‘Tis the season to make cookies, but you know what’s always welcome in the Williams Sonoma Test Kitchen? Cake! The new Williams Sonoma Test Kitchen cookbook, Favorite Cakes, is brimming with fresh ideas for cakes that have that unmistakably delicious homemade flavor, but look like the handiwork of a professional decorator.
One trend the Test Kitchen incorporated throughout the book was layer cakes—statuesque, show-stopping works of art that look like they could be made for a wedding, but are easy enough to make for a birthday party. From a carrot cake with a “naked cake” look, mini layer cakes with champagne and raspberry, or a gorgeous ombré layer cake, the book is all about making these over-the-top layer cakes completely do-able at home.
In the process, they learned how to troubleshoot some of the most common layer cake issues. From a layer that’s stuck in the cake pan to a cake that’s starting to lean, they’ve seen it all. Here, our test kitchen cooks answer some common layer cake Qs.
What kind of cake pans are best?
Nothing is worse than baking a batch of cakes only to find them all stuck to the pan, so choosing the right pan is essential. Our Test Kitchen loves Goldtouch cake pans. “These pans are super nonstick so you can line with parchment and lightly grease, then you’re good to go!” says Inken Chrisman, Williams Sonoma Test Kitchen cook. Choose 8 or 9-inch depending on the size cake you prefer. (Pro tip: 8-inch cakes are easier to stack and result in less droop if you’re doing more than two layers.)
What’s your favorite way to level cakes to avoid the dreaded dome?
A flat, even cake top is the sign of a pro-level cake and makes the ideal platform for an array of festive decorations. However, sometimes yoru layers come out of the oven with a come in the center. If that happens, there are two things you can do, says Williams Sonoma Test Kitchen cook Isabelle English. “Use a large serrated knife to level it out or, if the dome isn’t too dramatic, simply put the top layer dome-side-down.” Don’t get carried away when trimming your cake tops: Shave off a little at time so you can keep it nice and even.
Ooops: My cakes are stuck in the pan! What now?
It’s every baker’s worst nightmare but, despite the best of intentions, it does happen. “To fix it, run an offset spatula around the edges of the pan, then invert and forcefully tap against a surface to release the cake,” says Emily McFarren, a Williams Sonoma Test Kitchen cook. To reduce the odds of this happening to you, don’t forget to line your cake pan with parchment and grease and flour the pan according to the recipe instructions
Any tips for spreading the frosting between each layer?
The Test Kitchen swears by piping frosting, which is the easiest way to ensure even frosting application. First, using a wide round tip, pipe a ring of frosting around the edge of the layer. Fill that in with a single layer of piped frosting, then use an offset spatula to smooth it out. “This will ensure an even layer of frosting without tearing apart the cake and provide a flat surface for stacking additional layers,” says Chrisman.
Help, my cake is crooked! What do I do?
If you followed all the instructions above and your cake is still crooked, there’s a good chance your frosting is too soft, causing the cake to lean. To avoid the Leaning Tower of Layer Cake look, make sure to chill your cake in the refrigerator before adding another layer. Once it sets, you can gently push it back into alignment. “Otherwise, don’t stress too much—even crooked cake is still delicious!” says English.
What is a crumb coat and why does it matter?
A crumb coat is designed to help your cake look perfectly frosted without any crumbs mixed in with the frosting,” explains Chrisman. To do it, apply thin layer of frosting to your stacked cakes. “It will catch all of the crumbs from the surface of the cake,” says Chrisman. Then, refrigerate your cake before adding the final, pristine layer of frosting.
How do I get the “naked cake” effect?
It’s really simple, says McFarren: “Take off all your clothes, then frost the cake.” All jokes aside, you really have two options. “One is to simply pipe the frosting between layers and leave the outside of the cake bare,” says McFarren. That results in a neat stack of visible cake and frosting layers. “The other option is to generously fill between the layers, press down gently, and use the excess frosting that squeezes out to thinly coat the exterior of the cake,” says McFarren. Use this technique when you want a modern, rustic look with some of the cake showing through the frosting.
What’s the easiest way to make a frosting job look profesh?
With cake decorating, the secret is in the tool drawers: Here are the four tools our test kitchen recommends.
1. A large offset spatula gives you the best angle to smooth frosting perfectly.
2. A bench scraper is great for smoothing the sides and edges where the side and top of the cake meets. Fun piping tips help you make it beautiful.
3. A spinning cake stand allows you to evenly frost in a fluid motion.
4. Most of all, time is the ultimate tool, don’t rush it. Let your cakes cool completely and take your time while frosting.
Any simple décor ideas that don’t involve a PhD in piping?
The Favorite Cakes book is brimming with easy cake décor ideas in our book including how to add decorative patterns with everyday utensils like forks, making shapes out of marzipan (yes, you can do it!), and topping cakes with edible flowers. “If all else fails, cover it in sprinkles!” says English.