This page will be dedicated to tips and instructions for cake decorating. Some will be supplied by me and some will be submitted from other decorators.
Everyone bakes differently, from how they prepare their cake pans, to what temperature they bake at and for how long. Keep in mind that home temperatures, altitude, your specific oven - all of these things have a bearing on how you bake. Let's start at the beginning:
Pans - If you're going to do a lot of baking, you should probably invest in some good pans, rather than the cheap aluminum pans that you can pick up anywhere. There are a few brands that have nice, straight sides without a pattern on the bottom. These pans will give you straight corners and edges, which help you get a straighter edge when icing the cake. They aren't required, but they're durable and work wonderful.
Pan preparation - Different people find different things work for them. I always tell my students that if what they're using "ain't broke - don't fix it". Here are some different ways to prepare the pan:
Grease and flour - With this method you lightly apply a solid shortening all over the pan, then you take about a tablespoon of flour in the pan, turning it and bumping it until the entire pan has a light dusting of flour. Throw away any excess.
Sprays - There are a number of pan sprays on the market that work just fine for coating your pans. Be careful not to overspray because I've noticed that this can cause your cake to be "soggy" in spots.
Brush-ons - There are a few different types of pan preparations that can be brushed on. Again - just be careful to not put on too much as it can cause your cake to be too wet. However, if you don't apply enough, the cake can stick.
Here's a recipe for a homemade pan grease that's easy to use, works well and is relatively inexpensive. This recipe does not have exact measurements so that you can make as much or as little as you need.
Mix equal parts solid shortening, vegetable oil, and flour until it's smooth. Put it in a plastic container with a good airtight seal. Brush on with a pastry brush. Does not need to be refrigerated.
Time and Temperature
Everyone bakes in a way that works for them. Remember, temperature, humidity, altitude, your personal oven, as well as the recipe you're using - all of this will have impact on your cake, how high it bakes, and how long it takes to get done. The important thing to know is how to tell if your cake is done! Just because Decorator "A" bakes her cakes at 350 for 45 minutes, doesn't mean it will work that way for you. Sometimes there can be a bit of a "trial-and-error" time while you're working out the kinks.
Whether you bake from scratch or a mix is up to you. I've had good of both and I've had really bad of both! I've seen decorators get all hot under the color if someone didn't bake from scratch and I've seen other decorators get all miffed if someone else used Pillsbury instead of Betty Crocker! There are all kinds of decorators for all kinds of customers. Use what works for you.
Many recipes call for an oven to be set at 350 degrees. You may or may not need your oven set there. Some ovens run hot and others don't. I always set my timer for 5-10 minutes less than the recipe calls for. I'd much rather check on a cake that's underdone, than take a cake out that's overdone.
I prefer to check my cakes by touch. I touch the center of the cake with my index and middle fingers. If it's still "wiggly", I set it for a few more minutes. I DO NOT want the cake to be "spongy". If it bounces right back, it's overdone. That doesn't mean that it won't taste ok for the first day, but it will be drier than it should be and it will not be good for more than a day or two. What I'm looking for is a non-wiggily, slightly spongey, with a very slight depression from where my fingers touched. Remember, the cake will continue to bake a little while after you've removed it from the oven, so don't wait until it's too done.
Many bakers will use a toothpick or skewer to test the doneness of their cake. Carefully insert the pick into the middle of the cake. When you pull it out there should not be any residue on the pick. If there is, that's an indication that it is not done completely in the center.
Troubleshooting baking problems:
Why does my cake stick to my pans?
There can be a number of reasons for this but here are a few common reasons: Didn't use enough "pan grease"; Baked the cake too long; Left it sit in the pan too long to cool before turning out; Your batter itself may be the problem; Make sure you're using enough pan grease in your pans before baking. When you pull it out of the oven, don't let it sit in the pan for more than 10-15 minute before turning it out. If it sticks at that point, put it back into the warm oven for just a few minutes and try again. You don't want to do this too much or you'll dry out your cake.
Why does my cake have a huge hump in the middle and how can I get rid of it?
The reason your cakes will have humps is because cake will continue to rise as it bakes. The middle of the cake is still baking while the outside edges are already done. There are a number of steps that you can do to either subdue or eliminate this problem:
You can set your oven temperature lower, which will slow the bake-time down overall, allowing your cake to rise a little more evenly.
You can put your baking pan on an insulated cookie sheet which will also slow down the overall bake-time.
You can wrap your pans with towels that have been soaked - this will keep the edges from getting done too soon. (Be careful with this method, because if your towels fall down onto the heating elements, you could start a fire.) There are also products available for purchase called Bake-even strips which are made for this purpose also.
You can bake as usual and just cut off the top with a serrated knife, a cake leveler, or even a piece of string.
You can bake as usual and very gently, with a dampened towel, press down on the cake. This will make for a denser cake and you may still need to cut off part of the hump.
The outside of my cakes are getting done, but the middles are still underdone!
You can follow many of the same guidelines as listed for the previous question. In addition, it wouldn't hurt for some of your larger pans, to use a heating core, or a similar object. A heating core is something you can purchase that you put into the center of your cake while baking. The heat conducts through the metal, allowing the center of the cake to get done at the same rate as the outside edges of your cake. The core also allows you to bake inside of it, so that when the core is removed and you have a "hole" in the center of your cake, you can use the cake from inside the core to fill the hole. I, personally, not a fan. I prefer to just use a regular old metal flower nail. Grease it up just like you did the pan; set it flat side down in the middle of your pan; fill up the pan with batter and bake as normal. The hard part is that the height of the flower nail is usually taller than the cake, so when you're turning your cake out onto your board, the nail has to be stuck down through the board. Another option is to cut down the nail to 2", so that it's no taller than the height of most pans.