10 Tips & Tools for Baking Beautiful, Delicious Cakes
In the spring of 2008 I went to visit my sister for spring break. While I was out there, her roommate Melissa wanted to try making fondant and decorating cakes. My first cake was the egg pictured below.
When my brother and his fiance (now wife) saw the picture, they asked me to make their wedding cake. I made a few practice cakes, then their wedding cake, and since then, have made dozens of cakes for friends and family. With every cake I make, I feel like I learn something new, so I wanted to share with you what I have learned over the past few years. For this list, I am going to focus on baking and getting the cakes ready, not decorating, cakes. Here are my top 10 tips & tools for baking beautiful, delicious cakes.
Find a great recipe, and adjust for different flavors. I live in Colorado, and the elevation and arid climate lead to tricky baking situations. I use this basic recipe for almost all of my cakes: 1 box cake mix, 1 box instant vanilla pudding, 1/3 cup oil, 1/3 cup water, 5 eggs, 1 cup sour cream, 1 tablespoon vanilla. I change the pudding and cake box flavors depending on the flavor of cake I want. I also add other flavors of extract, and additions to change the flavor (ex. poppy seeds or coconut). For white cakes, I adjust the eggs to more egg whites. This recipe always comes out delicious, and moist. Another important aspect of this is that this makes a dense cake, so I can decorate with fondant without worry that it won't hold up to the extra weight.
Do NOT overmix. I found that overmixing batter leads to weird waves in your cakes. I have had several cakes come out of the oven looking like someone pushed the batter from one side, across the entire cake, and over the edge of the pan, dripping and burning down the side. You should mix your cake batter so that all ingredients are incorporated, but nothing more.
Use quality pans. I like aluminum pans (that are light in color). The lighter color helps the edges to not cook faster or darker. I also like pans that do not have sloped edges. If your pans can easily nest in one another (but they are supposed to be the same size) they have sloped sides. My pans also do not have seams. I treat my pans with care so they do not get damaged in the dishwasher or dented in the cupboard.
Baker's Spray or Pam for Baking. I heart this so much. No flouring or greasing necessary. No dealing with extra flour making a mess. No dealing with paper towels and greasy fingers. Wondering if you covered it enough. This sprays on in seconds and completely covers the pan. I haven't ever had a problem with the Baker's Spray and my favorite recipe.
Use Cakestrips. These are your best friend. Have you even noticed that most cakes come out of the oven with a dome shape to the top? This is because the outside, due to bakes faster than the inside of the cake. Cake strips are about 2 inches wide, and vary in length. They have plain muslin on one side, and reflective metallic fabric on the other. You can buy them from Hobby Lobby, Joann Fabric, or Michaels. It would be easy to make them, but with a 40% off coupon, who would want to make them? When you drench the cake strips with cold water and wrap them around a pan, they keep the pan cool longer, and your cakes come out nearly completely flat. This will save you lots of cake scraps when you level the cakes.
Leave the cakes alone. Don't open and shut the oven door a bunch of times, or bump the cakes when they are baking. If you bump them enough, you will pop the bubbles that are created while baking, and the center of your cake will fall--leaving you with a dense crater instead of a delicious, airy cake. Also, opening the oven door lets out the heat, so you do not have a consistent heat, and that affects baking time as well.
Cool for 10 minutes in the pan, then flip onto cooling racks and cool completely. I like to remove the cakes from the oven when a couple crumbs stick to the toothpick but are not gooey. I know that the cake isn't completely done, but I also know that the heat will continue to cook the cake for several minutes out of the oven. I like to give the cake a few minutes to finish cooking, and shrink. When the air cools down, it condenses, and the bubbles that make the cake so delightfully fluffy decrease in size; this makes the cake pull away from the sides of the pan, and make it easier to remove. Once ten minutes have passed, I flip the cakes over and thanks to my baking spray (see #4) the cakes slide right out of the pan. Then make sure you cool your cakes completely before trying to cut or move them--they are sturdier when cool.
Level your cakes. This makes a huge difference when you fill and frost your cakes--especially if you are stacking them. The cakestrips will help make the cakes level, but sometimes they don't solve all your problems (if you are like me, and switch cakes sizes, so you over fill your pans--oops!). You can level your cakes with a large knife, or a leveller. I am not talented enough to level cakes with a large knife (I carve and carve until there is nothing left). I bought my Wilton leveler at the craft store, and they now make a leveler that folds in half for easy storage. A leveler can also help, so your cakes are all an even width. I am totally type "A" and love things to be even.
Leveler cutting the tops off cakes.
What is stacking? There are two types of stacking: stacking layers, and stacking tiers. Stacking layers of the cake refers to stacking multiple levels of the same size/shape cake into one larger cake tier. Stacking tiers of cake refers to stacking multiple cakes of various shapes/sizes into a larger cake.
When stacking cake layers, you want to create a seamless look on the edge. Even with a leveler, sometimes, the cake layers don't come out completely even. When I cut a cake in half to create two layers, I mark the edge with food coloring in multiple spot to ensure that I can stack the cake together for the most even layers (if one side is cut slightly higher than the other, I wouldn't want the cakes to turn and stack the two largest sides on the same edge--creating an even larger difference). You can use whatever filling you like when stacking multiple layers, but create a dam around the edge of the cake to prevent the filling from spilling out. (See my Almond Joy Cake Tutorial for more information and a picture of a dam)
When stacking tiers of cake, you need to use some stabilizers. My three favorites are cardboard, straws, and frosting. I use the cardboard to separate each layer, and create a base for each tier; simply cut the cardboard to the size of the cake, and glue the cake to the cardboard with frosting. I push four straws into each tier that will have a cake on top of it. Space the straws apart in a slightly smaller pattern than the next tier, then cut them so they are level with the cake top. Smear some frosting on the top center of the cake to glue the stacker tier down.
What about freezing? Cakes actually freeze really well. I freeze cakes sometimes, but not always. I usually freeze cakes because I don't have time to bake and decorate the same day of the party. I have frozen cakes for an entire week (frosted and unfrosted), with no noticable difference in texture or flavor. When I freeze cake, I wrap it in two layers of plastic wrap (I know this sounds a little wasteful, but this prevents other flavors from creeping into the cake). Although I have never tested how long it takes to thaw, I always take out the cake to decorate several hours before the party. The other reason you may want to freeze a cake is for frosting purposes. A frozen cake is usually easier to frost because of less crumbs pulling off into the frosting.
Thanks for visiting! Come back later this week for details on decorating cakes.