BAKING AND LEVELING
The beginning of a cake is really one of the most important parts. Following these guidelines will give you a good base for your fondant. (Because, if your cake leans like the Tower of Pisa, no amount of fondant is going to hide that.) Lets start with the baking.
1. Use pans that are specifically designed for cakes.
These pans are available almost everywhere (Walmart, Joann's Fabrics, Michaels, etc.) The difference between these pans and the ones that you might have grown up with is that these pans have a perfect 90 degree angle with taller and straighter edges. Standard cake pans are 2 inches tall, so typically you bake two levels to reach the approximate 4 inch height of a cake.
2. Use parchment paper on the bottom of your pans. (You can even use wax paper if you're out of parchment.)
There is nothing worse than ruining everything you baked because they fell apart during the removal process. Trust me, you want to avoid this. One of the best ways to do that is to generously spray the sides of your pan with a non-stick spray (like Pam) and lay down parchment paper at the bottom of the pan that has been cut down to size. (If you don't have parchment paper, spray generously and then dust with flour.)
Note: Leave the parchment on until you frost the cake. This will make it easier to move the cake around without it falling apart, and it helps trap moisture.
3. Cook the cake evenly.
You don't need a commercial oven to do this. I will usually spin my cake 180 degrees about 10 minutes into the bake time. This will help prevent drastic slants in the cake baking. You want it even because you will level the cake at the lowest point of the upper edge. For larger pans (I would say 12 inches or larger) use a baking core which is a small metal cylinder placed in the center of the batter to help evenly cook the cake. When baking a larger cake you can drop the temperature by 25 degrees and bake it a little longer. This prevents the edges from over-baking before the center is done. When removing your cake, it's better to err on the side of undercooked than overcooked. This will keep your cake moist!
I mentioned leaning cake earlier, and if you don't level your cake that is exactly what you will have. This is a very easy but important process.
1. Make sure the cake is COMPLETELY cool
If you cut into the cake too early steam (moisture) will escape. Leave your layers alone until they are 100% room temp or cooler.
2. Use a leveler.
They are very inexpensive and far easier than using a knife which can be imprecise). A leveler has notches along both sides to ensure that your wire is completely straight.
3. Cut the dome off of your cake.
Make sure your cake is on a flat surface. Line the wire up with the lowest part of the ridge of the cake (that slightly crusty lip before it starts doming on the top). Gently cut through the cake with a sawing motion. You may need to use a sharp, serrated knife to help the leveler cut through the crust. If you find the cake is tearing or crumbling too much, chill the cake before leveling it. Remove the top of the cake when you're done (which makes for a good snack or reserve for cake pops). Your cake should be completely flat now.
4. Repeat this process for your second level.*
*Note- This will give your cake two layers of cake and one level of filling. If you want 4 levels of cake and 3 levels of filling, as I do, you adjust the wire to half the height of your already leveled layers and cut them in half so you total 4 short levels. And a ton more of that wonderful filling.
You are now ready to fill and crumb coat your cake! Here's a brief recap:
1. Use the right pan
2. Use parchment paper
3. Cook the cake evenly
1. Completely cool cake
2. Use a leveler
3. Cut the dome off your cake
4. Repeat for all layers
Now get to baking!
(More of a visual learner? You can see the video tutorial here.)