Tessa Huff

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How to Ice a Cake 2.0

How to Ice a Cake 2.0

Hey everyone!  As I get closer and closer to finishing up my book, cake has been on my mind nearly 24/7.  The cover is almost finalized, I've started to see some of the behind-the-scenes with sales, and we are nearing an official release month (still Spring 2016 - April, I believe!).  There is still so much to share about the book and the process before it comes out in the spring, but for now, I will tell you this.  The book is entirely about Layer Cakes!  Baking them.  Building them.  Decorating them.  And then EATING them!  Although - you will all be doing that part on your own.  Not only will I be sharing some of my favorite recipes and best-kept decorating secrets, the book emphasizes gorgeous cakes and delicious flavor pairings.

It's been about 2 1/2 years since I first posted a "How to Ice a Cake" article, and it is about time I revisited that post and gave it a face-lift.  Today is the day we go back to where it all started - making spectacular layer cakes!

Gorgeous cakes start from the inside - or from the bottom up, if we are talking layer cakes.  If you've ever seen a multi-tiered wedding cake or a dangerously, sky-high layer cake and wondered how they defy gravity, it all starts with a structurally sound cake and even layers.  Even "naked" cakes should be assembled with care.  So let's get started!

How to Ice a Cake:

Before you start stacking, trim and level all of your cake layers.  You know that dome that sometimes forms when cakes bake?  Yeah, cut that off.  How do you expect to have a level cake when dealing with humps and lumps?  Plus - those scraps are perfect for snacking on while you prep =)  Looking at my photos - no, I did not completely remove the entire dome, but yes- the cake is still flat on top.

In my years of experience, I find a meringue-based buttercream creates the smoothest finishes.  I am partial to Swiss meringue buttercream, but Italian works beautifully as well.  Both are silky smooth, are extremely stable for stacking multiple layers (and tiers), and is super tasty.  I'll work on a post that demystifies meringue buttercream for you all soon =)

Step 1: Place the bottom layer of cake on a clean turn table or cake board.  Fill a pastry bag fitted with a plain tip with buttercream or frosting of choice.

Step 2:  Pipe a ring of frosting around the outer top edge of your layer cake.  This ring will act as a dam to keep in any filling of your choice.  For cakes filled with buttercream in particular, I like a 2:1 ratio - meaning if the cake layers are 1 1/2 inches tall, the buttercream ring should be 3/4 inch tall (this may change according to your filling - you may use less if filling with something like ganache or fruit preserves).

Step 3:  Fill the frosting dam with filling of choice.  Evenly spread with an offset spatula as needed.

Step 4:  Place the second layer of cake on top.  I typically flip this layer up-side-down to help keep things nice and level.

Step 5: Repeat with the remaining layers.  The last layer of cake should be placed on up-side-down, or more importantly, cut-side-down to help keep crumbs to a minimum when we start icing the outside.

Figure 1: steps 2 to 5.

Figure 1: steps 2 to 5.

Notes: Now is your chance to make sure everything is straight and level.  Don't be afraid to adjust as needed.  If the cake is starting to lean, fix it!  Take a step back and make sure the sides are nice and straight.  If not, feel free to get right in there with your hands to push and manipulate the layers so that they are straight.  Of course, this can only be done to a certain extent.  Ideally, the cake layers start out nice and flat, and the cake continues to stay level.  Take a long serrated knife to even out any major humps and lumps.

Step 6:  Start crumb coating - or the inner layer of icing that traps all of the crumbs, keeping you final coat nice and clean.  Fill in any gaps between the layers of cake with additional frosting.  Begin to even out the frosting with an offset or straight metal spatula.

Steps 7 and 8:  Place a medium dollop of frosting on top of the cake.  Use your offset spatula to spread the frosting over the top of the cake, making is flat and even.  Push any excess frosting towards the edges, allowing them to overhang slightly.

Step 9: Starting with any frosting that hangs off the top edge of the cake, begin evening out the frosting on the sides of the cake (see Figure 2).  Add more frosting as needed.  The goal is to create a thin, even layer of frosting that completely coats the cake.  It does not need to be perfectly smooth, but should be even.

Step 10:  Once the crumb coat is complete, chill the cake in the refrigerator for about 10 minutes - or until the frosting sets.  It should not be left to get too cold, or you will be fighting between different temperatures of frosting when it comes to the final layer.

Steps 11 and 12:  Repeat steps 7 and 8, taking extra care to get an smooth layer of frosting on the top of the cake.

Step 13: Adhere any excess frosting from the top of the cake that may overhang to the sides of the cake, making sure there is enough frosting to make a substantial, crisp top edge at the end.

Step 14: Add frosting around the sides of the cake.  To start, work with only a little bit of frosting at a time for more control.  Continue around until there is an even layer of frosting on all sides.  Again, it does not have to be completely smooth yet, just even.

Figure 2: steps 11 to 14

Figure 2: steps 11 to 14

Notes:  For this six-inch round cake, I am most comfortable using a small offset spatula.  I typically apply the frosting in sections - working on the top half, then the bottom.  I feel like I have more control of the frosting this way and it helps prevent the frosting from slopping all over the place and sliding off the sides.  Be sure to clean off your spatula between applications.

Step 15:  Once there is an ever layer of frosting around the whole cake, begin smoothing with you just your spatula.  Hold your spatula completely perpendicular to the turn table/parallel to the sides of the cake.  Begin smoothing and turning the turn table to remove excess frosting.

Step 16:  As the frosting starts to smooth out, trade your spatula for a frosting smoother.  Again, holding the long, straight edge parallel to the side of the cake (and slightly touching), rest the base on the turn table to create a nice 90-degree angle.  Keeping the frosting smoother in place, begin to spin the turn table.  As the turn table spins, the frosting smoother should pick up any excess frosting and fill in any minor holes.  Clean off your smoother in between every few spins, stop and repeat.  Fill in any major gaps with frosting and smooth again.  At this point, take a step back to make sure the sides of the cake are still nice and straight.  Add or remove frosting as needed.

Step 17: As the sides are smoothed, excess frosting will be pushed up towards the top of the cake.  Using the edge of your offset spatula, gently pull this frosting "lip" towards the centre of the cake.  Continue around the entire top of the cake.

Step 18:  Take you frosting smoother and place the long edge gently on top of the cake.  Give the turn table a couple of turns to further even out the top of the cake.

Figure 3: steps 15 to 18

Figure 3: steps 15 to 18

Notes:  Feel free to repeat steps 15 to 18 until you are satisfied with the smoothness of your cake.  I find myself going back a few times, taking extra care to make sure that top edge is crisp.  If there appears to be a lot of bubbles or holes in your meringue buttercream, it might need to be mixed further before using.  Running your mixer on low with the paddle attachment (and buttercream inside the bowl, of course) for a bit will help eliminate air bubbles. To transfer a cake to a cake stand or serving dish (either from the turn table or from a cake board), gently run an offset spatula completely around the base of the cake to release it, then carefully slide the spatula under the cake and lift.  It may help to chill the cake before moving to help prevent any bumps or smudges to the freshly applied frosting.

Notes:  I find that the consistency (or temperature, rather) of my buttercream really effects the smoothness and how much work it takes to get the cake smooth.  If the buttercream is perfectly room temperature and silky, the turn table does all the work for me and the process is quite quick.  If the buttercream is too cold, the process may take longer and the buttercream needs to be "worked" with the tools to really get smooth.  If you find the buttercream to be at all soupy or too soft, try placing the cake in the refrigerator for a bit.  To get extra extra smooth, pop the finished cake in the fridge until slightly firm.  Run the metal blade of your spatula or frosting smoother under hot hot water.  Dry the spatula/smoother and use the heat of the blade to gently warm and melt the buttercream slightly by repeating steps 15 to 18.

Wondering what the inside looks like?  Check back next week (or two) and see how I transform this cake into my husband's birthday cake!  It's got a bit of beer, coffee, chocolate, and more.  Trust me, you won't want to miss it!

Thanks for playing!  Happy Frosting!

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