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How to bake a flat cake and other tips

Cheri Sicard is the author of The Low Carb Restaurant Guide -- Eat Out at America's Favorite Restaurants and Stay on Your Diet (2004, M. Evans) and two other books.

Bake a picture perfect cake

Ever have trouble getting that cake to look picture perfect? Here are some cake basics, from how to bake flat-topped cakes and the neatest way to fill a pastry bag to the quickest, easiest way to frost a cake.

Bake a picture perfect cake

The flattest surface possible

If you're going to be decorating a cake, it's usually important to obtain as flat a surface as possible. If you simply fill your pans with batter and pop them into the oven, you're cake will come out with a domed top, but with a little help, you can bake a cake that's flatter than Kansas!

The first thing to do after you've filled your pan with batter is to pick up the filled pan and rap it on the countertop a few times. This will help remove excess air bubbles from the batter. But this in and of itself is not enough to make a flat topped cake.

Next, take an old (but clean) towel (heavy kitchen towel will do or you can cut up an old terry bath towel) and wet it. Fold the wet towel and wrap it around the outside of your cake pan. Secure the end of the towel with a safety pin so you have a wrapped cake pan like the ones in the photos below. The moist heat from the towel helps the cake bake and rise more evenly, resulting in a flat topped cake.

Save the towels to use on future cakes. It is true that cake decorating stores sell an insulated wrap specifically made for this purpose, but why spend extra money when the towel method works every bit as well?

Filling pastry bags

Have you ever tried to fill a pastry bag, only to get most of the filling on your hands, on the counter and on the outside of the bag? Here's an easier way. Stand your pastry bag up in a tall kitchen glass and fold the ends over the glass, as in the photo at the right. It's now a simple matter to spoon the filling into the bag, fold the bag up and you're ready to go!

Frosting the cake

If you've ever had trouble frosting a cake -- getting the icing to stick to the sides of the cake or those annoying crumbs getting in the way -- consider it a thing of the past. A few simple tools will help make this job a breeze. Offset spatulas keep your knuckles out of the icing and make quick work of applying and smoothing icing. A jumbo pastry bag and giant icing tip, makes icing the sides of the cake a snap.

Follow these simple instructions and you'll make a perfect cake canvas for all your decorating needs.

  1. Place your cake on a cake board or plate. To prevent the cake from moving, use about a tablespoon or so of icing to "glue" it to the plate. Just plop the icing down and set the cake on top of it.
  2. Next, use an offset spatula to spread a layer of icing over the top of the first layer, then set the second layer on top.
  3. Spread icing over the top of the second layer. The trick to not getting crumbs in the icing is to always use your spatula to push outwards. If you don't pull back, you can't pick up crumbs. Start with a large blob of icing in the middle and spread outward in all directions. Don't worry about getting everything smoothed out at this point, we'll come back to that later.
  4. Take your spatula and smooth out the frosting you just piped on the sides of the cake.
  5. Use the spatula one more time to go over the top and sides of the cake, smoothing out the icing and creating a flat surface. You now have a blank canvas on which to decorate.

As I said in Step 2, start with a LARGE blob of icing in the center of the cake. Don't worry about adding too much, you can always use your spatula to scrape off the excess. Adding a lot, then smoothing it off helps prevent crumbs in the icing and also makes it easier to give the icing a smooth finish.

The easiest way to ice the sides of the cake is to use a jumbo pastry bag and giant decorating tip. Simply fill the bag and roughly pipe a wide ribbon of icing around the outside of the cake. If you don't have these tools, you can also use your spatula to spread the icing on the sides of the cake, using the same push outward but never pull back back technique we used to ice the top of the cake. This method is much more time consuming and difficult than using the giant bag, so I highly recommend investing in these inexpensive tools if you can. They really make the job super fast and easy.

Watch: How to make buttercream icing

This delicious buttercream frosting is perfect for spreading over cakes and cupcakes, and for crafting beautiful icing flowers for decorating.


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