HOME > Chowhound > Home Cooking >


Zebra Cake

This deceptively simple technique came in an online King Arthur Flour newsletter:
With various food coloring for vanilla batter, this could make a number of special-occasion cakes. It probably has too many layers to work for cupcakes or mini-cakes,

  1. Click to Upload a photo (10 MB limit)
  1. Oh goodie! I love interesting looking cakes!! I will definitely make this!!!

    1. Cool, and cool technique. I love this web site!

      1. I saw that yesterday, you and I get the same sort of email, I guess. Very striking looking cake with a deceptively simple techinque to make. I love the KAF website.

        1. That looks like fun. I wonder if I could use regular cocoa powder instead of dutch processed since it's only 3 tablespoons and uses baking powder anyway. Maybe it's for the color contrast? I think I'm going to try this this weekend.

          5 Replies
          1. re: chowser

            If you take a closer look at the recipe, it says to use ONLY Dutched cocoa...

            1. re: roxlet

              Dutch process must be used in recipes containing baking powder. Dutched cocoa is neutral and doesn't react with neutral baking soda, so needs to be used with baking powder. That said, here's a substitution formula from Joy of Baking:

              "Substitution for 3 tablespoons (18 grams) Dutch-processed cocoa: 3 tablespoons (18 grams) natural cocoa powder plus pinch (1/8 teaspoon) baking soda."

              "Note: Due to the differences between natural and Dutch-processed cocoa powders, do not substitute one for the other in recipes."

              Thing is, natural cocoa is lighter in color than Dutched, so you may not get as much contrast in the fine stripes.

              Read more: http://www.joyofbaking.com/cocoa.html...

              I have a hard time remembering this rule. The KAF recipe author suggested remembering the "P" for powder and processed. Let's see if I can remember that!

              Of course, KAF wants you to use their double Dutched dark cocoa blend.

              1. re: bushwickgirl

                I think it's a matter of color, too, because the 3 tablespoons of cocoa powder wouldn't be much of a contrast if you didn't use dutch processed. I don't agree w/ the P, Processed and Powder rule. I think the opposite is true that baking soda needs natural cocoa (unless the recipe calls for buttermilk or another acid) but that doesn't mean the converse is. Baking powder recipes often call for dutched but there are quite a few that use natural. Acidity won't affect the action of the baking powder, but is needed for the baking soda to work.

                "Because it is neutral and does not react with baking soda
                , it must be used in recipes calling for baking powder, unless there are other acidic ingredients in sufficient quantities used. "

                See, I think the "must be" should be changed to "can only."

                I agree w/ David Lebovitz:


                There are exceptions to each, of course. And according to Fine Cooking magazine, "You can substitute natural cocoa powder for Dutch-process in most recipes (though not vice versa). Flavor and texture can be affected, but generally only in recipes calling for 3/4 cup (75 g) or more." However when a batter-based recipe calls for natural cocoa powder, do not use Dutch-process cocoa powder.

                1. re: chowser

                  Well, we're basically in agreement abou the the batter color, but I don't have any recipes in my numerous baking books that recommend using natural cocoa powder with baking powder, without an added acid, or use Dutched process in recipes without it. Therefore the rule will stand with me. It's just easier to follow for consistent baking results. The "must be" clause is a good guideline for an novice to intermediate baker; an experienced baker will have the knowledge to modify the recipe formula, understanding that natural cocoa can be subbed for Dutched when used in a specific quantity, if necessary. If I felt that only experienced bakers were reading these posts, I would have amended my statement to read "can only."

                  The Joy of Baking substitution link I provided also has this info:

                  Substitution for 3 tablespoons (18 grams) natural cocoa: 3 tablespoons (18 grams) Dutch-processed cocoa plus 1/8 teaspoon cream of tartar or 1/8 teaspoon lemon juice or vinegar."

                  I have read the David Lebovitz link many times and he comments:

                  "...I always advise folks to follow what the recipe says. For sauces and ice creams, they can be swapped out. For cakes and cookies, I don't recommend it, as your results may not be the same if you make substitutions. "

                  I assume those substitutions David writes about are for larger amounts of cocoa, as stated in your Fine Cooking reference, but at what point do you recommend to a novice baker one type for another? The "P" rule is just simpler.

                  For the amount of cocoa in this recipe, I'd say use what cocoa you have on hand and not worry abut it, as you wrote, "... the 3 tablespoons of dutch processed cocoa is negligible here.' With the exception of how the cocoa will affect the batter color, I would as well.

              2. re: roxlet

                But why? It doesn't seem to need it in this case. If the recipe used baking soda, then you'd need natural cocoa as the counteracting acid. But, if the leavener is neutral (as in this case w/ baking powder), then it can use either type of cocoa. The slight acidity in the 3 tablespoons of dutch processed cocoa is negligible here.

            2. Someone should just make the cake not using Dutch processed cocoa and see if it works.

              1. I am not a big fan of chocolate cake and it is over 90 degrees today so all this at the moment theoretical, but having reread the recipe and realizing that one batter has to be thicker than the other, if I did this with a basic white or yellow cake batter, I would add some almond meal to half the batter to stand in for the cocoa powder. Red food coloring in one batter would be neat for Valentine's Day, red & green for Christmas. The chocolate layer plus orange-colored vanilla batter would be good for Halloween. For the really adventurous, red, blue, and uncolored for Independence Day. Hopefully it wouldn't turn into purple and white but I'd separate the red and blue with uncolored layers, which would mean a quarter of the batter blue and a quarter red.

                7 Replies
                1. re: greygarious

                  Fun ideas, grey! My grandmother's birthday is July fourth, so I might have to attempt a red white and blue cake--she'd love it!

                  1. re: egging

                    I have no experience with paste food coloring, which is very concentrated. Perhaps liquid food coloring in this case would be better, since the batter needs to be thinner than average layer cake batter. Unless so many bottles would be needed that the batter would spread TOO much. Some input from cake decorators would be appreciated here - TIA.

                    1. re: greygarious

                      If you dissolved the food paste evenly in a small amount of the batter, then folded it in to the larger amount of batter, it should work. Think tempering.

                      This idea is super cool. I see zebras in my future.

                      1. re: greygarious

                        Paste color is very concentrated and creates deep and vivid colors; maybe that's what you want. I don't think using liquid food color or gel, which is easier to blend that paste, would be any problem for this batter; I think that gel coloring is even a better way to go and imparts strong color ass it's paste counterpart. Use a toothpick dipped in the color and streak through your batter a few times, changing toothpicks so not to contamiate the color, until you get the desired results; it's a more controllable method than adding drops. I know you know food color is one of those things you can add but can't remove.

                        I think you 'll find that just a few drops of liquid or gel should do it and that won't be anywhere near enugh to thin out the batter to it's detriment.

                    2. re: greygarious

                      Oh, and choc plus orange colored batter would be good for a tiger-themed event. I know more about the Tamil Tigers than about professional sports, but I think that's a name for a Detroil team, and surely for many high school and college teams.

                      1. re: greygarious

                        Yes, it's the Detroit Tigers.

                        This striped batter idea has taken off in many interesting directions.

                        1. re: bushwickgirl

                          Or for a kitty birthday cake for his or her humans to enjoy!

                    3. I love this!!! It's gorgeous. Must try after the heat subsides.

                      2 Replies
                      1. re: buttertart

                        Ahhhh - heat - is that something you get without a furnace? Would love some of that! We're still having rain, rain, rain! I'm starting to think about buying a house boat!

                        Anyway - back to topic - this sounds really interesting. I have to give this a try. I've done swirl cakes before, so this will be something great. I have one of my grandson's B/D coming up and might give this a try!

                        1. re: boyzoma

                          I'll trade you! I love rain. 92 right now and 89 tomorrow, 70s by the weekend.
                          I think it would be super fun to do it and not tell anybody until you cut into it.

                      2. Well, I am making this cake tonight to bring to a picnic tomorrow!

                        Since some home bakers on the KA site complained about the bland flavor, I am thinking of substituting for the vanilla, 1/4 teaspoon of millefiori (which is supposed to be the same thing as fiori di sicilia according to a store on Arthur Ave. in the Bronx). I've never used this product before so it is a bit of a gamble.

                        Also, I could not find the dutched cocoa so I bought Hershey's Special Dark cocoa which claims to be a combination of dutch and natural. I am thinking of adding the tiniest pinch of cream of tartar.

                        If the cake doesn't some out right, it's not the end of the world. It's a family gathering and we'll have plenty of other food. So I figure now's a good time to experiment.

                        Fingers crossed.

                        13 Replies
                        1. re: TrishUntrapped

                          Looking forward to hearing about your results.

                          1. re: bushwickgirl

                            I made the cake last night and iced it. It looks like it should be good. I was lucky enough to have an extra set of hands to help pour the batter. My daughter took the chocolate. We used large spoons which held exactly three tablespoons of batter and we worked quickly, not waiting for the batter to spread too much before applying the next spoonful.

                            I iced the cake with quick back- of- the-confectioner's sugar box vanilla buttercream with streaks of chocolate ganache (a la Jackson Pollock).

                            We'll serve the cake later. I should have some photos too.

                            1. re: TrishUntrapped

                              Here are a few photos and my two cents:

                              1. The cake works with Hershey's Special Dark Cocoa which is part natural and part dutched. It did not taste soapy and the brown color was very strong. I forgot to add the pinch of cream of tartar. I will never get through the tiny little can I have.

                              2. I used 1/4 teaspoon millefiori flavoring in lieu of one teaspoon vanilla. It had a pleasant undertaste. But the cake has no flavor, seriously. I don't think doubling the vanilla will help that much. Just my thoughts. The chocolate was also pretty flavorless, but then that is the norm for marble cakes. I agree with others who say marble is basically a visually interesting vanilla cake. In this case it is quite true.

                              3. That said, you CAN get better flavor with this cake by making a delicious frosting. My simple one bowl vanilla buttercream with drizzles of chocolate ganache was very good and a great complement.

                              4. A tip I read on the KA board said put the batter in the pan as quickly as possible, without waiting for it to spread. I did that. I still got a little hole in the cake as you can see in one of the shots. The hole wasn't in all the layers and wasn't especially noticeable.

                              5. Even though you and I thought this cake was pretty cool looking, my guests were not that as impressed for some reason.

                              6. No one asked for seconds. ;-(

                              7. Would I make it again? Maybe, it would depend on the occasion. It's not difficult, but neither was it that rewarding. It was fun to make though!

                              Click the photos to enlarge and see more details.

                              1. re: TrishUntrapped

                                That's beautiful, Trish. Bravo! And thanks for the report.

                                1. re: TrishUntrapped

                                  I think it looks beautiful. Thank you for reporting back. My guess is you've trained your friends to have high expectations of you. :). I'm sure they thought this was as impressive as other things you've served them in the past!


                                  1. re: TrishUntrapped

                                    That looks beautiful, Trish. Thanks for reporting back.

                                    1. re: TrishUntrapped

                                      Very impressive for a first go (if you intend to repeat it) since I doubt the one on the KA site was the one and only one they baked! Brava TU.

                                      1. re: TrishUntrapped

                                        I actually think your cake looks better than the one on the KA link, Trish! The stripes are more distinct and zebra-like. Bummer that it was taste-free, though I gather that was what was complained of on the KA site.

                                        I'll be interested to hear how it goes if someeone tries it with a different batter.

                                        1. re: Caitlin McGrath

                                          Yeah, me too (better looking that is).

                                        2. re: TrishUntrapped

                                          Thanks for your kind words of support everyone. I agree I could make a neater looking cake the next time around. But I'm not afraid to take one for the team. You all can learn from my mistakes.

                                          This cake would be especially fun to make with a kid who has no idea what the final product will look like.

                                          1. re: TrishUntrapped

                                            Re #5: Did your guests know what to expect? I think the surprise factor is important for this cake.

                                            1. re: greygarious

                                              That's odd, I thought I answered you grey... my response seems to have disappeared.

                                              I didn't tell my guests ahead of time, but my son watched me make the cake and he said "MMM...Zebra Cake made with real zebras," in front of everyone. That got things rolling.

                                              1. re: TrishUntrapped

                                                Cute! I would keep my mouth shut (for once) before cutting it if I were to make this cake.

                                    2. I'll be honest in saying that I've read everyone's posts thus far, but I have not read the comments on the King Arthur board or read the recipe in any detail. That being said, I have seen this cake before and I think the idea is cool, but I am always weary of "making chocolate from vanilla," meaning making a chocolate cake or chocolate version of something simply by adding cocoa/melted chocolate/etc. to the vanilla version of it. I'm not surprised that some reviewers found it bland, and would be curious to try the technique using vanilla and chocolate cake recipes that I know produce tasty results. I realize that viscosity is an issue here, as the batters need to spread, but I think running wild with this technique by using "good" vanilla and chocolate cake batters could push this from a recipe that looks cool and tastes good to one that overwhelms with both looks and taste. Thanks!

                                      30 Replies
                                      1. re: Laura D.

                                        I was thinking the same thing about using my favorite vanilla and chocolate cake batters, instead of this. Adding just 3 tbsp of cocoa won't add much to the flavor of the cake.

                                        1. re: chowser

                                          How much chocolate flavor do you expect in a marble cake? The visual appeal is paramount in this type of cake. It's the colors that are important - you'll never get it to taste like an all-chocolate cake. If you want strong chocolate flavor, make a different recipe.

                                          1. re: greygarious

                                            Can't wait for the report, greygarious! Can you take a picture?

                                            1. re: greygarious

                                              "If you want strong chocolate flavor, make a different recipe."

                                              If I'm not mistaken, that's exactly what Laura D. and chowser are discussing doing: using a real chocolate cake batter in addition to the vanilla, instead of going for looks only. For those of us who love chocolate cake and would prefer a chocolate-tasting section of marble cake to a simply brown one, that's probably a good strategy.

                                              1. re: Caitlin McGrath

                                                Thanks for clarifying for me, Caitlin! I personally never want looks to trump taste nor do I agree that visual appeal should be paramount to taste, so while it is great to have a visually appealing cake, and while it is true that colors are important, ideally something you want to eat should taste as wonderful as possible. I mean, it isn't like this is health food that we are eating just to sustain ourselves--it's the totally optional yet oddly necessary thing known as dessert! Also, using a "stronger" chocolate cake recipe (i.e. one that yields a cake with a more noticeable chocolate presence) might actually produce a bigger color contrast as the batter for the chocolate end fully baked chocolate sections of the cake might be darker in color and stand out more against the light-colored vanilla cake. Thanks!

                                                1. re: Caitlin McGrath

                                                  Given how close together the stripes are, I question whether this will ever taste like a chocolate and vanilla cake. I think it's a visually interesting vanilla cake. After all, marble cake never tastes like chocolate and vanilla -- it is just a visual thing. If the reviewers are expecting more than a vanilla cake, it's not surprising that they are disappointed and give the cake poor reviews as being flavorless...

                                                  1. re: roxlet

                                                    "I think it's a visually interesting vanilla cake."

                                                    I'm with you there; it's definitely more for the visual effect than anything else, and I doubt whether tasters will be able to discern the layers of chocolate from vanilla.

                                                    1. re: bushwickgirl

                                                      May be a good use for some double-fold vanilla or more of the usual stuff, ramp up the vanilla flavor.

                                                      1. re: buttertart

                                                        What is double-fold vanilla? Just being lazy here - I could google it.

                                                        1. re: souschef

                                                          Simply put, it's extract made with twice the amount of beans, so it's doubly strong, which would probably be a more apt term for it, but double fold is all I've ever known it to be. Good commercial bakeries use it. The regular extract is referred to single fold, btw.

                                                          It's obviously more expensive, $25 for a pint of organic double fold, as opposed to $15 a pint for single fold and Penzey's has double fold for close to $50 for a pint, as opposed to $30 for single, but is really ecomonically feasible, as you use half as much. It's something you can create at home, if you make your own extract. I use more of the regular stuff, 2 tsp of vanilla as opposed to 1 tsp; it doesn't make any difference for the outcome of the cake batter, except for flavor. I do go through vanilla at an amazing clip, though.

                                                          1. re: bushwickgirl

                                                            I got this as a gift from one of my customers whose imports of vanilla beans we handle. I've seldom bought fancypants vanilla before but am going to have to from now on - this Madagascan stuff you could wear as perfume.

                                                            1. re: buttertart

                                                              I do love the scent of vanilla and have been known to dab a little on! I need to make some extract soon and may double up the beans.

                                                              1. re: bushwickgirl

                                                                Men are supposed to like it a lot too ;-) . Where do you get your beans?

                                                                1. re: buttertart

                                                                  The last time I bought Mexican beans from www.spicehouse.com as I needed other spices from them, but I'm looking around for a dedicated vanilla bean vendor. Before that I would get them from the restaurants where I worked, if we did any baking. Anyone you'd recommend?

                                                                  There's much to know about vanilla, country of origin, size, grade, vanillin content.

                                                                  I really like the flavor of Mexican vanilla, after buying some in Mexico years ago, but there are some bourbon style beans on the market from Uganda that sound very interesting.

                                                                  www.bostonvanillabeans.com carries extract grade bourbon beans for not much moola.

                                                                  1. re: bushwickgirl

                                                                    Hey! Vanilla from Uganda! I should look for it as that's where I was born!

                                                                    1. re: bushwickgirl

                                                                      Patricia Rain, the Vanilla Queen, sells top-notch beans a www.vanilla.com Hers are exquisite and handsomely priced. If you don't need a pound, she has some links to retail vendors who sell her beans in smaller quantities. If nothing else, her site is worth exploring.

                                                                      For every day beans, San Francisco Herb Company (www.sfherb.com) sells 4 oz (about 20) for $17.40. They are plump and moist, though their origin varies.

                                                                    2. re: buttertart

                                                                      Yeah, I do like vanilla-scented candles, but in very small doses as it can quickly get overpowering.

                                                                      1. re: buttertart

                                                                        Did you ever see the sellers on ebay who sell vanilla beans in bulk? I think that there have been threads about this in the past...

                                                                        1. re: roxlet

                                                                          I really like Watkins Double Strength Vanilla and have been using it for many years. Absolutely lovely vanilla flavor, not flowery. Very affordable too.


                                                                          1. re: roxlet

                                                                            Re beans: I have, just haven't gotten around to ordering them. Draw and quarter me now, ban me from CH, but for regular baking I've been using the CVS drugstore brand 99 cent imitation extract - based on CI's recommendation of a few years ago. Especially in things with other flavors like chocolate. I promise never to do it again - (fingers crossed behind back
                                                                            Re Watkins: my mother-in-law swears by it, keeps the regular and the clear imitation around at all times - the clear for white frostings, etc to keep them pristine. Must get some.

                                                                            1. re: buttertart

                                                                              Being a chowhound means never having to say you're sorry (for what you genuinely think is delicious!)


                                                                              1. re: The Dairy Queen

                                                                                Hip hip hooray! Confirmed in my sluttish ways.

                                                                              2. re: buttertart

                                                                                For day to day baking buttertart, I agree, the imitation stuff is perfectly good. There are other threads about this subject on chowhound. It's always controversial.

                                                                            2. re: buttertart

                                                                              For bulk vanilla beans and extract, a number of Chowhounds have recommended Vanilla Saffron Exports (for saffron, too, natch): http://www.saffron.com/

                                                                              ETA: Their prices are way cheaper than Boston Vanilla Beans, linked by bushwickgirl - less than $30 for a pound of beans.

                                                                              1. re: Caitlin McGrath

                                                                                A lb of beans is a lifetime's worth, or maybe half a life in my house. At the Vanilla Saffron price, I would either be somewhat concerned about the quality and condition of the beans; the country of origin is not mentioned, just that they are either planifolia, true vanilla, or tahitensis, not true vanilla, and which one can assume is from Tahiti, or they sell a ginormous amount of just vanilla beans and saffron. I think the difference in price is whether the beans are sold by weight or by the piece; always cheaper to purchase by weight if you can use them.

                                                                                These people have good prices on lbs and smaller quantities as well, and sell extract grade beans:


                                                                                Thanks for the link, I was looking for a source.

                                                                                1. re: bushwickgirl

                                                                                  Yes a pound would be waaay too much for me. Looking at the sources. Thanks friends!

                                                                                  1. re: buttertart

                                                                                    I've found Rodelle Madagascar vanilla beans at Costco at a decent price. I haven't looked lately but I was happy with them. I still have a container of vanilla sugar that I keep adding sugar to and it still smells/tastes great.

                                                                                    1. re: chowser

                                                                                      We got those from Costco too, and they were quite good.

                                                                                  2. re: bushwickgirl

                                                                                    I haven't ordered from them myself, but have seen multiple recs from hounds, so thought I'd suggest. On threads about buying the beans in bulk, people say they store them in the freezer, and having 100 beans means they can use them in many more ways and more often than they otherwise would, make homemade vanilla for gifts, make liqueurs, etc. Whether you buy 25 beans or 100, those threads had some good ideas, so might be worth searching for. The Vanilla Saffron folks do have good info about both items, whether you buy from them or not.

                                                        2. This makes me think of the checkerboard cake I made a couple years ago My MIL had given me a cake pan set to make that cake, so for fun I tried it out. It was pretty (not as pretty as on the box!) but quite dry and bland tasting. My theory was that the batter had to be rather stiff relative to most other cake recipes so that it would not mix too much between the dividers of the cake pan, thus the recipe sacrificed flavor for "effect". Perhaps that is happening here as well.

                                                          3 Replies
                                                          1. re: DGresh

                                                            in the UK you can buy a cake called Battenberg cake - someone here will correct me but it's definitely pink and yellow squares with a marzipan coating. It always looked so pretty but tasted pretty yuk (to me).

                                                            1. re: DGresh

                                                              My mother had one of those checkerboard pan sets when I was growing up, also a gift.

                                                              1. re: Caitlin McGrath

                                                                How about using melted unsweetened chocolate in the dark batter and adding some strong sepresso powder to give it some umph?

                                                                **am I the only one who thinks red and green layers at Christmas would be hideous looking? (red & green cancelling themselves out, visually)

                                                            2. When i first read all this a few days ago i was excited to try this technique, but after reading Trish's experience, i decided to try a different recipe.
                                                              First, i tried just using my own white and chocolate cake recipes. The cake was delicious....but some of the chocolate batter floated to the top and i ruined the effect of the stripes.
                                                              So i tried again with a recipe from here: http://www.realepicurean.com/2008/06/...
                                                              It was tough and tasteless....i threw it out. But it looked great!
                                                              If i could have real success with this technique, it would make a great birthday cake for some of the divas in my life! (especially with hot pink icing!) But cake has to TASTE good too!

                                                              3 Replies
                                                              1. re: LukesBride

                                                                Too bad the one from realepicurean wasn't good. I looked at that link and followed it to another link, which has a long list of links for other zebra cakes. So for anyone who is interested enough to follow the trail of breadcrumbs: http://www.realepicurean.com/2008/09/...

                                                                1. re: LukesBride


                                                                  I thought about what would make this cake taste better, and my only solutions is an amazing icing and lots of it. I really think if you go that way hardly anyone will notice the cake's flavor. A pink vanilla or raspberry buttercream with chocolate ganache stripes on top might work well.

                                                                  Make a sample one and see.

                                                                  1. re: TrishUntrapped

                                                                    Since the complaints seem to be mostly that there's not enough chocolate flavor, I would think an intensely chocolate icing/frosting would be the way to go if you are using a chocolate batter. Reverse the zebra striping with a white chocolate drizzle over the dark chocolate frosting.

                                                                2. Spekkoek is so much more than this! Take a look:


                                                                  1. That's awesome! And I'm trying THAT!!!!