How to Make a Surprise Loaf Cake

Valentine's Day heart surprise cake
The Spruce / Miri Rotkovitz
  • 01 of 14

    Plan Your Cake and Prepare Your Equipment

    Cake ingredients
    The Spruce / Miri Rotkovitz

    Want a fun cake that'll make you look like a baking genius? Look no further than a surprise loaf! Slice into what looks like an ordinary loaf cake from the outside, and you'll reveal a contrasting shape baked right in. These step-by-step instructions will walk you through making a Valentine's Day heart cake. The beauty is that the basic technique can be customized for whatever event, holiday or season you want to celebrate - just switch up the color scheme and the shape of the cake cutouts to suit the occasion. 

    You'll need two pans: a 9"x 9"x 2" pan for baking the colorful cake for the interior shape cutouts, and a 9" x 5" loaf pan. Grease both and line the bottoms of each with parchment. Choose a cookie cutter (or make a paper template) for the shape you'd like to hide inside the cake and make sure it fits inside the loaf pan with a little clearance on all sides. Preheat the oven to 350 F and get ready to bake!

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  • 02 of 14

    Mix up the Cake Batter

    Coloring cake batter
    The Spruce / Miri Rotkovitz

    The first step is to make a simple white (or yellow) cake, which you'll dye with food coloring to your desired hue. Homemade butter-based batters tend to work the best for surprise cakes because their density helps anchor the cake cutouts in place. You can use the ingredient quantities in this Hanukkah surprise cake as a guide. If you're using a mix, you'll need two boxes. Mix, color, and bake one box now, and save the second box for later. 

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  • 03 of 14

    Bake the Cake for the Cutouts

    Pouring cake batter into a pan
    The Spruce / Miri Rotkovitz

    Pour, or spoon, the colorful batter into the prepared 9"x 9" pan. Use a spatula to spread the batter to the edges and smooth the top. Bake the cake in the preheated oven until a tester inserted in the center comes out clean, usually about 20 to 30 minutes, depending on the recipe. Be sure to leave the oven on - you'll be baking the entire surprise loaf soon!

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  • 04 of 14

    Creating the Cake Cutouts

    Heart cake cutouts
    The Spruce / Miri Rotkovitz

    When the cake comes out of the oven, place the pan on a cooling rack for 10 minutes. Then, run an offset spatula or sharp knife around the perimeter of the cake to loosen it. Invert it over the rack to remove it from the pan, and allow the cake to cool completely.

    One completely cooled, invert the cake onto a cutting board. Using a cookie cutter, or a paper template, make as many cake cutouts as you can. (If you are using a paper template, cut around it with a sharp paring knife, keeping the cuts as neat as possible.)

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  • 05 of 14

    Mix up Fresh Batter and Add a Little to the Loaf Pan

    Adding batter to the loaf pan
    The Spruce / Miri Rotkovitz

    Make a second batch of white cake, but this time, don't color it. Add just enough to the prepared loaf pan to cover the bottom. Take care not to dislodge the parchment paper. 

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  • 06 of 14

    Add Cake Cutouts to the Pan

    Adding cake cutouts to the pan
    The Spruce / Miri Rotkovitz

    Starting near one end of the pan, begin placing the cake cutouts in the batter. Make sure to keep the cutouts flush with each other, so that they run all the way down the center of the pan. Try to keep the contours of the shapes even with each other, in a "log"-style format, so that when the cake is sliced, the image will be sharp.

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  • 07 of 14

    Cover the Cutouts With Batter

    Covering the cake hearts
    The Spruce / Miri Rotkovitz

    Now it's time to hide the surprise! Pour, or spoon, the batter into the loaf pan so that the cake cutouts are surrounded and, ideally, covered completely. Bake in the preheated oven, setting the pan on a piece of foil to catch drips. Bake for 50 to 60 minutes, or until the cake is set and golden, and a tester inserted in several places in the white cake comes out clean. Allow the cake to cool in its pan on a rack for 20 to 30 minutes. Run an offset spatula around the perimeter, remove the cake from the pan, and cool completely on a rack before decorating. 


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  • 08 of 14

    Get Ready to Decorate the Cake

    Frosting for the surprise cake
    The Spruce / Miri Rotkovitz

    Make a batch of your favorite white frosting. Try this non-dairy vanilla buttercream, or, if you prefer a dairy frosting, use real unsalted butter instead of the margarine and shortening combo. If you only plan to frost the top of the loaf, you can halve the ingredient quantities. 

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  • 09 of 14

    Frost the Cake

    Frosting the cake
    The Spruce / Miri Rotkovitz

    Place the cake on a platter and frost the top, taking care to cover any cutouts that may be showing. Smooth the top with an offset spatula so you'll have a level surface for decorating.

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  • 10 of 14

    Dye the Frosting for Decorating

    Colored frosting for decorating
    The Spruce / Miri Rotkovitz

    Divide the remaining frosting into a few small bowls, and add a couple of drops of food coloring to each. Spoon the frostings into piping bags fitted with piping tips. Small round, open star, and/or closed star tips work well for piping hearts. 

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  • 11 of 14

    Pipe Hearts on the Cake

    Piping frosting hearts on the cake
    The Spruce / Miri Rotkovitz

    Pipe a variety of hearts - large, medium, and small, open or closed - on the top of the cake. Make a pattern, or keep things random - whatever looks good to you!

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  • 12 of 14

    Add Some Sweet Talk

    Valentine's Themed cake
    The Spruce / Miri Rotkovitz

    Pipe a few conversation heart-inspired messages onto the cake as a cute (or racy!) finishing touch. 

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  • 13 of 14

    Slice and Enjoy the Surprise!

    Heart surprise cake slice
    The Spruce / Miri Rotkovitz

    All that's left to do is slice into the cake, serve and enjoy the surprise!


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  • 14 of 14

    Decorating Tips, Ideas and Themes

    Hanukkah surprise cake
    The Spruce / Miri Rotkovitz

    If the cutouts are completely hidden by cake batter, you have the most flexibility in terms of how to decorate; a dusting of powdered sugar or a simple glaze can work. If, however, the cutouts are poking through, or if you simply want a more festive topping, go with frosting.  

    For a fun finishing touch, top the cake with sprinkles or sugar decorations that complement the color and/or shape hidden inside the cake.  

    Cake Themes 

    Baby Gender Reveal: Pink or blue baby buggy, onesie, or teddy bear on the inside. White, yellow, or pastel green frosting with pastel multicolored sprinkles or sugar decorations.

    Kid's Birthday: Age number (or party theme-related) shape cutout in a favorite color. Matching frosting, contrasting sprinkles or small candies.

    Halloween: Orange pumpkin, chocolate frosting, holiday-themed sprinkles or chopped candy bars. 

    Hanukkah: Blue dreidel or Star-of-David cutout, white frosting, gold, and blue sanding sugar and/or sugar decorations.

    Christmas: Green tree or red candy cane. White, red, or green frosting, holiday-themed sugar decorations.

    Easter: Pastel bunny, flower or Easter egg. Pastel yellow, violet, pink, or pale green frosting. Jelly beans, holiday sprinkles, or foil-wrapped chocolate eggs.

    Engagement or Wedding Shower: Gemstone or gown-shaped cutout in wedding colors. White frosting, gold or silver dragees or sanding sugar. 

    July 4th: Blue or red star, red, white and/or blue frosting. Holiday themed sprinkles, or piped fireworks or flag.