Once you understand these simple techniques, total cake success will be yours.
Lining a Cake Pan:
With rounds and other cake layers, place a piece of parchment or wax paper on the bottom, then brush it with butter and dust with flour. Other pans, like decorative Bundt or springform pans, just need an even coat of butter, then a dusting of flour. For cupcakes, decorative pre-formed paper or foil liners are indispensable.
Accurate measuring is crucial to successful baking. To properly measure, you need three types of measuring tools: clear glass or plastic cup with a spout for wet ingredients, cups in graduated sizes for dry ingredients and a set of measuring spoons. Most American baking recipes measure ingredients by volume, not weight; for example, a recipe will call for 1 cup sugar instead of 8 ounces sugar. If you become truly passionate about baking, consider investing in a scale, as it really is the most accurate way to measure.
To measure liquids: Set the cup on the counter, bend at the knees so you are at eye-level with the lines on the cup and pour the ingredient right up to the line indicating the amount needed.
To measure dry ingredients: Spoon your flour or other dry ingredient into the appropriately-sized measuring cup, filling it generously above the rim of the cup. Then, run the back of a knife over the edge to sweep the excess back into the container.
Improper measuring of dry ingredients is one of the most common mistakes in baking. A couple of things to avoid:
- Don't dip a measuring cup into a bag or container of flour; this packs the flour in the cup and adds more flour to the recipe, resulting in dry and dense cakes.
- Resist tapping the cup on the counter — the flour settles and you will have more than needed.
If the recipe calls for "one cup sifted flour," first sift the flour and then measure it. If it calls for "one cup flour, sifted," measure the flour by the spoon and sweep method, then sift it. It may seem subtle, but in the cake world, it can make the difference between ethereal and leaden. A fine mesh strainer is totally adequate for sifting. Always whisk the dry ingredients together (baking powder or soda, salt, spice, etc.) to make sure they are evenly distributed before adding wet ingredients.
When a recipe calls for beating butter "until light and fluffy," it's important for the butter to be at a workable temperature in order to trap and hold the optimum amount of air. If the butter is too cold and firm, or too warm and slack, it won't hold the required air in the batter, resulting in a flat or dense cake. If the butter is malleable enough to hold a light thumbprint, you're ready to go. Allow about 45 minutes for butter to come to the right temperature — cutting the butter into pieces speeds this up. Butter can be warmed in a microwave on reduced power, but it's very easy to overdo it and heat the butter too much or unevenly this way.
Room-temperature eggs perform best in cakes. In-the-shell eggs straight from the fridge can be warmed by setting them in a bowl of warm water for five minutes.
Instructions often call for beating, or creaming, butter with sugar for up to 10 minutes in cake recipes. Although it can be tempting to cut this step short, particularly when done with a hand mixer, it's important to stick with it. This beating is where the texture and structure of a cake is made. Air is a vital ingredient in cakes and it takes time to properly incorporate it into the batter. The butter will lighten in color and you should see it increase in volume in the bowl.
Eggs should also be beaten until light and foamy for cakes. They should lighten in color and hold a thick ribbon when the beater is lifted out of the bowl. If the recipe calls for adding eggs one at a time, make sure each one is fully incorporated before adding the next.
When incorporating dry ingredients into a batter, it is important not to over-mix. Folding is often better for cakes than stirring. To fold, use the broad side of the spatula, like an oar moving through water, to suspend the dry ingredients in the batter. Turn the bowl regularly, making sure you bring the ingredients together evenly.
Run a serrated knife around the perimeter of the cake layer to divide it evenly in half. Then draw the knife through the cake in a gentle sawing motion to cut it in half. If the layers are uneven, put the thicker one on the bottom.
Allow at least 20 minutes for your oven to preheat; it's best to turn the oven on before you start working on your recipe. Keep in mind that ovens differ and every oven has hot spots. Your best bet for even baking is to position a rack in the center of the oven. If baking more than one layer, stagger them in the oven so they bake evenly. Opening the oven door too often can make a cake fall, so use the window in your oven door (if it has one) to check the cake's progress. Check the cake about 10 minutes before the suggested baking time is over. A cake is done when it starts pulling away from the sides of the pan and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.
Cooling on a Rack:
Cakes cool faster and don't get soggy when cooled on a rack.
Store un-frosted cakes, well wrapped, at room temperature for 24 hours. Refrigerating cakes causes them to stale faster. For long-term storage it is best to freeze cakes, not refrigerate them. When storing an already-cut cake, add half an apple to the cake box to keep the cake moist.
Use an ice-cold bowl and a large whisk for fastest whipping. Don't over-whip it – it should look silky and creamy, not curd-like. Sift confectioners' sugar into the cream when it is slightly looser than you want it to be; it tightens up the cream as you mix it in.