Know how to do one big cake, need to do two small cakes
May 12, 2016 12:28 PM   Subscribe

Pretty simple: If I take standard out-of-the-box cake mix, make the batter, and put it in two small cake pans instead of one standard size one, what (if anything) do I need to change about how I bake it?

I am very excited to be making a smash cake for my niece's first birthday. I already had a standard circular (8 or 9 inches?) pan, but I don't want a large, wide cake--the examples I've found that I want to emulate the decorating of are smaller and about as tall as they are wide. To meet this need, I bought a set of 4" pans that I think I could use two of and then stack one layer on top of the other.

I plan on using regular ol' store-bought rainbow-chip cake mix--can I just make the batter and split it between the two pans and bake the way I would if it were in one pan? The volume is the same (I think? Can I use only part or will that mess things up?) but obviously the distribution is changing, so I suspect I will need to adjust baking time, baking temperature, or even both. Let's assume for the one regular-sized pan it would have been 30 minutes at 325 degrees.

I guess if I mess it up, my only judge will be an infant. Then again, the perfectionist in me would really like to get this right! I know there are lots of very smart baker-types here; I am adept at neither baking nor math, so any advice would be much appreciated. :)
posted by lovableiago to Food & Drink (13 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
It'll be fine. Just bake it for less time and watch it like a hawk.
Wilton has great guides for this kind of thing. Read through this. Different recipes have different cooking time needs, of course, but in general I've had a lot of success following Wilton's instructions when going to odd sizes. (Their frosting volume column, for instance, is super duper useful.)
posted by phunniemee at 12:33 PM on May 12, 2016

Yeah I make weird size cakes all the time, just watch them and poke them with a toothpick or fork a little early to see if they're done yet.
posted by celtalitha at 12:39 PM on May 12, 2016

Most box mixes include baking directions for cupcakes as well as regular cakes. You could interpolate, but I’d start checking regularly as soon as you hit the cupcake time.

For example, the Betty Crocker rainbow chip mix says that cupcakes will take 15-20 minutes. If the big cake would be 30 minutes, you can be pretty sure your 4” cakes will be about 20-25 minutes. But I’d start checking at 15 minutes.
posted by Kriesa at 12:43 PM on May 12, 2016 [2 favorites]

I usually estimate how the cake's depth compares, and adjust the baking time by the same factor. So if you bake a 5" deep loafcake in a 2" deep brownie pan, your cake is just under half the suggested depth, so start by baking for a little less than half the suggested time, and then toothpick-testing it every couple minutes from there.
posted by pseudostrabismus at 12:52 PM on May 12, 2016

I recommend turning your oven temperature down slightly, so as to bake it a little more flat/even and minimize the dome effect - cooked first along the outer rim, so insides expand upwards, which means trimming a lot of cake off later for stacking. If you're usually baking at 350F, turn it down to 300.

Watch it like a hawk, once the cakes stop glistening in the very center then insert a bamboo skewer / toothpick to check for done-ness (no batter on stick).
posted by lizbunny at 12:57 PM on May 12, 2016 [1 favorite]

Two 4" pans will give you half the top and bottom surface area of one 8" pan, but twice the side surface area for the same volume of batter, and conventional oven cooking takes place by heat diffusing through surfaces -- but the parts of the batter in contact with the pan will cook faster for several reasons.

So you have differences that tend to cancel each other out a bit in ways hard to predict in advance, and I think celtalitha's advice to test with a toothpick early and often is very wise
posted by jamjam at 1:00 PM on May 12, 2016

I suspect you will have some extra batter left over... fill the small pans no more than 2/3 of the way full.

Since you have 3 small pans, go ahead and bake 3 cakes if you have the batter to do it. It's always good to have a back up cake!

Bake time will definitely be shorter, as mentioned above.
posted by jenquat at 1:04 PM on May 12, 2016 [2 favorites]

A 9" round recipe will fill just over 5 - 4" round pans to the same depth.
posted by Mitheral at 1:23 PM on May 12, 2016 [2 favorites]

Note that a standard cake box mix makes 2 8" or 9" rounds for layering, so you should expect to have leftover batter if you're planning on just 2 4" layers.
posted by vunder at 1:48 PM on May 12, 2016 [1 favorite]

Make sure you have some tooothpicks. Insert a tooothpick in the center of the cake. If it comes out gooey, not done. Clean, done. Burnt, start over. I make muffins frequently and have a piece of straight wire that I keep in the kitchen for testing. Cake will begin to pull away from the edge of the pan when gone, and the very edge may get brown.
posted by theora55 at 2:14 PM on May 12, 2016

Shorter bake time for sure. I make a lot of cupcakes from standard cake recipes and generally half plus a bit is generally enough - I check at the halfway mark in the recipe and add five or ten minutes as needed.
posted by Jilder at 6:59 AM on May 13, 2016

I always consult the Joy of Baking Pan Sizes chart when adjusting. It includes some really helpful explanation of when you need to adjust cooking time/temperature and why. I'm also often surprised by how some of the batter volumes work out when I'm trying to adjust for different size pans.

That said, I bake a lot of cakes and I always find 4" pans to be a giant pain no matter what. Expect your cake to rise more than you think and be really uneven. I always end up using a knife to level off the top and remove the ugly bit.
posted by thejanna at 10:53 AM on May 13, 2016 [1 favorite]

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