Four ingredient (gluten & dairy-free) birthday cake

When I say that this cake only needs four ingredients I mean the frosting too. And what’s more, it’s completely gluten free and dairy free. It’s easy to make and light as a feather. In short, it’s a pretty magical cake that makes you realise you can do so much with just eggs, sugar and corn starch (the fourth ingredient is a 1/2 teaspoon of cream of tartar, which you could even leave out if you were very, very confident about your egg whites and then this would be a three ingredient birthday cake!).

birthday cake feature image blog

But I’m not going to take all the credit for coming up with up it. It sort of came together on its own when I realised that four of the people I’d invited to my daughter’s 2nd birthday party were lactose intolerant (including another toddler) and three were gluten or wheat intolerant. I wanted to make sure everyone could enjoy a piece of cake.

Luckily my go-to birthday cake base was already gluten and dairy free — it’s Pellegrino Artusi’s Torta Margherita, a recipe from his 1891 cookbook that I have made over and over again. Similar to a sponge cake, it’s incredibly light and airy and, if baking for a regular day, I go with a dusting of powdered sugar over the top and it’s done. But to make it a bit more special, I usually treat it like a Victorian sponge and layer two layers with freshly whipped, unsweetened cream and fresh strawberries.

layering gluten free dairy free birthday cake

To make this cake dairy free, however, and special enough for a birthday, it needed something to make up for the lack of lashings of whipped cream. It needed frosting. A dairy free frosting. I’m really not into using margarine, ever. The thought of even the taste or the look of it sends shivers up my spine. I had dabbled with coconut substitutions with not so convincing results — and also not everyone loves coconut in my family.

Then I remembered the first proper frosting I had ever made, a so-called 7-minute frosting. It’s a rather retro frosting of simply whipped meringue, where the egg whites are cooked over a bain marie (double broiler) while being whipped to voluminous and fluffy heights, all done in a 7 minute time frame. It’s a remarkable frosting. While it doesn’t keep well if made in advance (the consensus generally is do not refrigerate it — make it as close as possible to the time when you want to use it), it is surprisingly stable and holds up very well over hours once the cake is frosted.

Being a beautiful pure white, it is also easy to colour the frosting with pretty pastels. In this case, I added another ingredient — a few drops of beetroot juice as a natural colouring, to create a pink (her favourite colour) ombre look fit for my little girl’s birthday.

birthday cake four ingredients

The cake is simple to prepare, easy to put together and this style of frosting is amazingly forgiving! It’s also wonderfully light and airy (both the cake and the frosting) and not too sweet so it’s a world away from traditional cakes that can be dense, sugary and heavy with buttercream frosting (as much as I love it, there is something about this light-as-air 7 minute frosting). A handful of fresh berries picked right out of the garden adds a nice, slightly tart flavour to complement the cake. But you could leave them off and decorate with flowers or some other fruit if you liked.

You do need lots of eggs for this cake and whipping them properly is what makes this so airy. Use very clean bowls and whisks (I like to wipe my clean bowls over with a squeeze of lemon juice or a drop of white vinegar to degrease before adding whites). I also like to think the prettier the eggs (like these so kindly delivered to me by the wonderful Jennie right off her farm) or at least the fresher the eggs from happy, roaming chickens make for even better cake!

eggs from posieshootsbirthday cake gluten free dairy free pink birthday party

Four ingredient birthday cake (gluten free and dairy free)

A few notes on the sponge: You could substitute cornstarch for the potato starch — they are similar and both gluten free. Just don’t use potato flour! It is an entirely different product. For more information on the difference between potato starch and potato flour or on gluten-free flours in general, take a look at this information from Gluten Free Goddess. If you want to add some flavour/aroma to the sponge, you could add some lemon zest or vanilla.

On the icing/frosting: many recipes I looked at used double the amount of sugar as I have here. I really don’t think there’s any need for it to be that sweet — this amount is really quite sweet enough without being sickening. Many recipes also call for corn syrup, which I don’t particularly like to use so I left it out, adding a touch of water instead. A tiny amount of cream of tartar helps stabilise the whites. You can leave the frosting white for an elegant and minimal look, or dye it with food colouring (I prefer natural colourings like this pink from beetroot — it is so minimal it doesn’t leave any flavour or affect the texture of the frosting. Some other great natural colourings are saffron for bright yellow and spinach for pale green). You could also add some vanilla essence or paste if you wanted to add flavour — beat it in at the end.

Makes 2 sponges for a 4 layer cake and enough frosting to cover this generously, plus some leftover

For the sponge:

240 grams potato starch
240 grams caster (superfine) sugar
8 eggs, separated

For the 7-minute icing:

6 egg whites
3 tbs water
250 grams caster (superfine) sugar
1/2 teaspoon cream of tartar

Some optional decorations:

A few drops of beetroot juice from some grated and drained raw beetroot for natural pink colouring
A punnet of fresh raspberries or similar fresh fruit for garnish

For the sponge:

Separate the yolks from the whites into two separate, super clean mixing bowls and first beat the yolks together with the sugar until very, very pale and creamy, about five minutes. Add the potato starch and beat until well incorporated.

In a separate bowl, whisk the egg whites until stiff peaks form, then delicately fold the whites through the batter. Turn the mixture out into two round cake tins (no more than 23cm diameter, 9 inch) lined with baking paper (if you want to be really precise, weigh or measure the mixture first then divide it exactly into two — this ensures two evenly sized cakes).

Bake at moderate heat (180C or 350F) for 30-40 minutes or until golden on top and firm to the touch. Test with a skewer for doneness. Let cool in pan slightly then carefully turn upside-down onto a cooling rack so that you end up with two evenly sized cakes. When cool, carefully slice the cakes in half horizontally (I use my best bread knife and poke toothpicks around the cake as markers to keep the layer perfectly even) so you have 4 cake layers. Wrap in plastic wrap and set aside until you are ready to frost.

For the icing:

Combine the ingredients in a metal mixing bowl, beat with electric beaters for about 1 minute to combine. Set the bowl over a small saucepan of about an inch of simmering water (it is important that the water is not touching the bottom of the bowl) and beat on a slow-moderate speed for about 3 minutes. Remove from the heat and continue beating on high for 7 minutes or until the mixture is thick, glossy and holds peaks. The icing will begin to harden slightly so use it as soon as you can. You can then let the cake sit somewhere cool for a few hours before serving.

For the assembly:

If doing an ombre cake, separate the icing into three bowls, with less icing in one and more in the other two. In the smallest portion of icing, create your darkest tone by folding through two or three tiny drops of beetroot juice until evenly incorporated. If you want it a shade darker, add more. It’s best to go easy and work slowly though. In the second bowl, create a more pastel tone by adding one or two drops of beetroot juice (or about half what you used for the darker tone). Leave the third bowl white.

I like to play around with the cake halves before I ice them, laying them on top of each other to see how best they sit together to create the most even-looking cake (I use four toothpicks as markers to line them up so I know where to place them once iced). I save the flattest, prettiest looking layer for the top and in this case I chose a half that was actually the bottom of the cake, flipped upside down.

Place a dollop of dark pink icing on the bottom of a cake plate to hold down your first layer of cake. Ice this layer with the darkest pink icing on the sides and top — for the sides, I do a “crumb coat” first, which helps hold the crumbs in place without getting them caught up in your frosting (if you haven’t done this before, it might be helpful to watch a video). On the top of the first layer of cake, place a 1cm thick layer of icing leaving about 1/2 cm away from the border. Lay the next layer of cake on top and coat this with the pale pink icing on top and sides. Lay the third layer of cake and do the same, cover with pale pink icing on top and sides (see photo above). Lay your final layer of cake and cover with a thick layer of white icing on top and sides. (Note: if you are doing an all-white or single colour cake, you can simply layer and crumb coat all at once at the end).

Now add a thicker layer of icing over your crumb coat. Start with the dark pink at the bottom, the pale pink in the middle and use white frosting for towards the top. Using a small, flat palette knife (and it helps if you have a lazy susan or something similar to spin the cake on), carefully blend the dark pink icing into the pale pink and the pale pink icing into the white. Don’t do too much to it, you just want to blur the lines a little. I used the palette knife to create a stripy pattern in the frosting around the sides and around the top of the cake.

Top with berries, if using, in the middle of the cake and some candles and serve in thin wedges. This cake was enough to feed about 20 people.

In case you’re wondering what else I served at a gluten free, dairy free toddler’s birthday party, I made a huge platter of fresh fruit (along with starry fruit wands — a big hit with the toddlers, it was inspired by something I found on pinterest), beetroot hummus with vegetable sticks and coconut cupcakes which I adapted from a plain cupcake recipe substituting coconut oil for butter, coconut milk for regular milk and gluten-free flour for plain flour.

two year old birthday party pinkgluten free dairy free toddler birthday party


  1. Sophie says:

    So simple yet beautiful

  2. Rosa says:

    A beautiful cake and wonderful post.

    Best wishes for the new Year!



  3. Kirsteen says:

    Wow. Just wow. Sounds like the perfect cake and looked so pretty. What a beautiful party you put together! I will definitely be attempting this recipe at some point.

    • Emiko says:

      Wish you could have been there! 🙂 Anyway, do hope you like this, it’s a pretty handy cake to have up your sleeve for so many occasions!

  4. Francesca says:

    Beautiful cake Emiko and your little one looks so happy! Just a question: how long did it take you to make it? Looking for inspirations for Amelia Beatrice’s christening…what would you replace the raspberries with as they are not too seasonal in England now?
    Thank you very much!!

    • Emiko says:

      Not long at all, it’s pretty straightforward — the cakes cook in about 30-40 minutes and the frosting, well, that takes about 7 minutes! Putting it together is easy and doesn’t take long, even if you’re a perfectionist and want to do it slowly. As I mention in the post, you can frost the cake 4-5 hours before you even need to serve it, just keep it somewhere cool (uncovered and not refrigerated is ok). For a christening, you could even keep it all white and decorate with some pretty white or pink roses in the centre on top instead of fruit (or do it all uniformly pink, which also makes the assembly easier and quicker). If you need some pretty cake inspiration definitely check out Linda Lomelino’s blog! This post has a pretty cake with pink roses.

  5. Francesca says:

    Thank you Emiko! The idea of the roses is lovely, perhaps I could do the pink shades with white or pink roses on top…I’ll take a picture (if it turns out as pretty as yours) and send it to you. Thank you again for inspiration! Last question: would you make the layers the night before and decorate it on the day? I have 5 other cakes to make for the christening….argh!!

    Thank you

    • Emiko says:

      Yes you can make the sponge the day before — I did with this cake! It will need to be wrapped tightly in plastic wrap when cool and then you can refrigerate it, which makes it a little easier for cutting in half for layers the next morning. Good luck!

  6. Tuscookany says:

    Great food blog! We have cooking schools in Tuscany and we invite food bloggers to place posts on our page.
    Salute e Buon Appetito The Tuscookany Team !

  7. How did i miss this gorgeous & delightful post?? The party looked absolutely gorgeous, as did the special birthday girl. Such a pleasure to witness our hens eggs being transformed into something incredible. Much love, Jennie

  8. Victoria says:

    Your blog is lovely. I am going to try your Ragu Bolognese as it is a little different from the one I usually make and sounds delicious.

    When you say cornstarch, do you mean what we in America call cornstarch? I know you say not to use potato flour, so I assume you mean not to use corn flour, but I would like to double check. Sometimes translating British recipe to American don’t work well, and that may be true for Australian recipes too.

    • Emiko says:

      Hi, sorry for the late reply — yes, cornstarch for Americans! It’s a starch so it feels very powdery and ‘squeaky’ in your fingers.

  9. DC says:

    You’ve saved me from turning to awful GF cake mixes! A friend of mine has charged me with making a proper birthday cake for her GF/DF 2 year old’s birthday, and I was feeling a little stumped before happening upon your post. I baked the whole recipe in a 9x13in pan and it seems to have worked well. Filling the cake with a berry jam and will also make a trifle with coconut cream (great DF option) from the scraps I trim away from the cake! Thank you, thank you, thank you!

  10. Pedro cruz says:

    Hi emiko, you could slice the cake in half using dental floss (the simplest one, that has no additives) or a thin nylon fishing line; it’s much easier than slicing it with knife.

  11. Emmy Otto says:

    Hi, Thanks for this recipe. Just wondering how big of a mixing bowl do you need to beat the egg whites? I have a Thermomix the bowl has a 2L capacity and I think 8 egg whites would exceed the bowl as I just made chocolate mouse only using 4 eggs and it was pretty close. Any thoughts? I’m really looking forward to making this as I am overflowing with eggs from our girls 🙂 Thanks

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  16. Porsche Indrisie says:

    I love this cake and would like to make it for my daughter’s birthday next weekend. Can you please advise me what quantities of flour to use if i would like to use regular wheat flour? And would it be self raising? Thanks so much!!

    • Emiko Davies says:

      Hello! You can make it just as it is, the original, traditional recipe calls for potato starch (or you can use corn starch) — like a good sponge cake, it is what makes it so light and fluffy. No raising agents needed, just beat the eggs really well!

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    Hello Emiko
    Could I borrow a picture of birthday cake?

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