Making layer cakes frustrates the hell out of me. It's so hard to get them to look in real life like they do in books and magazines. I am aware of food styling tricks and cheats, so never beat myself up too much over appearances, but, dang, how come I'm not perfect?
I was so proud of myself for making the above pictured chocolate peanut butter cake* posted by Deb of Smitten Kitchen, and, hot damn, if mine didn't come out just as gorgeous as hers. (Patting own back.)
I've learned a few tricks to layer cakes that make the construction of a beauteous cake easier, and I will never not do these steps:
Freeze cake layers - Wrap each individual cake layer in three or more layers of plastic wrap, and freeze them before assembling the cake. It's so much easier to handle frozen cake layers without the fear of soft cakes cracking and crumbling in your hands. This also lets you break the cake making tasks into parts: bake cake one day, make frosting and assemble the next day (or some later date; the cake will keep in the freezer for weeks).
Obviously not the chocolate peanut butter cake, but I had these pics on file.
Trim Cake - We all know about leveling the tops of layer cakes so they sit flat, but also trim the sides. For whatever reason, you can bake cake layers in straight-sided pans of the same diameter, and carefully center them on top of each other, yet the sides will be wonky. Trim them!Wax paper - Y'all know to stick strips of wax paper or parchment paper under the cake before applying frosting, so the serving platter doesn't look a mess, but I'd be remiss if I didn't include this tip.
Crumb Coating - Frosting a cake is the most frustrating part for me, because all those cake crumbs get in the frosting, even after you've brushed the crumbs off, making for a homely cake. A crumb coat is the initial thin layer of frosting that coats the tops and sides of a cake, where you try your darnedest to not get crumbs in the frosting, but it'll happen anyway, then you stick the cake in the fridge, walk away, and come back in 30 minutes to a slightly stiffened frosting that is ready to receive the final, thick, glamour coat of frosting. Crumb coat once, and you'll never not crumb coat again.
* This chocolate and peanut butter cake is da bomb, and every bit as rich and wonderful as Deb describes it, but do note that this cake is not suited for warm weather. After sitting on an outdoor buffet table on a gorgeous, sunny, summer day for a few minutes, the ganache melted into a syrup-like consistency and slid off the cake (the top picture with ganache flowing over the side is how it's supposed to look...but things got worse). Then the butter, cream cheese, and peanut butter-based frosting gave way, and there was a cake avalanche at some point after it was cut into. I don't beat myself up too much. Cake disasters happen.