Six tips for better cakes

When it comes to dessert, it’s hard to beat a good layer cake. All that frosting and deliciousness can make even a ho-hum meal seem special.

I also happen to adore making them. Perhaps that’s the Type-A in me, but I love that with baking there’s a set of rules that one can follow to create something extraordinary. I love the ritual of sifting flour, and cutting parchment, mixing the dry ingredients separate from the wet ones and then mixing them together in batches. I love the whirl of my Kitchen Aid, and that magic moment when ingredients meld to become frosting. And I love the end result, sharing with friends and family, and sneaking a slice for breakfast (it’s just milk, eggs and flour).

I recently had the opportunity to talk to Flour Bakery Chef Joanne Chang about the cake she’s baking for Harvard’s 375th celebration next week. She was so nonchalant about baking a cake to feed 5,000 that it got me thinking about how practice really does make perfect.

Many of my friends seem befuddled over why one would take the time to bake a cake from scratch, given the proliferation of cheap boxed mixes at the market. For starters, it’s healthier- ever look at the list of ingredients, or the amount of sodium, on a boxed cake? But here’s the real reason: once you get it down, making a cake from scratch isn’t much harder than making a cake from a box. And the results are 100 percent more impressive.

To prove this, I’ve put together a few tips to help make your cake baking a success.

This is key to making sure your cake actually comes out of the pan in one piece. Yes, its a slight pain, but it’s the most foolproof method I’ve found. Can’t say that about PAM.

To do this, you need parchment paper (yes, this is different from wax paper). You’ll find it in the aluminum foil section of the grocery store. Trace the shape of your pan onto the paper with a pencil, and then cut out the shape INSIDE your outline. Set them aside, and then grease your pan using a bit of paper towel and butter. You want to make sure you have a thin, even layer of butter. Add your parchment paper to the pan (trim the parchment if needed), butter the parchment paper and then add a bit of flour to the pan and shake it vigorously to coat the inside of the pan evenly with flour. Need more guidance? Check out this post at Kitchen Generation.

Sifting adds air to your ingredients, making your cake lighter. It also helps your leaveners (the stuff, like baking soda, that makes your cake get all nice and fluffy) mix with the flour. Do it.

Eggs get the most volume when they’re beaten at room temperature. More volume= a lighter, fluffier cake.

Want even layers in your cake? Weigh the pans when you put the batter in. This ensures you have the same volume of batter in each pan.

This is step two in ensuring even layers. It also will help your cake bake evenly.

This helps your cake cool faster. You want cool layers before frosting, otherwise you’ll likely end up with a gloopy mess.

Ready to try your hand at cake baking? This is one of my all-time favorites to bake.

Chocolate Ganache Cake Recipe at Epicurious.com

For a fancifully tall cake, we used 3 (7-inch) round pans. It can also be baked in 3 (8-inch) pans, though the cake will be slightly lower. We tested this recipe with several different brands of chocolate, and found Lindt and Ghirardelli had the best flavor for this particular cake.

Have a cake baking tip I’ve overlooked? Leave it below.

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