Tips for Making Layer Cakes
Oh hey! Welcome to week 2 of my Back to Basics series! Last week we discussed cupcakes and frosting, but today we are jumping right into my favorite subject: Layer Cakes. Endless combinations of tender cake layers, flavourful fillings, luscious frostings, and edible garnishes – layer cakes were my first true love. While I occasionally dabble in French pastry and have been having fun experimenting with pies a lot lately, I will always be the ‘cake lady.’ Fittingly, I even wrote the book on it!
There are so many reasons why I love a good layer cake. Cake + filling + frosting almost always guarantees a delicious bite, but layer cakes mean so much more than just ingredients. To me, a layer cake means celebration, shared memories, time spent with cherished friends and family, and the heart that goes into baking something so spectacular for a loved one. As I say in Layered, “It is a layer cake with swooping frosting on which children blow out candles on their birthdays, that happy coulee slice into on their wedding day, an that one parades into a dinner party…” It is a layer cake that turns an ordinary Tuesday afternoon into a special occasion. It is a layer cake that turns heads and elicits “oohs” and “awwws” at any party. It is a layer cake that you will spend countless hours baking up in the kitchen, meticulously frosting its layers, just to make its lucky recipient smile and feel loved. Want to show someone how much you care about them? Make them a layer cake!
What I also love about layer cakes is how personal they can be. When made with that special person in mind, they are very customizable and lets us play around with different flavours in order to make something unique and just for them. For example, when I make a birthday cake for my husband, I always try to include his love for peanut butter, caramel, and chocolate but when I bake a cake for my mom, it’s more about almond, meringue, and tropical flavours. When you make a layer cake for (or with!) someone, not only is it made by hand and from the heart, it is a chance to use all of their favorite flavours!
But what makes a good layer cake, you might ask? To me, it is all about balance. It is about the ratio of cake to frosting/filling, different levels of sweetness, and a mix of texture. If filled with buttercream, I personally strive for cake layers that are twice as thick as the filling (ideally with cake layers that are about 1 inch tall and filling about 1/2 inch thick). However, this equation doesn’t work for everything. A rich ganache filling or sweet raspberry jam can usually be enjoyed in smaller doses. In such cases when I have a super sweet or overly rich filling, I like to halve the cake layers (horizontally) to create more, thinner layers of cake and spread them each with a thin layer of the sweet and/or rich filling. Make sense? Of course this is all based on personal preference and my opinion of a great layer cake might be completely different than yours.
Once thing that we can all probably agree on is that whether fluffy or dense, the cake itself should be moist and flavourful. Slather those layers in fluffy fudge, satiny ganache, or silky buttercream and we are in business. I like to play texture, too. Decorating with crispy chocolate pearls, a handful of sprinkles or coarse sanding sugar, toasted coconut flakes, and chopped nuts add a bit of crunch to each bite. Other edible decorations may include candied citrus, fresh berries, cute meringue kisses, abstract chocolate bark, chocolate curls, and even spun sugar.
Speaking of cake decor, here are some of my favorite ways to make yummy layer cakes appear just as gorgeous as they taste:
My TOP TOOLS for Layer Cake Success:
Cake Pans: I bake 90% of my cakes in 6 and 8-inch round cake pans (and consequently the recipes you will find on this blog and in my book will match). Occasionally I will use 7 and 10-inch round pans, bundt and, and sheet pans (where cakes are either cut into squares or cut out using a cake ring). Most cake recipes will call for pans that are at least 2-inch tall. I have a combination of Wilton, Fat Daddio, and Williams-Sonoma brand pans that I’ve been using since my bakery days.
Candy Thermometer: Now that I’ve switched from Italian to Swiss Meringue buttercream as my go-to frosting, I usually just use my finger to test instead of using a candy thermometer, but I don’t recommend this for those just starting out (and also, ouch! if it’s too hot!). I used to have a super-fancy candy thermometer, but could not for the life of me figure out why all my caramels were burning… It was broken. I’ve since gone back to my $6 Safeway candy thermometer. At that price, I centrally recommend picking one up to help with buttercreams, caramels, and curds.
Electric Stand Mixer: A Kitchen Aid stand mixer is such a luxury. I have two duelling mixers leftover from my bakery days, and honestly don’t know what I would do without them. Of course, mixing by hand (or with a hand mixer) is completely do-able, but I love the speed and efficiently an electric mixer provides. They are certainly a costly purchase, but a great investment if you a bake a ton. My two mixers are each about 9 years old, were treated like workhorses during multiple wedding seasons, and survived all the recipe testing for my book.
Icing Smoother or Bench Scraper: A nice, straight edge with a 90-degree base is my best way for achieving smooth, straight sides and crisp top corners on my layer cakes. If you can find one, I like an icing smoother with teeth on the opposite side that acts as an icing comb too!
Long Serrated Knife: Want perfectly stackable cakes? Make sure to trim off the dome that occasionally bakes up on the top of your cakes. Use a long serrated knife to trim and torte cakes for perfect layers.
OffSet Spatulas: My small offset spatula just might be my most-used tool in my entire kitchen. From spreading filling and cleaning up top edges, I am constantly reaching for my offset spatulas. Besides applying icing, I find myself using offset spatulas to create different textures in the buttered, lifting cakes off the turntable, and frosting “homemade” looking cupcakes.
Oven Thermometer: As mentioned in my TOP 10 baking tips on Day 1, a grocery-store oven thermometer takes all of the guess work out of trying to figure out what the actual temperature of your oven is. Too hot, and your cake may burn or crack - too cold and it can collapse.
Pastry Bags and Piping Tips: You all know I love a frilly cake. From ruffles and rosettes to basic writing, a small set of piping tips is fairly cheep with big impact. I have a few big canvas piping bags for frosting dozens of cupcakes, but also keep disposable ones for smaller and messier tasks.
Rotating Cake Turntable: Another beloved piece of equipment! If you make a lot of cakes, then I definitely recommend a rotating cake turntable for icing cakes. If you can, then invest in a metal one. I find the plastic ones to be cumbersome and not very effective. Of course the metal ones are more expensive, but I’ve had mine for nearly a decade and its still works great (I love Ateco brand - sometimes found at Williams-Sonoma.)
Rubber, Heat-Safe Spatulas: I once worked at a bakery where the pastry chefs used a lot of large metal spoons to stir and mix things, but I never liked it. Instead, I have a drawer stuffed with about a half-dozen rubber spatulas. I like them soooo much better. I recommend finding silicone, heat-safe ones that you can use on the stovetop.
Other helpful gadgets include: icing sifter, a variety of whisks, vegetable peeler (for peeling and making chocolate curls!), microplane zester, and a kitchen scale.
Last summer, I put together a step-by-step tutorial for How to Frost a Layer Cake. If you are new to making layer cakes, I definitely recommend starting here. As mentioned in the my top tools, be sure to trim and torte your cakes (make sure they are completely cool!!) with a long, serrated knife for even, level layers. All my other cake-stacking tips and frosting tricks can be found in this post.
Some classic layer cakes are simple and straightforward (like tomorrow’s Red Velvet Cake) and only require one cake recipe and one filling/frosting recipe. Others call for multiple components, sauce, syrups, and garnishes. Unless you have the luxury of blocking off an entire day to make everything and assemble the cake, then I’d definitely suggest making parts of the cake in advanced. Most cake layers can be baked and stored for up to about 3 days, and even frozen up to a few months. Wrap the cakes in a double-layer of plastic wrap. Most cakes may be left out overnight, but chilling them in the refrigerator will make them easier to cut and stack. However, chilling butter-based cakes will make them seem dense and firm. Be sure to allow for an efficient enough time to let the chilled cakes to completely come to room temperature before serving. This is important when considering a frosted (and chilled) cake too - nobody wants a mouthful of solid buttercream or hardened ganache! Oil-based cakes (like carrot or some chocolate) will stay tender even when chilled, but still consider the frosting aspect when storing and serving. Buttercream can be made in advanced and stored in the refrigerator for up to about 10 days. Be sure to bring it to room temperature before re-whipping. Likewise, caramel and ganache can both last in the fridge for a couple of weeks, but will need to be re-heated before use. Depending on the sugar and chocolate involved with edible garnishes, storage can be specific and tricky. Make sure that humidity isn’t going to be a factor and read the directions for each element.
Lastly, be sure to check out this serving chat I illustrated for you all! Be sure to tune back in tomorrow where I will be sharing some classic layer cake combos, newer flavor pairings, and a recipe for Red Velvet Cake with Cream Cheese Frosting.
And don’t forget to enter the giveaway! Winners will be announced on Friday: