This is the second and last part of my two series write up on cake decorating basics. The first series was on cake boards, and the reason I've included cake boards one of the basics for cake decorating is because they are absolutely necessary for all cakes and not having them ready can really disrupt the entire cake decorating plan (based on my experience!).
In this series, I am sharing the rest of the steps that I follow to get my cakes ready before frosting and final decoration.
Cake Decorating Basics
Cake Decorating Basics: Cooling a Cake
Once my cakes are baked and out of the oven, I remove them from the cake tins and make it a point to cool them at room temperature for at least 4 hours.(for cakes less than 9 inches in diameter). I leave the cakes open in the first 30 minutes, and then I cover them with a kitchen towel and let them cool completely. This way, the cakes do not dry out while cooling. For larger cakes, I let them cool slightly longer.
In cooling the cakes, I always place them on a wire rack upright. There are 2 points to make here, the first is that wire racks help my cakes cool all round faster and also makes sure the water evaporation does not come into contact with the cakes. This helps the cakes last longer. Secondly, placing the cakes upright helps make sure they do not get compressed especially when the tops are domed while baking.
Cake Decorating Basics: Leveling and Layering
Once my cakes are completely cooled, I always level the tops. Leveling a cake refers to the act of making the top of the cake flat. My cakes tend to rise higher in the middle when baked and I have to cut them off in order to get level surfaced cakes. I do this with either a serrated knife or cake leveler. Personally, I find it easier to use a cake leveler because cake levelers have height guides and I never go wrong with them.
Layering cakes refers to the act of slicing them horizontally to fill them with icing. There are basically two ways in which I normally make layered or sandwiched cakes. I either divide my cake batter between two cake tins and bake two separate but same sized cakes and sandwich them with icing; or I bake one cake and slice it horizontally into layers once it has cooled.
When I bake to two separate cakes and sandwich them, I level off the tops. I then place the first layer with the top facing up on a cake board, spread my filling/frosting and sandwich it with the second cake. This time, when placing the second cake on the first one, I make sure the top is facing down. At this point, both the top surfaces of my cakes would be sticking together with the cake filing in between.
If, on the other hand, I bake one cake and layer it, this is what I normally do - I level the top of the cake with a cake leveler. And then I place the cake on a flat cake board. Using a skewer or toothpick, I mark the layers to be sliced on the sides of my cake so that I get even layers. With a cake leveler, I slice the cake horizontally into layers of equal height. I then place the top layer onto a cake board (with the top facing down), spread my cake filling and place the second layer on top. I continue the process until all cake layers have been stacked. At this point the cake would be upside down with the bottom of the cake now being the new top. I always make it a point to have the flat bottom of my cakes moved to the top as it always gives a flat and even surface for my cakes.
Cake Decorating Basics: Patchwork
Patchwork is not a term commonly heard in cake decorating but this is something that I do to my cakes all the time. See the image below, this is how almost all my cakes look like after I have leveled and filled them with icing.
Cake Decorating Basics
See how the sides are curved in at the center? In order to make the sides straight, I could trim the top and bottom of the cake so that they get into the same size as the center but doing that means my cake diameter will become smaller. So this is where I do my patch work.
For the patchwork, I take my leveled off cake pieces and break them into crumbs in a bowl. And then I add a little butter cream and mix with the crumbs to get a dough-like texture (something like cake pops dough but slightly softer). I use this patchwork dough to patch up the center of the cake so that it gets aligned with the top and bottom diameter of the cake. Since the dough is rather firm, it is too hard to be piped in a piping bag, hence I use my hands to press small amounts of it onto the sides of the cake. The sides will not be entirely smooth at this point. The smoothing process happens when I crumb coat the cake, which is my next step after patchwork.
Cake Decorating Basics : Crumb Coat
I crumb coat all my cakes, regardless of whether I cover them with buttercream, chocolate ganache, royal icing, butter icing or fondant. Crumb coat is typically done to keep cake crumbs from getting mixed into the icing that is used to cover a cake. These crumbs, will get mixed into the icing as it is spread on cakes, resulting in very unprofessional finish for the cakes. This is more so for spreadable icings like butter cream and royal icing.
I use crumb coat not only to keep the crumbs in place, but more specifically to get my cakes into the right shape before applying the final frosting on it. I use it to smooth the sides of cakes that have been patched as well as level cake tops that are uneven or lopsided. I practically use crumb coat as the base coat for my cakes before covering them with fondant (unlike most cake decorators who use chocolate ganache as the base coat).
And most importantly, I don't just use plain buttercream to crumb coat, I use a 'speckled buttercream'. My speckled buttercream is simple a mixture of buttercream and some cake crumbs. The resulting icing is still in a very spreadable consistency but is filled with cake crumbs. I add cake crumbs into my base coat icing as they help make the buttercream be more stiff hence hold shape better. And when I apply it onto the sides of my cakes that have been previously patched up with 'dough' icing, I smooth the buttercream until the sides become even. At this point, the buttercream will be all speckled with cake crumbs like this:
And it is only after all these steps have been completed that I cover my cakes with fondant or a final coat of my other spreadable frosting.
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