Food

An Old-School Photo Birthday Cake

How to Make a Photo Cake

Here’s the cake I’ve been excited to show you! When Toby and I were discussing ideas for his birthday, I casually mentioned something that was cool when I was younger, and he lost his little mind…

Photo cakes! Toby couldn’t believe it and became enamored of the idea. He knew the exact cake he wanted (M&M), and he definitely knew the photo he wanted: the one above, where he’s standing in front of a Dodge Challenger we rented once in Austin. The only thing left to do was figure out how to execute his vision. After a little online research, I found Cakes n’ Shapes, a New York-based bakery that ships edible “frosting sheets” nationwide.

How to Make a Photo Cake

Here’s how to do it.

1. Bake a cake. (Beforehand, email your photo to Cakes n’ Shapes and select the size. We went with the 7.3-by-10 inch sheet. You can pick it up in Manhattan or have it mailed to you.)
2-3. Frost the top of the cake. Frosting must be fresh, moist and white (we went with cream cheese frosting), so the edible photo will stick to it.
4. Peel off the protective layer of the photo and smooth out the photo sheet very carefully.
5. Frost the sides of the cake and around the photo.
6. We added M&Ms to “frame” the photo.

How to Make a Photo Cake

The cake was a huge hit at the party, and the cutest part was watching Toby figure out which piece of the photo to eat. (After some consideration, he went with the Challenger logo on the front fender.) Now I can’t stop thinking about grown-up occasions — wedding anniversaries, friends’ birthdays, office celebrations — where this move would kill, especially with a funny photo.

Thoughts? Have you ever had a photo cake? I remember dirt cakes were also cool when I was growing up!

P.S. 8 wonderful birthday cakes, and the easiest birthday cake. And the funniest candles.

(Photos by Christine Han for Cup of Jo. Thank you to Grace Blumberg for baking and styling.)

  1. Gretchen says...

    My mom made me a Big Bird cake as a kid, and the cake mold was just Big Bird’s head. Without hesitation, I told her I wanted the eye. She surgically cut around the circular eye (which was in the center of the take) – not easy to get to! One of my best childhood memories, and it was fun to think about it when reading about Toby’s choice. It’s a whole different era, but some things about kids never change :)

  2. Helen says...

    You can also ask your local ice cream cake shop for an edible sheet and it will probably be much cheaper. I used my nearby Carvel to make a “wallpaper cake” for my daughter’s birthday. Just called, emailed the pic, and ready same day.

  3. I love photo cakes! I’ve never had one for myself, but years ago, I planned a surprise 40th Anniversary party for my parents. I had a photo of their wedding picture on a large sheet cake (from Stop & Shop) side by side with a more recent photo of them. It looked great and they were surprised!

  4. Love this so much! I definitely want to do this for my birthday cake! And Toby is so precious I love it!

  5. Jessica says...

    so sweet! also potential favorite part of the whole thing: is little tobes wearing two different shoes? the best!

  6. Liz says...

    My favorite part is that he is wearing two different shoes in the picture :)

  7. I totally forgot about photo cakes!!! Definitely bringing this up as an option for my next kid birthday (the teenager – wonder what she’ll think!?)

  8. SFord says...

    Still do this a lot in the UK. Usually an embarrassing baby/school photo for an 18th/21st/40th or above birthday cake!

  9. This is so cool – can’t wait to try it! (Also thanks for the reminder about dirt cakes – would be fun to revisit.)

  10. Rachel says...

    I’d forgotten about these kinds of cakes! We’ve done it in the past ! Back in the day Baskin Robbins used to do it, not sure if they still do. But what’s more fun than your picture on an ice-cream cake !!!

  11. rachel says...

    Thanks so much for sharing this. We are a nut free house due to my sons allergies, and after checking cakes n’ shapes website I found they are a nut free kitchen. Hooray for the allergy aware!!!

  12. AM says...

    I want to try this! So curious – how did the picture part of the cake actually taste??

    • Joanna Goddard says...

      honestly, it didn’t taste like much — but the rest of the cake tasted so so good!

  13. Sophie says...

    This is a MASSIVE thing already in the UK, alot of stores do it while you wait! Great idea, I guess it’s a revelation to some in the US?

  14. KL says...

    Hate to be the “one who does this,” but I feel like your instructions are a bit off. You’d have to email them then wait for it to come to you in the mail, no? Then bake the cake, etc. Am I missing something? Super cute idea, though!

    • Joanna Goddard says...

      oh, yes! actually you’re right — if you ordered it by mail. we picked it up, so we baked the cake one day, alex brought home the photo frosting from manhattan, and then we added it to the cake. i’ll fix in the text!

  15. Clara says...

    This is so cute!! Definitely going to do this!!

  16. Naomi says...

    Awesome. Definitely keeping this in my back pocket for just the right occasion. Our most recent birthday cakes have been: age 8 – Pusheen the cat (round marble cake, painted the pusheen on with homemade buttercream frosting), age 7 – emjoi party with cupcakes decorated by the 7yo with customer emoji faces on each, age 6 – the moon landing on a two-layer chocolate cake with blue frosting (that was the specific request – the moon landing was accompanied by plastic astronauts and an american flag), age 5 – castle (convinced grandma to make this one)… before that – we bought the cakes.

  17. Cristina Ceballos says...

    Filing this tip away, as I have a great opportunity to put it to good use! I had an M&M lined cake in the 80s, and my four-year-old self snuck the M&Ms off of the cake one at a time, until it looked sparse during cake cutting and pictures :)

  18. The Betty Crocker Castle Cake was the be all end all coolest cake when I was a kid. I would stare at the photo in Betty’s cook book on a regular basis.
    I remember my mom making one for my 6th or 7th birthday and feeling like a TRUE queen, and so my sister and I obviously made one for my grandpa’s birthday soon after.
    Multi-layered, pink icing, marshmallow stone details, and ice cream cone turrets, does it get any better? I may have to bring it back this summer.
    https://i.pinimg.com/originals/b2/56/49/b25649f33a08e82ae428fc3d2d71c99e.jpg

  19. Elise says...

    The fact that he is wearing two different shoes takes this photo to the next level. So cute.

  20. Why did this trend go away? It is so fun. Love that you introduced the next generation to it :) Happy Birthday, Toby!

  21. A Martin says...

    Sooo sweet!!! I love how thoughtful he is and how you nurture that 💕💕

  22. Lisa says...

    Love it! I made two cakes for my nephews 2nd birthday almost 2 years ago, and he still talks about it (how does he even remember?!) where I’m from it’s common to use whipped cream instead of frosting, so that’s what I did. Added a road and a ”big pile of sand” of crushed digestive cookies, and a small toy tractor on top that scooped up some of the sand. On the other cake was a truck with a lifty-thingy (you know like a grip) that lifted and loaded blueberries. It was. Insanely easy (just cake and + two small toys basically) and it blew his mind and everyone was SO impressed, haha. So YES to toys on cakes! (Just use new ones or clean them properly first, because, germs)

  23. Amanda says...

    So, I ordered a cake from a bakery for my grandparents’ 60th wedding anniversary. My grandmother wanted their wedding photo on the cake. It looked so beautiful when we picked it up. However, the bakery didn’t tell us the photo part was inedible! Yikes! We didn’t know until someone tried to eat it. So beware!

  24. Sara W. says...

    Aww I love this! Happy birthday to Toby! This reminds me of my birthday back in 2012, when my family surprised me with a photo cake with a huge photo of Jeremy Renner splashed across it- complete with homemade Jeremy Renner party hats to boot! That was around the time that the Avengers, MI4 and Bourne Legacy had come out and I was absolutely smitten with him, and everyone knew it. Even though I was a fully-grown 23 year old woman at the time, I felt like a kid again. We all got such a kick out of it, and it was such a little thing, but honestly I was so moved- I felt so known by them, and accepted even despite my objectively weird obsessions.

    • Thuy says...

      I love this.

  25. Catie says...

    Dirt cakes were indeed the coolest when I was growing up! I still vividly remember attending a birthday party with that served dirt cakes in mini pots with little shovels as spoon and of course lots of gummy worms popping up through the Oreo soil. My little mind was blown. Caitlin B, wherever you are, your 7th birthday was so LIT, I still remember it all these years later!

  26. Cooper says...

    Love this! In our small town, we made photo cakes by just wrapping a photo in plastic wrap and removing it before eating :)

    I also LOVED those cupcakes baked into ice cream cones topped with rainbow chip frosting! Yum!

  27. Madie says...

    My sister-in-law baked a big glorious layer cake after the birth of my first son and brought it to the hospital (on a gorgeous cake stand, paraded right past the nurses station). It had a combo photo on top of both me and my husband as babies. SO CUTE. We shared with the nurses, of course.

  28. JenMarie says...

    Awesome! We hosted a surprise party for a girl in my son’s weekly Tuesday afternoon playgroup (the group’s been meeting since the kids were babies and now they are–ack!–7-year-olds). I bought edible paper and edible markers and had the kids make Happy Birthday signs. Then, when the birthday girl arrived, the kids yelled “Surprise!” and took huge bites out of the paper. It was very funny.

    • Sylvie says...

      I meet with a group every summer that has been meeting since we were 1 and we are now-ack!-48. This would be a fun cake with an old photo!

  29. carrie says...

    Love this! What is an M &M cake? Is it a normal cake and then you stir in M&Ms? By the way, my neighbor’s daughter had a “Great British Baking Show” themed party. She and her friends decorated little cakes that her parents and grandparents had made. Such a cute idea!

    • carrie says...

      Oops just clicked on the link and saw it took me to a recipe! Sounds delish! Thanks!

  30. Victoria Robertson says...

    My boyfriend surprised me with a photo cake for my birthday last year! It was a big hit (although not my favorite picture – it was me in yoga pants and a t-shirt,no makeup and messy hair smiling big at him haha). We ended up getting my mom one for her birthday as well!

    • Amber Grady says...

      Boyfriends always seem to love the pictures of ourselves that we are less than pleased with, haha.

    • Bets says...

      Love this story. I’m a twin. Growing up, my sister and I had our own birthday cakes made by our beloved aunt. Mine was a cranberry walnut cake with almond icing. My sister opted for a chocolate, chocolate chip cake. It made our birthdays most special. Since my aunt passed, my twin sister continues with the tradition and bakes my special cake each year.

  31. Rachel says...

    There’s a tiny cafe hidden in the middle of Thessaloniki that will do photo donuts and cappuccinos (!!) while you wait. We got a donut with a photo we had taken on a boat 30 minutes earlier and my daughter lost her mind (we kind of did too). Is this a thing in America?

    • Rainbeau says...

      What!! That is amazing. I haven’t heard of anyone doing that on the spot.

  32. Nina says...

    So fun!

  33. Amy says...

    This takes me back to 2006, watching late night reruns of Scrubs…FACE CAKE!!!!

  34. Amanda says...

    I did a photo cake for my son’s 3rd birthday. It was a photo of Mister Rogers, his favorite. I never imagined you could order and have delivered an edible photo though! This is great to know for future photo cakes!

    • A Mister Rogers photo cake is the thing I didn’t know I needed in life until this moment. How wonderful!

  35. Ashley says...

    My mom was OBSESSED with photo cakes –– every birthday, every Christmas, everything. When I had to give a presentation on Gerald Ford in school one year, my mom brought in a cake with Gerald Ford’s face on it!

    • JennP says...

      Your mom sounds delightful!

    • celeste says...

      #momgoals :)

    • Anna says...

      HAHA oh thanks for leaving that story here.

  36. Lisa says...

    And now I want cake. This is phenomenal!

  37. agnes says...

    I came back for more comments; I find this so funny because it seems old school and so normal to you guys and from France it feels like a fake thing. But I found a tutorial on youtube that explains it all (edible paper and ink!). https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zTvd7UJGGCM

    I might start a trend here!

  38. Love this! When I was 17 I was super into the 50s (listening to rockabilly, idolizing Audrey Hepburn, etc.) and had a 50s-themed birthday party where I requested a photo cake with a picture of James Dean saying, “Joy, you get prettier ever year!” I guess I had pretty healthy self esteem in high school!

  39. My old law firm did this for new associates. We were all welcomes with cupcakes featuring our work headshot we took in our first day at the office. Lol

    • Joanna Goddard says...

      hahaha that is so cute/cool!

  40. Deb says...

    I went to an engagement party once with a photo of the couple on it. Everyone drank a little too much and left the uneaten part of the cake out in the backyard overnight. In the morning it was discovered that wild creatures (raccoons?) had come and licked the faces off! I’m still laughing about that one!

  41. everything about this is amazing! what a sweet kid with a thoughtful mama.

  42. Callie says...

    Remember “dirt cakes” (with chocolate pudding and crushed oreos)? I made a “construction site cake” for my three year old’s construction themed birthday (that he only informed me he wanted to be construction themed 4 days beforehand–thank goodness for amazon and our large collection of small plastic construction vehicles!)

    It wasn’t a work of beauty but it was so worth it to see his happy face when it was revealed.

    • Joanna Goddard says...

      that sounds incredible!!!!

    • Ahaha we did this too!
      His was a combo “dirt” frosted donut stack cake (a la Cup of Jo!) as our kiddo doesn’t like cake. (And is somehow related to me?) The construction vehicles totally make it.

  43. Love this! This year for my son’s 6th birthday, we came up with the idea that we would decorate the cake ourselves based on a picture he drew. This is not one of my skills – cake decorating or even baking. So, I ordered a white sheet cake and we bought decorations, and it came out so well! We are already planning his cake for his next birthday (in April)! So much more fun then ordering a cake.

    https://www.instagram.com/p/BwNQguXF7bY/

    • Lin says...

      That’s the cutest thing ever. Genius!

    • Susie G says...

      What a fun idea and excellent execution!

  44. Sarah says...

    This is fantastic! What a cool photo to use :)

    I had a photo cake created, once, for the birthday of my now-husband back when we were dating. The photo we used was taken during a hilarious get-together we’d had with our friends, during which he told everyone he could still fit into his space camp uniform from when he was a kid. He actually got it from storage and put it on in front of everyone, and I snapped pictures (because how could you NOT?!). Not long after I had the cake made by a local bakery using the photo, and it became a centerpiece for a surprise party we threw for him at our favorite bar. The staff even allowed us to drop it off ahead of time, and then unveiled it during the celebration. It was the absolute best (and most hilarious) surprise cake ever.

    Now that I’m remembering this and seeing your post I’m wondering why I haven’t thought of doing this for either of my kids! I’m excited to use this idea for our next celebration :)

  45. Ms Nina G says...

    Such a great find – thank you for sharing.

  46. cait says...

    I left my job last year and my coworkers ordered a giant cake with a photo of me biking to work (looking like a goof!)… the next day, my coworker/pal sent me a photo of the cake and the only part that was left was my helmet-clad face… no one wanted to eat it!
    (Still wondering if someone actually ate my face, or if it ended up in the trash?!)
    So sweet!

    • Meredith says...

      Too funny! That tops the “We Can Still Be Friends” cookie cake I presented to co-workers when I left a small, close-knit office several years ago :P The girl at the bakery thought I was breaking up with someone via cookie cake and almost wouldn’t make it for me until I explained!

    • Caroline says...

      Hahaha!!!

  47. Sarah says...

    Dirt cakes! My sister and I had a joint birthday party for our 7th and 9th birthdays, with a dirt cake decorated with gummy worms (of course!), and we all decorated terra cotta pots and straw hats with ribbons and fake flowers for our activity. All around, a very 1996 kind of party.

  48. Adel says...

    We once ordered a photo cake and it showed up at the party with the wrong family’s picture! We had a good laugh!

    • Joanna Goddard says...

      that’s kind of amazing!

    • Brittani says...

      Ha! Cake mistakes are pretty much the best. When I was volunteering in Kenya, I wanted to get a cake for the kids we worked with when it was time to leave. I asked for it to read “We love you and will miss you!” unless that was too long, then we asked for it to read “Kiwanis Kids.” We ended up picking up a beautiful cake that read (in teensy letters) “We love you and will miss you! or just Kiwanis kids.” SO GOOD. 😂

  49. Love this!!! Ahhh the good old days :)))

  50. Kaitlin says...

    My old job used to be making historic plaques. The background of the plaques were black, and someone once ordered a photo cake of the plaque for the unveiling event. Everyone who ate a piece ended up with stained teeth. All that I’m saying is: I highly recommend photos that have bright colours and aren’t underexposed!

  51. Michelle Bird says...

    This is all so perfect! I love that Toby knows what he likes.
    And now I’m thinking I need to find a photo and do this :)

  52. Kay says...

    Toby is so cool. That pose is everything.

    • Amy says...

      I just realized he’s wearing two different shoes haha

  53. Asia says...

    So fun! I didn’t know you could order an edible photo:)

    My 12-year-old actually asked for a grocery store sheet cake for her last birthday, and to surprise her I had the store decorate it with an illustration of Jonathan Van Ness (her fave) saying “Own it, gorg.” It was hilarious, and a huge hit!

  54. Erin says...

    One of my former coworkers spent tons of time redesigning a form our team has to use. The old form was 7 pages long, and his goal was to get it down to one page. The project was a giant, thankless time suck — legal advice was required, etc. etc. etc.

    When he left for another job, we got him a going-away cake printed with the new one-page form. I’m sure the bakery people thought we were insane, but everyone on our team found it very funny.

    • Faith says...

      I love this!

  55. Julia says...

    LOVE that you can do this with a homemade cake vs a grocery store cake. Grocery store frosting always bums me out

  56. Caitlin Smith says...

    My husband is from San Francisco and I’m from Baltimore. We got married at city hall with just a couple witnesses and a few months later had parties on both coasts to celebrate with friends and family. In Baltimore we had a crab feast (of course) and had a photo of us in our wedding garb on the cake. We got ours at Sam’s Club and it was surprisingly delicious – not in a fancy culinary way but in a childhood deja vu “this is so yummy cake!” way. It was a huge hit!

  57. Courtney says...

    I love this! I did one for my parents’ 25th anniversary with their wedding photo on it.

  58. Clare Gibbons says...

    My mom did this for my 21st birthday. She lived in the Chicago suburbs and drove to South Bend to drop off a boat load of liquor, my childhood dog, and a cake with a picture of a one-year-old me wearing a Notre Dame cheerleader’s uniform (I was a junior at Notre Dame). My friends and I weren’t able to finish the cake, so I put it on my hallway’s share table. Within minutes, someone had cut out my head (even though it was in the middle of the cake). I still wonder who did it and if they are actually a serial killer.

    • Alison says...

      OMG I am laughing uncontrollably in my office about that last line!

  59. Louisa says...

    I’m totally doing this for my family reunion. This is hilarious.

  60. Jessica says...

    My daughter just turned 16 and had a photo cake at her arty. (The theme was Mamma Mia and the photo was a silly one from the movie.) She and her friends thought it was hilarious. We’re in Brooklyn too and got it at Lord’s Bakery–an awesome old-school bakery in Flatbush.

  61. Maya says...

    We have friends that do this every year and each year the photo on the cake is the previous years’ photo of them on the cake. It has become VERY meta and just keeps going and going and going.

    • andrea says...

      LOL

    • Joanna Goddard says...

      hahahahaha

    • actual LOL — that’s hilarious

  62. Megan says...

    I love this idea! I did something similar for my husband’s 30th birthday. I found a bakery and they printed my husband’s goofiest face on dozens of cookies with edible photo paper. Everyone loved eating his face!

  63. Kara says...

    Love this idea. And his photo is so cute! I love his sneakers!

  64. Becca says...

    Just made a dirt cake for my daughters 6th birthday! She LOVED it but my goodness it was sweet. Small pieces only!

  65. Kylee says...

    Great idea!
    Question: Did you have the picture mailed to you or did you pick it up?

    • Joanna Goddard says...

      we picked it up for $15, but you can also get it mailed for $20. super easy!

  66. Love this! What a sweetheart! Happy birthday, Toby! Can’t believe it was nine years ago…

    P.S. What I really need to know, Joanna—how many other words did you try before you settled that moist was really the only choice? I know how you feel about that!

    • Joanna Goddard says...

      hahahaha yes!! “moist” was in their application instructions, so we felt like it was necessary. laughing out loud right now.

    • Mouse says...

      ooohhhhh, “moist”. Right up there with “secretions”. And “ointment”. Many years ago some friends and I probed (OMG, “probe” is one of them too!) our most icky words. Most of them were understandable until one guy said, “oh, oh, oh I HATE the word “bucket”!!!

      I think we need a column on this…..

    • Emily L says...

      haha sometimes I feel like I’m the only person that isn’t bothered by the word “moist.” It’s possible that I use it more often just because I know others can’t stand it!

  67. Malorie says...

    I had a photo cake for my Sweet Sixteen! Ha! What memories ❤️

  68. Thanks for sharing this idea and the Toby story with us :)
    What a great idea you had, Mom! I’d forgotten these cakes and now I want to do one right away! I bet my grown kiddos would love such a surprise on their next birthday cake **noted**

    I adore Toby and Anton stories–every one.

  69. Katie says...

    Your stories about Toby (and Anton) are so endearing. Thank you for sharing little bits of their life with your readers 😊

  70. Judy says...

    We did this for both of my grandfathers’ 80th birthdays. For each, we used a black and white picture of them in their 20s or 30s – they were both so handsome!

  71. Andrea says...

    My team and I LOVE photo cakes with odd photos (like an eagle) and we’ll order them for our office on random days. The next one we’re planning is a photo of the cake scene from Office Space. Grocery stores do photo cakes if you don’t want to DIY (after taking 16 weeks of Wilton cake decorating classes I’ve made….two cakes in the last 10 years).

    • LOL–I LOVE the idea of random, fun photo cakes!!

  72. lydia says...

    joanna!! his shoes 😂😂😂

    • Joanna Goddard says...

      haha yes!

  73. courtney says...

    First of all, this is adorable. Second, Toby may be too young now, but I feel like he’s gonna love old movies like “Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry” and “Two Lane Blacktop” when he gets older (considering his fondness for cars).

  74. Rachel says...

    I love finding unusual or child-like cake ideas for my husband’s birthday, and this totally fits the bill :) Thanks for the inspiration!

  75. Janet Higgs says...

    My daughters did this for me on my 60th birthday. They had chosen a picture of me when I was in my 20s. The cake was a big hit with everyone, especially me. 💕

  76. Jenny says...

    The chain supermarkets in Colorado (King Sooper / Kroger / Safeway) do this, too. You visit the bakery dept with the photo you want replicated, tell them what kind of cake and frosting you want, denote what you want written on it, and: voila. Think it’s in the $10-$20 range, depending on the size you want. But love that you got to make the cake yourself, even better. Well-played!

  77. Randi says...

    I love going old school for birthdays! I think I may have to use this for my next kids birthday — it’ll be hard to wait until October! Also, I love the mismatched shoes, my 5 year old is currently obsessed with mismatched crocs:)

  78. Nicole says...

    Such a fun idea! & can I just say, I LOVE the fact that the photo is crooked & off-center :) It just adds to the sweetness!

    • Lisa says...

      Agree!

  79. This is adorable!! We’ve never done one of these, but I could definitely see doing it for high school graduations and including a picture from kindergarten!

  80. Lori says...

    That is a very cute idea! Is Toby wearing 2 different shoes in the photo? Happy Birthday to you Toby!!!

  81. Tracy says...

    And he’s wearing two different sneakers! Too stinkin’ cute.

    • That might be the cutest part–besides that little face! ;)

  82. Anna says...

    I’m dying. Toby, you rock.

  83. Laura C says...

    What a fun throw back! I remember my grandparents’ 50th wedding anniversary– we had a photo cake of their wedding day. I still cherish the memory of all the grandkids choosing which part of their photo we wanted to eat. Such sweet memories for Toby!

  84. agnes says...

    I had never seen that before. Honesty, how do they do it? I really can’t understand (a printer with edible ink? and edible paper?). Crazy!! <3
    I have to google it.