1 Read the recipe all the way through before you begin, and have everything you need measured and at the ready. Plan ahead, so you can have ingredients at the proper temperatures and allow for cooling and chilling as needed.
2 Choose your ingredients wisely. It makes all the difference to use the freshest, best-quality butter, eggs, chocolate, vanilla (and other extracts), nuts, and spices.
3 Be mindful of recipe details. If the ingredients list calls for “1 cup sifted flour,” then sift it first before you measure. If it calls for “1 cup flour, sifted,” then measure before sifting.
4 Don’t rush the mixing process for batter or frosting. Scrape down the sides of the bowl often to avoid lumps and to ensure a smooth batter or creamy frosting. Take care not to overbeat once the mixture is combined.
5 Prepare your pans properly. Unless otherwise specified, brush with softened (never melted) butter, line with parchment paper, brush with more butter, and finally, dust with flour, shaking out any excess. (Use cocoa powder to dust pans for chocolate cakes.)
6 A good oven thermometer is key. Oven temperatures may vary by as much as 50 degrees; rely on a stand-alone thermometer for accuracy instead.
7 Rotate cake pans halfway through the baking time, to ensure even baking.
8 Watch out for clues when gauging whether a cake is done (instead of relying solely on the suggested baking time). When a cake begins to pull away from the side of the pan and a cake tester comes out clean, you know it is done.
9 Let cakes cool completely before you frost them; a good-quality wire cooling rack will allow air to circulate beneath pans as they cool. Make sure the frosting itself is at room temperature in order to get the desired swoop, swirl, or smooth finish.
10 Serve your cake at the right temperature as well. Some, like cheesecakes and icebox cakes, are best chilled; others, especially those covered in buttercream frostings and ganache glazes, should come to room temperature for the best consistency and texture contrast between cake and topping.
Reprinted from Martha Stewart's Cakes. Copyright (c) 2013 by Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia, Inc. Published by Clarkson Potter, a division of Random House LLC.