How To Build a Cake Like a Pro

Decorating a cake is sort of like solving a puzzle.  There are numerous pieces that have to come together, just so, for everything to align beautifully.  The process itself can be exciting, challenging and even a little exasperating at times.  But when the last piece is finally placed, you can step back and smile at what you’ve accomplished.  So today we’re taking a look at some of the basic fundamentals of a gorgeous cake.  These building blocks apply to cakes of all shapes and sizes and will help you create beautiful cakes, each and every time you bake.

It all comes to us from the new book, Great Cake Decorating, written by our very own contributor, Erin Gardner of Wild Orchid Baking Co.  Erin has been wowing us with her stylish designs and teaching us her techniques for several years now.  So needless to say, we are thrilled to see her new book out in stores for all to enjoy!  Filled with hundreds of creative ideas, tips, and techniques, Erin’s book has something for everyone.  Beginners will find what they need to get started with recipes, tools of the trade, and the basics thoroughly explained and paired with gorgeous images by Mark Davidson Photography.  More advanced decorators will find inspiration and step-by-step tutorials to create countless designs including some of Erin’s most popular cakes here on the blog, like her Rainbow Hearts Cake and her Stars and Stripes Cake originally create for our 4th of July cake series back in 2012.  If you ever wondered how Erin created that beautifully swagged bunting, now you can learn how.  Within the pages of Great Cake Decorating, Erin is helping us solve the cake decorating puzzle.  And today, we’re excited to share a little peek inside this new book!

So let’s get to the tutorial.  We’re learning how to level, split and fill a cake like a pro!

How to Build a Cake | level, split and fill like a pro | Great Cake Decorating by Erin Gardner on

Erin Gardner, author of Great Cake Decorating, tells us about today’s tutorial:

“The best decorating idea in the world will be lost on your guests if they are distracted by a cake that is lopsided, lumpy, or bulging at the sides.  Take time to build a great cake base, and decorating will be so much easier.  For simplicity’s sake, the cakes shown are baked in round pans, but the level-and-split method words for any cake shape.”

How to Build a Cake | level, split and fill like a pro | Great Cake Decorating by Erin Gardner on

a tutorial from Great Cake Decorating, by Erin Gardner

Splitting The Cake
Once the cake has cooled all the way through, you will need to level its domed top.

STEP 1 :   Apply a small smear of buttercream (about the size of a half dollar for a regular-sized cake, more for larger cakes) to a cake board that’s the same diameter as the cake round. This ensures that the cake will stick when placed on the board.

STEP 2 :  Place the cake on the board. Turn the pan that the cake was baked in upside down, and place it near the baked cake. Use the pan as your guide and run a serrated knife across the top of the cake to cut it level.

STEP 3 :  Once the cake is leveled, use a metal ruler to find the center point around the outside of the cake, and mark it by lightly scoring the cake with a knife. Set the ruler aside.

STEP 4 :  With the knife in one hand and your other hand flat on top of the cake to keep it steady, use a smooth sawing motion to slowly cut around the cake from the outside edges toward the center until the knife is all the way through.


Filling The Cake

No matter how many layers your cake will be, you always want the filling layers to be about half as high as your cake layers.  I typically do four layers of cake with three layers of filling to achieve tall, beautiful slices.  Take time to fill and chill the cake properly in order to avoid what I call the cake “muffin top.”   That’s when the layers of filling haven’t been done properly or the filling is too soft for the weight of the cake, causing the cake to get those unsightly little bulges between each layer.

If you’re filling the cake with a buttercream frosting only, spread or pipe the buttercream (using a large round decorating tip size #789 or similar) on top of the first cake layer and stop 1/4 inch away from the edge.

When you place the next round of cake on top, press down starting from the center and moving out towards the edges – this forces the buttercream to fill in the space without going over the edge. Repeat with each cake layer until all the layers have been stacked. Use the level to check that the top and sides of your cake are straight.


How To Use a Softer Filling

STEP 5 :  If adding a softer filling like jam or cream cheese frosting, pipe a dam around the top outer edge of the cake round with a firm-setting buttercream.

STEP 6:  Fill the center with the filling, and top it with the next cake round. Place the cake in the fridge, and allow it to set completely, at least 2 hours but up to overnight, before finishing.

STEP 7:  Frost as desired.

TIP :  Save That Cake Top!

If you don’t immediately give in to the temptation of snacking on the little domed piece of cake you just cut off, you can use it to create “sand” or “dirt” for your next cake design.  Learn how with this step-by-step tutorial!


Great Cake Decorating | by Erin Gardner of Wild Orchid Baking Co.

Excerpted from Great Cake Decorating, by Erin Gardner.  Copyright © 2014 by Erin Gardner.  Published by The Tauton Press.  Used by permission of the publisher and author.  All rights reserved.  Photography © 2014 by Mark Davidson.

Book :  Great Cake Decorating
Author :  Erin Gardner of Wild Orchid Baking Co.
Learn More : Erin Gardner’s Cake Class online at Craftsy

Carrie Sellman , Founder & Editor

Carrie Sellman is the Founder & Editor of The Cake Blog. Her work has been published in BRIDES Magazine, Country Living Magazine and featured online at People, Today, Cosmopolitan, Glamour, Redbook, Real Simple, TLC, The Cooking Channel and more.


  1. 1

    Zoe says

    Some really good tips here! I especially like the idea of using my pan to help me take the dome off the cake. Thanks!

  2. 2


    I love this tutorial.. my mom used to make wedding cakes when my sister and I were kids. She would always save the top “scraps” that she cut off and some extra frosting so that my sister and I could have really healthy saturday morning breakfasts.

  3. 3

    Jody says

    I find removing the dome of the cake while it is still in the pan works great. The top of the cake pan works as a guide for an even cut everytime.

  4. 4

    Heather says

    I have a question about removing the dome. I always cut my dome off at the lowest point so that the cake that is left is totally flat on top with no curves at the edges. From the pictures, it looks like you left a little of the curve of the dome on the cake and only cut it to the level of the pan, even though the dome starts beneath the level of the pan. How does that factor into your icing the cake. Wouldn’t the sides of the cake at that layer have a slight indent? Do you compensate with frosting? I am afraid if i don’t cut it totally flat I will have bulges, but I waste a lot of cake cutting the whole dome off. Help!

    • 5

      karen says

      i try to cut as little cake a possible. as long as the curved side is the first layer touching the board or one of the middle layers, you should be able to “mask” the curve with frosting.

  5. 8

    karen says

    i still and always will swear by cake levelers. it doesn’t have to be anything fancy. the cheapy wire wilton cutter is still my go to after all these years. you don’t have to guess and it’s just so much faster.

  6. 9

    mandy says

    Hi, fantastic tips. Just wondering you said you do up to four layers of filling on your cakes, how high are your cakes to begin with?

  7. 10

    fiona says

    Avoid having to cut the dome. I get a paper towel roll, break off enough length to wrap around the cake tin, fold it length ways (height of the tin), wet it briefly and squeeze excess water. Then get foil and tear enough to wrap around tin, lay it down on a bench, place the damp paper towel strip along the middle of the foil, fold foil over paper towel strip evenly (height of tin). Wrap it around the cake tin, cut off excess strip, but leave enough to pinch it together so it stays in place. Don’t overlap. The cake will bake flat. No need to cut any part of the cake.
    just google: paper towel and foil wrapped around cake tin.

  8. 12

    Cindy Schriver says

    First of all your blog is beautiful. The pics are spectacular 😉 I have a concern with the directions on this cake. I am a Cake decorating instructor and have worked for the last six years. Step 5 you should have put a thin layer of buttercream down BEFORE the border and the filling. If you don’t do that you run the risk of the liquid of the filling making the lower layer all mushy. Second in step 5 you put the outer circle of icing too close to the edge. It isn’t a huge deal when your filling is the same as the icing you are going to ice with but if you had a chocolate filling with a white icing covering it would be. When you put the top layer on the cake as you have it the icing would ooze out of the sides. You say quarter inch space in your directions but in the pic it was right there on the edge. I don’t mean to be ugly in the least. Your cakes are magnificent and someone with the level of talent that you have its totally workable but to the home baker who is following your pics religiously they will likely not succeed. Again I hope you take this as constructive I promise there is no malice in this posting at all. As an instructor it just caught my eye on pinterest.

  9. 14

    Charlotte says

    Beautiful blog! Beautiful cakes! Just a suggestion for leveling the cake…cut across the top of the pan before removing the cake. If you don’t have a knife that is long enough, use dental floss stretched tight across the top and a sawing motion. Never any fear of getting your cake lopsided! (You may need to start a small cut with a knife if using floss.)

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