5 Tips for Making the Perfect Cake

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We have talked buttercream, in 8 Steps to Making Perfect Buttercream, and I have received a lot of questions about how to perfect that lovely vehicle to get the buttercream to your mouth. No, not spoons or fingers -- cake.

Even if you aren't going to become a professional baker, playing with cake and buttercream every once in a while can be a lot of fun, as well as delicious. Don't get discouraged if you run into some snags. Learn from it and move on to the next cake. Here are a few cake tips to get you going on your cake quest.

See also: Not All Buttercream is Created Equal: A Chow Bella Primer, Part One

Every oven is different. Be it gas or electric, your oven will bake differently from mine. Which is why I always give a suggestions in recipes, as well as descriptions of what your finished product should look and sometimes feel like. Bake a few things in there, and get a feel for how hot it is, as well as where the hot spots lie. Purchase a $5 oven-safe thermometer (they usually hook onto one of the racks -- make sure it's for placing in the oven!), and use that to constantly check the oven temperature.

Recently, I moved into a house with a brand-new range. Shiny and sleek with more buttons than an airplane cockpit, I was ready to test new recipes. Come to find out the oven is on the cool side, and my latest cake test took two hours to bake completely in the convection oven setting.

Ovens usually have a blurb in their manual about how to adjust if your temps are off slightly. Otherwise, use that lovely warranty and call in a professional. Older ovens may have the ability to be adjusted. Check with the manufacturer or the manual. You can always temp the different areas of your oven, to see where your hot and cold spots are, and adjust how you place and bake your items.

Low and slow. If you are baking a large, thick cake, you may notice that your edges set before the center does. How to you combat this so that you don't end up with dry edges and moist interior?

I drop the temp on the oven and go for a slightly longer bake time. It works wonders for me, allowing the cake to bake a bit more consistently, instead of popping the oven open to find set edges and jiggly interior.

There is a product out there called bake-even strips -- made of either silicone or aluminized fabric that must be dampened with water then placed around the exterior edge of your cake pan -- to allow the cake to bake flat and even. These do work really well but can be pricy depending on how much you bake cakes.

Moist cakes are a must. I hate dry cake. There is nothing worse than taking a bite of cake and needing to drink a gallon of water to wash down the sawdust cake bits. I will often add some buttermilk or sour cream to my cake recipes to up the moisture. Start with a little and increase slowly to see how you like the texture and moisture level of the cake.

I wrap my cakes warm from the oven in plastic wrap and freeze right away. This traps moisture in the cake and once the cake is frozen (well, I pull it a bit before I'm going to cut it, but it's still hard) it is easier to cut.

Cut your layers with a serrated knife, a.k.a. bread knife. Much as you don't want your lovely bread to get smashed and condensed using a regular knife, you are looking for the same when cutting cakes. Get out that serrated bread knife and cut those cakes layers. Always cut off and discard (err, or eat) the domed top, before measuring out your layers.

Simple syrup makes a difference and can add flavor. If your cake is already über-moist, you may want to avoid the simple syrup. However, drier cakes can do with a dab of this, to help moisten but this is an awesome vehicle for flavor. Simple syrup is equal parts sugar to water (or any other type of liquid), brought to a boil. Add in some flavoring, alcohol or herbs. Let me paint you a cake picture: vanilla cake, mint simple syrup, chocolate buttercream.

Rachel Miller is a pastry chef and food writer in Phoenix, where she bakes, eats, and single-handedly keeps her local cheese shop in business. You can get more information about her pastry at www.pistolwhippedpastry.com, or on her blog at www.croissantinthecity.com.

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