The perfect cake should be a visual pleasure long before the first bite is taken. Like judging a book by its cover, a lot of this anticipation stems from the allure of the cake's icing. But as any novice baker can attest, icing is no piece of cake.
The tools of the trade are available at any cookware store, and craft stores stock a wide selection of cake-decorating paraphernalia, but most of the essentials can be drummed up in your own kitchen. A platter or stand, wax or parchment paper, a soft-bristled pastry brush, a long, serrated bread knife, a flat or offset metal spatula and a few tips are all you'll need.
1. Before baking cake layers, make sure the batter is evenly distributed in the cake pans and that the oven racks are level (angled racks make sloped cakes). Once baked, cool cake layers completely on wire racks before assembling and icing.
2. Loose crumbs make icing difficult, so brush all crumbs from cakes with the palm of your hand (or by blowing gently if you're not fearful of germs). A soft-bristled pastry brush will also remove crumbs without eroding the cake.
3. Place the bottom layer upside-down (to provide a flat surface for the filling) on a cake stand or serving platter. To prevent the stand or platter from getting smudged with icing, cover the border of the cake platter with 2- to 3-inch-wide strips of waxed or parchment paper before you set the first layer upon it. You can fill and frost with abandon. (When you're finished, gently pull the strips out, revealing a spotless border.)
4. Plop a big dollop of icing in the center of the layer and spread filling out to the edges. If the filling is different from the outside frosting, be careful not to spread the filling over the edges. Use a judicious amount; if applied too heavily, filling will ooze out when top layer is put in place.
5. Place top layer on bottom layer, right side up, so that the two cake bottoms touch each other. If a thin icing is used, pour or spread the icing onto the center of the cake. Then spread it to the edges and down the sides with a spatula. If a heavy icing is used, it may be easier to spread the sides first, then place a good quantity of icing in the center of the top and push it to the edges with a spatula.
6. Trim cake layers if necessary. With a long-bladed, serrated bread knife, remove any ragged edges using a gentle sawing motion. Slightly rounded tops are easily covered by icing, but excessively large bumps may have to be cut off.
7. Pushing the icing rather than pulling or dragging it with the spatula prevents pulling up crumbs and getting them mixed with the icing. Use a pushing motion from the center of the cake with a long flat spatula or a shorter offset spatula, turning the cake stand or serving plate as you go.
Use enough icing to cover the entire cake generously, but not excessively, with an even layer. Reserve a bit of icing in case of emergency -- if crumbs are incorporated into icing, a final swirl of reserved icing may save the day. Smooth the icing with long strokes of the metal spatula, or leave it textured or swirled, as desired. The finished cake should have a perfectly level top and perfectly straight, even sides.
Splitting the layers
If desired, layers may be split to accommodate extra fillings. To split a layer horizontally, set the cake on waxed paper. Place one hand flat on top. With a long, serrated or very sharp knife, slowly cut through the center of the cake with a gentle sawing motion until halved.
If you're going to be fitting the layers back together after filling them, stick a toothpick in each half, one above the other, to match up the layers later.
FIVE-STAR CHOCOLATE CAKE
On Foodnetwork.com, this Ina Garten recipe is called Beatty's Chocolate Cake. We changed the name to reflect the ranking of more than 1,500 reviews of home bakers who raved about it on the website. Tampa Bay Times food editor Janet K. Keeler tested it three times and concurs: It's a winner.
Butter, for greasing the pans
1-3/4 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for pans
2 cups sugar
3/4 cups good cocoa powder
2 teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 cup buttermilk, shaken
1/2 cup vegetable oil
2 extra-large eggs, at room temperature
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1 cup freshly brewed hot coffee
For the icing:
6 ounces good semisweet chocolate
1/2 pound (2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1-1/4 cups sifted confectioners' sugar
1 tablespoon instant coffee powder
To make cake, preheat oven to 350 degrees. Butter two 8- by 2-inch round cake pans. Line with parchment paper, then butter and flour the pans.
Sift the flour, sugar, cocoa, baking soda, baking powder and salt into the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with a paddle attachment and mix on low speed until combined. In another bowl, combine the buttermilk, oil, eggs and vanilla. With the mixer on low speed, slowly add the wet ingredients to the dry. With mixer still on low, add the coffee and stir just to combine, scraping the bottom of the bowl with a rubber spatula. Pour the batter into the prepared pans and bake for 35 to 40 minutes, until a cake tester comes out clean. Cool in the pans for 30 minutes, then turn them out onto a cooling rack and cool completely.
Place 1 layer, flat side up, on a flat plate or cake pedestal. Spread the top with frosting. Place the second layer on top, rounded side up, and spread the frosting evenly on the top and sides of the cake.
To make the icing, chop the chocolate and place it in a heat-proof bowl set over a pan of simmering water. Stir until just melted, then set aside until cooled to room temperature.
In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, beat the butter on medium-high speed until fluffy, about 3 minutes. Add vanilla and beat for 3 minutes. Turn the mixer to low, gradually add the confectioners' sugar, then beat at medium speed, scraping down the bowl as necessary, until smooth and creamy. Dissolve the coffee powder in 2 teaspoons of the hottest tap water. On low speed, add the chocolate and coffee to the butter mixture and mix until blended. Don't whip! Spread immediately on the cake.
-- Ina Garten, Food Network
(Food Network is part of Scripps Networks Interactive, which shares common ownership with The E.W. Scripps Co., the parent company of Scripps Howard News Service.)