Monday, April 4, 2016

Anatomy of a Celebration Cake: Simple Tips to Make Your Next Cake Beautiful

My darling, adorable and beautiful niece got married a couple of weeks ago in Texas. Luckily she married a young man that we all really like. Not only is he handsome, but he has a quick smile, easy going personality and an even temperament which I find essential in a good husband. I should know because I married well too.

Several months ago when she announced her engagement, my darling, adorable and beautiful niece asked if I'd like to make their wedding cake. Since handcrafting anything for someone is an expression of love in my opinion, I readily agreed because as you might be able to tell, I love that girl.

As weddings often go, theirs grew from a casual little bohemian-style event to a more formal and much larger do. As it grew so did my anxiety over whether or not I was qualified to make a cake for the groom's family and friends who might not have a sense of humor when it comes to amateurs baking for this special day. I was confident that my side of the family would kindly overlook any uneven frosting or even a lopsided tier or two, I just wasn't so sure about everyone else . . .  but a promise is a promise.

After months of worry, night after night of baking cakes in my dreams, and a day long icing and stacking boot camp with a cake guru friend of mine, I felt ready to do it. My husband and I packed my car with my big 7 quart KitchenAid, my best Rodelle vanilla and almond extracts, and every cake pan in the Denver metropolitan area and hit the road.

After a beautiful drive through the Texas hill country during wildflower season, we arrived in Austin and I got baking. Since the bride requested a strawberry cake, which by the way is a very hard flavor to get right, I decided to take a big shortcut and use Paula Deen's recipe which uses cake mix and strawberry jello (yes it is true, I admit it),

Now, before you stop reading, I will have you know I must have tried no less than five different recipes with lackluster results. If the flavor was right, the cake color and texture was off. If the color was close, the flavor was weak and wimpy. I tell you, this cake drove me crazy and I am an experienced home baker. My friends, family and coworkers were so tired of trying strawberry cakes that they started to hide when they saw me coming with my all too familiar cake shaped bundle of foil.

So in the end I cried "uncle" and used the recipe I started with and swore my husband to a vow of secrecy until after the cake was eaten. So here I am coming clean to all of you. I used cake mix, strawberry jello and pureed frozen strawberries in sugar and everyone loved it. I honestly think that if I had made this cake from scratch I would be in an asylum right now.

For the icing I used my new (to me) favorite, Swiss meringue buttercream  (with a 1/4 teaspoon almond extract added in with the vanilla) which is not only pretty easy to make once you get the hang of it, but it elevates even a cake mix to the highest of heights. As I learned in my cake boot camp, the trick to a great looking cake is smooth icing and to achieve that, all you need is a good recipe, the proper tools and a few little tricks of the trade that I'm going to share with you now.

Tools that I personally recommend:

The first tool you will need is a smooth moving turntable and a good one does not come cheaply. This one is made by Ateco and will set  you back about $100, but it is the best in my opinion. Where most little turntables are sluggish and jerky, this one has a smooth whisper glide rotation that keeps you from getting those stopping and starting marks on your icing. I have a couple of little flat plastic ones and they are a waste of time and money. You can also use a lazy susan if you have one tucked in the back of a cabinet somewhere. I have also seen them quite reasonably priced at IKEA.

The next secret is using an icing tip which is a super big tip with a grooved side and a smooth side (use the grooves next to your cake for traction) . This tip will enable you to get an even amount of icing all over your cake which gives you a leg up on an even coating. You will also need some pastry bags. I like the disposable ones, but they are usually found in a smaller size at most retailers. If you can't find bigger ones, buy a more readily available large reusable bag for your icing tip.

The next thing you will need is a nice straight edge that is at least as long as your cake is high. That way as your turntable spins your cake around you get an even finish on your icing as long as you hold your straight edge firm and parallel to the side of your cake. This straight edge can also be used to remove any icing that might be around the base of your cake. Putting waxed paper under the cake to catch around the bottom has never really worked well for me, so I loved this tip that my friend gave me.

After you have your cakes iced you will need a big spatula or even better, a cake lifter to move them. This way you won't have to worry about clumsily picking up beautifully iced cakes only to have to try to repair fingerprint marks. A Wilton cake lifter will only set you back about $10. Worth every penny in my opinion. (Be sure to download the always available coupon at Michael's or JoAnn's on your smart phone when you go to pick up any of these things. It can easily save you 40% - 60% on one item.)

Silicone fondant mold (about $10 at craft and hobby stores).

Since my cake was for a formal event I wanted a bit more of a polished look so I made some marshmallow fondant and fashioned pearls by pressing it into the corn starch dusted mold and painted them with a little mixture of white luster dust (sold at cake and craft stores for about $4 a tube) and Everclear. Grain alcohol and luster dust makes a nice edible and paintable mixture but evaporates quickly so it doesn't make your fondant soggy.  You could also dust it on the fondant dry, but I love the even coverage of the mixture. Another great tip from Jenn the cake guru.

Now you are ready to decorate:

Bake your cake layers a day or so in advance, wrap them tightly in plastic and store them in the refrigerator (or freezer for up to a week, give or take). This will make them moister and firmer so they are easier to ice. This also breaks things up so you will have a whole day to decorate them when you are ready.

To end up with a straight cake you'll need to start with level layers. Use a serrated knife to cut off any domes that might have formed during baking.

Place a dollop of icing on your cake plate or base to keep your cake in place.

Place your first cake layer upside down on top of the dollop of icing on your cake base or plate. Ice the top of that layer before placing the second layer on top of that upside down. Doing this will give you an even top to start with. Just a note: as you can see I didn't trim enough off of the bottom layer so there is a gap around the edges and the the base. If this happens, just pipe a little icing around the bottom to fill in the space.

Make a little extra icing so you can crumb coat your cakes. This thin layer of icing not only helps to cover up darker cakes when you are covering them in a light icing, it also primes your cake so you do not get crumbs mixed in with your finished icing. After you crumb coat it, stick it in the refrigerator for 30 minutes to an hour or until the icing is firm and then put the finish coat on it. This step will rid you of those pesky crumb specks forever!

Once your crumb coat is chilled, use an icing tip to apply an even-ish coat of icing to the cake. Try to leave a ridge around the top of your cake so you can build a sharp edge when you ice the top.

When you apply the icing, try to build up a ridge at the top of the cake. This will help to give you a crisp, sharp edge around the top instead of slumping, rounded edges.

To finish your cake, place your straight edge parallel to the edge of the cake. Since I am right handed, I curl my left arm around the back of my turntable as far as I can so I can turn it towards me in one swift motion as I drag the straight edge around the cake with my right hand. You might have to do this a couple of times to get a nice straight edge. Be sure to clean your straight edge every time you stop and start.

To smooth the top, first spread the icing on the top with a spatula starting from the center working out to the edges. Then, starting from the edge working toward the middle, smooth it with the straight edge keeping your hand as flat and straight as possible. Repeat as you work your way around the whole cake. Remember to clean your straight edge after every swipe.

Once your cake is iced you can take a cake comb and texture it like I did on the wedding cake (I used the large tooth edge) or  embellish as desired to help cover up any little mistakes that you might have made. As you can see, my cakes still have lots of room for improvement, but they have come a long way since I first started.

For my daughter's birthday cake shown here, I trimmed it in her favorite French macarons. They weren't perfect, neither was the cake, but she LOVED it.

I am no professional by any means and I guess that is exactly why I wanted to write this blog post. If you zoom in on my daughter's or niece's cakes, you will see many imperfections. There are lines and air bubbles and even places where some of the cake faintly shows through, but to the naked eye at the wedding it was lovely and the couple of honor was thrilled.

I hope my experience and what I learned along the way will give you the courage to stretch yourself and make your own celebration cake for someone you love. If I can do it anyone can. I guarantee they will love it and so will you.

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