Stacked: Layer cakes meet our sweet expectations

Elaborate, multitiered wedding and party cakes are perhaps best left to those who craft them for a living. But there’s nothing to stop the home baker from putting one layer atop another in a way that will still make guests feel special. It may take a bit more time and patience, but making layer cakes with special fillings and frostings can be enjoyable on many levels. Local baking experts say the “oohs” and “aahs” these cakes generate make the extra effort worthwhile.

Batter up

Mixing cake ingredients properly involves more than just a beater and a bowl. Whether you’re using a from-scratch recipe or a premade mix, it’s important to follow directions carefully; they’ve been formulated a certain way for a reason, said Randy McArthur of McArthur’s Bakery in Kirkwood, Brentwood and south St. Louis County. “If it calls for butter, use butter,” he said. “Don’t try to shortcut it or change ingredients. The recipe has been formed for that particular mix of ingredients.”

Making cakes from scratch is a tasteful way to impress guests, but bakers with less time to spare can make use of boxed mixes. “Again, make sure the box instructions are followed closely,” McArthur said. “Mixes have starches and other ingredients in them so that, if you don’t follow the directions, you won’t get a good-quality cake. They have to have a certain specific gravity, or amount of air incorporated into the mix, and need a certain amount of aeration to develop that, so don’t do too much mixing or too little.

“If you mix too much, you’ll get holes and a coarse grain, and the cake won’t be as moist. If you don’t mix long enough, the batter will be lumpy and not have enough volume. Your layers may be small or uneven.”

Building your cake

Ericka Robertson Frank of The Cakery in Dogtown said there are some key tips to keep in mind when constructing a layered cake so that it comes out even, attractive and appetizing. “You must level every layer before assembling,” she said. “Otherwise, you will have a sliding, breaking mess. A long, sharp knife to take the crown off the cake will do, but there are also tools by companies like Agbay Products that make leveling easy.”

If you’re making a torte-type cake with thinner layers, McArthur recommended slicing regular cake layers in half horizontally and then positioning the layers cut side up as you fill and stack them. This will enable them to lie level and to hold the filling more securely.

Frank said it’s also important to frost the outside of a layer cake twice. Once you’ve stacked and filled the layers, first apply a thin layer of icing to the top and sides to seal in crumbs. “This layer will not be pretty,” she said. “Wait about 10 minutes [to allow the icing to set], then put a final, thicker, crumb-free coat on.”

Frank also said that after applying a fruit filling, it’s a good idea to pipe a “rim” of icing around the outer edge of that layer. This will help seal in the filling and keep it from oozing through the outer frosting layer. Furthermore, don’t use too much filling; cake layers may not adhere properly if you do.

Russell Ping of Russell’s Café and Bakery advised buying a good, smoothly rotating turntable for use in icing cakes. “Use it when you’re applying the filling, too,” he said. “It’ll make your cake more even.” It’s a good idea to refrigerate the cake for a bit after applying the filling and before frosting it, he said.

One of the most important pieces of advice in icing layer cakes is to let the layers cool completely after baking. “Never ice a warm layer,” McArthur said. “The icing will run, and the cake may fold and crack. Then it’s history.” Freezing cake layers before assembling them can be helpful – once the cake thaws, its moisture will equalize, its edges won’t be dry and it’ll hold up better during icing, McArthur said.

Getting it there

Layer cakes can pose special challenges when they must be transported to a party or gathering, but there are ways to help keep them from arriving any the worse for wear.

“Refrigerate your completed cake at least two to four hours before transporting,” said Tim Brennan of Cravings Restaurant and Bakery. “If possible, find a cooler or insulated case with ice packs to transport it.” Ping said some people use a flat three-ring binder beneath the cake to help level it when placed on the seat of a car.

“If you’re nervous about sliding layers, trim a thin wood skewer to the height of the cake, and push it down through the middle for extra security,” Frank advised.

Flavor favorites

Russell Ping of Russell’s Café & Bakery in Fenton said the key ingredient to layer cake success is keeping things simple and elegant. He advised using cake, icing and filling combinations whose flavors won’t compete too much with each other. In most cases, two flavors work best, such as orange and vanilla or raspberry and white chocolate.

“I think simple is more appealing,” Ping said. “We don’t do a lot of heavily decorated cakes in my shop. Using high-quality ingredients is more important.”

Favorite flavor combinations at his café include a Dreamsicle cake with a white batter, orange marmalade-whipped cream filling and French vanilla buttercream icing and a Double Shot Espresso Cake with French vanilla buttercream icing that’s embellished with four shots of strong espresso. Black Forest cake with a chocolate batter, cherries and whipped cream is another staple at Russell’s.
Ericka Robertson Frank of The Cakery in Dogtown recommended French vanilla cake with lemon or raspberry filling and vanilla buttercream icing or the classic combo of yellow cake with fudge frosting.

Tim Brennan of Cravings Restaurant and Bakery in Webster Groves gets a bit more complex with his flavors. He likes to tailor them to the seasons, recommending white cake with lime cream filling, French vanilla buttercream and strawberries for spring parties; almond cake with lemon cream filling and vanilla buttercream for summer; carrot cake with butter pecan filling and cream cheese frosting for fall; and for the winter months, chocolate-cranberry cake with raspberry and cappuccino mousse, frosted in chocolate ganache.

For a year-round icing that goes well with just about any cake flavor, Ping recommended freshly whipped cream sweetened with powdered sugar and tinged with vanilla extract. It’s delicious as both a frosting and a filling, he said.

Slice of heaven

When it comes to cutting layer cakes, Justin Wacker, sous chef at ~scape in the Central West End, suggested dipping a long, serrated knife in warm water, wiping it clean, then slicing while the knife’s still warm. “Do this before cutting each slice,” he said. “Be sure to wipe the knife clean each time so you don’t wind up with crumbs on the top of the cake. You’ll also want to make sure you pull the knife out from the bottom [rather than slide it back up through the top of the cake].” He uses this technique to attractively present the restaurant’s extra-tall six-layer carrot cake, which features rich cream cheese icing, candied pecans and caramel sauce. “We serve each slice standing vertically, not lying on one side,” he said.