I carefully level each layer cake before assembling it. That’s because most cakes dome somewhat in the oven, and stacking the layers just adds to the impression, resulting in a cake that looks like a messy pile of mattresses from “The Princess and the Pea.” Even if you have a decent recipe and excellent pans that make rather flat cakes, I suggest cutting their tops.
Not Just For Stability
This is more than a recovering pastry chef’s obsessive behavior; by removing the comparably thick and dry top crust, I’m placing the soft centre of the cake in close touch with the filling, allowing the cake to absorb both moisture and scent. Not only will this increase the taste and shelf life of the cake, but it will also provide a plethora of excellent scraps that are great for testing the flavor of the filling or frosting before assembling the cake. That’s what I tell myself as I nibble on bite after bite.
Setup and Tool Selection
A totally cold cake is preferable for leveling; a warm and delicate cake will lose a pile of crumbs when it is cut. It also depends on having the right tool for the job—not a senseless, unitasking cake cutter, but a 9- or 10-inch serrated knife.
I’ve become a fan of the Tojiro Bread Slicer, which is long enough to glide over an eight-inch cake and comes highly recommended by Daniel (his evaluation of the finest serrated knives is right here). If you like nine-inch cakes, the somewhat longer version from Dexter-Russell is a better choice. Instead, just go for your favorite bread knife; it’s likely to be long and sharp enough to handle a basic cake.
Make the Cut in Stages
To easily level a cake, place the blade precisely where the dome starts to rise up. With a gentle horizontal sawing motion, cut roughly one inch into the cake, then rotate the cake about 45° and repeat.
Continue flipping and making tiny incisions until there is a loose flap all the way around the cake. Just saw through the center from there. There’s no need for meticulous toothpick positioning. Leave the cake top in place to prevent moisture loss until it’s time for assembly, or else set the scraps aside and cover the cake with a bit of plastic. With that simple chore out of the way, your favorite layer cake will be on its way to looking and tasting its level best.