Relax, It's Just a Layer Cake

Making a homemade birthday cake? Follow these step-by-step instructions and you’ll be turning out picture-perfect cakes from the get-go.

A Step-by-Step Guide

These steps show a basic method for baking a cake, though every recipe will be a little different. Make sure to follow the directions for your cake recipe precisely, but in general, this is the way most cakes come together.

Photography by Laura Agra

Butter and Flour the Pans

Butter two 9-inch round cake pans. Trace the bottoms of the pans on parchment paper, then use scissors to cut out two circles just the right size to fit into the bottom of each pan. Place one of the parchment rounds into each pan, butter the parchment, and add a few tablespoons of flour into one of the pans, then shake, turn and tap the pan so that the flour lightly and evenly coats the bottom and sides. Transfer the remaining flour to the second pan, and do the same. Tap excess flour out of each of the buttered and floured pans.

Beat the Sugar and Butter Until Fluffy

Creaming the butter and sugar together until light and fluffy creates little pockets of air in the butter, which helps the cake rise and keeps its texture light. Add the eggs one at a time, which ensures that they blend — or emulsify — completely with the butter mixture. Then add vanilla extract or other flavoring, like lemon juice.

Add the Wet and Dry Ingredients in Alternate Batches

In a bowl, use a whisk to thoroughly combine the dry ingredients. (This breaks up any lumps in the flour and ensures even distribution of ingredients throughout your batter.) Often a recipe calls for adding wet ingredients (such as milk) and the dry ingredients you previously combined in alternating batches. This is to prevent the gluten in the flour from developing too much, which causes toughness and chewiness (desirable in other baked goods, such as breads and pizza dough, but not so desirable in a cake).

Pour Into Prepared Pans

Divide the batter evenly between the two pans and smooth the tops.

Bake, Then Test for Doneness

This can be done by inserting a wooden skewer or a toothpick into the center of a cake; if it comes out clean, the cake is done. You also might see the cake start to pull away from the sides of the pan. When you get a bit more experienced, you will recognize the cake is done when you press lightly on the top and you feel a slight spring back.

Cool the Cakes

Remove cakes from oven and cool them in the pans on a wire rack for 15 minutes. Then, run a knife around the outside of the cake, place a rack upside down over the top of each cake pan, and invert the cake onto the rack. Remove the pan, peel off the parchment and cool the cakes completely, upside down on a wire rack to help flatten the tops, which in turn make the cake easier to assemble. If your cakes are not flat, use a large, sharp serrated knife to carefully trim the tops of the cakes so that they are level.

Create a Crumb Layer of Frosting

This is one of the greatest frosting tips ever, and it will change your cake-frosting life. Place each cake layer upside down on a round of cardboard or a flat plate. Using an offset spatula, if you have one (a butter knife if you don’t), frost each cake layer on the top and sides with a very thin layer of frosting. Don't worry if there are some visible crumbs in this first layer of frosting; that's what the crumb-coat frosting layer is intended to do: lock those crumbs down. Place the cake layers in the freezer for 15 minutes, or in the refrigerator for 30 minutes. This will allow the thin layer of frosting to harden, sealing in the crumbs.

Frost the Cake

Place the bottom layer of cake on the platter or cake stand that you will be serving it on, and tuck thick strips of wax or parchment paper under the edges of the cake, which will keep the platter clean. Place a generous scoop of frosting on the top (or if your recipe calls for a different filling, use that instead), and spread it out evenly. Place the second layer of cake on top and frost the top and sides. If you want to make the frosting swirly, play around with your spatula or knife. If you want a smooth exterior, you can dip a spatula or knife in a glass of very hot water, shake off the excess water and use the hot knife to smooth the frosting.

Slice and Serve

There are few ways to better say "I think you are pretty special" than baking someone a cake from scratch. Don't overmix, don't overbake, and you'll be just fine. Layering the cakes with fresh raspberries won't hurt, either.

Get the Recipe: Lemon Layer Cake with Lemon Cream Filling and Frosting