Walking down the cake decorating aisle can be overwhelming. I mean, how many different types of spatulas, decorating tips, pastry bags, rollers, levelers, scissors, colors, flavors, liners, or pans could you possibly need?
This set of tutorials is designed to show you how to make really nice looking cakes with a minimum of equipment. You won’t find fairy castle wedding cakes with fondant turrets and tempered chocolate butterflies here, but you will find some basic cake making techniques that make all the difference.
Today we’re starting with how to bake, level, fill, and layer a cake. Basically, you can find everything you want to know about what to do before you put the icing on.
Baking a Nice, Solid Layer
Spoiler alert: you don’t need fancy baking strips or those little baking nails or anything to make nice, even cake layers. The trick is in your recipe, and how you bake the cake. Here are a few tips that work for me.
- Embrace the box. If you’ve read my blog, you know I’m a sucker for doctored cake mixes. I’ve made doctored box mix cakes for everything from birthdays to weddings and no one has ever noticed their lovely cake started in a Duncan Hines box. I embrace the box because the cakes bake up perfectly every time. Seriously. They also taste good and have a great texture and they’re so not touchy. No eggs-MUST-be-at-room-temperature or flour-MUST-be-sifted with a doctored cake mix. So if I’ve sold you, here’s my method for doctoring a cake mix.
- Crisco + Flour. I don’t use any fancy baking release sprays or anything to grease my pan. I just put a dab of shortening on a paper towel and wipe it all over my pan. Then I put a little bit of flour in the pan and shake it around until the whole thing is coated. This is the best way to make sure your cake will release (come out of the pan without breaking).
- Drop it Like It’s Hot. Once you’ve spread your batter in the pan, drop the pan on a hard surface a few times to get rid of any air bubbles that may have mixed themselves in. This helps keep your cake from getting that rounded top, and adds to the dense moistness of the finished cake.
- Don’t Peek. While the cake is baking, don’t open the oven door. It can cause the center of the cake to fall. Kill your curiosity and go watch a movie or something. The timer will remind you when to go check.
- Slide a knife around, then wait. To keep your cake from breaking apart when you take it out, slide a knife around the outside of the pan a few times right after you take the cake out. Then, let the cake cool a little (I usually wait 15-20 minutes) before turing the pan upside down to get the cake out.
Leveling the Cake, or My Cake Did Not Bake Flat
Happens all the time, even to the pros. Thankfully, fixing this is super easy. They make cake levelers that do the job with one cut, but most folks don’t have those just lying around the kitchen. That’s okay, because I’m going to show you a trick that only uses a knife, a ruler, and some toothpicks.
Start by deciding how high you want your layer to be. I did 1″ for mine. Hold your ruler up against the cake and push a toothpick into the cake at your mark. Do this all the way around. You can put as many toothpicks as you like on – the more you put, the easier the cutting stage is!
Next is cutting. Lay a long knife (I use a bread knife) across your toothpicks. Use the toothpicks as guides to cut across the cake keeping the knife flat.
Mine doesn’t look flat because I had to put the knife down to take the picture. I usually push down on the top of the cake while cutting in order to keep my knife laying flat across the toothpicks.
Once you’ve cut across, flip the top off and enjoy your lovely flat cake layer!
Oh, and you can take the toothpicks out now.
Filling Your Layers – Yummy, Yummy Frosting!
This section is my favorite. I chose to work with a dee-licious peanut butter frosting for my filling. I had to keep reminding myself to save some for the cake!
Anyway, to fill the layers, start by mixing up some extra thick frosting to make a dam. A dam is a thick layer of frosting piped around the edge of the cake. It keeps the filling from oozing out the sides and causing your cake to collapse.
All you need to do to thicken your frosting is take about 1/2 cup of it and add around 1/4 cup of powdered sugar. It will be the consistency of very soft playdough when it’s ready.
I use some fancy cake decorating equipment here, but you can accomplish this step with a plastic sandwich bag. If you’re using cake stuff, I put a coupler (no tip) in a decorating bag, then pipe the dam along the edge of the cake. To use a plastic bag, cut the corner off the plastic bag, fill it with the thickened frosting, and pipe along the edge. Either way, you’ll end up with something like this:
Please notice how imperfect my circle is. This is perfectly okay! Cake decorating is more of an art than a science (unless you’re trying to make those fairy castle wedding cakes).
The last step in filling is to fill in the circle you piped with the remaining icing. It doesn’t need to be perfectly smooth, but you do want to fill to level with the top of your dam.
I kind of want to eat it right now – but I exercised self control so that I could show you guys the last step:
Just plop the next layer on top. Seriously. I mean, you want to make sure its centered on the first layer, but there’s kind of no pressure because you can just pick it up and move it if its not just right the first time.
If you’re making more than a two-layer cake, you’ll just keep repeating the leveling, filling, and layering for each new layer. Otherwise, you’re done. In fact, if you’re making a trendy naked cake, then you really are done!
Part 2: Getting Really Smooth Icing coming soon to a blog near you! (This one, and next week, so check back!)