Baking a cake requires more than just a good recipe; it can all go wrong after you've got the ingredients together. After twenty plus years of baking, I have learned most of the following lessons the hard way.
- Preheat the oven
Cakes can be pretty sensitive to oven temperature, and starting to bake while the oven is still heating up pretty much guarantees failure. Most recipes tell you to preheat. Believe them.
- Grease and flour your pans, even if they are non-stick
- Bake in a quiet house
There is nothing worse than having your cake sink in the oven. It doesn't take much vibration to ruin a cake, so be pro-active. Shut down the washer and dryer, turn the thumping rock off, don't slam doors, and send all rambunctious children outside until it's done.
- Take it out of the oven on time
Of all the arts of baking, this is the hardest and the most important. There can be as little as five minutes of baking time between a moist cake and a dry one.
- Don't believe the recipe; start checking the cake at about 2/3 of the baking time stated.
- The first check is visual: is the outside baked?
- If the outside is baked, open the oven and move the shelf a tiny bit. If the cake wiggles like Santa's belly, leave it in.
- If the top of the cake is firm when you move the shelf, poke a toothipick (or the top, non floor-contacting end of a broomstraw) in and pull it out. If there's cake batter on it, the cake isn't done.
- If the toothpick comes out slightly oily but not covered in batter, the cake is just done. Take it out. It will still be sensitive to vibration; it should coast on its own heat for a few minutes more to finish firming up.
- Don't take it out of the pans until it's cooled down some
Taking it out too early risks sinking or tearing the cake. Wait until the pans are cool enough to handle with your bare hands. See How to keep a cake from sticking to the pan for the best way to get it out.
- Don't frost until the cake is stone cold
If you apply frosting to a warm cake, it will melt and run. Layer cakes will slide slowly and depressingly apart. Cover the layers and put them in the fridge if you have to cool them down quickly, but don't frost a warm cake. See How to frost a cake for more.
Remember, though, if anything does go wrong with the cake: if someone doesn't like the way it looks, they don't have to eat any. I have yet to have a cake refused.