Before I start writing anything, I wish everyone 'HAPPY THANKSGIVING'.
I took wilton's cake decorating classes in 2008. I took all the four courses they had to offer and I am glad I did. But, the classes do not teach you everything. You pick up tips and tricks as you keep practicing. You can look at the cakes I have done so far in the 'My Cakes' tab on the side bar. You can see how bad my first cake was and see the improvement over time. I am not saying I am an expert, but looking back at where I started, I have come a long way. If I were making these for a living, I would've had more practice and more finesse. Since I do this once in a while, I have not become a master.
Coming to the point of this post, recently, Madhuram of egglesscooking.com has started taking these courses and she is doing a great job of explaining everything that is involved. I am just trying to write several posts with tips and tricks that I've gathered so far.
When you decorate a cake, there is a rule about the height of the cake. They are usually either 2 layer cakes with either one layer of filling or 3 layers of filling (Each layer torted into two making four layers) with 4 inches of height or they could be 3 inch high cakes. This is the norm of tiered cakes or other shaped cakes. Then comes the sheet cake which are typically 2 inches high and have no filling in them. There are couple of tricks to get a cake with good height (2" or 3") depending on the pan you are using.
Make sure to fill the cake batter 1/2 way or 2/3 full. It depends on the type of cake you are making. Some cakes raise high whereas others do not. Keep in mind that fact when you fill the batter. Next thing to do is to make sure there is no hump or dome in the center. The reason why cakes have a hump is because of the edges cooking faster compared to the center. The center raises slowly whereas the edges are already set. To make sure they raise with no dome or very little dome, use bake even strips. You do not have to buy the bake even strips. You can use your old towel and make a strip of 2 " high and wide enough to surround the cake pan. Make two layers of this and sew together. Soak them in water for 10 minutes before you put the cake in the oven. When ready to place the pan in the oven, wring the strip so that it is not dripping wet and wrap the pan and fasten with metal clips (the kind we use on paper the big black metal ones) and place in the oven. Cake will almost be level. More the dome, more trimming you'll have to do and more waste in cake and height of the cake.
Another thing which makes sure the cake cooks even and does not make a big hump is to use flower nail in the center. Just keep the base down at the center and spray with non stick spray. Pour the batter into the pan. This is very useful while baking cakes which are bigger than 9" in diameter.
If you are baking lot of cakes, lining the pan with parchment can get expensive. I have always used home made cake release and my cakes have never stuck to the pan. Here is how you make it. Mix equal volumes of flour, veg or canola oil and shortening in a container with lid. (Example: 1/2 cup of flour, 1/2 cup of oil and 1/2 cup of shortening) Take a pastry brush and apply this generously to the base and sides of the cake. This mixture keeps at room temperature for 6 months and saves you lot of time in greasing and flouring by hand every time. I actually mix these in the shortening container (which is empty) and leave one pastry brush in there. This way, I don't even have to wash the pastry brush every time. Another important point here is to not let the cake sit in the pan when done for more than 15 minutes. Shortening starts solidifying once cake starts cooling down and that itself might make the cake stick to the pan.
Hope you have enjoyed this post. More tips on cake decorating in future posts.