Creating a birthday cake for someone special brings joy both for the decorator and the recipient. Yet, achieving great decorating results also requires the fine-tuning of baking skills.
There are many important preparation steps prior to the actual decorating which directly effect how the cake looks. A few decorating tools and attention to the layers will result in a more even tiers and fewer headaches.
As the layers bake, the outside rim of the pan heats the edges of the layer faster than the center. Since the outside is baking faster, the middle of the cake rises higher, creating a hump. This problem can be avoided by using Magic Cake Strips around the sides of the pans. Once wet, the strips are wrapped around the sides of the pan and pinned in place. The strips cool the sides of the pan and allow the cake to bake evenly.
Layers exceeding 10" need a little extra TLC. Use a heating core in the center of the pan to conduct heat into the middle of the layer. A heating core is a doughnut-shaped metal ring that is greased and floured, placed in the center of the pan, and filled with batter. The batter that bakes inside the heating core is placed in the center of the completed layer.
Even distribution of heat around the pan also effects the baking process. Place the oven rack in the center of the oven and the pan in the center of the rack. Air needs to circulate around the pan to heat it from all sides. Not all ovens heat accurately. If you suspect your oven gets too hot or takes long to cook, check the temperature. A cake baked too quickly in a very hot oven will be overdone on the outside and undercooked on the inside.
If you still find your baked layers have uneven spots, a cake leveler is a handy tool that makes trimming the excess away simple.
Allow the layer to cool for 10 minutes in the pan before inverting onto a wire rack. This gives it time to shrink away from the sides and allows it to come out of the pan without breakage. Invert the layer on to a wire rack and then invert it again. I do this twice to make sure the flat part is face down. If you have any kind of hump and the hump goes face down, the layer will surely crack. Allow for complete cooling before trimming, filling and icing.
Place the layer on a cake board. If you are filling the center with anything besides butter-cream frosting,I recommend you pipe a ring of butter-cream frosting all along the outside of the layer being filled. This prevents the filling from leaking out.
After filling the center, brush away any crumbs with a pastry brush. Applying a crumb coat will keep crumbs out of the icing. If you are decorating with butter-cream icing,you can simply thin it with a little milk for this purpose. Warmed apricot jam also works well. Heat the jam in the microwave and strain it. Apply the jam to the surface with a pastry brush. Now chill to allow for settling and firming of the crumb coat. If you proceed directly to decorating, the filling will bulge out of the sides. Making the sides look attractive is virtually impossible when this happens.
Set the stacked tiers in the center of a lazy susan. Using a metal spatula, heap the frosting in the center. Work it back and forth while turning the lazy susan, but never actually touching the surface. If you drag the spatula, you may pull up crumbs, despite all the preparation. When the top is covered with icing, hold the metal spatula horizontal to the surface and pull it straight across the top. Remove any excess icing from the edges. Dot icing all around the sides with the spatula. The best tool to use for creating evenly frosted sides is a metal scraper. It gives you the best leverage for maintaining a straight edge as you frost. Turn the lazy susan as you hold the metal scraper perpendicular to the sides. Carefully lift any excess icing from the top edges with the spatula. If your icing is not perfectly smooth, allow it to crust for 15 minutes. Come back to it with a large piece of wax paper. Lay the wax paper on top and smooth your hands along the surface, starting from the center and working out towards the edges. Repeat this process on the sides, smoothing one area at a time.
Without a doubt, baking and decorating is very time consuming, but minimizing the mishaps makes it more enjoyable and gives you the best results.