Cake Decorating 101: Baking the Perfect Cake

One of the most challenging things to make in the kitchen is a cake. It seems quite simple at first. All you have to do is mix the ingredients together, pop it in the oven, then cover it with frosting. Maybe add a little bit of sprinkles or icing, and voilà, you have a cake.

However, as many of us know, there are a hundred things that could go wrong while you're baking and decorating. Just one problem and your cake is toast. For those of you who want to make that perfectly baked triple-layer cake with a beautiful rosette frosting finish, this cake-decorating series is for you.

I am not a professional baker, nor do I claim to know everything about baking cakes, but as a home cook, I have learned a lot about baking, frosting and decorating cakes over the last several years, mainly from my mother. Most of my knowledge about baking has come from trial and error, and from reading recipes and books about the science of baking.

Throughout this series, I will work my way from the beginning steps in making and decorating cakes to the more difficult skills and practices of decorating them.

To kick off this series, you have to start with the base to all beautifully designed cakes, the cake itself. Anyone who has attempted to decorate a cake knows that if your foundation is not sturdy, then your masterpiece will crumble.

First things first: You must bring all of your ingredients to the correct temperature before starting anything. I am an impatient person and want to have everything ready to go when I start making anything, but baking is a science and everything has to be exactly right, or it won't work. This means letting the butter come to room temperature to soften and ensure a smooth batter, and then allowing the eggs to come to room temperature so the batter is consistent. This will take some time (but it might go faster during the summer time), so allow yourself 30 extra minutes before you start any other steps.

Before you preheat the oven, make sure that the rack is placed in the middle position. Trust me, you don't want to find out that the rack needs to be moved after it has already reached 350 degrees.

After you position the rack correctly, preheat the oven to the correct temperature on the recipe, then prepare the cake pans. This is one of the biggest mistakes people make when baking cakes -- they don't prepare the cake pans properly and the cakes stick to the pan. It's the most discouraging and saddening thing to take the cake out of the pans and half of it is left in the pan staring at you. Now all you can make are cake balls.

To avoid this mess altogether, use a slightly softened stick of butter to cover the entire bottom and sides of each pan, then drop a generous scoop of flour in the pan so it sticks to the butter. Next, cut parchment paper into the shape of the bottom of the pans to place on top of the butter and flour. Simply trace the pan on the parchment paper, cut it out and stick into the pan. Now you have a stick-free pan to pour your cake batter into.

After you have the cake pans prepared and the ingredients are all at the right temperatures, it is time to start mixing your ingredients. Start by beating the butter and the sugar, usually granulated, until creamed. The texture will be soft, fluffy and everything will be completely blended together. Add the eggs to the mixture one at a time; you need to do this for two reasons. First, you don't want to crack multiple eggs into the same bowl because if one egg is bad, the rest of the eggs are bad. The other reason is so you can completely incorporate the egg into the butter and sugar. It makes for a smoother cake if you completely mix in the eggs one at a time.

Butter, eggs and sugar are the simple base ingredients to most cake recipes. Vanilla extract is usually added at this point, as well. For the dry ingredients, you will need to incorporate the leavening agent, salt and flour together. Depending on the recipe, you will use baking soda, baking powder, or both.

Because flour compacts when you scoop it up with the measuring cup, you need to gently scoop the flour into the measuring cup with a spoon, and then sift all of the ingredients together. Fine Cooking says that sifting is good for two reasons. The first being because it allows the flour to not take up so much volume, giving you a more accurate measure of flour. The second reason is because the leavening agent and salt gets evenly distributed with the flour. Stir the ingredients together before incorporating it into the wet ingredients.

Add a small amount of flour into the wet ingredients, then mix at a low speed (enough to blend it all together). You'll need to scrape the sides of the mixing bowl to ensure that all of the flour blends into the butter-sugar-egg mixture. Once everything is completely incorporated, your batter should be silky, smooth and free of clumps of flour or sugar.

Divide the batter amongst the pans evenly, then smooth the tops. Place the pans side-by-side, but not touching, in the oven and bake until the tops spring back when you gently press on them and a toothpick comes out clean.

The most crucial time for the cakes is the cooling time. You don't want to cool the cakes too long or too short of time. Ten minutes is the perfect amount of time to leave the cakes in the pan to cool on racks. After ten minutes, invert the cake onto the racks to cool completely (to room temperature). Because you greased and floured the pans, and placed a piece of parchment paper into each of them, your cakes should easily come out of the pans.

To level your cake, use a bread knife to gently slice off a thin layer of the cake. You will want to carve a small section, then look at the cake at eye level before carving off some more. The point is to make the cake even, not to take off a huge portion of the cake.

Now, your cakes are cooled, carved and ready to assemble. Check back next week for a lesson in frosting a cake and the basics with piping.

Here's a sneak peak at one of the cakes you can learn to make.

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Molly Dunn
Contact: Molly Dunn