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slice of zebra cake on a teal plate

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 loaf 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.

zebra cake on a wood and marble cake stand

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 in a glass bowl

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 in a glass bowl

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.

vanilla and chocolate cake batter swirled together in a cake pan before baking

chocolate cream cheese frosting in a glass bowl

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 cake, 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.

chocolate cream cheese frosting in a glass bowl and on a whisk attachment

spreading chocolate cream cheese frosting onto layer of zebra cake

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

overhead image of zebra cake with chocolate cream cheese frosting and sprinkles on a marble cake stand

zebra cake on a wood and marble cake stand

slice of zebra cake on a teal plate

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

More Layer Cakes to Try

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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: 1012 servings 1x
  • 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

Scale
  • 3 and 1/2 cups (413g) 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 (27g) 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 (55g) 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 three 9-inch round cake pans, line with parchment paper rounds, then grease the parchment paper. Parchment paper helps the cakes seamlessly release from the pans. (If it’s helpful, see this parchment paper rounds for cakes video & post.)
  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 more about the importance of room temperature ingredients

Keywords: Zebra Cake

Reader Questions and Reviews

  1. Would this cake hold up well under fondant? (Assuming regular buttercream instead of the cream cheese frosting). Do you know how tall your final cake was when you used 9″ pans?

    1. Hi Shelby, yes, this cake should hold up just fine under fondant. This isn’t a super tall cake — each layer is about 1.5-2 inches. The final total height depends on how heavily you frost between the layers.

  2. I am making these tonight and am SO excited!! How long would you bake them for if I were to make cupcakes?

    Thank you!

    1. Hi Kathleen! To make cupcakes, we recommend you use this amount of batter (which is basically half of this recipe), then alternate spoonfuls of batter on top of each other in the cupcake liners. We’re unsure of the exact bake time – cupcakes are done when a toothpick comes out clean. Let us know how they turn out!

      1. You bet! I would guess it would make about 12-14 cupcakes.

  3. Is the sour cream measured as a dry or wet ingredient? I don’t have a scale. Thanks.

    1. Hi Rana! Sour cream can be measured with a dry measuring cup.

  4. I made this cake for my son’s birthday and it was amazing. It is delicious and moist, and it slices beautifully. The key is to eat it at room temperature. I have made so many of your cakes. I am trying the pistachio cake next. Thanks, Sally.

  5. Hi – love your website! Could I use 8” round pans for these cakes? If so, would I need to adjust the baking temperature or time? Thank you!!

    1. Hi Laura, you can use the 8 inch cake pans. The cakes will be thicker and need a little extra time in the oven — same temperature. Enjoy!

      1. Great! Thank you! Any sense of how much longer? Just a few minutes probably? And the best test is that a toothpick should come out dry?

    1. Sour cream adds necessary moisture to the cake. Do not omit, but you can use plain, full fat yogurt in its place in a pinch.

  6. There isn’t a recipe by Sally that has failed me. Any time there is a special occasion I immediately go to Sallysbakingaddiction.com. I made this cake for my mom’s retirement party and it turned out amazing! The cake is light and moist and the icing isnt super sweet which is refreshing. The steps are spot on and I love all of Sally’s helpful tips. I have learned so much about baking because of the information she provides. I highly recommend this cake!

    1. Hi Laura, We are so glad you loved this cake! Happy retirement to your mom.

  7. Absolutely love this recipe! I actually use it whenever I want marble cake. I wanted to make a half sheet cake, could you tell me if a double batch would work? Thank you!

    1. Hi Liana, so glad you love this zebra cake recipe! Here is everything you need to know about converting recipes to different Cake Pan Sizes.

      1. Hi Janet, cake flour isn’t strong enough for this cake, so we do suggest sticking to AP flour.

  8. Thanks, Sally, for this wonderful recipe. I have been asked to make a marble cake for a 50th wedding anniversary and want to make it from scratch. Your website was the first place I searched, and (as always) your recipe did not disappoint. I made a practice cake today that came out super moist thanks to your detailed directions. The zebra stripes are so much fun! I can now make the official anniversary cake with confidence.

  9. Sally, please, please, please help! As you see by my comment above, dated November 17th, I did a test run with this cake using 3 8″ pans. Now the person that I’m making the cake for is asking me to make it a 2 layer with 10″ pans. I don’t think 8 cups of batter will be enough. So, I could make two batches (not doubling), but 16 cups is too much batter. Should I just use 12 cups of the batter, with six cups in each pan and use the leftover for cupcakes. I think I should still bake it at 350, but for how long: 35 to 40???? The anniversary is December 18th. I hope you are able to help me. Stressing right now!!!

    1. Hi Marie, We have never made this in 10 inch pans. However, you can use our post on Cake Pan Sizes and Conversions to calculate exactly how much batter you would need for that size pan. We are unsure of the bake time needed but use the same oven temperature and bake until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean.

      1. Just as a follow up….I made the two layer 10″ rounds using approximately 6.5 cups of batter for each layer (made each batter separately) and baked the cakes for 43 minutes and it came out perfect. Thanks so much for the conversion chart.

  10. Is there a reason you don’t line the pans with parchment paper in this recipe? Does it have something to do with the method of layering the batter in the pan?

    1. You can absolutely line the pans with a parchment round for this recipe. It’s something we’ve been adding to recent round cake recipes and can apply to any on this website. Helps the cakes release from the pan easier.

  11. Hi! I’ve made this cake before and loved it, but I was just wondering if I could make it in a loaf pan. Would I just have to halve the recipe?

    1. Hi Audrey! Here is everything you need to know about converting recipes to different Cake Pan Sizes. However, keep in mind that we usually don’t recommend baking cakes in a deep pans (like loaf pans) because they can bake unevenly. You may love our chocolate chip loaf cake recipe!

  12. Hi there,

    Love this cake recipe. have made it a couple if times and it had always come out perfectly. this time round my query is if I were to bake and freeze the cakes on thurs 1/20/22 and the defrost the cake to ice it on 1/25/22. would it still be as good as baking fresh?

  13. I want to make this for my daughters 1st birthday. I only have a 7inch cake tin, do I need to adjust the quantity that I make? I cant find a 6 inch tin anywhere….

    1. Hi Lynette, This recipe is actually written for three 9-inch pans. Do you happen to have that size? If not, you can use our post on Cake Pan Sizes and Conversions to help you calculate how much batter to use for a different size.

  14. Going to make this for my son’s safari birthday! But I want to make the white whiter and the black blacker, can I sub eggs for egg whites? And can I use black cocoa powder in place of the natural cocoa? Or add activated charcoal to the chocolate batter?

    1. Hello! We haven’t tested those changes, but they would take some testing to get right as baking is a science and those changes would alter the batter. Let us know if you try anything! My suggestion would be to leave the vanilla cake as-is and add some black gel food coloring to the black batter for more contrast.

  15. If I want to make this in a 6 inch pan, 3 layers would you change the oven temp and time?

    1. Hi Emily! You can find our 3 layer 6 inch zebra cake recipe in this post (feel free to use a different frosting recipe) – enjoy 🙂

  16. I want to make this for a friend’s birthday this weekend but I don’t have 9-inch pans. I have the 8-inch and 10-inch instead. Would you recommend using three 8″ or two 10″ pans?

    1. Hi Kat, you can use the 8 inch cake pans. The cakes will be thicker and need a little extra time in the oven — same temperature. Enjoy!

      1. I realize I don’t have 8-inch pans 🙁 I have two 10-inch pans and a 9-inch (x 4-inch height) pans instead. Can I make just 1 layer and cut it in half to make layers or would the 10-inch pans work better?

  17. Had fun trying the zebra cake. Was a late night but worth it! Thanks for the recipe 🙂

  18. This was amazing. Especially with the chocolate cream cheese frosting. I don’t think my zebra stripes looked as good as yours so will need to make again to see if I can better them. Might even need to make a few times until I get them right (insert laughing emoji).

  19. I made your homemade wedding vanilla cake for a friends birthday and it was absolutely fantastic. I now want to know if you have a chocolate cake recipe that would be ideal for a bottom layer of a 10” wedding cake. Would the marble cake hold under the weight with dowels. I can then use the vanilla cake on top as a 2nd layer.
    Thank you so much

    1. Hi Anne, at this time we don’t have a plain chocolate cake sturdy enough to be the bottom tier of a tiered cake. But this Zebra/marble cake would work well! Let us know if you give it a try 🙂

  20. This is the only recipe on the site so far that I haven’t absolutely loved. I tried making it twice, and despite being very careful not to over-mix and also being very precise with the zebra-print process, both cakes came out very dense and don’t have the impressive stripes from these pictures. My guests enjoyed the cake, so I don’t regret making it this time. I can’t wait to try the next recipe on this site, which will surely be amazing.

  21. Hi Sally, all your recipes are amazing and I would love to try this one for a friend’s b’day. Would you recommend making this in a large bundt cake pan?

    1. Hi Zeina, This cake recipe will fit nicely into a Bundt pan. We’re unsure of the exact bake time for the bundt, but it should be close to (or over!) 1 hour at 350F. Hope it’s a hit!

  22. Made this cake last weekend—delicious! My colleagues loved it as well. Time consuming—only made two layers and paired it with Sally’s milk chocolate buttercream frosting, came out perfectly. Cake is dense (which is my preference). People thought the cake was from a bakery! Thank you for sharing your incredible recipes!

  23. Baked this for my friend’s 50th birthday and it was an instant hit. Not a crumb was left. I baked it in the bundt pan and still had left over batter for 2 large muffins. Thank you so much for your quick response!

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