The TOP 10 Best Baking Tips for Layer Cakes

If you are going to turn your oven on this summer, then it better be for something tasty.  Baking a cake from scratch is an investment of time, energy, cost of ingredients, and even our own sanity at times, but the end result is usually worth it.  Right?  Well, to help ensure that every cake baking adventure end in success, I'm sharing my Top 10 Best Baking Tips for cakes.

The TOP 10 Best Baking Tips for Layer Cakes.

My Top 10 List for Cake Baking Success:

10.  Read Through the Entire Recipe Before Getting Started + Mise en Place
Reading the directions might be an obvious start, but understanding the steps and order of the ingredients can sometimes be undervalued and quickly brushed over.  Some recipes call for components that need plenty of time to rest/chill/cool, so be mindful when scheduling your baking sessions.  You’d hate to have a cake all ready to go only to find out that the ganache needs to be chilled for at least 4 hours before being whipped into frosting.  Likewise, some recipes, like caramel sauce, come together in a hurry, so it is best to be prepared and understand the process to keep stress and panic at bay.  In addition to reading and understanding the recipe, I recommend practicing Mise en Place or “putting in place.”  Having all of your ingredients pre-measured not only helps things move smoothly and stay organized, but it also lets you know if you are missing something.  Have you ever pre-heated the oven and started creaming your butter and sugar just to realize you are short an egg or cup of milk? Yup, I've been there, so don’t let that happen to you.

The TOP 10 Best Baking Tips for Layer Cakes.

9.  Be Mindful of the Temperature of Your Ingredients
Similar to having ingredients pre-measured, the ingredients should be the correct temperature before getting started as well.  You will find the temperature when you read over the recipe (see #10).  Why does temperature matter?  Using room temperature butter, eggs, and dairy will create a more homogenous, smooth cake batter.  Butter needs to be softened in order to cream with sugar properly (see #2) and combine with butter or meringue to create luscious frostings.  In other recipes like pie dough, butter must be very cold in order to for it to stay “chunky” and not totally combine with the flour.  This way, when the pie dough hits the oven, the butter melts, steams, and creates air pockets as it bakes, resulting in tender, flakey crusts.

8.  Be Mindful of the ACTUAL Temperature of Your Oven
Speaking of temperature, get to know the ACTUAL temperature of your oven.  Unless your oven is calibrated often or you just happen to have the best oven ever (we are all super jealous), then there is a good chance that the temperature gauge on the outside does not accurately reflect what’s really going on inside.  For me, my oven runs ridiculously cold and takes forever to pre-heat.  How do I know this?  I keep an internal thermometer in my oven at all times and adjust accordingly.  My thermometer is nothing fancy - something I quickly picked up just at the grocery store when we moved.  My last oven was an inferno!  Your oven might also have hot/cold spots, so it’s wise to get to know it.  Either adjust the temperature dial or bake times to fit your needs.

The TOP 10 Best Baking Tips for Layer Cakes.

7.  Properly Prepare Your Cake Pans
Is there anything worse than preparing a cake from scratch, patiently waiting for it to bake and cool, then being so frustrated because you can’t get the cake out of the pan?  Heartbreaking, I tell you.  I’ve been there too many times myself.  A good cake recipe will tell you how to properly prepare your pans, but I usually stick to grease and flour with most of my butter cakes.  Using either baking spray, butter, or vegetable oil and a pastry brush, coat the inside of your baking pan.  Add a few tablespoons of flour and shake around until the bottom and sides of the pan are covered.  Turn the pan upside down and tap out the excess.  Some cake recipes call for uncreased pans (like Angel food cake), but when in doubt, just line the bottom with parchment!

6.  Checking for Doneness Beyond the Clock
Since all ovens operate differently (see #8) and there are a multitude of other variables that can alter baking times, it best to know what a cake looks/feels like when it is done instead of solely relying on the clock.  For most layer cakes and cupcakes, I use the toothpick test.  Within the bake time (there should still be a window given), insert a toothpick or wooden skewer into the center of the cake.  If it comes out clean or with just a few crumbs, then the cake/cupcake is typically done baking.  Here are a few other clues to looks for to indicate that a cake is done:  A yellow or butter cake should be slightly browned on top when done; a sponge cake should spring back if gently pressed with a fingertip; the sides of the cake will start to pull away from the sides of the pan.
 

The TOP 10 Best Baking Tips for Layer Cakes.

5.  Completely Cool Before Cutting
Want to know a secret for creating perfectly smooth frosting and even cake layers?  Never frost or cut a cake that isn’t completely cool!  I know how tempting a warm cake fresh from the oven can be, but trying to cut a warm cake may result in tears, cracks, and lots of crumbs.  Try to ice it too soon?  The heat from a warm cake can even melt the frosting right off the top.  So, have some patience, my dears!  And if you have the time, chill the cake wrapped well in plastic for even fewer crumbs and an easier cake-cutting experience.  In the fridge, the cake will firm up a bit, making it a little sturdier to slice!

4.  Use the Correct Consistency for Frosting Success
You might see a range of confectioner’s sugar and milk/cream in recipes for American Buttercream and fudge frosting.  Why, you ask?  For one, everyone’s room temperature butter may be a different temperature - making some frosting firmer or softer.  Second, a person’s desired consistency may very.  While some might like their cream cheese frosting super thick and others might want to keep it less sweet, be mindful of the consistency when trying to fill and frost a cake.  As you can imagine, a too runny frosting will slip and slide out from between the layers and down the edge of the cake, while a too stiff frosting will be difficult to spread and may cause the cake to tear and crumble.  So what do you look for?  With meringue-based buttercream, I look for thick, mayonnaise texture (just keep beating until you get there).  Ganache usually works as soon at is spreadable and stays on the offset spatula when you go to apply it, like a really soft peanut butter.  For American buttercream, I like to really whip it to add in some air to make it nice and fluffy.  I like it soft, airy, not to sweet, and not at all runny.

The TOP 10 Best Baking Tips for Layer Cakes.

3.  Know When to Splurge on High Quality Ingredients
I try to keep organic dairy and eggs in the house at all times for my toddler, but I understand that high quality ingredients can add up fast.  In my humble opinion, there are certain times to splurge and other times you can totally get away with generic brands.  Thankfully, my regular grocery store's cake and all-purpose flour is even more awesome than anything I can find at a specialty store and Costco sugar bakes up wonderfully.  As a rule of thumb, I tend to splurge on unbaked items (think real vanilla bean in buttercream and high quality chocolate and cocoa in fudge frosting) where the flavours will really shine and keep conservative when I know some of the flavours will be baked away or muted by buttercream.  Plain but pure vanilla extract is always good idea in my book when it comes to chocolate or red velvet cake, but if you want a superior butter cake, go for the bean!  Likewise a culinary-grade matcha is just fine for being baked in a cake compared to premium brands used for sipping.  There’s usually no need to splurge on spices, just make sure they are fresh!

2.  Understand that Cream is More Than Just a Dairy Product
In my humble opinion, one of the most important steps to making a tender cake is in the cream.  Not the dairy product, but the act of mixing butter with sugar!  This step is usually first or second when it comes to baking a butter cake and shouldn’t be ignored, rushed, or skimped.  Using an electric mixer, beat softened butter with sugar until it is fluffy and pale in color.  This usually takes about 3 to 5 minutes.  During this process, the sugar granules cut into the butter to incorporate small pockets of air.  The friction helps the sugar start dissolving and the butter to soften even more.  Creamed butter and sugar distribute throughout the batter more evenly for a smooth batter.  Most importantly, the batter is more aerated and provides lift resulting in a tender crumb. Lastly, once you move on and add the next ingredient, you can’t go back, so be sure not to rush!

1.  Respect but Don’t Fear the Science Part of Baking
Baking doesn’t have to be scary, but there must be some amount of order and organization.  Unlike cooking, where recipes are likely more flexible and tossing in different ingredients now and then is more forgiving, there is some science involved with baking.  Too much sugar and your cake may crumble, not enough and it won’t be tender.  Likewise, things like flour are responsible for structure, but too much gluten formation will result in tough, dry baked goods.  That being said, respect but don’t fear the science part.  Once you begin to understand how different ingredients behave and what doughs/batters are supposed to look/feel/smell like, you start to figure out where you need to stick straight to the recipe and where you can change things up.  Cake recipes typically follow a ratio of ingredients (I like this explanation), but you can push those limits and change things up a bit.  Push too far, and you might have a baking flop, but keep within a certain distance and you can start to adapt a recipe to your own personal liking.  

If you have any other tips or tricks of your own, please be sure to share in the comments below!

How to Make a Ruffle Cake

Delicate waves and intricate ruffles simply made from buttercream icing!

How to Make a Ruffle Cake

Hi All!  Thank you so much for all of the kind words regarding last week’s cake.  I hope the gluten-free part didn’t scare too many of you away, but also inspired those that are gluten intolerant to bake beautiful things.  Also, I am super relieved that you all seemed to like the new blue backdrop.  It’s not something I plan to use everyday, but glad to have something fun and a little out of my comfort zone to spice things up every now and then.  But what you really seemed to be excited about is the delicate wave/ruffle piping.  As promised, I will be sharing how to do it yourself!

How to Make a Ruffle Cake

I love experimenting with buttercream every change I get.  When I first started my career working with cake back in 2007, it was all about fondant and novelty cakes.  I found the most joy either spending hours on delicate sugar flowers or making a cake that looked like other food – a hamburger cake or a donut, perhaps.  Trends come and go, and I am so glad to see that buttercream has made a definite comeback and seems to be here to stay. 

I personally made the transition from fondant back to buttercream after I closed my bakery and moved to Vancouver.  I was no longer making wedding cakes and didn’t have room in our city apartment to keep all the tools and supplies needed for those types of cakes.  Plus, I had nobody to eat or order them.  I started gravitating towards interesting flavour pairings and buttercream textures because those were the types of layer cakes that I wanted to eat myself and ones that you home bakers would appreciate the most.

I feel pretty nerdy and so pretentious saying that cake decorating is an art form and buttercream is my medium of choice, but it’s true!  As a child and into my twenties, I used dance as my creative outlet.  Now I use sugar and butter.  Using just an offset spatula and various piping tips, it’s fun and challenging to come up with new textures.  This delicate wave/ruffle pattern just happens to be one of my new favourite designs.

About 5 years ago I made a very similar design, except it was made purely from fondant.  Each wave was ruffled by hand and then gilded with a bit of edible gold paint on the delicate edges.   It took forever.  By the time all the ruffles were added, the fondant had dried and hardened.  It was gorgeous, but you’d have to pick off all of that hard work just to get to the yummy cake inside – essential making it a time-consuming decoration and not necessarily an edible garnish.

Today’s version is so much tastier and takes only about 10 to 15 minutes.  No, seriously!  Once your cake is crumb coated and your buttercream already whipped, the piping is quite simple and fast.  Plus, the organic-ness of it all means that your waves don’t have to be perfect.  In fact, embrace the imperfection!

How to Make a Ruffle Cake
How to Make a Ruffle Cake

How to Make a Ruffle Cake

1.     Place the cake on a cake board of the same size.  Fill, stack, and crumb coat your cake in buttercream icing.  You do not have to fully ice the cake, but the crumb coat should be thick enough that the cake layers do not show through.  Finish off the top of the cake as normal.

2.     Fit a piping bag with a petal tip (I used #103 on this 6-inch round cake) and fill with buttercream.

3.     (optional) Place the cake board (and cake) on top of an upside-down bowl so that it elevates the bottom of the cake.

4.     Hold the piping bag parallel to the side of the cake, keeping the wide end of the piping tip towards the cake – slightly touching the crumb coat.

5.     Keeping consistent pressure, start piping ruffles from the bottom of the cake to the top.  Create long, curvy waves as well as short ruffles for more interest.  Stop pressure before pulling the piping bag away at the top.  Repeat.

6.     Continue around the cake – sometimes following the curves of the previous wave and sometimes mixing it up.  I prefer the ruffles to be fairly close together for a delicate look.

7.     I find that the waves look more natural if the begin slightly bellow the cake – hence why I elevate it.  Once you pipe waves all the way around the cake, take an offset spatula or paring knife to gently “cut off” the bottom excess without disturbing the rest of the wave.

8.     Use an offset spatula to carefully lift the cake and place on a serving dish or cake stand.  Enjoy!

Layer Cake 101

Oh hey!  Welcome to week 2 of my Back to Basics series!  Last week we discussed cupcakes and frosting, but today we are jumping right into my favorite subject: Layer Cakes.  Endless combinations of tender cake layers, flavourful fillings, luscious frostings, and edible garnishes – layer cakes were my first true love.  While I occasionally dabble in French pastry and have been having fun experimenting with pies a lot lately, I will always be the ‘cake lady.’  Fittingly, I even wrote the book on it!

Layer Cake 101 from the author of "Layered: Baking, Building, and Styling Spectacular Cakes"

There are so many reasons why I love a good layer cake. Cake + filling + frosting almost always guarantees a delicious bite, but layer cakes mean so much more than just ingredients.  To me, a layer cake means celebration, shared memories, time spent with cherished friends and family, and the heart that goes into baking something so spectacular for a loved one.  As I say in Layered, “It is a layer cake with swooping frosting on which children blow out candles on their birthdays, that happy coulee slice into on their wedding day, an that one parades into a dinner party…”  It is a layer cake that turns an ordinary Tuesday afternoon into a special occasion.  It is a layer cake that turns heads and elicits “oohs” and “awwws” at any party.  It is a layer cake that you will spend countless hours baking up in the kitchen, meticulously frosting its layers, just to make its lucky recipient smile and feel loved.  Want to show someone how much you care about them?  Make them a layer cake!

What I also love about layer cakes is how personal they can be.  When made with that special person in mind, they are very customizable and lets us play around with different flavours in order to make something unique and just for them.  For example, when I make a birthday cake for my husband, I always try to include his love for peanut butter, caramel, and chocolate but when I bake a cake for my mom, it’s more about almond, meringue, and tropical flavours.  When you make a layer cake for (or with!) someone, not only is it made by hand and from the heart, it is a chance to use all of their favorite flavours!  

Layer Cake 101 from the author of "Layered: Baking, Building, and Styling Spectacular Cakes"

But what makes a good layer cake, you might ask?  To me, it is all about balance.  It is about the ratio of cake to frosting/filling, different levels of sweetness, and a mix of texture. If filled with buttercream, I personally strive for cake layers that are twice as thick as the filling (ideally with cake layers that are about 1 inch tall and filling about 1/2 inch thick).  However, this equation doesn’t work for everything.  A rich ganache filling or sweet raspberry jam can usually be enjoyed in smaller doses.  In such cases when I have a super sweet or overly rich filling, I like to halve the cake layers (horizontally) to create more, thinner layers of cake and spread them each with a thin layer of the sweet and/or rich filling.  Make sense?  Of course this is all based on personal preference and my opinion of a great layer cake might be completely different than yours.  

Layer Cake 101 from the author of "Layered: Baking, Building, and Styling Spectacular Cakes"

Once thing that we can all probably agree on is that whether fluffy or dense, the cake itself should be moist and flavourful.  Slather those layers in fluffy fudge, satiny ganache, or silky buttercream and we are in business.  I like to play texture, too.  Decorating with crispy chocolate pearls, a handful of sprinkles or coarse sanding sugar, toasted coconut flakes, and chopped nuts add a bit of crunch to each bite.  Other edible decorations may include candied citrus, fresh berries, cute meringue kisses, abstract chocolate bark, chocolate curls, and even spun sugar. 

Speaking of cake decor, here are some of my favorite ways to make yummy layer cakes appear just as gorgeous as they taste:

Layer Cake 101 from the author of "Layered: Baking, Building, and Styling Spectacular Cakes"
Layer Cake 101 from the author of "Layered: Baking, Building, and Styling Spectacular Cakes"

My TOP TOOLS for Layer Cake Success:

Cake Pans:  I bake 90% of my cakes in 6 and 8-inch round cake pans (and consequently the recipes you will find on this blog and in my book will match).  Occasionally I will use 7 and 10-inch round pans, bundt and, and sheet pans (where cakes are either cut into squares or cut out using a cake ring).  Most cake recipes will call for pans that are at least 2-inch tall.  I have a combination of Wilton, Fat Daddio, and Williams-Sonoma brand pans that I’ve been using since my bakery days.

Candy Thermometer:  Now that I’ve switched from Italian to Swiss Meringue buttercream as my go-to frosting, I usually just use my finger to test instead of using a candy thermometer, but I don’t recommend this for those just starting out (and also, ouch! if it’s too hot!).  I used to have a super-fancy candy thermometer, but could not for the life of me figure out why all my caramels were burning… It was broken.  I’ve since gone back to my $6 Safeway candy thermometer.  At that price, I centrally recommend picking one up to help with buttercreams, caramels, and curds.

Electric Stand Mixer:  A Kitchen Aid stand mixer is such a luxury.  I have two duelling mixers leftover from my bakery days, and honestly don’t know what I would do without them.  Of course, mixing by hand (or with a hand mixer) is completely do-able, but I love the speed and efficiently an electric mixer provides.  They are certainly a costly purchase, but a great investment if you a bake a ton.  My two mixers are each about 9 years old, were treated like workhorses during multiple wedding seasons, and survived all the recipe testing for my book.

Icing Smoother or Bench Scraper:  A nice, straight edge with a 90-degree base is my best way for achieving smooth, straight sides and crisp top corners on my layer cakes.  If you can find one, I like an icing smoother with teeth on the opposite side that acts as an icing comb too!

Long Serrated Knife:  Want perfectly stackable cakes?  Make sure to trim off the dome that occasionally bakes up on the top of your cakes.  Use a long serrated knife to trim and torte cakes for perfect layers.

OffSet Spatulas:  My small offset spatula just might be my most-used tool in my entire kitchen.  From spreading filling and cleaning up top edges, I am constantly reaching for my offset spatulas.  Besides applying icing, I find myself using offset spatulas to create different textures in the buttered, lifting cakes off the turntable, and frosting “homemade” looking cupcakes.

Layer Cake 101 from the author of "Layered: Baking, Building, and Styling Spectacular Cakes"

Oven Thermometer:  As mentioned in my TOP 10 baking tips on Day 1, a grocery-store oven thermometer takes all of the guess work out of trying to figure out what the actual temperature of your oven is.  Too hot, and your cake may burn or crack - too cold and it can collapse.

Pastry Bags and Piping Tips:  You all know I love a frilly cake.  From ruffles and rosettes to basic writing, a small set of piping tips is fairly cheep with big impact.  I have a few big canvas piping bags for frosting dozens of cupcakes, but also keep disposable ones for smaller and messier tasks.

Rotating Cake Turntable:  Another beloved piece of equipment!  If you make a lot of cakes, then I definitely recommend a rotating cake turntable for icing cakes.  If you can, then invest in a metal one.  I find the plastic ones to be cumbersome and not very effective.  Of course the metal ones are more expensive, but I’ve had mine for nearly a decade and its still works great (I love Ateco brand - sometimes found at Williams-Sonoma.)

Rubber, Heat-Safe Spatulas:  I once worked at a bakery where the pastry chefs used a lot of large metal spoons to stir and mix things, but I never liked it.  Instead, I have a drawer stuffed with about a half-dozen rubber spatulas.  I like them soooo much better.  I recommend finding silicone, heat-safe ones that you can use on the stovetop.

Other helpful gadgets include: icing sifter, a variety of whisks, vegetable peeler (for peeling and making chocolate curls!), microplane zester, and a kitchen scale. 

Layer Cake 101 from the author of "Layered: Baking, Building, and Styling Spectacular Cakes"

Last summer, I put together a step-by-step tutorial for How to Frost a Layer Cake.  If you are new to making layer cakes, I definitely recommend starting here.  As mentioned in the my top tools, be sure to trim and torte your cakes (make sure they are completely cool!!) with a long, serrated knife for even, level layers.  All my other cake-stacking tips and frosting tricks can be found in this post.

Ready to take things up a notch?  Learn how to stack a cake here for any large celebration or DIY wedding!

Image by Tessa Huff for Brit.co

Image by Tessa Huff for Brit.co

Some classic layer cakes are simple and straightforward (like tomorrow’s Red Velvet Cake) and only require one cake recipe and one filling/frosting recipe.  Others call for multiple components, sauce, syrups, and garnishes.  Unless you have the luxury of blocking off an entire day to make everything and assemble the cake, then I’d definitely suggest making parts of the cake in advanced.  Most cake layers can be baked and stored for up to about 3 days, and even frozen up to a few months.  Wrap the cakes in a double-layer of plastic wrap.  Most cakes may be left out overnight, but chilling them in the refrigerator will make them easier to cut and stack.  However, chilling butter-based cakes will make them seem dense and firm.  Be sure to allow for an efficient enough time to let the chilled cakes to completely come to room temperature before serving.  This is important when considering a frosted (and chilled) cake too - nobody wants a mouthful of solid buttercream or hardened ganache!  Oil-based cakes (like carrot or some chocolate) will stay tender even when chilled, but still consider the frosting aspect when storing and serving.  Buttercream can be made in advanced and stored in the refrigerator for up to about 10 days. Be sure to bring it to room temperature before re-whipping.  Likewise, caramel and ganache can both last in the fridge for a couple of weeks, but will need to be re-heated before use.  Depending on the sugar and chocolate involved with edible garnishes, storage can be specific and tricky.  Make sure that humidity isn’t going to be a factor and read the directions for each element.  

 

Lastly, be sure to check out this serving chat I illustrated for you all!  Be sure to tune back in tomorrow where I will be sharing some classic layer cake combos, newer flavor pairings, and a recipe for Red Velvet Cake with Cream Cheese Frosting.

And don’t forget to enter the giveaway!  Winners will be announced on Friday: