1. Bring ingredients to room temperature
This is always the hardest part for me because my desire for baking is usually spontaneous, so planning ahead to take ingredients out of the fridge is never convenient. There are a few tricks though; you can heat the milk in a microwave for a few seconds to take the chill off; place the eggs in a warm (not hot) water bath; and cut the butter into small pieces so they soften faster.
2. Take the time to sift the dry ingredients
I almost always skip this step. No matter what I’m making, sifting flour is so annoying that I never bother to do it. However, when I really need to be assured that my cake will be perfection, then I’ll go through the extra trouble. If I’m making a delicate genoise or angel food cake, then sifting is a must because it incorporates a lot of air and prevents the batter from deflating as I fold in flour.
3. Use the best vanilla you can get your hands on, and use a lot of it
Only a couple of years ago did I really learn the difference that high quality vanilla makes. While I wasn’t using imitation or vanilla “essence,” I always chose the cheapest option on the grocery store shelves. Lately I have been using Nielsen-Massey vanilla and Madagascar vanilla beans, and I always add about a teaspoon more than the recipe calls for.
4. Evenly divide batter between pans
Leveling the cake with a knife is so much easier when you don’t have to cut a big dome off the top (even though it means less cake scraps to nibble on).
5. Grease and flour pans
I think one of the worst outcomes of making a cake is shaking it out of the pan only to have a big chunk stick to a part of the pan that you didn’t grease properly. In order to avoid this tragic outcome I use a pastry brush to spread butter into the corners, place parchment paper at the bottom, and flour the pan well. I won’t survive if I have to weep over one more cake lost to the battle of a pan without a nonstick coating.
6. Bake at a low temperature
Baking at a lower temperature for a longer time helps fight against the dreaded cake dome. I chose to bake my cake at 335°F for 40 minutes instead of 350°F for 25 minutes. Since the cake comes out flat, leveling and cutting the cake layers is much easier.
7. Use a cooling wrack
Instead of dumping your cake out onto the counter and letting it sit there, place it on a cooling wrack so heat can escape from both the top and the bottom. Doing this helps stop the cake from continuing to bake despite it being out of the oven.
8. Use a sharp knife and level the cake
When a cake comes out relatively flat, it’s tempting to leave it as is and continue to layer it. However when the layers are not level, there is a greater chance for instability as you build your cake. Even worse than the cake sticking to the pan, is the cake toppling over and falling on the floor.
9. Cut the edges off from around the cake
This step is one that I recently learned after watching Cupcake Jemma on Youtube. I take an item slightly smaller than my cake and use it as a guide to cut off the edges. When you cut into the cake you don’t see any of the darker brown parts from where the cake touched the pan while baking. It’s really just about aesthetics, so if you take issue with wasting any of your cake, you can skip this step.
10. Apply a crumb coat
Crumb coats are the most important part of icing a cake. Without applying this thin coat of icing, crumbs will rise to the top of your icing layers and it just won’t look good.
There you have it! My top tips for creating an amazing cake that will impress everyone as you make blasé hand gestures and say things like, “Oh just whipped this up a couple hours ago.”
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