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My inbox sees more questions about building beautiful cakes than nearly any other subject (okay, maybe it’s tied with pie dough queries of all sorts). Layer cakes are daunting: They’ve got that whole “multiple components” thing going on, plus the height factor, not to mention the quest to make it look gorgeous after it’s built. But layer cakes of all sorts, from the simplest cake-and-frosting stacks to towering tiered beauties, are not as scary as they may seem. Plus, they’re such a fun way to exercise creativity in your baking. You can take multiple recipes you love and combine them to make an entirely new dessert creation!
So today, we’re all cake architects, and we’re going to learn to build a tower made of tender cake and perfectly sweet icing. Later, we’ll demolish our carefully built structures with forks. But first up: Let’s see how it’s done.
1. Make a plan.
2. Consider your cake.
3. Choose some fillings.
4. The fun stuff, a.k.a. the inclusions.
5. The frosting.
6. Cutting the layers.
7. Build it!
8. Cover it with more frosting.
9. Doll it up.
10. Move the cake safely.
All my layer cakes start out with a plan. If it’s a particularly complicated cake, it might even start with a drawing (yes, the architecture reference is truly appropriate). Planning out the details makes the assembly smooth as can be. If you try to wing it, you could end up with any number of errors, and it’s better to walk in knowing you’re going to ace it.
Consider the flavors you’re going for you want and how to put them together. Last week, for example, a friend requested I make her a strawberry cake for her birthday. I started thinking of ways to make a strawberry cake. Should I use strawberry juice in the cake batter, or just use strawberry frosting? Layer fresh strawberries in between the cake layers, or maybe alternate layers of frosting and jam so there are multiple colors striping each slice? There’s lots of ways to get the flavor you want, and considering how best to get from point A to point B is the first step.
It’s also important to think about what you want the cake to look like. Are you going for a super-easy, two-layer chocolate cake with perfectly messy icing? Or are you hoping for a towering cake with pretty piping techniques and garnishes on top?
Garnishes can be another way to introduce flavors: Going back to the strawberry cake, I could make (or purchase) macarons or meringue cookies to arrange on the surface. Or maybe I want a pile of fresh strawberries on top? Or maybe I want to crush up freeze-dried strawberries and pat them around the exterior (so I don’t have to worry about how I frost the sides). There’s a million possibilities, so plan it out and go from there.
The type of cake you’re using is important, and flavor isn’t the only factor. When you’re building a layer cake, you really have to consider the structure of the entire thing.
If you’re doing a basic layer cake—two layers of cake sandwiched with frosting and filling—you can be pretty flexible; nearly anything goes. But when you start talking about more layers (3! 4! 6!) it’s always best to choose a cake with a light and airy crumb structure. This means sponge cakes, chiffon cakes, or even something known as “combination method” cakes, which start with the creaming method and finish by folding in whipped egg whites. You don’t necessarily want to build a tall layer cake with a dense cake, like pound cake, as the heavy cake layers can create structural issues the higher you build. This isn’t an exclusive rule, and there are plenty of recipes out there that produce cakes that are light enough for layering. But a lighter cake will make building easier!
A little piece of advice when you’re baking your cakes: It’s really useful to be careful when portioning your batter between your pans. The best way is with a scale (yes, more reasons to buy a scale, you avid bakers, you!): Weigh the batter, then divide it by the number of cake pans you’re using. Place each pan on the scale and measure that amount of batter, then smooth it out with a spatula. But if you don’t have a scale, you can use another measuring tool; it won’t be as accurate, but it will still help loads! You can use a measuring cup, an ice cream/cookie scoop, or even a ladle. Scoop one container-full of batter into each pan, then repeat in order until you’ve used all of the batter. Having your cakes as even as possible will be a big help later!
For some layer cakes, the “filling” is just the frosting, used on both the inside and the outside of the cake (and yum—that’s delish). But for many layer cakes, there is a different filling in between the cake layers, providing flavor, color, and textural contrast inside the cake. There can be one filling, or multiple. I love to do alternating layers of filling inside a layer cake, because it makes for an ultra-impressive slice. Fillings can be as simple as purchased jam or preserves, and as complicated as additional recipes (pastry cream! ganache! caramel! fruit curd!). I like to add my fillings using a pastry bag—but more on that later.
Inclusions—items added in addition to fillings, usually as a separate layer on top of fillings—are totally optional, but can make a great addition to a layer cake, adding contrast and interest! These could be things like chocolate chips/chunks/shavings, crushed candy, chopped nuts, sliced fresh fruit, and so on.
Remember that inclusions can create structural concerns; fresh fruit, for example, contains a lot of moisture, so it can make a slippery surface for the next layer. To combat this, you can gently press the inclusions into the filling below to help them adhere. You can also spread a small layer of filling, place the inclusions on top, then apply more filling on top of the inclusions. That way, the next cake layer is still resting on filling rather than the inclusion! Also remember that inclusions can play into slicing the finished cake, so keep pieces small enough that they won’t impede the knife (or fork!) later.
The frosting can be nearly any kind you like. The main consideration when choosing a type of frosting is the look you’re hoping for in the exterior of the cake. Some frostings (like Italian buttercream) are silky smooth, and therefore make it easier to achieve a clean, sleek look. Other frostings (like pudding-style and/or American buttercream), are a little thicker and, while they can still be manipulated into lots of looks, might be a little bit more trouble—but if you’re looking for a swirly, rustic look, they’ll be perfect. Also consider that if you’re decorating the outside of the cake in a way that will cover the frosting (more on that below!), it doesn’t matter as much what type of frosting you use, so you can focus on the flavor and texture you want instead! Other frostings I like to use are German buttercream, French buttercream, and whipped ganache.
While this rule isn’t entirely exclusive, a wonderful pastry chef friend of mine told me that the ideal texture of frosting for decorating a cake was “like mayonnaise.” I used to tend to prefer my frosting on the firmer side, because it was easier to work with. But as soon as I tried her tip, I was hooked: Soft frosting spreads beautifully, whether you’re making gorgeous swirls or sharp edges… It’s a total dream to work with!
It’s ideal to use a cake turntable when you’re making layer cakes (especially when cutting the layers), but if you don’t have one, you can just use a cake stand, turning it occasionally with your hands (a platter or whatever you’re serving the cake on works too, but the stand gives you height, which is helpful). If you have a Lazy Susan of any sort, you can rig your own turntable!
First up, ready your cake layers. Some recipes produce very flat-top cakes. If that’s the case, you don’t need to cut the top off, but if you’ve got a dome, start there. Use a serrated knife to remove the domed top and make a flat surface. The best way to evenly cut any cake is to start by slowly making a line in the side with your knife, all the way around the cake. Look at the cake as close to eye level as you comfortably can, and hold the knife perpendicular to the cake where you want to make the cut. Touch the knife to the side of the cake and make a slight “score” mark. Do this carefully, making the score, then rotating the cake and making another score mark in line with the previous one.
Once you’ve carefully scored the cake all the way around, you’re ready to cut: Touch the knife to the score mark and rotate the cake quickly. Try not to use a sawing motion, which can make rough edged cuts in the cake’s surface; just hold the knife firmly and move it towards the center of the cake while you rotate the turntable (or the cake stand/platter/what-have-you). When you’ve made it all the way through, lift the piece off of the cake. Tear off a piece of the domed top and eat it—you’ve earned it and you’ll need sustenance before you continue!
Follow this same cutting technique if you’re cutting the cake into layers. You can even use a ruler to help you measure the cake when you make the first score mark to help ensure the layers are even: Once you have a careful score, you don’t have to futz with it! Repeat until all your cakes and layers have been cut.
Note: While I fully recommend baking cakes ahead of time so on the day of you can focus on building your cake, it’s usually not advisable to cut the layers ahead of time. Once cut, most cakes are really prone to drying out. Plus, the cut layers are more delicate and are more likely to break or tear—so make the cakes ahead, but keep the cutting for the day of!
Okay, now the big build. When you’re building a layer cake, you’re trying to build a solid foundation. You want the layers to be even and adhered together. The best way to do this is to use enough filling and frosting, and be careful while you stack.
Place the first layer on the base of the turntable. I like to start with an actual bottom of a cake so I begin with a flat end, and I like the top layer of the cake to also be a bottom piece, bottom-side up—that way you start flat, end flat. If you’re using a simple syrup to soak the cake layers, apply it now, before any fillings go on.
I like to apply fillings with a pastry bag because it helps give me control and keep things even. You can either squeeze the filling in rounds/spirals, or you can just squiggle it over the surface. Use an offset spatula to help spread it into an even layer, all the way to the edges. If you’re using a looser filling, like curd or jam, it’s best to build a sort of retaining wall out of icing. Use a pastry bag to pipe a ring of frosting around the outer edge of the cake layer, then pipe or scoop the filling into the center of the icing ring and spread into an even layer. If you’re adding inclusions, sprinkle them evenly on top. When you’re finished applying the filling, place another cake layer on top. Do your best to line up the cake layer at the edges so it’s even and straight, and press the cake layer down gently to make sure it’s really on there. Repeat the whole process again, building layers of cake and filling until you’ve used it all up.
Once the cake is built, I like to refrigerate it for a bit before I begin frosting. This helps the fillings firm up, which makes it easier to decorate—your carefully built layers can slide if the filling or inclusions are slippery! Thirty minutes usually works for me, and less (or none!) is fine, too; it’s just something that always helps things go smoother for me.
It’s a good idea to apply a crumb coat. Is it totally necessary? No. But if you’re going through all of the effort to make a lovely layer cake, it’s worth it—the crumb coat gets rid of any crumbs or cake dust, helps sort of “seal” the whole cake together, and makes smooth sides that are easier to frost later.
Use an offset spatula (8 inches is my preferred size for decorating standard 8- and 9-inch cakes) to apply frosting to the surface of the cake. Swoop your hand back and forth across the surface of the cake, spreading the frosting to the edges. If you’re using a turntable, you can finish by simply holding the spatula flat on top of the cake, with the tip of the spatula in the very center of the cake. Apply gently pressure to the spatula while you turn the turntable quickly; the excess frosting will bunch up on the end of the spatula. After a few rotations, stop turning and lift the spatula (and the excess frosting!) away.
Apply icing to the sides of the cake by scooping it onto the end of the spatula and holding it parallel to the sides, and swooping your hand back and forth to ensure even coverage. Once there’s frosting all over, hold the spatula parallel to the cake, straight up and down, and apply gentle pressure while turning the turntable quickly to remove the excess frosting. The crumb coat should be very thin; you’ll likely see the cake layers through it a bit. Chill the cake for up to 30 minutes to help set the crumb coat.
When you’re ready to frost the cake, follow the same techniques listed above, this time using more frosting, and not applying as much pressure when you handle the spatula, so you remove less frosting and instead are just smoothing it. If you’re not using a turntable, you can achieve a similar effect by turning your cake stand or platter by hand, but it may be slightly harder to achieve clean edges because the movement won’t be quite as smooth. You always want to frost the top of a cake first, then the sides. Then you can use the offset spatula, held flat just above the surface of the cake, to swipe away the excess “wall” of frosting from the upper edge of the cake. This takes a little practice to get right, but once you do, it’s smooth sailing!
There’s as many ways to decorate cakes as there are flavors of cake itself, but I can’t help but shout out a few of my favorite décor techniques. I like to use decorations that are pretty, usually edible, and that contribute to the cake in flavor, color, texture, and overall look. Don’t forget that garnishes can help cover up frosting errors, all while making the cake look better, so they’re not to be overlooked!
More: This cake is coated in toasted coconut flakes. We're into it.
How to move a finished layer cake, whether from your kitchen counter to the cake stand, from the fridge to the dining room, or from your house to a party venue? First of all, chilled cakes are safest. The colder your cake, the more likely it will stay put, so a healthy period in the fridge is always great. Just remember to bring it back to room temperature to serve it!
Building your cake on a cardboard cake circle is another great start. Buy one that is the same size as the cake pans you used (they can be helpful when you’re frosting, too, because you can touch the tip of the spatula to the edge of the cardboard and use it as a guide when you frost the sides). The cardboard makes it easier to pick up the cake: You can use your spatula to lift up the edge, and then just sneak your hand underneath and support the cardboard. Whether you use one or not, just remember to move cakes with confidence. This sounds silly, but it’s true! If you second-guess yourself, you’re likely to sway or swerve and that can mean disaster! But don’t confuse confidence with speed—this is no race (hopefully, it’s a piece of cake). Take your time and move with purpose.
If you’re transporting your cake in a car, it’s ideal to purchase a cardboard cake box—again, the proper size for the cake you made. These boxes let you slide the cake in easily from the side, and they don’t have any excess room to let the cake move around once inside, so they’re pretty safe! If you’re driving with a cake, it’s best to let it rest on someone’s lap or on the floor of a car; on a seat it can move quite a bit!
When it’s time to slice your cake, it’s ideal to use a slicing knife—but if you don’t have one, a regular chef’s knife or even a serrated will do! You can be precise and mark the surface of the frosting with the knife to ensure even slices, or you can just wing it. It’s best to slice directly down (no sawing motion) for the cleanest slice. If possible, wipe off the knife on a damp towel in between cuts.
- 2 1/4 cups all purpose flour
- 2 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1 cup unsalted butter, at room temperature
- 1 3/4 cups sugar, divided
- Zest of 2 lemons
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 1/4 teaspoon lemon extract
- 3/4 cup whole milk, at room temperature
- 6 egg whites
- 1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar
Filling + Finishing
- 6 egg whites
- 1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar
- 2 1/4 cups granulated sugar
- 1/2 cup water
- 2 1/2 cups unsalted butter, at room temperature
- 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
- 1/2 teaspoon lemon extract
- 1 tablespoon lemon zest
- 1 1/2 cups raspberry jam
Piece of cake? Piece of cake! Tell us about the most layers you've ever built in the comments.