FAQ: Cake Baking & Decorating 101

Devil's food cake with peanut butter buttercream filling being coated in Swiss meringue buttercream
Devil’s Food Cake with Peanut Butter Buttercream Filling

Thank you to everyone who sent me baking questions on Instagram! I received hundreds of questions, so I decided to compile them into a few blog posts to cover the various topics. In addition to this cake baking 101, you’ll find a post with FAQs about baking homemade bread, FAQs about meringue, vegan desserts, pie and pie crust, and baking equipment.

If you have additional questions about cake baking, please leave them in the comments below and I will do my best to answer as many as I can!

Silver Ombre Cake on a cake stand
Silver Ombre Cake

FAQs About Cake Baking

BAKING

  • Do you have any tips for preparing bundt tins so the cakes come out cleanly every time? I sure do and go into quite a bit of detail in my Zoë Bakes Cakes book, check out the Cake Academy section. The most important thing is to coat the pan with lots of thick butter. You should be able to see it, not just a thin skim of butter.
  • Best way to ensure your bundt cake never sticks to the pan? See above! Also be sure to unmold it after 15 minutes so it won’t stick to the pan.
  • Do you have any tips for ensuring that cakes and quick breads are done in the middle but not overdone? Every oven is different, some run hot and some run cool, very few are spot on. The more you bake the better you get to know your oven. The first time you bake something, it is best to check it early, to make sure you aren’t over baking. I use a cake tester or toothpick to poke the middle and make sure it is done without liquid batter clinging to it.
  • Do the oven temperatures in your cake book need adjusting for convection ovens? I almost never use convection heat when baking cakes. The wind quality of a convection oven makes it more intense, so the outside can seem done when the center of the cake is still raw. If you have no way of turning off the fan, then you need to decrease the temperature by about 20-25°F.
  • Why are my cakes dry? It can either be the flour (brand and how it is measured) or the baking times. Brands of flour all have different amounts of proteins, so they absorb liquids differently. If you are using a high protein brand or measuring too much by cup, then the cake can come out dry. If your oven runs hot, you will need to reduce the baking times slightly.
Chocolate Ganache Bundt | Zoe Bakes Cakes
  • If I have more cake batter than can bake at a time, how and where should I keep it till its turn to bake? Most cake batter needs to be baked right after it is mixed. If it is a cake batter made with whipped egg whites, it has to go into the oven immediately. If it relies on chemical leaveners they will lose some of their strength almost immediately too, but will have some strength after an hour. The baking time will be messed up if they are chilled, so you need to leave the batter at room temperature. This should only be done if absolutely necessary.
  • What to do if a cake is overdone on the edges but still not baked through in the center? Reduce the heat the next time you bake and make sure you are NOT using the convection setting. You may have to trim the edges and just make a smaller cake.
  • When making your devil’s food cake recipe why does the middle of the cake rise so high? The leavener is baking soda and it can be very strong in its rise. You can try reducing it by a pinch, but it generally settles down once cooled and I typically just trim the top for a snack. 
Zoë François in her kitchen, snacking on layer cake
  • How to get flat tops on layered cakes? Do cakes need to be more dense in structure? If a cake is domed, just trim it flat. I have lots of information and instruction about this in my Zoë Bakes Cakes book in the Cake Academy chapter. Some people buy insulation strips to wrap their cake pans, but I have never bothered with them. 
  • How do I stop my cakes from getting too dark on the outside when baking? This can be from the pans you use, the lighter the color of the pan, the lighter the crust will be. It can also be from an oven that is too hot or the cakes are baking too close to the heat element. For more tips, see my Equipment and Cake Academy chapters in Zoë Bakes Cakes.
  • How to successfully take an 8” cake to a 6” cake. Adjusted baking time did not do it. You may need to divide the batter into two pans when reducing the size, which will reduce the baking time. If you are doing it in one deeper pan, then the time may actually remain the same or increase.
  • Besides using a cake tester, what tips do you have for checking cake readiness? I typically tap the top gently first, to make sure it is set, then use the tester for the interior crumb.
Devil's Food Cupcakes Recipe from Zoë François of Zoë Bakes
Devil’s Food Cupcakes with Cream Cheese Frosting

FROSTING

  • Have you ever tried a meringue buttercream with cooled brown butter? Yes, brown butter buttercream is fantastic!
  • How do you make a mirror glaze? And how do you create the mousse base it goes on? Mirror glaze is a technique best shown, so I recommend you take a look at my Instagram video and the post on how to make it. The mousse below can be just about anything, as long as it has a smooth finish and enough structure to stay solid. 
  • What’s the secret to getting buttercream right? There are so many kinds of buttercream. I have several in my book Zoë Bakes Cakes and talk a lot about them in the Cake Academy. When you say “right” do you mean smooth? I would say the most important thing is making sure your butter is the right temperature, so it holds air and has some structure.
Chocolate cake with peanut butter filling and chocolate buttercream
  • When making buttercream frosting for cookies/cake do you refrigerate after? Yes, typically with dairy frostings you want to refrigerate after a day out on the counter. It can also help give it stability, since cream cheese frosting is so soft.
  • Should leftover cake with buttercream or Italian meringue frosting be refrigerated? You can, but they can sit out covered for days, as long as there is no whipped cream or the like to go limp. Be sure to bring the cake back to room temperature before serving or the buttercream will taste hard and greasy.
  • What is your favorite frosting recipe? Depends on the cake I am making, but I love cream cheese frosting. I also love Swiss Meringue Buttercream for its smoothness and use for decorating.
  • My buttercream often tastes like a stick of butter. How can I avoid that? If your butter isn’t whipped enough it can feel greasy and taste just of butter. The trick is having the temperature of the butter soft enough, so it takes on lots of air. Also, you may need to flavor the buttercream more intensely, so that it isn’t just the butter you taste. Also, make sure you are serving buttercream at room temperature.
Cranberry Almond Coffee Cake
Rustic Almond Coffee Cake

MIXING

  • How do we adequately mix oil based cakes without tunneling? It really depends on the recipe, but tunneling is often a result of over mixing or incorporating too many air bubbles. Be sure to really tap out the bubbles before mixing.
  • Why is it important to alternate wet/dry when mixing up cakes, bread, etc.? This is something I talk a lot about in the Cake Academy chapter of Zoë Bakes Cakes. It is so the ingredients stay well blended and emulsified as you add more liquids and dry to the batter. If you dump them all in at once, you will likely end up with a dense cake.
  • What do you add to the cakes to make them moist? This is something I talk about a lot in my Zoë Bakes Cakes book, both in the Ingredients and Cake Academy sections. It can be fat, liquid, mixing technique and baking times at play.
  • What stand mixer do you use? I have KitchenAid, a Wolf, and a Breville. I like them for different reasons and you can find more information about each of them here.
Layer cake topped with buttercream flowers
Buttercream Rose Cake

DECORATING

  • How do you get sprinkles to stick to the side of a cake? The trick is to apply the sprinkles while the frosting is still soft, so do it right after you have put the frosting on. You can find more information in Zoë Bakes Cakes.
  • Any advice for bakers new to cake decorating? What are your favorite piping tips/bags? Get yourself a few bags and tips and practice a lot. In culinary school we practiced piping simple patterns with thick mayonnaise, just to get the feel for it. Make a batch of buttercream and pipe lots of flowers, you can always throw them back in the bowl, so you’re not wasting any buttercream. Be patient with yourself and have a cup of tea or wine close by! See the equipment section below for my favorite cake baking and decorating tools.
  • Can you safely freeze a cake decorated with buttercream icing? Yes, it actually freezes well. The tricky part is wrapping it in plastic, so it won’t dry out. If there is an intricate design, it will get compressed by the plastic wrap, so keep that in mind if you are hoping to present it later. Best to decorate after it defrosts.
  • What do you do with the extra ganache, after pouring it over a cake? I talk a lot about poured ganache in Zoë Bakes Cakes. I set the cake on a cooling rack, set over a parchment-lined baking sheet, which will catch the excess ganache as I am pouring it. I scrape the ganache off the parchment, put it through a sieve, and reuse it. You can store it in the freezer for months.
Blueberry Cheesecake
Blueberry Swirl Cheesecake

CHEESECAKE

  • How do you make a cheesecake light rather than dense? There are different ways, but one is to whip more air into the batter and bake at a high temperature without a water bath. If you are interested in more cheesecake information, I actually teach a class called “Show Stopping Cheesecakes” at craftsy.com!
  • Do you need a water bath for cheesecakes? They always make a mess! Using a water bath creates a smooth dense cheesecake. So, it really depends on the style. I show my technique for using a water bath and alternative baking techniques in my “Show Stopping Cheesecake” class on Craftsy.com.
A Pullman pan with a chocolate cake baked in parchment
Simple Chocolate Cake in a Pullman Pan

TROUBLESHOOTING

  • Is it possible to make light fluffy sponge cake with whole wheat flour? Not if it is 100% whole wheat flour, which has so much bran and germ left in the flour, making it healthier, but also creates a dense cake. Your best bet is to try whole wheat pastry flour which is lower in gluten forming protein than regular whole wheat flour. 
  • Made victory cake, the whipped cream layer would not hold the second cake layer. Why? The whipped cream may not have been whipped quite stiff enough. When buying heavy whipping cream get the one with the most fat content, it will whip up stronger.
  • Why did cherries and almond paste sink to the bottom of my grape and almond paste cake? Anything you add to a batter should be tossed with flour first, so they cling to the batter and don’t slip to the bottom. Also make sure they are not so large and heavy that they will fall no matter what.
Zoë François Pavlova from Zoë Bakes with raspberries and passion fruit
  • Why did my pavlova collapse during the bake? It is either that the meringue wan’t stiff enough or it is under baked.
  • What is the equivalent of 9” cake round recipe to convert to a standard pullman pan? My pullman is 4x4x19”, but I am not sure that’s standard? I think that is about two 9-inch cake layers. I usually start by filling the pullman no more than ⅔ full to see if that is the right amount. Some cake batters rise more than others, so it is a bit of an experiment every time I switch pan shapes and sizes. 
  • Besides a cake, what can I use cake flour for? Cake flour has very little protein, which creates gluten, so it creates a tender cake and can be used in some biscuit recipes, but can’t be swapped for all-purpose flour.
  • Genoise is my white whale. Why won’t this sponge rise? You are not alone! It relies only on air whipped into eggs for the rise, so proper temperature, timing and technique have to dance together! It takes practice and then it’s yours forever! The best way is to show you. Watch me make my Brown Butter Genoise on YouTube.
Zoë François coating a layer cake in buttercream

LAYER CAKE BASICS

Be sure to check out my YouTube videos for tutorials on how to cut and fill your layer cake, how to crumb coat, and how to get smooth buttercream icing.

Plum Cake
Plum Cake from Zoë Bakes Cakes

CAKE RECIPES

  • What is your favorite cake? It is so hard to pick a favorite, but when pressed, I go with the Plum Cake from Zoë Bakes Cakes. If you don’t have the book, you can also get that recipes in my newsletter archives, where I shared the recipe in the August 11 email.
  • What’s your best lava cake recipe? This is a cake I used to make in restaurants: Flourless Chocolate Lava Recipe
  • What is your easiest chocolate cake recipe? My Devil’s Food recipe is a one bowl and stir recipe and it is fantastic!

Here are some more favorite cake recipes:

Cake baking equipment

Cake Baking Equipment

Here is a list of the equipment I recommend for baking cakes, decorating, and more. If you’re just getting started with decorating, I’d suggest starting with the following tools:

Cake Decorating on Zoë Bakes

Be sure to check out my Cake Decorating episode of Zoë Bakes on Magnolia Network! And if you’re a subscriber to my Extras newsletter, you get access to an exclusive Q&A and recipes from pastry chef Minda Ringdahl of Copper Hen Cakery & Kitchen, who was the guest chef in the episode. SIGN UP FOR MY NEWSLETTER.

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7 thoughts to “FAQ: Cake Baking & Decorating 101”

  1. Will you have vegan baking tips? Can I swap vegan butter and flax eggs for recipes? But when I do the texture is heavy..

  2. Hi, I love Zoë Bakes Cake. For the og snack cake, the recipe calls to separate 3 eggs and then later in the recipe calls for 2 egg whites. So when you beat the egg whites are you supposed to beat 5 egg whites total or just 2? thank you!

    1. Hi Gretchen! Happy to clarify for you. In the OG Snack Cake you’ll beat all 5 egg whites in step 5. Happy baking!

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