Tips and Tricks Archive

Tips for Torting Cake Layers

cake-decorating-turntableOccasionally a recipe suggests that you “torte” the layers of a cake. This is a technique where you take one cake layer and cut it horizontally into two or more layers. Always use a thin, sharp knife. (We like a long hollow edge slicing knife as described in How to Level Your Cake Layers). If it is longer than the width of your cake, it will be easier to perform this task.

First, the freehand approach. Place your whole cake layer on a cardboard of the same size, then place on your turntable, if you have one. This tool will facilitate the process. Bring your eye down to cake level so that you can easily assess the path of the knife as you cut. Cut horizontally into as many cake layers as you need – cutting in half, thirds or quarters, for instance. If you have spare cardboards, place each newly cut layer on one; this will protect them as you move them around and re-assemble your cake.

You could try and do this by eye, but it can be difficult. A more exacting technique is to put the cake on a cardboard round and cut a small vertical line into the cake’s side, from top to bottom—just deep enough to see (you’ll be using this later to line the split layers back up). Hold a ruler vertically against the cake, placing the ruler on the top edge of the cardboard to get true measurements of the actual cake.

Make small holes with toothpicks at the level(s) where you want to cut at intervals all the way around the circumference of the cake moving the ruler around the cake as you go to help you mark properly. Place your cake in the center of your turntable and place your knife horizontally against one of the holes.

Start gently cutting into the cake, spinning the turntable slowly, cutting all the while and always making sure that the blade is level (horizontal) and hitting the right spots. Continue until the cake is cut evenly all the way through. Slide this layer onto another same-size cardboard and set aside. Continue if you are cutting more layers.

Now you are ready to fill and frost your cake. Line up those initial vertical cuts after you have applied your filling to make sure you are putting your cake layers back together correctly.

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How To Level Your Cake Layers

serrated knife vs. hollow edge knife used to level cake layersIf you are making a cake with multiple layers, even just two, and you want the top of the cake to be level, the first step before assembling with filling and frosting is to assess whether your cake layers need some trimming. Some layers may peak during baking or end up lopsided, but this is easily taken care of. Sometimes a slight dome on top is very homespun in a positive way and can even be desirable, but if you want a flat top to write on or flood with ganache, then we have some great baking tips and techniques for you.

To trim off any rounded portions from the tops of your layers (and also to torte your layers), we suggest using a long, thin, hollow edge slicing knife as seen at the top of our image.

This kind of knife has smooth, rounded indentations along the blade, which reduce drag and make a clean cut. A serrated knife will work (depicted in bottom of image), but will create crumbs that get picked up by your frosting, wreaking havoc. A knife that has a longer blade than the diameter of your cake will be best. We use our turntable to aid this process. Place your cake layer in the center of the turntable, get down to eye level with the cake and gently spin. You should be able to see the high spots of the cake pretty easily. Gently slice those away – always cutting conservatively. You can cut more off later if you need to.

You also want to measure the depths of your cake layers so that they end up the same height. Since you will have divided the batter equally between the pans, chances are they are even, but sometimes one cake will rise a little more in the oven than the other. Trim every layer so that it is the same height. When done, we usually flip the cakes upside down so that their bottom is now the nice smooth, flat top. It’s easier to apply frosting to that side of the cake.

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Why Cake Pans Make a Difference

Your Choice of Pan Does Affect Your Baked Goods

cake pan comparison

We want to help you bake the best possible cakes and along with great recipes, your choice of cake pans can make a huge difference. Huge!

In the Test Kitchen, Bakepedia performed an experiment where we divided a basic yellow cake batter in half and baked the two halves in the same oven at the same time, but in different pans. The only difference was the quality of the two pans. One was Wilton Decorator Preferred (seen on the right in the photo), which we love for its sturdiness and even heating, and the other was a thin, flimsy pan bought at the supermarket (shown on the left, above). The supermarket pan’s cake peaked horribly, overcooked around the edges and left the cake texture rough and uneven from center to edges. The Wilton pan resulted in a cake with a more level surface, a consistent color overall and, most importantly, a tender, even crumb throughout.

The difference was dramatic. Invest in great baking pans and you will have them forever. We use the Wilton pans in the test kitchen and our recommended baking times reflect their performance. There was a 20% difference in baking time with the supermarket pan, so if you do not use the same or similar cake pans, your baking times will be off as well. Always check early.

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Our Best Tips for Writing on Cakes

writing-on-cakes

A home-baked cake is always well received, and personalizing the dessert makes it even more special. Follow these tips to help you write “Happy Birthday,” names, or any sentiment you like on top of your cake – so it doesn’t end up on CakeWrecks!

First let’s consider what you will use. Smooth, soft frosting in a contrasting color works perfectly for writing on cakes. If your cake is frosted in white, you can set aside a small amount and tint to a desirable color. Melted chocolate is also a good choice, as long as it has cooled enough to be slightly thick and not too runny, or else it will flow too quickly through your decorating tip or parchment cone. (Parchment cones are our tool of choice when using chocolate for easy clean-up. As always, fill cone half to two-thirds of the way and snip a very small hole in the tip. You can always enlarge the hole if needed). Regular whipped cream can be used on dark-colored cakes.

Practice definitely makes perfect with cake decorating. You can use a bit of the frosting you set aside or even vegetable shortening that has been stirred with a wooden spoon to soften. Place the cake pan that you used to bake your cake upside down on your work surface (after you have removed the cake, of course) and practice appropriately sized lettering and words right on the pan, scrape it up and do it again. Make sure you are well above your writing surface and try moving your whole body, not just your wrist and arm.

If you need more help, you can look up font styles on the Internet or in books and photocopy them, making them larger or smaller as needed – block-style, script, bold or delicate, you can find what you like. Then, place a piece of parchment over the page with the letters and trace with your frosting on the parchment.

The most common mistake when writing on cakes is making the letters too large or starting too far into the center and running out of room, so pace yourself. Make sure to ease up on the pressure applied to the pastry bag or cone when you come to a place in that particular letter where you might be going over a section twice (like in a cursive b, for example). We double up a lot with regular handwriting, but with cake writing, it yields a thick, ungainly looking letter.  Even if your writing comes out a bit wobbly, there is still much charm in a homemade cake. Serve it with grace; your guests will love it.

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5 Best Tips for Frosting Cakes

Italian-meringue-buttercreamSome cakes, like pound cake, need no embellishment but every scratch baker should know how to make a fancy filled and frosted layer cake. As with all baking techniques there are certain tips for frosting cakes that will help you create the best possible results. Here are our favorite tips for the prettiest frosted cakes.

1. Make sure the frosting is soft and spreadable. If it is just a little bit too cold or stiff, it will not apply well.

2. Always keep your icing spatula gliding on top of the frosting and do not let it touch the cake (or you will bring crumbs up into the frosting).

3. Always make a thin initial coat to seal in crumbs. Called the crumb-coat, this coating preps the surface for the final layer of frosting, which will then apply much more easily. Looks aren’t important during this step. The crumb-coat will be almost see-through and might even look somewhat patchy and uneven, which is okay.

4. Place cakes on same-size cardboard rounds (or other matching shape) purchased from craft- or cake-decorating supply stores. Use the cardboard’s edge when frosting cakes to help guide your icing spatula for the crumb-coat and smooth final coats.

5. If using a pastry bag, fill it only halfway and make sure frosting is soft and creamy enough to flow smoothly from the chosen tip.

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Top 10 Best Tips for Baking Cakes

Bakepedia-lining-a-pan-with-parchment-paperScratch baking is a creative joy, and there are some great tips and tricks for baking cakes that will ensure the best results. Here are our top 10 to get you well on your way to being a crackerjack scratch baker.

1. Read each recipe thoroughly and follow it to the letter. This means taking care to use the exact ingredients and equipment called for and following the baking techniques suggested.

2. Use high-quality measuring cups and spoons. We use both Cuisipro and King Arthur Flour measuring cups in the test kitchen. In our assessment, cheap, poorly calibrated measuring spoons varied by over 100% in comparison to those properly made in accordance with federal weights and measures guidelines.

3. Use high-quality cake pans such as Wilton’s Decorator Preferred. They should be heavyweight aluminum to conduct heat evenly. Baking cakes in thin, flimsy pans from the supermarket can yield a cake overdone on the edges with a steep peak and cracks.

4. Use an oven thermometer to make sure that your oven is calibrated properly.

5. Do not over-bake your cakes. Recipes often give time cues for baking cakes, which are approximations, as well as visual cues. The visual cues are the most important, and we usually suggest baking until a wooden toothpick (or wooden skewer for very deep cakes) shows a few moist crumbs because there is residual pan heat after you remove the cakes from the oven. Thus, we don’t advise baking your cakes until the toothpick test comes out completely clean.

6. Cool your pans on a rack, which allows air circulation, then turn the cakes out onto the racks themselves. Remove parchment, if applicable, and then cool thoroughly. (Exceptions, such as angel food and chiffon cakes, are noted in recipes themselves.) Proper cooling helps your cake’s texture be as good as it can be.

7. Many cakes can be made up to one day before filling and frosting, such as classic butter-rich layer cakes. Place layers of same-size cardboard rounds (purchased at a craft or cake-decorating store), then double wrap in plastic wrap and store at room temperature.

8. Cardboard rounds provide a smooth guide for your icing spatula when applying frosting on cakes. In fact, a turntable, cardboard rounds and an icing spatula are the three most important baking tools that will help you create beautifully decorated cakes.

9. Follow storage instructions in individual recipes. If a cake is stored in the refrigerator, but directions say to serve at room temperature, follow those recommendations for best results. The butter in many cakes and frostings must soften to allow the best texture and flavors to come through.

10. Last but not least, Enjoy the baking process – have fun!

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Dipping Candies and Truffles in Tempered Chocolate

dipping candies and truffles in tempered chocolate

There are two techniques we like to use when coating ganache centers or candies in a chocolate shell – dipping and rolling. The technical name encompassing both is “enrobing,” but dipping and rolling will give different results. When dipping, a larger amount of chocolate is used and a slightly thicker shell is formed. Rolling the centers in melted chocolate gives a more delicate covering.

To dip, have tempered chocolate in a narrow, deep container (we often use a standard 2-cup Pyrex measuring cup). Drop a chilled/firm center in the chocolate and allow it (and encourage it) to become completely submerged. Use chocolate dipping tools or a couple of forks to lift the center out of the melted chocolate and shake it gently, or toss it back and forth from tool to tool, to remove as much excess chocolate as possible. You can also situate the coated candy on one of the forks (not pierced, but resting in the tines) and tap the handle of the fork on the edge of the container to encourage as much excess chocolate to drip away as possible. Make sure, however, that the center is completely coated. If surplus chocolate is left on the center after dipping, it will accumulate around the base of the candies upon cooling, making what is called a “foot” – which is thick, unattractive and hard to crunch through. If a foot develops, you can try trimming it with a sharp paring knife after the dipped candy has firmed up.

To make a more delicately rolled coating, you also begin with chilled/firm centers and tempered chocolate. Place about a tablespoon of tempered chocolate in the palm of one hand and drop a rolled center on top of it. Roll it around with both palms until it is completely covered/coated with tempered chocolate. The chocolate in your palm will harden quickly so work rapidly. You might have to pause and wash your hands a few times. Note that if you are working with chilled truffle centers, they should be chilled but not be ice cold. They will shock the tempered chocolate and make it harden too quickly if they are too cold. Remove them from the refrigerator for at least 5 to 10 minutes before enrobing. The timing will depend on the temperature of the centers and of your room. They should just be cold enough to hold their shape.

Candies and truffles dipped in tempered chocolate can be stored at room temperature or refrigerated. Always bring to room temperature before serving.

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Tempering Chocolate

tempering-chocolate

Tempering chocolate is simply melting chocolate in a particular way, stabilizing the fat crystals so that after cooling, the chocolate will be thin, glossy and crisp. Tempered chocolate contracts slightly, allows candies to pop out of molds and also adds a polished look to your dipped candies and truffles – literally in that they will have a high shine, and figuratively because they will look quite professional. You can also use tempered chocolate to make elegant decorations for cakes and other desserts, so it is a technique worth knowing.

Begin with a high cocoa butter chocolate, typically labeled as couverture, for best results and make sure the chocolate you are using is in good temper itself. It should be shiny, free of any streaks or mottling and it should snap when you break it. A chocolate thermometer (one that measures one-degree increments from 40˚ to 130˚) is required for best results.

  • Start with desired amount of chocolate as stated in recipe and make sure it is finely chopped.
  • Place about two-thirds of the total amount in the top of a double boiler with gently simmering water in the lower half of the double boiler.
  • Stir gently to encourage melting, but don’t agitate vigorously, which would add air.
  • Do not allow chocolate to heat above 115˚ for bittersweet and semisweet chocolate and 110˚ for milk or white chocolate. As soon as the chocolate is almost completely melted, remove from the heat and wipe the bottom of the pot to eliminate any chances of water droplets reaching the chocolate, which would cause it to seize.
  • Add about one-third of the remaining chopped chocolate and stir gently. The residual heat will melt it. You want to cool the chocolate down to 79˚.
  • Add the remaining chocolate, in two more stages, if necessary to cool chocolate further, continuing to stir gently until 79˚ is reached. Any un-melted chocolate can be removed and reserved for another use.
  • Place pot back over hot, not simmering water, and re-warm gently. Bittersweet and semisweet chocolates should be brought up to 88˚ to 90˚; milk chocolate between 85˚ to 88˚ and white chocolate should be brought to 84˚ to 87˚. Do not allow any chocolate to rise above 90˚ or you will have to begin entire process again (although you may use the same chocolate again, we prefer to always start with chocolate in good temper). Sometimes chocolate labels will tell you what their specific tempering temperature is, so heed their advice.
  • The chocolate is now ready to use.
  • To test the temper, thinly spread a teaspoon amount on a piece of aluminum foil and allow it to cool. If your room temperature is warm, refrigerate it for about 2 minutes. The chocolate should look shiny and smooth and break with a crisp snap. Any dull spots or streaks, or a soft texture, indicate that the chocolate is not in good temper.
  • Now you must retain the chocolate’s temperature while you are working with it. Try setting a heating pad on low and placing your bowl of tempered chocolate on top of it. Always keep checking the temperature keeping it within its range. Stir it occasionally to keep the entire amount evenly heated as it will cool around the edges.

Bakepedia Notes

Note that it is easiest to temper at least 8 ounces of chocolate and it is really not that much more difficult to temper three or four times that amount. If you are making several kinds of candies and truffles that require tempered chocolate, do them on the same day so as to take advantage of one big batch. Any leftover can be allowed to harden, then you can chop it up and fold it into your favorite ice cream or cookie batter, or save for more dipping (you will have to temper it again).

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Choosing Liquid Measuring Cups

Liquid-measuring-cups
We constantly reach for 1-cup, 2-cup and 4-cup liquid measuring cups. We recommend having an assortment handy because you will use them for water, juices, liquid sweeteners, measuring reduced mixtures right off the stove and in many other ways. This last use is also why we like a heatproof cup. Our test kitchen uses both Pyrexand Anchor Hockingbrands. They are made from heatproof glass, are practically shatterproof and have easy-to-read and accurate measurement markings. If you need ½ cup of liquid, don’t try to measure it in a 4-cup size (it might not even have the markings). Use a cup size similar to the amount of liquid called for.

We are not partial to the newfangled designs with markings that allow you to look down into the cup to read the levels. The good folks over at Cook’s Illustrated put several brands and designs through accuracy tests and this design did not fare well. We stick with the tried-and-true classic design with the measurements that are meant to be read from the outside. We also love the tiny shot-glass measuring cups that are available now and use them when a recipe calls for anything from 1 teaspoon to 2 tablespoons of liquid.

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Using Measuring Spoons

Using-measuring-spoons

While measuring spoons are typically thought of as dry-measuring implements, they are often used for extracts, flavorings, small amounts of water and other similar ingredients.

For liquids, pour the liquid ingredient (such as vanilla extract) into the exact-size measuring spoon and fill it up to the brim.

For dry ingredients, such as baking powder, dip spoon into your ingredient so that it overfills then scrape off the excess with a straight edge implement, such as an icing spatula.

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Choosing Accurate Measuring Spoons

Measuring-spoons

Many years back there was a small article in Gourmet magazine that completely changed our approach to baking. Sound dramatic? Well, the contents of the article demanded a dramatic reaction! The story explained how they had all their editors bring in their sets of measuring spoons from home. They measured 1 tablespoon of salt with each set, weighed the contents and noted the results, which, astonishingly, varied from 6 to 14 grams! They assumed that all measuring spoons were the same. We certainly had been putting faith in our sets and bet you have, too. How could it be that the results varied by more than 100%?

Industry standards exist, but they are guidelines and not laws. We have researched reputable companies and use Cuisipro stainless steel spoons in our test kitchen. The standard set includes 1/8-teaspoon, ¼ teaspoon, ½ teaspoon, 1 teaspoon and 1 tablespoon. They also offer a set that includes a Pinch, 1/8-teaspoon, 2/3-teaspoon, 1 ½ teaspoons and 2 teaspoons sizes. They are an elegant and useful slender oval shape that fits into most containers.

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Using Dry Measuring Cups for Sifted Ingredients

sifting-flour

Cocoas and powdered sugar often clump upon storage and we recommend sifting before using your dry measuring cups.

1. Sift your dry ingredient in a bowl, using a larger than required amount.

2. Using the exact sized measuring cup called for, dip it into your ingredient so that it overfills the cup.

3. Scrape off the excess with a straight edge implement, such as an icing spatula.

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How to Use Dry Measuring Cups for Flour and Granulated Sugar

 

Using-dry-measuring-cups

Before you grab your tools, please read our recommendations about choosing your dry measuring cups.

Believe it or not, there are many ways to use a measuring cup. You can scoop the cup into your flour or sugar and shake off the excess, you could spoon the ingredient into the cup and level it off with a butter knife (what we call “dip and sweep”) or you could sift flour right into the cup. All of these techniques will give you different amounts by volume and that’s just three of many different ways you might be using your measuring tools. Confusing? It can be, but we are here to help.

First of all, know what approach the recipe developer used. What does this mean? In our test kitchen we use the dip and sweep method. Other baking resources use a spoon-in method. If you are making a recipe out of a cookbook, there is probably a section called “How to Use This Book” or something similar. Read it! It will hopefully describe the techniques that the author used in developing those recipes. Follow their lead and you will get the best results.

Here’s what we do in detail. When using Bakepedia recipes, we suggest that you follow this dip and sweep method for flours and granulated sugar:

  1. Aerate flour by whisking. Flours will compact upon storage. Fluffing it up a bit will give you a better result. Skip this step if measuring granulated sugar.
  2. Using the exact-sized measuring cup called for, dip it into your ingredient so you have a heaping scoop.
  3. Scrape off the excess with a straight edge implement, such as an icing spatula.
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Choosing Dry Measuring Cups Wisely

dry measuring cups with normal and odd sizes

You might think dry measuring cups are the same no matter what the brand or place of purchase, but there are industry standards for weights and measures and not all measuring cups are manufactured to those specifications. If your set of measuring tools came from the dollar store or is dented, we say toss ‘em out. We use metal cups from Cuisipro as well as sets purchased from King Arthur Flour. Typical sets include ¼-cup, 1/3-cup, ½-cup and 1-cup – and those should be in your arsenal as a bare minimum. We also love odd-sized cups and use them all the time. These sets include 1/8-cup (2 tablespoons), 2/3-cup and ¾-cup. You can find 2-cup measuring cups as well, often sold separately. Think about when you need ¾-cup packed light brown sugar and how handy a ¾-cup measurer would be! It’s more than just the convenience factor, though. You will be more accurate. Here’s why.

If a recipe calls for ¾-cup of sugar, and you only have the traditional set, you end up measuring ½-cup and then an additional 1/4-cup. This means to get that one suggested measurement, you have to measure twice. Volume measurement is not exact and every time you measure, there is room for error. This might seem overly fussy, but it’s this kind of attention to detail that will help you get the best results. Invest in high-quality measuring tools now and they will last a lifetime. Wash and store them carefully so that they don’t dent!

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