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Into every life a little cake must fall. Some day you will be called upon to make cake: a birthday cake for a friend or loved one, cupcakes for your kid’s class, or cake for some other special occasion. Bakeries and TV shows make cake-making seem like an impossibly difficult task requiring years of culinary training to master. No doubt, one can incorporate a lot of artistry and training into making big, complicated, intricate cake designs.

But you don’t have to. You can make yummy, tasty, moist cake that people will happily devour at home. It’s really not that hard.

Cake is technically a “quick bread”: it uses egg as its primary leavener to give it rise. The flour used in cake (known as “cake flour”) has very little gluten so it bakes up soft, light and fluffy compared to bread. As with most breads, a challenge is determining when it’s baked all the way through, so that it’s neither undercooked (a “soggy bottom”) nor overcooked (dry and tough).

Here’s the dirty secret of cake making: you can make a cake from a store-bought box mix that is almost as good as one made from scratch. I do both; most of the time people can’t tell the difference. What makes cake come out well is more about the process of making and baking it than the quality of the ingredients. And the process isn’t difficult and doesn’t involve learning a bunch of skills; it’s just knowing things to do — and things not to do.

There are six key principles for making cake that together make an enormous difference in the outcome.

  1. Preheat your oven. Make sure that your oven is fully preheated to the right temperature before you stick pans of cake batter into it. Don’t trust the built-in thermostat in your oven; it’s probably wrong. Go out and buy an oven thermometer (mercury or digital; not dial), stick it in your oven, and make sure it’s heating to the right temperature. Also, after it reaches that temperature let the oven pre-heat for another ten minutes so that the walls of your oven fully reach that temperature too; that will make the oven temperature much more stable and resilient to opening the door.
  2. Sift the dry ingredients. Breaking up any clumps will help to ensure everything mixes thoroughly and consistently. If you sift a box mix through a strainer, you will also inevitably discover that there are some other “ingredients” in the mix that are unrecognizable and should be thrown away.
  3. Bring all of the ingredients to room temperature before beginning to assemble the cake batter. That includes the eggs. This ensures that when your batter goes into the oven, you know what temperature it’s starting at: room temperature. And it will help you to accurately judge how long it will need to bake.
  4. Mix the dry ingredients together, then mix the wet ingredients together, then combine them and mix thoroughly. This is a best practice that professional cooks all learn. It’s easy to ensure that a bunch of dry ingredients are all well mixed together; same for a bunch of wet ingredients. But once you start combining the wet and dry ingredients together, it becomes very difficult to ensure that anything else you add gets fully distributed throughout the batter — and especially so for eggs. Mixing the dry and wet ingredients separately then combining them allows you to have consistency in your batter.
  5. Bake the cake until it’s done. You can largely ignore the baking time on a box of cake mix; it was written to ensure that you don’t under-cook your cake, in order to eliminate the risk of food-borne disease, but it pretty much guarantees that you will overbake it and end up with dry, unappealing cake. There is a simple way to tell whether your cake is done: tap the top. If it springs back, it’s done. If it leaves an indentation, it needs to cook more. Start checking your cake five minutes before the minimum time on the recipe, and every two minutes after that until it’s done. My experience is that if your oven is properly preheated, your cake will be done in less than the minimum cooking time on the recipe.

6. After baking, let the cake cool completely — all the way to room temperature — before you do anything else to it. Warm cake is extremely fragile; it will fall apart, tear, shed crumbs, and just generally be prone to mishaps until it fully cools. Don’t rush this part; it’s really important.

Leveling a cake

If you’re making a multi-layer cake, then you’re painfully aware that cake bakes up into a dome on top, making it impossible to simply stack layers up. And if your oven heats unevenly, it can rise higher on one side. This happens to professional bakers too. In order to make a layer cake, you need to “level” each layer so that it’s an even height across the entire top. The easiest way to do this (at least for circular cakes) is by using a turntable and a long cerrated knife (a bread or carving knife works well).

Place the cake layer on the turntable. Hold the knife horizontally, blade pointed in, at the edge of the cake and at the height where you want to level it off. Start slowly spinning the turntable while you work the knife inward, cutting off the top from the outside (all the way around) in. This approach makes it much easier to ensure that it’s cut at a consistent height all the way across. It will probably take about ten full spins to completely cut the dome off the top (if it takes less you’re probably cutting too fast and are risking tearing it). When it’s fully cut off, simply lift the top off and set it aside. (note: eating cake scraps is one of the true joys of cake-making).

Frosting a cake

Here’s another dirty secret: a cake is pretty ugly (but still tasty) until just before it’s done being decorated. Cakes have plenty of small imperfections, and a major, unspoken goal of cake decoration is to apply multiple methods to hide all of those imperfections.

Bare cake looks pretty unappetizing, sort of like an edible bath sponge. That’s why we cover it entirely in icing or frosting. But bare cake can also be difficult to frost, because it pulls apart, tears, and sheds crumbs that get stuck in the frosting. To manage that, cake-makers begin by applying a “crumb layer”: a thin layer of frosting that seals in and protects the cake while we frost it. Using an offset spatula, cover the top and sides of each layer with a thin layer of frosting; it will have some crumbs stuck in it, but it doesn’t matter, because the crumb layer will be entirely covered up later by another layer of frosting. Once the crumb layer is applied, put the cake in the refrigerator or freezer for 10 minutes; that will solidify the crumb layer frosting so that we can easily frost over it, without fear of tearing the cake or shedding any more crumbs.

Once the crumb layers have solidified, we can start assembling the cake. Apply an even layer of frosting to the top of the lower layer, and then place the second layer on top of it, adjusting it to ensure that they are aligned and the top is level. Repeat this with any additional layers.

Frost the sides before the top of the cake. First, use a small offset spatula to fill in any gaps on the sides between layers with frosting. Then cover the sides: put a blob of frosting on top at the edge, and use the offset spatula to push it over the edge and down the side (this works much better than trying to stick a blob directly on the side of the cake). Cover the entire side roughly, then once it’s all covered use the side edge of the offset spatula to even it out and smooth it over.

Tip: use a separate spoon to scoop out blobs of frosting and put them on the cake. Don’t use your offset spatula — don’t ever put it into the container of frosting, because if you picked up any stray crumbs you will transfer them back into the “clean” frosting. Also, check your offset spatula frequently to see if there are cake crumbs on it; if so, wipe it clean before proceeding.

Finally, frost the top. Same approach: drop a blob of frosting on, then use the offset spatula to spread it and then even and smooth it.

At this point, the cake is basically frosted. But you will notice that the bottom edge of the cake looks ugly, and possibly the top edge as well. It’s almost impossible (without years of practice) to get the bottom edge of a frosted cake to look nice. This is why practiced cake-makers nearly always cover it up. There are several choices for how to do this. One is to pipe additional frosting over it in some pretty design. Or you can add a ring of berries, candies, fruits, flowers, or anything else that will sufficiently cover it. Just make sure that the cake is already on the plate (or cake circle) that you plan to serve it on before you start covering up the bottom edge.

Next, do the same thing with the top edge: if it looks ugly, pipe some additional frosting on, or add other decorative items to cover it.

The rest of the cake surface is your playground. Write a message on the top. Add more decorations, particularly if there are other imperfections you’d like to hide. The only limit is your imagination. If you’re feeling self-conscious, just keep in mind that every cake has imperfections; they’re just covered up. And once you start slicing into it, the only thing people will care about is how great it is to eat (because you didn’t overbake it).

Alternatives to frosting

If you don’t want to deal with frosting, there are a couple of alternatives. One is chocolate ganache: you can simply pour it over the cake to create a lovely chocolate outer shell. Ganache will inevitably pool around the bottom of the cake: one best practice is to stick the cake into the refrigerator for 15 minutes to harden up the chocolate, then take the cake out and cut off the excess from around the bottom. At this point you have the same issue as with frosting: the bottom edge of the cake is ugly, and you should plan to cover it up with some other decorative elements. Once the ganache has cooled and hardened, it makes a great surface for further decorating.

Another alternative is fondant, which is essentially a marshmallow coating that is very common on wedding cakes; it gives a smooth, very consistent look to the outside of the cake. A word of warning: applying fondant to a cake is not for the faint of heart. It’s best to have someone demonstrate it to you before you try it yourself.

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