Layer Cakes for Beginners

The annual church fundraiser was last Saturday night and our congregation opted for a Spaghetti Dinner and Auction. Each youth was to bring baked goods to sell for less than a dollar but 2 kids from each of 6 groups were asked to volunteer a fancy cake. Liv’s group only had one volunteer so I volunteered her for the second fancy cake.

Then it hit me: I have no experience with cake decorating! So I spent hours on Pinterest looking for “easy” fancy cakes. Friday I spent 6 hours baking cakes and whipping up frosting. Saturday afternoon Liv spent a few hours decorating her Oreo Madness confection. It brought in $90 at auction.

While searching for help online I felt like I was learning a new language. I’ve been baking cakes for 3 decades, but creating decorated cakes is a whole new ballgame.

Here are the basics you must know to go from at delicious home-baked cakes to decorated delights:

Tools needed:

  • cake pans
  • parchment paper
  • tabletop lazy susan or cake turntable
  • serrated knife as long as your cake is wide
  • kitchen ruler (regular ruler washed with soap and water)
  • offset spatula (the kind with a bend so you can angle it easily)
  • boxed cake mix, butter, eggs and water
  • desired frosting ingredients and decor accesories
  • available space in your oven, freezer, and fridge
  1. Choose a stand-out method: Neither a 9″ x 13″ cake or sheet cake qualify as fancy without some cool piping techniques and I’m a novice. So, my minimum “fancy” is layered cakes or shaped cakes. Buy new pans if you must: 8″ or 9″ rounds and squares are easily available. I picked up 2 9″ pans at Wal-Mart for 88¢ each and had great results with my cut-temperature baking method (see step 4 below).
  2. Plan days ahead: This was a big shocker to me because I’ve always made my cake the day I want to serve/eat it. Nope, you need to bake your cakes at least the day before, but can do it weeks ahead of your event. Your freeze your baked cakes until you’re ready to use them. The freezer doesn’t dry foods out like the fridge does, so they won’t go stale. I baked extra cakes and stored them in the freezer in case Liv ran into serious trouble while decorating. Bonus: she felt less stressed knowing there was another set of cakes ready to pull out from the freezer if her first attempt bombed.
  3. Use boxed cake mix: Most people are used to the boxed mix flavor and texture, so why not give the people what they want? A boxed cake mix is easily dressed up by ignoring the box directions (almost) entirely. Instead, mix the powdered contents with a melted stick of butter (1/2 C), 1 C warm water and 4 whole eggs. Warning: Don’t cook your eggs by putting them into hot melted butter. Allow the butter to cool to lukewarm, add the warm water next, then add the eggs and you’ll be fine. The box is right on this account: 30 seconds with a hand mixer on low speed followed by 2 minutes on medium speed.
  4. Parchment makes perfect: I LOVE parchment paper and actually gift it to family members who haven’t yet become acquainted with its marvels. Trace the base of your pan onto the parchment paper and cut along the lines. Place the parchment in your pan and grease and flour/cocoa powder as usual.
  5. Use the cut-temperature method: To prevent a significant dome from forming on your cake: Bake at 300 degrees for time and a half to double the time that the box suggests (a second reason why you can’t completely ignore the box). If the box says 30 mins at 350°, you’ll be baking for 45-60 mins at 300°.
  6. Cool the cake: The cake must be cool to the touch before cutting off the top and creating layers. Remove it from the oven to cool in pan for 10 minutes. After 10 minutes, turn it out of the baking pan and place on cooling rack. Leave the parchment paper in place.
  7. Use a cake turntable or lazy susan: Ceramic potters use them, so must you. To get an even appearance we’re applying a little physics here. Spinning the cake to cut and decorate it is more reliable than moving your hand and arm around.
  8. Your cake must be level: I used my kitchen ruler and measured the lowest spot on the cake top edge. That gave me the height for marking my cake. Using my ruler and bending down to see accurately, I used a serrated knife to make shallow cuts into the cake sides at 5-6 places. Spin the cake turntable a little to make your cut longer. These shallow cuts serve as guidelines for slicing all the way through, and they work well. Spin the turntable and slice deeper into the cake to remove the dome or create layers with your serrated knife. Keep going until you’ve sliced through the center and the top can be removed. Bonus: Cake tops can be set aside and turned into cake pops.
  9. Freeze your cake overnight: Wrap it tightly in a double layer of plastic wrap and put in in the freezer. If you’re storing it for longer than overnight, stick it in a freezer that doesn’t contain your meats or other potentially stinky items. Freeze with the parchment paper in place.
  10. Prep your icing: Buttercream, Cream cheese, Ermine (cooked), Ganche, Fondant and Easy Marshmallow Fondant are all “fancy” options that work well for decorating.
  11. Use a cake board/circle (same thing): Dad DIY-ed this for years by wrapping cardboard in aluminum foil, but you can also buy the commercial variety. It should be slightly bigger than your bottom cake layer.
  12. Frost the cake while it’s frozen: You can thaw frozen cake safely on the counter without condensation problems if it REMAINS TIGHTLY WRAPPED in plastic before frosting it, but there’s no need. The cake itself thaws quickly enough but is so much easier to frost when frozen.
  13. Glue your cake in place: Frosting acts like glue and helps the board and the cake above it stay in place (fondant and easy marshmallow fondant are exceptions). Grab your turntable, place a about 1 TBSP of frosting on the center of the turntable and center your cake board on top, pressing it into the frosting.  Plop about 2 TBSP of frosting in the center of the cake board. Unwrap your cake and peel the parchment paper off the bottom.  Brush off any loose crumbs and gently place your cake on the center of the cake board.
  14. Frost the crumb coat: At least two layers of frosting are needed: the crumb coat and final coat. There can be multiple fine-tuning coats between crumb coat and final coat, but the crumb coat is first and seals in the crumbs. I’ve tried the crumb coat technique on freshly made cake before but the cake pulled and tore. Working on a frozen cake really helps when applying your crumb coat. Spin that cake turntable and keep your hand still for even application. Practice makes progress! Repeat with additional cake layers.
  15. Befriend your fridge: Push over the ketchup bottle and make room for your cake because there’s going to be a revolving door while you decorate. The fridge is the decorator’s new best friend. After the crumb coat, the cake goes into the fridge so the frosting firms up.
  16. Frost again: After about 20 minutes, you’re ready for another layer of frosting. Make sure your application tools and frosting are crumb free after that crumb coat layer! Lay it on as thick as you’d like, making sure to at least cover the crumb coat completely.
  17. Dress it up: Without piping icing through a bag (we are beginners, after all), you can apply candy, cookies, edible flowers (pansies, violets, lilacs and roses are a few), sugar dust, or sprinkles. You can also use fork tines to make squiggles on the sides of the cake. The back of a spoon pressed into a thick layer of frosting also looks lovely.
  18. Refrigeration, Transporting and Serving: Once frosted, your frosting will prevent the cake from going stale or dry in the fridge, so it can last a couple of days in there. Leaving it out on the counter like you might at home is not best practice when serving to people outside your family. We transported our cake on a passenger’s lap on a pizza pan with some plastic wrap loosely covering the cake. Since your cake was refrigerated, the loose covering should not leave an impression on your decorations. If it won’t be displayed immediately, your cake should be refrigerated until 30-60 minutes before serving time. Your confection tastes best at room temperature.

Liv opted for chocolate fudge cake mix, Ermine (cooked flour) frosting, Oreos and melted semisweet chocolate chips. She made a crown of melted chocolate chips piped through a sandwich baggie onto parchment paper. She let the chocolate chip drizzle cool for a few minutes and pressed it onto the top tier. On cold frosting it set up quickly and perfectly. Then she liberally drizzled the rest of the melted chocolate chips over her Oreo crumbs layer and voila: Oreo Madness Cake!

What are your favorite flavor combinations? More beginner hints?

Happy Baking!




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