Making layer cakes to celebrate important milestones is par for the course for pastry enthusiasts and bakers. Share just one successful cake with a group of friends or family, and like it or not, you'll be fated to bake for birthdays for years to come. This is fun if you enjoy cake design, but sometimes even the most enthusiastic baker comes under fire due to timing, temperature, and life's other responsibilities. When the birthday party falls on the same day as a big work presentation, during a heatwave, three subway transfers away, a fun project can become a stress nightmare. (Multiply that stress by one thousand if the cake you've been asked to bake is for a loved one's wedding.)
Luckily, employing good cake technique and best practices can make the endeavor a whole lot less stressful for the baker.
The biggest, most important step that you can take when making a cake comes well before you begin icing or stacking layers. For celebration cakes, there is no step more important than coming up with a plan and a timeline. The plan should account for all of the necessary components (layers, fillings, soaker, icing) that you'll need, and the time it will take for you to make and cool them down to proper temperature. Cakes usually don't contain anything that needs serving right away, which means that everything can be wrapped in plastic or put in containers and stored.
Planning ahead ensures that on the day you need to assemble and present the cake to its recipient, you've got a clean kitchen and you're ready to roll. Bring buttercreams back to room temperature and re-whip them, unwrap the cake layers, and get all of your tools and components organized. This will help you feel calm and focused as you assemble and decorate the cake.
Click through this slideshow to learn the basic steps of assembling a layer cake. Even though I demonstrate the steps using a smaller, 8 inch cake, I've included a tutorial on basic doweling, which is essential for providing stability to larger cakes, but never hurts with small cakes too. The last slide will bring you to the point where you've got a blank canvas for decorating. Click over to last week's slideshow, Sweet Technique: Piping 101 for some simple ways to decorate your cake.
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About the author: Lauren Weisenthal has logged many hours working in restaurant kitchens and bakeries of Brooklyn and Manhattan. She is a graduate of the Artisan Bread Baking and Pastry Arts programs at the French Culinary Institute. You can follow her on Twitter at @evilliagekitchen.