I made this cake for my friend Alex yesterday. Since I already gave you the recipe for chocolate cake, I thought I would share with you a few tips I've learned since I started baking.
1. Mix well. Making a cake isn't like making muffins and pancakes-- you can mix it as much as you want! I like mixing on low/medium for a minute or so, and then I turn it up full speed. I like my batter to have some air in it.
2. Pan choice. You need good pans. Thick, light-colored metal ones work best, and they are definitely worth the investment. I found mine for about $14 each from a kitchen supply store and they have served me incredibly well.
3. Preparing the pans. I have tried many methods to get my cakes to come out easily, and this one is foolproof. Cut out 2 parchment paper circles that fit the inside of your pan. (It's okay if they come up the sides a tiny bit.) Get out your Crisco, and grease the pans well. Lay the parchment paper down, press out the air bubbles as much as you can, and then grease the parchment paper tops. Flour the pans, and you are set to go!
4. Know when your cakes are done. The easiest way to do this is to feel the tops. If they bounce back a little bit and don't sink down, you know they are ready. The cake will also be pulling away from the sides of the pan.
5. De-pan the cakes quickly. The cakes will stick when the Crisco gets hard again, so don't wait too long to get your cakes out of the pan. If you happen to forget, you can put them in the oven at a low setting for a couple of minutes to re-melt the Crisco. Getting the cakes out scares some people, but if you have a cookie rack then you will be fine. Just invert the cake and let it rest completely. When it is cool it will be easy to move around and place on top of the first cake layer. (Invert one cake onto the cookie rack and one onto your cake stand. You want to move the cakes as little as possible.)
6. Splitting a cake. This is kind of tricky. You want to use a long serrated knife and only work with the cake when it has cooled completely. Working at about eye-level with the cake, run your knife through the middle section using long strokes. Put your entire hand under the cake to support it when transferring.
7. Making a box cake moist. I spent quite a long time reading about tips for a moist cake yesterday, so I'll share with you some of my findings. They haven't been tested yet, but I'm excited to see what happens! One woman recommended replacing all of the water with milk. Another said to add plain yogurt in place of the oil, and another said that adding a couple of tablespoons sour cream does the trick. I'll let you know which one I like best. :)
8. Frosting the cake. This is my favorite part by far. Start out with a frosting that is thick enough to stay on and not droop all over, but not thick enough that it pulls on the cake. You can add a few teaspoons of milk or powdered sugar to fix either of these problems. I highly recommend buying a metal spatula to use while spreading your frosting. (NOT an offset one... just plain. The offset kind are terrible to work with in my opinion.) When putting frosting in the middle of your cake, make sure to spread it to all sides-- but don't put too much on. I used to want my cakes to look like the ones in magazines that have a thick middle layer, but I have since learned that it doesn't work well with most frostings. Usually the thick-middle method results in your cake sliding around and looking lopsided. Stick with just enough to show when you slice. Next, do a crumb coat. This means that you will put a thin layer of frosting all around the outside of the cake, locking all of the crumbs in. Let this harden in the refrigerator for a bit before applying the next coat.
Okay that's all the tips I have for now. Hope this helps! :)