7 Best Layer Cakes Tips & Tricks
If you are going to turn your oven on this winter, 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 favorite baking tips for cakes.
1. Understand that cream is more than just a dairy product
In my humble opinion, one of the most important steps in making a tender cake is in the cream. Not the dairy product, but the mixture of butter and sugar! This step usually comes first or second when it comes to making a butter cake and shouldn't be ignored, rushed or skipped. Using an electric mixer, beat the softened butter with the sugar until it's fluffy and light in color. This usually takes about 3 to 5 minutes. During this process, the sugar granules cut into the butter, creating small air bubbles. The friction helps dissolve the sugar and softens the butter even more. The frothed butter and sugar distribute more evenly throughout the dough, making for a smoother dough. Most importantly, the dough is better aerated and gets more rise, resulting in a tender crumb. And finally, once you start adding the next ingredient, you can't go back
2. Know when to spend money on quality ingredients
I try to always have organic dairy products and organic eggs in the house for my toddler, but I know that high-quality ingredients can add up quickly. In my humble opinion, you should spend a little more at certain times, and at other times you can definitely go with name brand products. Fortunately, the cake flour and all-purpose flour at my regular grocery store is even better than anything I can find at a specialty store, and the sugar from Costco bakes up beautifully. As a rule of thumb, I tend to skimp on unbaked items (such as real vanilla beans in the buttercream and high-quality chocolate and cocoa in the caramel frosting) where the flavors really come through, knowing that some of the flavors will be baked away or muted by the buttercream. Plain but pure vanilla extract is always a good idea in my eyes when it comes to chocolate or red velvet cakes, but if you want a premium butter cake, go for the bean! Likewise, culinary grade matcha is just fine for baking a cake, as opposed to premium brands used for consumption. You usually don't have to spend a lot of money on spices, just make sure they're fresh!
3. Use the right consistency for a successful frosting
In American Buttercream and Fudge Frosting recipes, you may see a number of confectioners' sugar and milk/cream. Why, you ask? For one, everyone's butter can be at a different room temperature, making some frostings firmer or softer. Second, the consistency you want can vary greatly. While some like their cream cheese frosting very thick and others like it less sweet, you should pay attention to consistency when filling and frosting a cake. You can imagine that a frosting that is too runny will slip out between layers and around the edge of the cake, while a frosting that is too stiff will be difficult to spread and may cause the cake to crack and crumble. So what should you watch out for? For meringue-based buttercream, I look for a thick mayonnaise texture (just keep whipping until you reach it). Ganache usually works once it's spreadable and stays on the spatula when spread, like a really soft peanut butter. With American buttercream, I like to whip it up to add a little air to make it nice and fluffy. I like it soft, airy, not too sweet and not runny at all.
4. Let cool completely before cutting
Do you know a secret to perfectly smooth frosting and even cake layers? Never cut a cake that hasn't cooled completely! I know how tempting a warm cake fresh out of the oven can be, but trying to cut a warm cake can result in cracks, crazing and lots of crumbs. Trying to frost it too early? The heat from a warm cake can even melt the frosting off the surface. So have a little patience, my dears! And if you have the time, put the cake in the fridge wrapped well in plastic to have even less crumbs and make it easier to cut the cake. The cake will firm up a bit in the fridge, making it easier to cut!
5. Checking the degree of cooking by the clock
Since all ovens work differently and there are a variety of other variables that can change the baking time, it's best to know what a cake will look and feel like when it's done rather than just relying on the clock. For most layer cakes and cupcakes, I use the toothpick test. Within the baking time (there should still be a window of time indicated), insert a toothpick or wooden skewer into the center of the cake. If it comes out clean or with only a few crumbs, the cake/cupcake is usually done baking. There are a few other clues that a cake is done: a yellow cake or butter cake should be lightly browned on top when done; a sponge cake should spring back when pressed lightly with your fingertip; the edges of the cake are starting to come away from the sides of the pan.
6. 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!
7. 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.