Layer cakes are as much a craft project as they are a baking project. It's a process that requires time and patience, but the reward is totally worth it. When made and assembled properly, layer cakes are a stunning and totally impressive dessert – which is exactly what can make them seem kind of intimidating to make. It's easier than you think, though, when you know the major pitfalls to avoid.
1. Stacking uneven layers of cake.
Despite your best efforts, your cakes may bake up with a domed top. It's happened to all of us. What's important is that you don't attempt to assemble your cake with these uneven layers. That will make for an unbalanced, potentially lopsided cake with a high risk of toppling over.
Follow this tip: Layer cakes take a lot of work, so the last thing you want to happen is for that beautiful dessert to topple over. Be sure your cake is stable before starting to assemble it. Avoid stacking uneven layers of cake. Instead, for a stable cake with beautiful flat layers, trim each layer of cake to have an even, flat top before assembling.
2. Trimming a warm cake.
If your cakes bake up with domed tops, don't worry — it happens to the best of us. The fix is as simple as using a long serrated knife to slice the top off of each layer to level them out. But when you trim it is important; if you trim the layers when your cakes are still warm, they can easily crumble or tear.
Follow this tip: If your cake needs to be trimmed, or if you plan to torte it by cutting it into thinner layers, never do this while the cake is still warm. Wait until the cakes have cooled completely, or for the best results, chill the layers before trimming. When the cake is cool and more firm, it's less likely to crack or tear.
3. Frosting the cake before it's completely cooled.
Frosting a cake before it's completely cooled is a recipe for disaster. Remember, the primary ingredient in most frosting is fat, and when spread on a warm cake, the frosting will soften and may even begin to melt.
Follow this tip: Don't jump the gun here. Remember, making and assembling a layer cake takes patience — especially when it comes to completely cooling the cake layers before frosting. To nail this crucial step, consider baking the cake the day before you plan to frost it, or chill the layers before frosting.
4. Not sealing in soft fillings.
Certain fillings, like a simple buttercream, fudge, or cream cheese frosting, can simply be spread across the layers of cake; they're relatively firm and stable fillings that aren't going anywhere. Thinner options, like pastry cream, fruit purée, and jams, are a different story. When not sealed, these soft fillings are more likely to leak out the sides of the cake.
Follow this tip: When filling your layer cake with soft fillings, first create a dam of sorts with frosting to prevent the fillings from leaking. Use the same frosting you plan to use for the outside of the cake, and pipe a single layer around the outer edge of the cake. Repeat this step for each layer of filling.
5. Skipping the crumb coating before frosting.
Have you ever made a layer cake where the outside frosting is clumpy with cake crumbs? I have, and it's not attractive. This happens because we skipped the crumb coating. It might seem like a small and unnecessary step, but it's worth it for a smooth finished product.
Follow this tip: You've already spent a lot of time on your cake — don't skimp now. Before applying that final beautiful layer of buttercream around the outside of the cake, always be sure to spread on the crumb coating first. Your extra efforts will reward you with a beautiful-looking cake and not a crumb in sight. To make the crumb coating, apply a thin, even layer of buttercream to the top and side of the cake. Cover the cake and place it in the refrigerator to chill for about 15 minutes before applying the final layer of buttercream.
More: What Is a Crumb Coat?