I know what you're going to do - scroll right to the big numbered points and ignore all the intro/middle/filler text to make it look more substanstial than just four big point with pictures. So, I won't waste any more of your screen - here they are (learned from Donita's Baking School AKA Mama's Kitchen AKA Best Cake Ever):
1. Crisco & Flour the Pans
Don't skip this step. Never skimp this. You will regret it.
This is the most fool-proof way of making sure your cakes come clean out of the pan every single time. It may make your hands a bit greasy, but just look at it as some kind of moisturizer - people do it with coconut oil all the time. Same thing. Almost.
How it works:
Take a paper towel and scoop up a significant amount of shortening. Don't be shy - really load it up. Then use the paper towel to slather the stuff all over the inside of your pan, making sure to get the corners. Cakes that have any kind of fruit or carrots in it will want to stick way harder than a cake without, so really make sure you go for it if baking one of those. If you're baking multiple cakes, I suggest greasing all the pans right in a row before going on to the next step since your hands are already slopped anyway.
Then (this is the fun part) take a handful of white flour (whatever you're using in the cake is fine, and all-purpose is always good for this) and plop it in the smallest of your pans. Rotate it around, tap the sides, shake it up, do a little dance, and then dump the loose flour on into the next pan, working from smallest to biggest. When you get to the last pan, simply deposit what remains back into your flour bag.
Flawless cakes: CHECK!
2. Wrap them up!
This is one of my favorite tips. Every time someone comes into my kitchen and sees me about to put cakes in the oven, they say "What's THAT?" - pointing at the very well-used strips of cloth I'm pinning around my pans. Then I get to explain what my mom explained to me, and they say "Ahhhh - I never knew that!"
Cakes bake from the edges in with the center getting baked last, right? Well, what often happens is that the edges get WELL done before the center is even close, resulting in hard edges to your cake. I secretly believe that cakes would be offended to have a hard crust on their edges, like their cousin, Pie. So, for the sake of preserving cake's dignity, please follow this tip. You must dress your cake pans.
How it works:
Buy or make wraps. If you're at all handy with a sewing machine and have access to a surger, then I suggest making them. I plan on writing a blog on how to do that, so hang tight - I'll be sure to let you know. In the meantime, you can buy them here: https://www.amazon.com/Regency-RW002-Evenbake-Cake-Strips/dp/B000I1UXUI.
Just before baking your cake, soak your wraps. Dunk them in water and ring them out well. They must be quite wet, but not dripping.
Then, wrap them around your pans. We use t-pins for our homemade wraps, but some do come with Velcro for this purpose.
That's it. Put them in the oven and bake as normal. When you take them out, simply remove the wraps (which will now be dry) and put them away for next time.
The moisture in the wraps helps the cake bake much more evenly, resulting in little to no crust on your cakes. It may seem like it will take some effort to start doing this, but once it is part of your regular baking routine, you'll never go back. Trust me. It's worth it.
3. Soak & Cover the Cake
Simple Syrup is just that - sugar dissolved into boiling water, make an uncomplicated sticky liquid. This is the type of thing you make ahead, because it needs to be completely chilled before using it. Here's the basic recipe that will make 12 ounces:
1 cup water
1/2 cup granulated sugar
Place in a sauce pan and boil on the stove, stirring the whole time, until sugar is dissolved. Allow to cool, then dump into a squeeze bottle of some kind.
If you're like me and forget about the simple syrup until about 5 minutes before the cakes come out of the oven, here's a trick:
Make the recipe with 1/2 cup water, 1/2 cup granulated sugar. As soon as it's done, add an additional 1/2 cup of the coldest water you can get. This will help to more rapidly cool it down and get it ready to go.
Once you have this made, you can keep it in the fridge for a long time. It will start to mold after awhile, so watch for that. We always have some made and ready to go.
This is how you use the stuff:
Once the cakes come out of the oven and you dump them out onto a parchment-covered tray, simply spray the simple syrup onto the cake. You don't want to make the cake soggy, but make sure you cover the whole surface of the cake. This will quickly soak in and start to cook with the still-hot cakes. You must do this as soon as they are out of the oven, otherwise your cakes will definitely get soggy.
Immediately following, cover the cakes tightly with plastic wrap and put aside to cool.
If you have a bad recipe or have over-baked your cakes, this will not rescue them from being doomed to dry-ness. This will, however, enhance a solid recipe and give your cake that slight edge over Aunt Marg's at your next family gathering.
4. Chills Before Frills
This last part is really important when filling or decorating your cake. Warm cake is nearly impossible to work with successfully. In an ideal world, the cakes have an hour or two to completely rest and come to room temperature, until they are no longer warm to the touch. Then assembly can happen with the filling going between the layers, immediately followed by what we call a "crumb coat" - which is essentially a really thin layer over the whole surface of the cake that helps preserve freshness and hold the thing together (see photos below). After this, cold cake is the goal. Into the fridge and let it go. I know you're eager to decorate, but patience is important. You'll thank me later.
So what do you do if you're in a hurry? The freezer is a good thing - but in moderation and not directly after they've come out of the oven. When you completely freeze a cake, it looses something in texture, becoming more dense. If you want a light and fluffy cake, make sure you don't leave it in the freezer to cool for too long. The only time we ever completely freeze a cake is when it needs to be carved into a shape, which is another topic for another time.
All done! I hope these tips give you more evenly-baked melt-in-your-mouth cakes that have people asking you your secrets. Get out there and bake honest-to-goodness cakes!