How to Bake a Great Cake

If you’re getting ready to bake a cake that you plan to decorate for a special occasion, you will probably be worried about a couple of things.

The first will be how will it taste. If you have never tried the recipe before and are concerned about that, do a trial run of the cake a day or two before if you can in order to taste it. If your house is anything like ours, then there is never any need to worry about any dessert ever going to waste, no matter how bad it tastes or what it looks like.

Once you have tasted it, you can adjust the recipe to make it just the way you and your family like.

If it comes out very well, you might even want to decorate it for a special occasion. In this case, there are a couple of other concerns you will probably have at the back of your mind. One of them will be how to bake the cake so that it does not have a lot of big cracks in the top of it, which will look terrible and make it hard to frost.

You might also be worried about getting the cake out of the pan without damaging it. This will be particularly true of cakes that come in highly decorative pans, such as the lovely Williams-Sonoma ones. The patterns are lovely, but you will need to prepare the pan well if you want your cake to pop out without any problems and retain the pretty design.

Here are some of the best tips we can give to help you bake a great cake.

1-Follow the recipe EXACTLY the first time you make it. In this way you will have a benchmark for what it is supposed to look like and taste like and can then adjust it to taste in subsequent batches.

Always read the recipe first and measure out all your ingredients before starting. Things will go much easier if you have everything laid out in the right quantities. You will be much less likely to make mistakes like leaving out a key ingredient if everything is arranged before hand. You can also see what bowls are full and which are empty so you will not lose your place in the recipe or wonder if you added all the ingredients in the right order.

2-Preheat your oven to the correct temperature for at least 15 minutes. And if ever in doubt about the temperature of your oven, invest in an oven thermometer to see if your oven is too hot, too cold, or just right. We had one oven that was 75 degrees hotter and needed to compensation. The oven we have now is a Kenmore and perfect. If the recipe says 350 degrees for 10 to 15 minutes, it will be done in 10 minutes. Take the time to bake to really get to know your oven to minimize baking disasters.

3-Prepare Your Pan Correctly

Some recipes will tell you to grease the pan. Others will tell you to grease and flour it. Really sticky cakes might make you grease and use parchment paper. Some pans, like springform pans, might need grease on the sides and a cut out circle of parchment on the bottom.

Follow instructions and grease well with shortening using either melted shortening or cooking oil. Avoid butter unless the recipe specifically calls for it, as it can blacken and burn. Coat the whole pan, paying particular attention to the join of the bottom of the pan to the sides.

If you have a very ornate pan, brush well, or consider using a liberal coating of low calorie cooking spray.

If you also need to flour the pan, take a few tablespoons of flour in your hand and sprinkle to coat the pan without it clumping. Shake the pan and tap the sides, moving the pan around in a circle until the flour has coated the grease. Dump any extra loose flour into the trash.

4-Try “Bake Even” Strips for a Flat Cake Top

There are two ways to get a beautiful cake with a nice flat top. The first is to simply turn the cake over and use the level bottom surface.

If you don’t wish to invert the cake, then purchase a Wilton “Bake Even” strip for the size of baking pan you plan to use. There are other brands, but we use Wilton and you can see what it looks like in the photo.
To bake a flat topped cake, soak the strips in water to help prevent burning, drying out and cracking of the cake top.

Once the strips are soaked, run your thumb and finger along the length of the strip, pressing lightly, to remove the excess water. You don’t need to wring them out, just to stop drips.

Once you have removed the excess water, fasten it around your pan and use the pin provided to secure the strip.

6-Don’t Over or Under Bake

When you place your cake in the oven, set your timer to the minimum time recommended and check it then. Don’t use the upper measurement and then wonder why the cake is cracked on top or overdone.

You can tell if your cake is ready in a couple of ways:

1-Insert a toothpick into the center of the cake. If the toothpick comes out clean, it’s done.

2-Gently press your finger on the center of the cake. If it jiggles or doesn’t spring back right away, it will need at least another few minutes.

7-Cool Your Cake According to the Instructions

Cool your cake according to the instructions in the recipe. Some will call for you to cool it in the pan, while others will want you to let it sit for a few minutes and then transfer it to a wire rack.

If it is a very sticky or sticky-topped cake like a pineapple upside-down cake, you will want to remove it from the pan when it is warm and peel off the paper sooner rather than later so it does not stick.

Check your recipe to see if the cake should be cooled in the pan, but generally speaking, you should take your cake out of the pan after it has cooled for about 20 minutes and place it on a wire rack with your top up and the bottom down on the rack. The rack will leave lines, so if you are going to invert the cake, do it before it cools.

If you are using good non-stick cookware or have greased and oiled the pan well the cake should pop out easily. If you find yourself having problems, run a butter knife gently around the edges of the cake to loosen it from the pan. Then place your rack on top of the cake and then flip everything over.

Gently lift the pan off the cake and allow the cake to cool on the cooling rack. A cooling rack provides air to the bottom of your cake, reducing moisture and allowing the cake to cool more quickly.

You can put wax paper between your cake and the rack if you want to limit ridges to the cake for any reason, but it will take longer to cool and will not dry out as much.

9-Cool the Cake Thoroughly Before Attempting to Frost

You must cool your cake completely before you decorate it, or else your frosting will start to melt and run. Depending on the size of your cake, it can take several hours to cool, so keep that in mind when planning your baking and decorating schedule. Sometimes it is easier to bake the cake the day or night before so you don’t need to worry.

For other cakes, adding a glaze while it is still warm might be required. Again, be sure to read the recipe through fully to be sure of the instructions.

10-Frosting Choices

You can opt for a glaze or powdered sugar to keep the cake simple.

These are good choices if you want people to appreciate the elegance of the shape of the cake, which has been molded in a special pan.

You can also opt for fondant that you roll out.

But butter cream is the most popular.

You can leave it white, or color it. (Though beware of the dangers of artificial food coloring.

You can make frosting roses on a frosting pin to decorate a plain cake.

You can put a small piece of wax paper on the frosting pin and make the rose, then take the paper and rose off and put them on a cookie sheet.

Freeze them for about 15 minutes for easier handling and placement. You can also make a batch in different colors and freeze them in a plastic container for future use. Then if you need any, take them out and pop them on top of the cake.

A frosting comb can help you create a smooth, even texture and special effects as well, like the popular and elegant basket weave effect.

The frosting should be room temperature to make it easy to work with. Start frosting the top of the cake, or the top of the bottom layer of a layer cake. Put the top of the cake on or continue frosting the single-layer cake by working the frosting evenly down the sides of the cake until it is all covered. Smooth with a knife or frosting comb. Add roses and other decorations as needed.

My favorite cake to make each year is my nephew’s William-Sonoma train cake for his birthday. We make a dozen train carriages, each with a different theme, candy decorations, and contents inside the cake cars. If I have time, I make train rails out of licorice and an entire rocky and forested landscape out of candy and cookies.

Use your imagination, and you will soon be able to bake and decorate with confidence.


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