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Your iced cake should be between 3 1/2" to 4" tall.  To accomplish this, use pans that are 2" deep with straight sides.  You can use cake mixes, but keep in mind that boxed mixes may not result in a firm enough cake to support the weight of heavy icing (especially fondant).  Popular boxed mixes will yield approximately 5 1/2 cups of batter. 

Pans should be at room temperature.  Prepare the pans by brushing the bottom and sides with pan coating.  Fill pans 2/3 full.

To bake layers more evenly and moist, you can use pan strips around the outside of your pans.  These can be purchased, or you can make your own.  To make these strips, cut terrycloth toweling into strips 2" wide and long enough to wrap around the pan.  Soak the strip with water then squeeze out the excess.  Wrap the damp toweling around the outside of the pan and secure it in place with a pin.

Bake layers according to directions, then let cool 10 minutes in the pan before turning out onto a rack.  If the layer is humped, slice off the hump (crown) before turning the layer out.  Always support the layers with a cake board or rack when turning over to avoid cracking the layer.  Note:  Cracked, and severely humped layers are the result of poor baking.

Cool layers completely on a rack before assembling.

Cake layers must be perfectly level before assembling.  There are several methods for leveling a cake.  Here are a few options:

1.  Place the cooled cake back in the pan.  Using the rim of the pan as a guide, slice off the crown with a long serrated knife.

2.  Unflavored, unwaxed dental floss works great.  Hold the floss taught across the top edge of the cake pan, and cut through the cake using a sawing motion.

3.  Use a cake leveler set at the desired height.  Keep the legs of the leveler on the work surface, and guide the cutting blade (or wire) through the cake.  

4.  Place the layer on a cake board, then place the board on a turntable.  Slowly rotate the turntable while using a long, serrated knife, in a sawing motion to remove the crown.  This method is more difficult since you will need to keep the knife perfectly level as you cut. 

A smoothly iced cake is the "canvas" for your decorations.  Since it is going to have a major impact on the finished cake, it is a technique worth perfecting.  While you practice icing cakes, keep this important tip in mind:  Always keep the spatula on the icing!  Push the icing in front of the spatula, and never touch the surface of the cake with it.  This will keep crumbs from getting in the icing. 

Spatula Method
After the crumb coating has set, spread a generous amount of icing on the center of the cake top.  Use an icing spatula to spread and push the icing toward the edges.  Use long, firm strokes to smooth and level the icing.  Remove any excess with the spatula. 

Next, cover the sides with icing.  Smooth the sides by holding the spatula upright with the edge of the spatula against the side of the cake.  Slowly rotate the turntable without lifting the spatula from the cake surface.  Remove excess icing with the spatula and repeat until the sides are smooth. 

Quick Icer Tip Method
Trim a 16" decorating bag to fit tip #789.  (You will not use a coupler.)

Fill the bag half full with icing.  Press the tip lightly against the cake side and squeeze a ribbon of icing, in a continuous motion, while rotating the turntable.  Repeat until the entire side of the cake is covered. 

Spread a generous amount of icing on the cake top, pushing icing over the edges to meet the ribbon of icing on the sides.

Using the spatula method described above, smooth and remove any excess icing. 

When you have finished icing your cake, there should not be any cake visible through the icing.  If there is, you do not have enough icing on the cake.

Trick for super smooth icing:  After the icing has crusted slightly, place a Viva (smooth textured) paper towel against the icing and gently smooth it with your hand or a fondant smoother.

Cakes need to be placed on a covered cardboard 2” larger than the diameter of the cake. 
(A 9” or 10” round cake should be placed on a 12” cake board).  Cake boards can be covered with a grease proof doily or decorator’s foil.  Attach the doily to the cardboard circle with a small amount of icing in the center.  To cover a board in decorator’s foil, cut the foil several inches larger than the board.  Wrap the foil neatly around the edge of the board and secure in place with tape on the underside. 

Cake Drums are thicker and sturdier.  Ready-made drums are available, but can be costly.  I make my own by gluing 3 cake circles together.  For added strength, glue the circles together with the corrugation running in opposite directions.  Cover with foil, and add a decorative ribbon around the outside edge.  

Make sure the layers are absolutely flat and level. Spread a small amount of icing in the center of the covered board to hold the cake in place.  Place one layer, cut side up, in the center of the board. 

Spread a generous amount of buttercream icing on the layer to within 1/2" of the edge.  If you will be using another type of filling, fill a decorating bag with medium consistency icing and pipe a dam just inside the edge with a tip #12.  Fill as desired.

Place the top layer of cake, bottom side up (cut side down) on the icing/filling.  If your layers are assembled correctly, the bottom layer is sitting the way it was baked, and the top layer is upside down.

Thin some buttercream icing with water until it is the consistency of mayonnaise.  Spread a thin layer of this icing on the sides and top of the cake to seal in any loose crumbs.  The cake should be left to settle overnight. 
A quality turntable will make the job of decorating cakes much easier.  Turntables come in a variety of styles and prices.  If you will be decorating more than just a few cakes a year, a good turntable is worth the investment.  Look for a sturdy one that glides smoothly and elevates the cake several inches.  Keep in mind that larger cake tiers are very heavy, so your turntable needs to be able to support the weight.