Nothing says "Happy Birthday" like a layer cake. These can be two cakes simply sandwiched together with frosting, or they can be "torted" into multiple layers for dramatic and delicious effect.
To create multiple layers, you will need:
- A long serrated knife
- Plastic wrap
- Simple syrup--plain or flavored
- Pastry brush
- Cardboard cake circles (available at baking supply stores and craft stores, or you can make your own: cut a circle slightly smaller than the diameter of your cake pan)
Trimming the tops and bottoms off of your cake rounds lets you moisten the cake layers with a sugar syrup. This adds sweetness and flavor, and keeps the cake from drying out. (Most cakes benefit from a simple syrup soaking, but it's a must for sponge cakes.)
To trim the cake, place it on a flat cutting board. (If you have a cake turntable, use it.) Keep the palm of your non-working hand resting on the domed top of the cake. With your knife hand, lightly score the edge of the cake where you'll be making your cut. Rotate the cake so you can score it around the entire diameter. Now, begin to cut:
- Keep your knife level
- Use a gently back-and-forth sawing motion
- Once you've made one back-and-forth cut, rotate the cake about 45 degrees, and repeat
- Cut and rotate until you've worked your way around the entire cake. You should be able to cut through the whole layer with another steady back-and-forth cut
Remove the cake scraps (they're great for snacking) and repeat with the bottom side of the cake. Because it's flat, you probably won't need to make as deep of a cut--you just want to slice off the top layer of "skin."
Depending upon your recipe, the size of the pan, and how full the pans were, you need to decide whether you can realistically split your cake into two or three levels. Err on the side of caution--it's better to have a few thick layers than to try to patch together broken halves of cake.
Set the trimmed cake on a cake circle. (If your recipe is really rich and dense, it helps to sprinkle granulated sugar on the cardboard before setting the cake on it; this will help keep your cake from sticking to the cake circle.) Keeping your knife level, score the cake's edge, like above. Continue with the back-and-forth sawing as you rotate the cake, until your knife cuts clear through the layer. Slip your hand under the cut layer, and gently transfer the cake to a sheet of plastic wrap. Cover both layers until you're ready to frost the cake. Repeat with remaining cake round.
The Crumb Coat
Applying a "crumb coat" is the best way to achieve professional-looking results, especially if you want a smooth-sided cake. This is essentially a thin layer of frosting that will help seal in the crumbs so that your final coat of frosting will be easy to apply and crumb-free.
Have handy your cake circles, simple syrup, frosting, and a damp sponge or cloth for wiping away stray crumbs.
Set your least-perfect cake layer on a cake circle, and apply simple syrup with a pastry brush. Add a healthy dollop of frosting, and spread it across the surface, almost to the edge--the weight of additional layers will spread it out further. Top with another layer of cake; if you have a cracked or broken layer, sandwich it in here. As you add layers, bend down so the cake's at eye level: make sure the layers are stacked flush. Apply simple syrup and frosting at each step. When you reach your final layer, apply syrup and frosting, spreading it to the edge of the cake. Add a dollop of frosting to the side of the cake, and spread it thinly to cover as much territory as you can.
When the sides of the cake are completely masked, use your spatula or knife to make a final, steady pass around the sides of the cake. The frosting will have pushed up to form a rim above the top layer of the cake. Holding your spatula away from you at the far edge of the cake, pull it towards yourself; you want the flat blade to skim the edge of the cake so excess frosting is smoothed onto the top surface, toward the center. Rotate the cake, continuing the swooping and gliding motion until the sides and top of the cake are smooth. Don't worry if there's cake showing through the frosting; you'll cover that on the second go-round.
Chill the cake in your fridge or freezer until firm.
Swoops and Swirls
Apply the final coat of frosting following the same steps as above, but be a little more generous in the application. Once you've covered the tops and sides of the cake, you can either keep it smooth and modern-looking, or make it fluffy and home-style. Use the back of a spoon or the tip of your spatula to make swirls and peaks, adding a little more frosting if necessary.
Finish your cake with candles, sprinkles, flowers, chocolate shavings, or any other decorations you wish.