The secret is within
Many people think that to make a layer cake you must have two or three identical pans with which to bake each of the layers. This can become expensive if you'd like to make cakes of assorted sizes. The better way, which pros often embrace when baking layered cakes, is to bake the layers in one or two flat sheets, then cut out the layers using a cutter or stencil. Click through the slideshow to learn more about this alternative way of making gorgeous cakes.
Prepare the pan
Using a small pat of butter, smear a trail around the perimeter of the bottom of a sheet tray, then smear an X through the center. This will help hold the parchment in place.
Cut your stencil, place the parchment
For the first step, cut a stencil in the size and shape of your desired cake, then trace it onto parchment that has been trimmed to sit flat in the pan. Make sure that you will have enough cake to accomplish the task—depending on the size, you may need to increase the recipe and bake a second sheet or half sheet. Place the parchment on top of the buttered pan with the drawing side down, and pull it around until it is laying flat and in place. Press it all over—the butter will hold it firmly in place.
Spread the batter
Using a large, flat offset spatula, spread the cake batter evenly over the surface of the parchment. Rotating the pan as you work will help make this job easier.
Test the depth
To make sure that the batter is evenly spread, sink the tip of the spatula into the batter at each of the four corners to see how deep the batter is at each spot. Adjust as needed.
Even out the sides
Once the batter is of an even thickness, run a finger around the edge of the pan in quick, easy strokes, scraping the sides clean. The batter will run back into the sides, and this will help ensure that you don't have burnt edges that stick to the sides of the pan.
Bake and test for doneness
Bake the cake on the center rack of the oven, turning halfway through the process. The cake is done when it springs back to the touch, has a golden brown top, and pulls away from the edge of the pan.
Release the cake from the edges
Run a flexible knife around the edges of the pan to release the cake from the sides.
Dust to prevent sticking
After the cake has cooled for 10 minutes in the pan, sift a fine layer of cocoa powder (for dark cakes) or powdered sugar (for light cakes) over the surface to prevent sticking.
Cover the cake with another piece of parchment paper, then top that parchment with another sheet tray. Press the two trays together and invert them, so what started right side up is now upside down.
Peel back the parchment
Carefully peel the parchment away from the underside of the cake. Allow the cake to finish cooling, then be sure to cover it with plastic wrap to prevent drying.
Cut the layers
Cut out the layers using the same stencil or cutter that you used to size up the baking sheet. Remember to cut your whole pieces as close together as possible to help facilitate larger partial pieces that can be used to create layers.
Fill and frost the first layer
For stability, the first layer should always be made from one single piece of cake. Pipe or smooth the filling over the first layer of cake.
As long as it's not on the bottom, other layers can be put together from multiple pieces of cake. I think that the best strategy is to try to piece together the center layer(s)—that way they will be sandwiched between two whole layers. In the photo, you can see that I've pieced together the second layer from two larger pieces and a bunch of scraps. Trim along the edge to help shape layers like this.
Patching and glueing
Once you've got your fabricated layer, cover it with filling as you would any other, then patch up the side holes with additional frosting. Top it with the third layer, then apply the crumb coat and final coat of frosting (for a full tutorial on how to decorate layer cakes, click over here).
Nobody can tell
This technique is a time saver. There is so much less to think about: no dividing the batter evenly or turning different pans in the oven. No leveling, no parchment circles to cut, no heavy greasing of pans or wrangling multiple layers. Best of all, nobody will be able to tell. All they'll see is a cake with three perfectly even layers.