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How to Bake a Cake and Prepare it for Decorating

Henri’s 10th* birthday party was last weekend, and while I’m not a professional by any means, I have made enough cakes by now (not to mention the 40 or so ones I’ve yet to post) that I often get asked for tips or help.  So I decided to put together a step-by-step guide on how I prepare a cake for decorating.** 

I’ll get more into the “how to bake a cake” part in a future post, as there are a lot of little tweaks and tips for the baking part itself…but this post will cover specifically how to prepare a basic cake for decorating.

Note #1- I typically bake my cakes 1-2 days prior to when I plan to decorate, which – depending on the desired outcome – is 1-2 days prior to the cake’s due date. (IE: if the cake is for Sunday, I’ll bake it Thurs or Fri night, then decorate Saturday night. If it’s a very involved, sculptural cake, I might bump those dates back a day each to leave more time for decorating.)

Before you can bake the cake, you need to prepare your pan. This step ensures you’ll be able to remove the cake from the pan once it’s baked. Some people line their pans with parchment, but I use this method:

  • Grease the pan’s bottom and sides with either Pam, margarine, or butter
  • Drop a tablespoon of flour onto the greased pan
  • Over the sink (I learned the hard way) slowly rotate and tilt the pan until the flour fully coats the bottom and sides, tapping if necessary to move things along
  • Make sure it’s fully covered, touching up bare spots if necessary
  • To remove excess flour, hold pan upside-down over the sink and smack the bottom of the pan a few times. The loose flour will fall into the sink.

Note #2- They make a ‘baker’s’ version of Pam that has flour mixed in already.

Note #3- I’ve heard of, but never tried, using Pan Grease in lieu of the above. I’m planning to try it out sometime when I don’t have a deadline looming 🙂

Pan Grease

1 cup shortening
1 cup flour
3/4 cup vegetable oil

Mix well with electric mixer and store in airtight container. Does
not need refrigeration.

Note #4- It doesn’t matter what kind of flour you use. One time I’d bought the wrong kind of flour for a recipe and had no use for it, so I used that one for preparing pans until it had been all used up. Ever since I use all-purpose, but you can use whatever you’d like, including nut-based and gluten-free flours. I’ve also seen people use cocoa powder when preparing pans for chocolate-based recipes.

Note #5- Don’t try to tap out the excess flour over a garbage can unless your pan is small enough to hold lower than the rim of the can. I learned this the hard way…

Once the pan is ready, you can prepare your batter, then pour it in. Some cakes need to be left alone, but for my regular birthday-type cakes, I drop the pan on the counter a few times so the air bubbles in the batter can raise to the surface and pop.

Once the cake is ready to come out of the oven, a very important step is to let the cake set in the pan for about 10 minutes. Try to remove it too soon and it will fall apart, but wait too long and it will get very difficult to remove. My standard is to set my oven timer for 10 minutes and use that time to get out the items I’ll need for the wrapping step coming up.

Once 10 minutes are up, your cake is ready to remove from the pan. Loosen around the edges with a knife. I also like to sort of “tuck” the knife under the cake and give it little test lifts to help ease it from the bottom of the pan.

The photos above show how I used to remove the cakes from the pan- I’d flip the pan over onto a flexible cutting board, then use a 2nd board to flip it back to right-side up, before sliding it onto a tray to allow it to cool overnight.

However- I don’t do this method any more. Instead I remove the cake from the pan and place it immediately onto a long length of Saran Wrap, which I then fold over to seal. Then I turn the cake 90 degrees, place it onto a 2nd long length of Saran, and wrap it again, so the 2nd layer covers any gaps in the 1st. I do this immediately after the 10 min rest in the pan.

Once the cakes are wrapped in Saran, you can leave them to cool. I’ve done this up to 5 days in advance of serving, and the cakes still came out perfect. In fact, I’d recommend this even more for cakes made in advance- unlike my previous method of leaving them uncovered, the Saran traps the heat and steam into the cake, leaving them dense and moist and delicious instead of dry and crumbly.

Leave the Saran-covered cakes somewhere dry and cool where they won’t be disturbed. (Don’t leave them stacked as the top one might sag, I only did this when I took the photo as I was trying to estimate how tall the finished cake would be).

Allow the cakes to cool at minimum overnight. A cake might feel cool on the outside but still have residual heat trapped inside, and icing and decorations will slide right off.

Once cooled, you’re ready to level and tort. (Tort is just a fancy word for “cut the cake in half, horizontally). For best results, use a knife long enough to fit across the narrowest edge of the cake.

Slowly and evenly cut off the rounded cake dome, starting at one corner then easing your way across until you can go straight down along the cake. Keep your hand steady and try to hold the knife as flat and parallel to the table as you can. Once you’ve cut all the way across you can remove the scraps for eating or other uses. I always like to have a storage container handy as well to hold the cake scraps which I use later with any leftover icing to make cake pops for my kids.

In the demo cake shown here, I didn’t tort, but if I would have it would have been at this step. Using the same knife as above, cut the cake horizontally into two layers.

Note #6- I recently picked up these cake level guides and OMG they’re perfect! I clipped one to my knife and held it flush against the table as I cut and I’ve never had a cake turn out as perfectly level before. I <3.

Before you can begin decorating, you must consider your base. Is the cake to be moved? Is it going to be heavy, and need a cake board? For the cake shown, I iced, decorated and transported it on the white tray, and I would use the same method with any other tray or cake stand. If this was a tier in a larger cake, however, I’d be using a cake board.

Put a dollop of icing into the center of where your cake will go. This will “glue” your cake to the tray/board and keep it from sliding around. Center the cake into place and give it a little push down to adhere.

Fill your cake. Do a border of icing around the edges of the cake and then fill it with more icing, jam, whatever you’d like. Then place your other layer on top and press down lightly. I often flip it so the flatter bottom of the cake layer becomes the top of the cake, but this 9×11 was a bit too large and thin for me to feel comfortable flipping without risking breaking. I’m a klutz after all…

Before I begin to ice the outside of the cake, I protect the tray/stand/surface with parchment paper or wax paper. Cut off a narrow piece and then cut that into pieces to fit around the edges of the cake. For a rectangle or square cake I’d cut 4 narrow strips, if it was a round cake I’d cut the full-size strips into thirds and slightly overlap them to surround the cake with a hexagon of paper.

See the crumbs on the parchment? That’s why it’s there- to protect the base from crumbs and icing. The crumb coat (shown) isn’t part of the decorative exterior, it’s used (and named) to capture any loose crumbs that would otherwise fall off as you work. Ice the cake on the top and all sides, but don’t worry about covering every inch of the cake. The main thing is to trap the crumbs and fill in any gaps in between the layers of the cake.

Note #7- Mine is sloppy. Both the crumb coat and the upcoming icing. This cake was for fun. If you are planning to cover the cake in fondant later OR planning to have smooth or knife-edge sides, then you should make sure your crumb coat is smooth as well, or it will be more difficult later.

After the crumb coat I like to put the cake in the fridge to set the icing. This isn’t completely mandatory, so don’t stress if you don’t have room in your fridge. Place the cake somewhere cool and undisturbed for about 30 minutes, or until the icing crusts over.

Once the crumb coat is done you’re almost ready to decorate. The cake just needs one more layer of icing. If I’ll be covering with fondant, I put a thinner layer. It’s more to smooth the top/sides and give the fondant something to ‘stick’ to vs a layer of icing to eat. If I’ll only be using icing, then I put a thicker layer, making sure to cover the cake completely.

For the cake in these examples, it was just for fun and I wasn’t going to be adding decorations, so I gave it a quick layer of thicker icing. I made it even but didn’t spend any time trying to make it smooth.

Whether or not I’ll be adding fondant, or additional decorations, this is the point at which I’ll remove the parchment/wax paper strips. Gently lift them away, making sure not to drop any icing blobs onto the cake or tray. If necessary, use a sharp knife to break the seal of any hardened icing that is connecting the papers to the cakes.

Note #8- Even if the icing on the strips looks clean, I don’t add it back in with any remaining icing to re-use. It’s more likely than not that there are cake crumbs within.

And here’s the baked, iced cake, ready for topping with fondant decorations, candies, candles, or anything else you have in mind.

Hopefully this basic instructional was helpful! If you have any questions that weren’t answered, leave them in the comments and I’ll update it with my answers.

*I know, Henri is 10 already!  Can you believe it? 

**This is only how I do things, after the last 10 years of trial and error.  I’m not saying it’s the only way, nor even that it’s necessarily the right way.  It’s just my way, and if it helps you, it can be your way too 🙂


Quick Crafty Tip: Using Pants Hangers

I don’t have a ‘Crafty Compilation’ for either of the last two weeks as I’ve spent them working primarily on some sample knitting that I’m not sure if I can talk about yet.  So, instead, here’s a quick tip for those of you who enjoy coloring: pants hangers are your friend.

tip color with clips 02

Yup.  Actual hangers that you use to hang up your pants.  (Or your kids’ pants, in my case).
tip color with clips 05

I’ve been using binder clips with my Art of Coloring: Disney Villains book ever since I got it.  I’ve been using a lot of water media in it and I’ve taken to clipping the book shut whenever I’m not using it to minimize most of the page warping.  Because this book has thick cardboard covers it stays open pretty flat on its own, though I tend to pop the clip onto my working page mostly so I don’t misplace it until I need it again.  With other books I’ve taken to working on a clipboard for both the hard surface as well as the ability to clip the book open to my current page.  For the most part, that worked perfectly.

tip color with clips 04Then one day I was laying on my belly in bed coloring the page above (the Eagle image in Kerby Rosanes’ imagimorphia).  It was held down by my clipboard on the far right of the right page but I kept getting frustrated at the left-side page flipping shut every time I reached over for my coloring supplies (Stabilo 88 and Staedtler Triplus fineliners, as well as Caran D’Ache Neocolor II watercolor crayons for the purple wisps).  I’d been laying on my belly and constantly raising up onto my elbows to brace the page between color changes was starting to hurt more than the coloring itself soothed.

Henri had had a similar problem holding open his Pokemon books so he could sketch from them, and I’d lent him my cookbook stand.  It was a great solution but now that I needed it I didn’t have the heart to steal it back for myself.  That’s when I remembered the image going around Facebook a while ago in a list of kitchen tips: using a pants hanger to hold your recipe up and out of the way, by hanging it from an upper cabinet doorknob.  I had no need to hang my coloring book, but it would be perfect for what I needed too!

tip color with clips 03

And it was!  The two clips hold the pages down on either side, but the stiff bar that connects them keeps them open flat, where the book could otherwise still slip shut.  (The above wip image is also from imagimorphia, and the background wash was done with the Neocolor IIs).  After you’ve finished coloring the page, the hanger can then be used to clip the book shut as it dries to minimize any warping from the wet pages.

If you wanted you could also store your books from the hangers, sideways along a bar similar to needlepoint sets.  (Ooooh now I’m picturing a dry cleaner-style conveyor holding all my coloring and craft books… that would be awesome!!)

tip color with clips 01

And for an easy reminder to pin:

tip color with clips titled

That’s all for now.  Hopefully this tip could be handy for some of you!

This post may contain affiliate links. This means I might make a small commission on purchases made through the links, at no cost to you.


my own provisional or invisible cast on alternative

Sometimes a pattern will call for an invisible cast on. An invisible cast on is when you cast on with your yarn and a waste yarn (usually a smooth yarn like cotton in a contrasting color). The way you twist the yarns as you cast on will result in giving you the “backs” of the stitches to pick up later. This means that if you cast on 40 sts, you will have 40 sts ready with your working yarn to knit up right away, and then later when you unpick the waste yarn you will have 40 more sts waiting for you to slip on a needle and begin knitting in the other direction.

This can also be called a “provisional” cast on, and the directions can call for you to crochet a long chain and knit your first row into the back “bumps” of the chain. When you use this method the crocheted chain holds your first row “live” and you can “unzip” the crochet chain later and put the freed stitches back on the needle to knit in the other direction.

I’ve had to use this many times-
– my favorite toe-up sock pattern has you start with an invisible cast on, knit the toe section, then put the other half of the cast on sts on two more needles so you can start knitting the foot in the round.
a gift scarf I knit once had you start with an invisible cast on, knit half of the funky cable pattern, bind off, then put the other half of the cast on sts on the needle so you could repeat the scarf for the other side, ensuring that both halves of the scarf were the same and knit in the same direction (instead of casting on at one end, knitting to the other end, then binding off).
the Samantha baby sweater dress I had knit for my friend’s daughter also has you cast on with an invisible cast on, work a picot edging, then later release the other half of the live cast on sts to hem them up by folding along a turning row and then sewing the hem in place.

It’s that last one that led to my latest ah-ha! unvention. I had decided early on that I was too lazy to sew the bottom hem up later, when I could easily knit it in as I went. Instead of waiting until the piece was done, undoing the waste yarn, threading the long tail on a needle and sewing down each loop of live stitch, I would instead work the hem as directed, but once I’d worked to a point even with the length of the hem (for example 8 hem rows, turning row, 8 body rows) I would release the waste yarn sts to another needle and knit them together with the next body row. This works much as one would do a 3-needle bind off, except you don’t bind off. You just knit a stitch from each needle together.

That worked perfectly, except for one thing: I hate picking out the waste yarn from when you do a typical cast on of this type. Because the only thing done in the waste yarn was to cast on there is only that bottom edge of a contrast, and it is not always easy to find the stitches of your first actual row. I always feel like I’m going to lose a stitch, especially the end ones.

So I came up with an easier idea. In my case I’m going to show you how to use it to knit in a hem, but you can skip the hem part and just use the technique to have your stitches ready to knit your ribbing or hem later if you’re not sure what you want to do yet, or to knit in the other direction (like a scarf or shawl).

I still cast on with waste yarn, only this time I knit a row or so. Enough to give you a row of knit stitches that you can see easily.

Then switch to your pattern yarn and work as you like until the point where you want to knit in the hem. (In this example, I think I’d knit 5 rows, purled a row as a turning row, then knit 5 more rows).

Many times I have been in the middle of a project when I notice an error that can’t be corrected by dropping down just a few stitches. In these cases, instead of just ripping back I sometimes like to insert the needle into the knitting first, then rip. This way I can’t rip too far, and all the sts end up sitting there on the needle for me. This works the same way.

Insert a second (slightly smaller) needle into one half of each of the sts in the first row of your pattern yarn. Make sure you have done this for all the sts (if your row has 32 sts make sure you pick up half each of 32 sts).

Cut the waste yarn in a few random spots in the first row. Make sure to not cut the pattern yarn!

This shows the cut end starting to be unpicked from the knitting.

Use a needle or the points of your scissors to help you pick out the first row of waste yarn.

This leaves the pattern yarn sitting there on your needle, all the stitches looking pretty and ready to knit! This gives you the same result as the traditional invisible cast on, without the fiddly cast on itself and the trial-and-error I always experience when picking out the waste yarn.

And that’s all there is to it! Now the cast on row is ready to do whatever you want. Again, in my case I have done it after some extra hem rows because I will be turning the hem and knitting it in, but you could easily have done this just at the beginning of your regular knitting pattern and then the stitches would be ready to knit your ribbings, lengthen your garment, knit in the other direction, graft something, or do whatever you like!

I’m going to continue the directions for how to knit in the hem for those of you who would like to try this.

Then, to knit in the hem as I did, all you need to do is fold it up and knit a stitch from each needle together. Once that’s done, you just keep knitting your pattern as usual.

This shows the front of the hemmed piece after the hem was knit in and I’d knit about 5 more rows. The turned edge is nice and flat because of the turning row (you can also use a picot edge or anything you like). The bottom is thicker and doubled with a nice, sturdy hem that will not unravel, and the two sides are open so you can insert an elastic if you like. If not then the sides will close when you seam the piece, or you can just seam them shut later.

This shows the back. You can see the stockinette section at the bottom which is the folded hem, and then the reverse stockinette section which is the back of the right-side stockinette part. It’s neat and simple!

This method can be used in any instance where an invisible or provisional cast on is required.

I really got this idea because I have no problem picking up one side of each stitch when ripping back, and that helps me often. I thought, “wouldn’t that be easier than picking out a cast on row and trying to find the sts?” For me, this was much easier, I didn’t need directions on how to cast on, nor a crochet hook. Quick, simple and painless. Hope this helps someone like it did me!