Today I’m going to back up a bit. Let’s talk basics.

If seeing a tutorial on this topic makes you yawn . . . keep reading! You might learn a thing or two, or you might see something critical that I missed, and you can let us all know in the comments section. Either way, we win!

Knowing how to assemble a cake is one of the most fundamental aspects of decorating, but it’s something that a lot of would-be decorators overlook. You might have an enormous amount of decorating talent, but if your cake is lopsided (or falling over, or oozing filling out the sides), that’s the first thing people will see. Your cake should be the invisible canvas underneath your beautiful work of art.

I’ve got photos coming out my ears here. These were taken in a real, live kitchen. During a real, live, cake assembly. Hence the mess of cake paraphernalia in the background. {ahem}

Are you ready?

Step 1: Bake and cool your cake.

Most cake recipes and mixes give you two 8- or 9-inch rounds, so that’s what we’ll work with.

Yeah, my cake sank in the middle. It happens. (Pesky altitude adjustments. . .)

Two things to keep in mind: First, you need a cake recipe that gives you a fairly sturdy structure, to withstand stacking. Second, the cake has to cool completely. No cheating. Even a barely warm cake can cause your icing to melt.

Step 2: Line your serving plate with strips of wax paper.

This helps protect your plate so you don’t get frosting everywhere later on.

Step 3: Level your cake layers.

Lop off those domes.

I like this little tool, but you can use a large bread knife, too.

In some cases, I’ll torte the layers (which is a fancy way of saying I cut it in half horizontally). It’s a good idea, if you want your finished cake to be slightly taller, or have more layers, or if you want the filling-to-cake ratio to be higher. I’ve got some yummy homemade cherry filling, so I’m going to torte.

Step 4: Put your first cake layer on the wax paper, and pipe an icing border.

The piping border keeps the filling contained so it doesn’t ooze out the sides. Also, make sure the icing border isn’t more than about a half an inch high. Any taller than that, and you’re in danger of having an unstable cake.

See how the border is about a centimeter away from the edge of the cake? You don’t want the border right at the edge, otherwise the weight of the upper layers will push the border out the sides of the cake, and you’ll get a weird, uneven wavy surface instead of a nice, smooth surface.

Can I get picky here? For the bottom layer, it’s a good idea to put the “brown” side of the layer (the surface that touched the pan during baking) on the very bottom. That makes the bottom surface of the cake more smooth and stable after you cut individual slices. Okay? Moving on.

Step 5: Spoon the filling in.

Don’t let the filling rise higher than your border. That defeats the purpose of having a border.

Also, you can use plain old frosting instead of filling. Same principle applies.

Step 6: Place the next cake layer on top and repeat steps 4 and 5.

. . . and again for the next layer . . .

To get the best results, make sure that each layer lines up with the ones beneath it. It doesn’t have to be perfect-perfect, because the icing will even things out a bit. But it should be as close as you can get it.

Also, make sure that the top of each layer is level. Each time I put the next layer of cake on, I get down at eye level and spin it slowly on a turntable to check for any major high or low spots.

Step 7: Put the top layer on, and push a few toothpicks down inside.

This helps to stabilize the layers, especially if you’ll be transporting your cake.

Oh, and remember what I said earlier about the “brown” side of the cake being on the very bottom? Now you put the other “brown” side of the cake on the very top. This gives you a smooth surface to spread the frosting on. Otherwise, your cake might get torn apart when you go to frost it.

Step 8: Crumb coat!

This coat won’t be visible. The crumb coat basically “seals” in the crumbs so they don’t muddy up your frosting on the real coat.

Be aware of your icing consistency on the crumb coat. If it’s too thick, it’ll tear your cake apart. A slightly thinned-down (with milk) buttercream works really well.

Step 9: Put the cake in the fridge for 15 minutes to crust over, and then do the final coat.

Congratulations! You now have a nice, straight, beautiful cake. And last but not least . . .

Step 10: Remove the wax paper and decorate your cake up pretty.

(Aaand . . . give yourself enough time for photography, so you don’t have to settle for bad lighting and a pathetic setup. That’s always a good idea.)

What hints or tricks do you use when assembling your cakes?