After your ingredients have reached room temperature, it's time to get started -- first, by washing your hands (remember to use a clean towel to dry them!). Then:
Adjust your oven rack according to the cake's directions. If it doesn't indicate, place the rack in the center of the oven.
Preheat your oven; allow at least 10 minutes for the oven to come to proper heat level. Because there's often a disparity between the set and actual temperature in the oven, many bakers rely on an oven thermometer to verify temperature.
Measure your flour and all other ingredients BEFORE you begin mixing, just to make sure you don't forget something when putting it all together. If possible, keep all distractions out of the kitchen during this phase, as it's very easy to lose count of how many teaspoons or cups you've added if you're interrupted in the midst of the process. (If you're a parent who finds this tip humorous, rely on the special skills you've developed to handle interruptions.)
Use proper measuring tools! A cereal spoon is not a teaspoon, nor is a coffee cup a measuring cup.
When measuring flour, don't scoop it directly out of the bag or container with your measuring cup, as you may get air pockets and actually use less flour than is called for. Use a spoon to scoop the flour into the measuring cup, fill until it's heaping, and finally, use a knife or spatula to level it off. Don't shake or tap to level it, as this will once again compact the flour.
For sugar or other dry ingredients, feel free to use your measuring cup as your scoop, overfill, and then use the knife or spatula to level off. When your recipe calls for brown sugar, be sure to pack it into the measuring cup with a spoon or your fingers to make sure you get the full measurement.
When measuring milk, buttermilk, water, or other fluid ingredients, use a measuring cup designed for liquids, place the cup on a flat surface, and fill to the proper measure while you're at eye level.
When your recipe calls for eggs, use large ones, and always beat them slightly with a fork before adding to other ingredients (unless, of course, the recipe calls for the eggs to be separated).
Although it's tempting, never ever measure your "smaller ingredients," such as salt, baking soda, baking powder, or vanilla, over your mixing bowl or over other ingredients. Instead, measure these over a smaller bowl or even the sink until you get the proper measurement, and then add it to the other ingredients. Small ingredients have a dark sense of humor--just when you've nearly filled that 1/4 or 1/2 teaspoon, they tend to go into a free-fall, especially if you're measuring over your mixing bowl. As a result, you've accidentally doubled or tripled (or even worse!) the amount that's called for, and ruined your cake.
Follow the directions in the recipe explicitly. Again, it's a science, and each step will have an effect on your cake's outcome. Rely on a timer for mixing times, and avoid under- or over-mixing.
After your cake is mixed, it's ready to go into the pan--but first, be sure your baking pan is prepared according to the directions provided in the recipe. Some recipes won't require any type of pan preparation, but most will call for the pan to be "oiled" or "greased," which means spreading a small amount of shortening (preferred) or margarine on the bottom and sides of the pan to help prevent the cake from sticking. Wax paper or a paper towel will help distribute it evenly, including the corners. Other recipes may call for the pan to be "greased and floured," which means adding a slight dusting of flour after the pan has been oiled, but before the cake batter is poured in. Sprinkle the flour on the bottom and sides of the pan, then turn it over and pat it to remove the excess. If you're baking a chocolate cake, you can substitute cocoa powder for the flour.
When pouring the cake batter into the pan, be sure the pan is on a level surface, and use a spatula to spread the batter in the baking pan, including in the corners.
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» Introduction & History of Cake
» The Importance of Ingredients
» Baking Preparation is Key
» Baking Terminology
» Tips for Perfect Baking Results
» Finishing Touches - Frosting & More
» Our Favorite Cake Recipes