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Wednesday, August 31, 2011

10 Tips for Frosting a Cake

One of my favorite hobbies is decorating cakes, so I thought it would be fun to share some tips for layering and frosting a cake! Before we get to work layering and frosting though, be sure to check out the post I did a couple weeks ago about baking a better cake and about my favorite cake recipe.

So, here are a few tips to follow once you've baked and completely cooled your cake(s). In the pictures, you'll see that I used two 8" or 9" (I've never measured) rounds. You could easily follow these techniques with any diameter or shape of cake.

1. Level Your Cake. This can be a little difficult at first. There are a lot of handy tools out there to help you get it just right. Tools like this...

They typically either have a small wire or a gently serrated "knife" that essentially cuts through the cake. They're also adjustable so that you can change the height - you can change it to cut through the middle of the cake or just take off the domed top. But, you don't need those fancy little gadgets. You can use floss or even just a knife. Which is what I used.

See how the cake filled up over the top of the cake? When I do my round cakes, it's just easier to use the cake pan as a guide. It may not be perfectly level, but it's good enough for stacking. Frosting will help even out the rest! So, take your top off and set it aside.

I just have to say, if muffin tops are the best part of a muffin, then cake tops are the best part of a cake. Especially this yummy cake

Also, instead of just taking off the dome and putting the two layers together, you can make layers within the single layer to then fill and stack together.

2. Bring your cake up to a higher level and/or use a turntable.

This is actually my cake taker reversed - the bottom part where the cake goes is actually sitting on top of the cover. I like this setup best for two reasons - it brings the cake up higher (about 10") and because I can easily turn it as I frost my cake. A raised turntable would accomplish the same thing, but I don't have the money for one of those.

3. Make sure your cake layers are even on the sides. My cake pans are ever so slightly angled outward towards the top. It really isn't a big deal in my case, but sometimes it's necessary to trim the outer edges of the cake so that the layers are even. Doing so will help in the icing and smoothing process. Just stack your layers together and then with a knife, gently trim off any parts that stick out of the side. This process is easier if your cake is frozen (it's so much easier to cut through when frozen) and should be done before filling/stacking your layers if you're going to be using a filling besides frosting. If you're just using frosting, then you could do this after stacking and filling your layers.

4. Use a good frosting. Despite the fact that making my own frosting can make a huge mess (think sifted flour EVERYWHERE), I think homemade frosting is so much better to work with and it's a little more natural (no additives or preservatives). Store bought frosting is much more sticky (which is horrible for when you're trying to not get crumbs in your frosting) and doesn't hold its shape as well when you're trying to decorate with it. The frosting recipe I use is just Wilton's Buttercream Frosting. I prefer a mixture of butter and shortening and I typically double the recipe, too. This is usually how I make it:

1 cup shortening
1 cup butter (if you're going for a completely white frosting, use only shortening or get a whiter butter)
2 lbs sifted powder sugar
2 tsp vanilla (I don't usually use clear vanilla -if you want a perfectly white frosting, go for clear though)
2 tbsp milk (or water)
additional milk or water for thinning

To frost the cake, you'll want to use a thinner consistency frosting so that it will spread easier. Your stiff frosting is used for decorations that need to hold their shape. A medium consistency is also used for decorations like borders and such. A thinner consistency is also used for piping and writing. Check out Wilton's information on icing consistency. They even have a video - way more that I can show you!

Even if you're going to be covering your cake with fondant, you'll want to give your cake a good, thin layer of frosting. The frosting will help keep the crumbs in (it's sometimes referred to as a crumb coat or crumb later) and will give the fondant something to stick to. You'll want to make sure your frosting is as smooth and even as possible so that any imperfections don't translate into imperfections in your fondant.

5. Filling your cake layers. You can really use any kind of filling. I prefer to just use icing, but you can also use any kind of jam or preserve. If you're going to use something other than frosting, then you'll want to add a step to the filling process. Fill a decorating bag with some frosting, and using a round tip (probably around a #12 or so) pipe an edge of frosting all the way around the edge of your layer of cake. Then fill the inside with your filling. Putting an edge of frosting will help keep the filling in and will help it from squishing out into your layer of frosting that you're going to be putting around the rest of the cake.

6. Choose your weapons of choice. I prefer to use a small straight spatula and a larger bent spatula.

 I like to use the smaller spatula for the initial smoothing and especially for the sides. I find it's easier to work with. I like the larger spatula for smoothing out the top or for a tall cake. There are also angled/pointed spatulas and all sorts of sizes in between.

I also like the large bag and flat tip to help get the frosting onto the cake.

Have you seen those gigantic bags they use on the cake decorating shows? My little 16" bag is about the closest I'll ever get, but it does the job. I fill that baby up and it's so much easier than trying to smooth it on with a spatula.

Once you've covered the side of the cake, use your spatula to remove excess and smooth it around. When smoothing the side of your cake, use your spatula at a 45 degree angle and spin the base/cake, if possible. You'll get a smoother edge by moving the cake instead of the spatula. If too much icing builds up on the spatula, just wipe it off and start again.

7. Ice your cake carefully. Once you get your cake onto your base, plop on some frosting and get to work. But be sure to frost carefully! Don't go sloshing the frosting around every which way. Use your spatula at an angle on the cake - not flat and not perfectly perpendicular either. Once you start moving your frosting in one direction on the cake, follow that direction through until you read the edge of the cake. Once you've moved your spatula off the cake, you can choose a different direction.

8. Use your icing to help even out the cake. If your cake isn't cut/leveled perfectly even, don't worry. You'll just want to add some frosting in some places to give the illusion of evenness. No big deal! If you're going to be covering your cake with fondant, you'll definitely want to make sure your cake is as even as possible.

9. Getting straight corners. This is probably the hardest part of the cake for me. And unfortunately I didn't get any pictures of this process. Basically it's just a lot of back and forth between going around the side and smoothing the top. I could do this part for probably almost an hour. If you're using fondant, don't stress too much about this part. Your fondant is pliable and you can still give it a few smooshes and use a fondant smoother to get the squared corner look.

10. Smoothing out the icing. This is another step that I could spend quite a while doing. You'll need a tall pitcher, cold water, and your spatulas. Cold water from the tap should be fine unless it's summer and/or your water runs warm. If that's the case, just use a few ice cubes or put it in the fridge before you start the frosting process. This process may sound weird, but it really does work, trust me! Unfortunately I was running short on time and didn't get to snap any pictures of this process either, so I'll try and explain it the best I can.

Dip your spatula into the cold water, then tap the excess water off. You don't actually need the water, you just need to make your spatula cold so it will easily glide over the frosting. Holding your spatula at a slight angle (around 45 degrees), run it across the top and sides of the cake. You'll notice that the frosting starts to take on kind of a glazed look. The imperfections are smoothed out with ease. Repeat this process across the whole cake. When the frosting builds up on your spatula, wipe it away with a napkin or on the side of your bowl. Be sure to dip the spatula back into the cold water after every or every other run across the frosting. If you see any beads of water, just gently dab at them with a napkin - don't wipe them if they're on the frosting otherwise you'll have to redo what you just did with your spatula. After this process, you should have a fairly smooth, beautiful cake.

Again, I was running out of time and didn't have time to make it perfect, so ignore the imperfections you see on the side. Also, the camera made them look way worse - you could hardly tell they were there!

Do you have any tips for getting a smooth, beautiful cake? I'd love to hear them!

I'll be doing some decorating tips in the next week or so, so be sure to check back. Also, if you have any questions or want to know how to do something particular, please let me know so I can (hopefully) share with everyone in the upcoming decorating posts!


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