I don’t bake cakes. I aspire to it, but I’ve never actually pulled it off. A few years back, I managed a pound cake, but I didn’t take into account that all the indentions in my fancy cathedral-design Bundt pan would reduce the volume it could hold. As soon as my cake started to heat up in the oven, the batter oozed out, spilled over, and made a royal mess in my oven.
This time around, I’m not going near those cake pans without first consulting The Oracle—that would be Mama, who has baked more layer cakes than you can shake a spatula at. Join us for a little kitchen table Q&A as I quiz her over morning coffee:
Daughter: I really want to make a layer cake for Thanksgiving, but I’ve gotta work up some courage.
Mama: You can do it. Just find yourself a good recipe and follow it to the LETTER.
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Daughter: Tell me about some of your cake disasters.
Mama: I don’t have cake disasters.
Mama: My cakes have always turned out pretty good.
Daughter: Even in the beginning?
Mama: Well . . . when I first started, I had one to fall—if you open that oven door too early, your cake’ll fall in the middle.
Daughter: Any other goof-ups—when you first started, I mean?
Mama: I seem to recall a few times—not many—when I didn’t have the temperature just right, and the layers weren’t done when I took them out.
Daughter: Okay, so you’ve had cakes to fall and come out of the oven undercooked.
Mama: When I first started.
Daughter: Right. When you first started. Anything else?
Mama: Now that you mention it—and I’m reaching WAY back here to when I first married—the first few times I tried making your Aunt Vivian’s chocolate frosting, I didn’t cook it just right. And if you don’t follow the recipe to a fair-thee-well, I’m here to tell you, that chocolate frosting will run all over the kitchen floor. It’s like cleaning up a volcanic eruption right there on your Linoleum.
Daughter: This is all great info. What about—
Mama: Look. Let me tell you about cooking cakes. The oven has to be the right temperature, and it needs to be preheated for at LEAST 15 minutes. Read your recipe THOROUGHLY. Then get out all your ingredients and line them up, in order, on the counter next to your mixer. That’ll help you make sure you don’t leave anything out.
You’ve got to grease the bottom of your pans—I use Crisco—then you dust them real good with flour. Turn your pans upside down and tap on them to knock out the excess flour before pouring your batter in. Pour equal amounts of batter into your pans and put them in the center of the oven.
DON’T OPEN THAT DOOR! Use your oven window and light to see when your layers start just barely turning a light-colored brown and rising. Then you can open the door and stick a toothpick into the center of each one. If it comes out clean, your cake is done. Take the pans out, and cool them for about 10 minutes. Then turn each pan upside down to tip the layers onto a wire rack and let them COMPLETELY cool.
Daughter: But what if I don’t have time to get them completely cool?
Mama: Then you’ll need time to mop because your frosting’s gonna run all over the place if you plop it onto a warm cake.
Daughter: Do you have a favorite layer cake?
Mama: My very favorite—I make it for church fellowships and special occasions—is a Southern Living recipe for fresh strawberry cake that I’ve been making for years. I just love fresh strawberries, plus it’s a really pretty cake, so it puts a little color on the table. I also like chocolate cake, and I LOVE coconut cake.
Daughter: But doesn’t that coconut cake take forever?
Mama: The old-timey version did. You had to buy a fresh coconut and crack it, then save the coconut milk, get the coconut out of the shell, grate the coconut . . . Now you can buy really good frozen or grated coconut, and I’ve found that canned coconut milk works just fine. For years, I’ve been using a recipe I got from [family friend] Sandra. The only trick to is that it has to sit in the refrigerator for three days before you serve it, so you have to mark your calendar and start early. I like my coconut cake to have a 7-minute frosting and just sprinkle that with flaked coconut all over.
Daughter: Got any advice on pans and baking tools?
Mama: Never waste your money on cheap pans. Buy really good ones, and they’ll last a lifetime. I also love my KitchenAid stand mixer that I’ve had for years. I use it more than anything else in my kitchen.
Daughter: Do you ever use a cake mix?
Mama: Absolutely. They have really come a long way since I first married. You used to be able to tell if a cake came from a mix, but not so much any more. So yes, I use them. But I don’t see any reason to broadcast that all over kingdom come.
Daughter: Any final advice?
Mama: Yes. Have fun with it. And if you make a mistake, learn from it. Also, if you don’t mix your ingredients thoroughly, you’ll end up with a glommy mess. Want some more coffee?