. I’m surprised to hear that the texture was as dense as pound cake. Was your cake batter particularly thick? You may find a post I wrote recently helpful: How to Prevent a Dry or Dense Cake. Let me know if you ever decide to try the recipe again!

  12. Delicious! I made this for a coworker’s birthday and topped it with your Swiss Meringue Buttercream with caramel extract. Everyone loved it! My chocolate stripes weren’t as distinct – I didn’t have dark cocoa powder, but it was a great tasting cake.

  13. This was a fun cake to make. I made it to celebrate my cat’s birthday (yes). My daughter wanted us to have a birthday cake in her honor. The zebra stripe cake seemed to be fitting for an animal’s birthday. Very effective presentation! And the chocolate cream cheese frosting is amazing.

  14. Hi Sally, I’ve noticed a few comments stating that the batter made very thin layers for three pans. Could I make this as a two layer cake?

    1. Hi Kelly! There is too much batter for only 2 layers, so I recommend sticking to the recipe.

  15. Hi Sally, I was planning to do a Swiss meringue buttercream for the filling and a whipped chocolate ganache for the frosting on top. Do you think that would work. Planning to bake the zebra cake for my daughter’s 4th bday. Have tried many of ur recipes and they are a hit!!

    1. Was going to try this excatly!! How did it turn out for you? Did the swiss meringue and whipped chocolate ganache work well with this cake?

      1. It came out really well! You should defnly try it!

  16. Hi,

    Can I make this as a sheet cake?

  17. Aminah Kassam says:

    Ciao Sally
    Can I make this in a bund pan
    Kind regards

  18. Hi Sally, how do I adjust for 5700 feet altitude?

    1. Hi Liz, I wish I could help, but I have no experience baking at high altitude. I know some readers have found this chart helpful: https://www.kingarthurflour.com/learn/high-altitude-baking.html

  19. Yakelin Sifontes says:

    hi Sally,

    My daughter and I made your marble cake and we loved it. We would like to try to make this cake and I’m wondering if we can make it into a one cake of 11-inch cake pan.

    Would that be OK? what do you think?

    1. Stephanie @ Sally's Baking Addiction says:

      Hi Yakelin, I’m so glad you loved the cake! We haven’t tested this cake in an 11 inch pan. However you can use the post on Cake Pan Sizes & Conversions to help calculate how much batter you would need.

  20. Hi Sally, Love spending time on your blog. Would this make enough batter for a 9×13? I am trying to make an oval shaped zebra face, zebra stripe cake. I have an idea of how I can make the stripes work but am worried this may not make enough batter. Thanks for sharing all of your recipes. I love when you add all of you helpful recipe notes. Robyn

    1. Stephanie @ Sally's Baking Addiction says:

      Yes it will fit into one 9X13 pan! I’m unsure of the bake time.

  21. Hi Sally! My son would like a Minecraft themed birthday cake this year so I was thinking of doing 4 9″ square pans and using your checkerboard tutorial. Would doubling this recipe and cooking the cakes separately (so 2 vanilla & 2 chocolate) work for that? I like the idea of both chocolate & vanilla in one cake. Thank you!

    1. Stephanie @ Sally's Baking Addiction says:

      Hi Jennifer, I don’t recommend it. Instead use a vanilla or white cake for two layers and a separate chocolate cake. Square pans hold more batter than round pans. You can use the post Cake Pan Sizes & Conversions to help you calculate how much batter you would need.

  22. Made this for my niece’s birthday this week. This may be the best cake recipe I have made. Everyone loved it.

    I used 8-inch pans so a little more time in the oven was required. I filled it with the nutella butter cream. Which was amazing. Coated it in vanilla butter cream.

    My nephew said it was the best cake ever. I also used large spoonfuls so I had thicker zebra stripes, which I wanted. Will definitely make this again.

  23. Hi Sally!
    I am trying to find a cake recipe combining chocolate and almond for a friend’s birthday and figured this one could be a great choice. Do you think I could just add almond extract to the vanilla cake to get the almond flavor in there? If so, how much?

    Thank you so much for an awesome blog!

    1. Hilari @ Sally's Baking Addiction says:

      Hi Stephanie, you can certainly add almond extract to the vanilla cake. I recommend 1/2 teaspoon!

  24. My girls and I made this cake for our Making day for remote learning and they had a ball decorating it. They thought it was delicious too!

  25. Hello Sally,
    This might be a silly question, but can I use a regular chocolate buttercream to frost this cake?

    1. Hilari @ Sally's Baking Addiction says:

      Hi Shania, absolutely!

  26. Hi Sally,
    I am excited to make this cake for my sons first birthday next week. I am going to make as a 2 tier cake, what measurements should I go for for the top tier (6inch). Thank you.

    1. Stephanie @ Sally's Baking Addiction says:

      Hi Megan, You can use the post Cake Pan Sizes & Conversions to calculate different pan sizes.
      You can also read all about 6 inch cake layers here.

  27. Hi Sally,

    I’m in the midst of making this recipe right now and once I started adding the eggs, my batter curdled. I saw on some of your other white cake recipes that you mention the batter will look curdled so I wanted to make sure the is is correct in this case.

    Thanks!
    Sam

  28. Turned out exactly like the recipe! Added a bit of almond extract and it tasted beautiful 🙂

  29. Hi Sally
    I’m so excited to cook this for my twin girls first birthday at the weekend! My oven temp is a bit variable from middle to bottom shelf. It’s not fan forced so runs a bit cold. Could I bake the cakes one at a time? Or is all together and rotating if need be better? And if so should I just dish into all three tins at once and leave the two im not cooking covered at room temperature?
    Thanks
    Sharon

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