Zebra Cake

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 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, 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. 🙂

Print
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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 (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 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.

111 Comments

  1. 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.

  2. 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!!

  3. 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!

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. Aminah Kassam says:

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

  7. 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.

  8. 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!

  9. 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!

  10. 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.

  11. 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

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

  13. 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

  14. Made this cake today! The cake was moist, however, slightly dense. I wasn’t a huge fan of the frosting but added a chocolate ganache on top that made it a bit sweeter. Overall, pretty good!

  15. I only had two 9 inch pans but my batter was thick for some reason so fit in 2 pans. It turned out great. Light, moist, and flavorful! We did had leftover frosting since it was only 2 layers.
    I made it with my 8 y.o. for New Years. We had so much fun!

  16. I made this cake the day before I frosted it, and it was amazing! I loved how silky smooth the chocolate frosting was too. It was so easy to frost the cake with the frosting. I’ll totally be making these again.

  17. Is the bake time for if you bake all 3 layers at the same time? If I’m only baking one or two at a time, does the bake time decrease? Looking forward to making this cake for my birthday next week!!

    1. Trina @ Sally's Baking Addiction says:

      Hi Kate, the bake time will the same regardless of how many cake layers are in the oven. Hope it’s a hit!

  18. The ingredient list says to use unsweetened natural cocoa, but in your post you say that you used Hershey’s special dark cocoa which looks to me to be Dutch processed. I would love to make this cake for my son’s birthday but don’t want to use the wrong kind of cocoa. Does it matter which kind you use?
    Thank you!

    1. Trina @ Sally's Baking Addiction says:

      Hi Katie, that’s a great question! Hershey’s Special Dark is a blend of natural and dutch processed cocoa powder. You don’t want to use all dutch processed for this recipe – if you can find Hershey’s Special Dark cocoa powder that will work, otherwise stick with natural. Happy baking!

  19. What can I replace sour cream with?

    1. Trina @ Sally's Baking Addiction says:

      Plain yogurt is a great sub!

  20. Hi, I have made this recipe before and it was AMAZING! I was thinking of making it again but just wondering for the frosting if it would still be good if I made it without the cocoa powder so it wouldn’t be intensely chocolate like. Thank you so much!

    1. Trina @ Sally's Baking Addiction says:

      Hi Mia! You can use our favorite vanilla buttercream recipe instead!

  21. What is the cook time and temp if you want to make a 9×13 cake out of this batter?

    1. Stephanie @ Sally's Baking Addiction says:

      Hi Ashley, It can be made in a 9×13 pan but we are unsure of the bake time. Same oven temperature though!

  22. Lise Polturak says:

    Can you use a Bundt cake pan instead of the round one?

    1. Stephanie @ Sally's Baking Addiction says:

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

  23. Amy Wonder says:

    can I replace sour cream with something?

    1. Trina @ Sally's Baking Addiction says:

      Plain yogurt is a good substitute for sour cream!

  24. Amy Wonder says:

    can I use cake flour?

    1. Lexi @ Sally's Baking Addiction says:

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

  25. Hi Sally! Yours is the only website I turn to when I’m baking something new:) I’m wondering whether I could adapt this recipe to make only 2 8 or 9 in layers. Would you recommend halving the recipe and making slightly thinner layers that way?

    1. Lexi @ Sally's Baking Addiction says:

      Hi Liz, there is too much batter for only 2 layers here. We’d recommend making the recipe as is, making two layers, and using the leftover batter for a few cupcakes. Thank you so much for making and trusting our recipes!

  26. This cake was a delicious and moist treat? My family and I all loved it, but I was wondering if cake flour could be used in this cake, or if it’d change the texture?

    1. Lexi @ Sally's Baking Addiction says:

      Hi Mia, cake flour isn’t strong enough for this cake, so we do suggest sticking to AP flour. Glad you enjoyed the cake!

  27. Amy Wonder says:

    Can I use clear vanilla extract?

    1. Lexi @ Sally's Baking Addiction says:

      Absolutely.

  28. Carson Goodie says:

    I’m making this recipe for someone who isn’t a fan of cream cheese. Could I use vanilla frosting instead?

    1. Trina @ Sally's Baking Addiction says:

      Absolutely! The chocolate buttercream recipe from this recipe or the vanilla frosting from this recipe should be perfect. Hope it’s a hit!

  29. I’m hoping to use this recipe for our wedding cake. I’m thinking three layers for a 6″ cake and a 4″ cake. Any advice on that? Thank you!

    1. Lexi @ Sally's Baking Addiction says:

      Hi Anna! Our handy cake pan sizes and conversions guide should be helpful for scaling this recipe for your needs. Enjoy!

  30. I don’t know what I did wrong! When I put the cake together and frosted it, it seemed really spongy and light. But I left it in the fridge overnight before serving, and now it’s really dense. It still has great flavor, but I and so sad it’s not fluffy.

    1. Gwyneth Carmichael Mooney says:

      Hi Libby!

      I bake one of Sally’s cakes almost weekly. While I always keep cakes in the fridge until the day it’s being served, it requires at least 4 hours for the butter in the batter and icing to soften (think of a stick of butter – hardens in fridge, softens at room temp). That same cake will be perfect once it gets to room temp. FYI – In the winter months, I give the cake a minimum of 6 hours before serving, out of the fridge.

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