How to Assemble a Layer Cake

Hummingbird Carrot Cake Recipe
Chris Simpson

A layer cake is the cake to make for a special occasion. Whether mile-high or just two simple layers, a cake with filling is definitely in order for birthdays and other festive occasions. Layer cakes consist of multiple stacked sheets of cake, held together by frosting or another type of filling, such as jam or custard, and just about any cake can be turned into one, though butter cakes and sponge cakes are most ubiquitous.

It doesn't take a pro to put together a cake that looks like it was just plucked out of a bakery display case. All you need are a few basic tools (and if you don't have all of them, don't sweat it: we've got clever substitutions) and a little bit of time.

And speaking of time, we'd be remiss if we didn't address the cardinal rule of assembling a layer cake: keep it cool. You'll want to make sure the cake layers are completely cooled before you start the process, because warm cake = melting frosting, and that's not good. If you're worried you may not have enough time to bake and assemble the cake all in one day (the entire process will take 4 hours, give or take), split it up, and bake the cake one day and frost it the next. And give it a chill in the fridge in between steps as you're frosting it, to help each layer set up nicely before you move on to the next.

The Hummingbird Carrot Cake pictured here is a great one to start with, since it's not only delicious, but the chopped pecans covering the bottom third of the cake and the candied carrot curls hide any little snags.

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Step 1: Trim the Cake

Trimming layer cake

A rotating turntable makes cake decorating much easier and faster, because it allows you to frost the cake without having to awkwardly contort your hands and arms around the cake. Just spin the turntable, and your work is done. That said, it's not a must; you can just set a plate on an inverted bowl.

Whichever setup you choose, place one cake layer on an 8-inch cardboard round, and then set the round on the turntable, securing it with a dab of buttercream or whatever frosting you're using. With a long serrated knife, trim tops off both cake layers to make flat surfaces.

Pro tip: save the scraps and stir them into ice cream or use them to make cake pops.

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Step 2: Spread the Filling


Using a small offset spatula, evenly cover the top of the first layer with 1 cup of your filling or frosting. Spread the filling so it extends beyond the edges of the cake.

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Step 3: Crumb Coat

To avoid stray crumbs getting swept up in the frosting, do what's called a "crumb coat." It may seem like an extra step, but this thin layer of frosting spread over the cake first will help tamp little crumbs down and give the finished cake a smooth and lovely look.

Here's how to do it: place the other cake layer, with the cut side down, on top of the filing; press gently to make it level. With the small spatula, spread the cake with 1 1/2 cups more of the frosting, plus any oozing out from between the layers. Your goal: a thin layer that seals in the crumbs. Refrigerate the cake for about 30 minutes.

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Step 4: Frost the Cake

Smoothing frosting on layer cake

Using a large offset spatula, generously coat the chilled cake with 2 1/2 cups of frosting, starting at the top of the cake. Hold the spatula at a 45-degree angle against the cake, and slowly rotate the turntable. If you're using buttercream and it appears to be streaky, dip the spatula into hot water, and wipe it dry, then continue spreading the frosting.

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Step 5: Smooth Frosting

Use a bench scraper to smooth the sides of the cake. Hold the scraper perpendicular to the cake with one edge resting on the turntable and slowly rotate the turntable. Small areas of the cake may be touched up with the small spatula. Refrigerate the cake for 30 minutes.

Then it's ready for piped decorations or other adornments.

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