Running from the Law: Basic Cake Decorating

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Basic Cake Decorating

A few weekends ago, I took a Basic Cake Decorating Class at Kitchen Conservatory with my friends Heather and Michelle.

As you all know, I love cake. In a big way. Especially the icing. Mmmm. And I love baking cakes. But I can NOT decorate them. Last year I made Ryan a birthday cake - his favorite yellow cake with chocolate icing. It looked like I let a 5 year old decorate it - lopsided layers, filling dripping out the middle, icing full of yellow cake crumbs, squiggly-drunk-looking handwriting. Pathetic. I didn't even take a picture I was so embarrassed. Ooops. This year I'm determined to make him a kick-ass cake. Or at least one that I'm not ashamed to let people see.

So, I recruited two of the craftiest girls I know (and great bakers) to learn the "basics" of cake decorating. Heather and Michelle are both already pretty talented at decorating desserts. Michelle is a cookie decorating goddess. Her cookies are so pretty and amazing it's almost a shame to eat them! And Heather has mastered the perfect "bachelorette party" cake. You would's that funny good. So I knew I was in good hands. (Plus, they're both gorgeous, so I had great models for my pictures!)

This was a BASICS class. It started at square one and basically got you to square two. Exactly where I needed to start. Basic buttercream decorating. No fancy-schmancy decorating, no fondant, no colored roses with leaves and balloons. That's too much for me. I needed to learn how to keep the damn thing from falling apart while icing and how to make it not look like I hosed it down with icing. This was the perfect class.

The chef started by making basic buttercream icing. It was really easy. I forgot to take pictures. Sorry.

Next step was to grab a cake. Someone at KC had already made a batch of cakes for us to use. Basic yellow cake. One layer. Unwrap and begin.
First things first, you have to make the cake completely even. If your cake is domed, you have to cut off the dome to even it out. If your cake has a sunken middle, you should trim off some of the outer top so that it's flat. It's very important to have a flat cake. Who knew?! I've never done this wonder my cakes were always lopsided. I just thought that if your top was domed, you flipped it over and that was obviously the bottom. Not so, my friends! Not so. That dome (even on the bottom) could come back to haunt you later. Cut. It. Off. Now.

How? Well I'm glad you asked. Eyeball it and figure out where you need to cut. Then lightly score the cake with your knife so you know. And here's the trick...instead of moving your knife across the cake and sawing through it (like I used to do), you SPIN the cake all the way AROUND the KNIFE. Rotate the cake. Do NOT move the knife. At all. It's imperative that you keep the knife completely flat while you're doing this.

Once you have a flat top. Do the same thing to cut the cake in half (so you have two layers).
Ta da!!! See those cake scraps in the corner? If you need to fill in some holes in your cake you can use those scraps.
Once you have two layers, you want to add moisture to your layers. This part blew my mind! I had no idea that you could flavor a cake and keep it moist this way. We made a syrup (a thin simple syrup) with 2 parts water and 1 part sugar. And then we added our choice of flavor to it. This is the same type of syrup that they brush on sponge cakes to add moisture and a bit of extra sweetness. You can flavor it with liquors or extracts or anything liquid. The girls and I chose a basic vanilla syrup. The chef added a cherry liquor to his. Someone else used Grand Marnier to give it an orange flavor. And you take a brush and dab it all over both layers of your cake. Make sure you get enough on there to flavor the cake, but not too much that it completely soaks through and runs out the bottom.
Next, we made the filling. Using the pre-made buttercream icing, we took a little of it and flavored it. Heather and I wanted a chocolate filling, so we added some melted chocolate to the buttercream. Viola, chocolate icing. Michelle used some raspberry preserves and mad a raspberry filling. Yum. Once made, you just slap it in the middle of one of the layers. You take the bottom of your spatula blade and go straight across the icing. Never lift UP. That's what pulls the icing and cake up so crumbs get in your icing. Straight across and straight off the edge. Then carefully place the other layer on top evenly.

Then you apply a CRUMB COAT. Did you hear that?? Crumb coat. Yep, it's a coat of icing that traps all the crumbs. So they don't get in your icing! Isn't that brilliant?! Just take some of your leftover filling and apply a very thin layer of it to the entire cake (top and sides). You want to be able to see the cake through the crumb coat, so it's thin. Use your fingers to smear it everywhere. It does not have to be pretty, no one will ever see this.

(Please excuse the puffiness of my face...allergies are killing me.)

Refrigerate the cake for at least 15-20 minutes so the crumb coat solidifies. While that's going on, you can flavor the rest of your icing. We all chose to add some vanilla bean paste to our icing because it was so rich and flavorful. Others added fruit preserves or chocolate.

Now, the basic steps of icing a cake are (1) Top, (2) Sides, (3) Top. Place a huge dollop of icing in the center top of your cake. Using the same straight across method as the filling, spread the icing all over the top of the cake. It'll be falling off the sides, but don't worry about that. Rotate the cake and repeat until the top is smooth and pretty. Remember to never lift up.
Next, put some icing on the back of your spatula and apply the icing first down...the away from you. Use the outer edge of the cardboard cake round to be your guide. Holding your spatula perpendicular to the cake, pull the spatula down to fill in the space between the cake and the cardboard with icing, then push away from you, creating a nice edge. The top of the cake will now be messed up again along the edges. This is kind of hard to understand when I type it out, but trust me, it works.

Once you've iced all the way around the outside edges of the cake, you need to redo the top. You'll have little icing mounds all along the edge of the top of the cake. Just use your spatula and sweep straight across to push them out. Remember to never lift up. And then you have a perfectly iced cake. Nothing fancy, but better than I've ever done!

And lastly, you can add some piped icing around the edges to make it pretty. This was harder than I thought it would be. Michelle was really good at this part. Her cake was Martha-esque.
Heather wasn't thrilled with her piping job, but I thought it looked amazing!
And then there was mine...

It's not winning any prizes, but I was damn proud of it!! Kind of boring and white-looking but whatever. Michelle added some red and pink heart sprinkles to hers and Heather added some chocolate sprinkles. I put a few little pearl looking things on mine and some crystal sugar, but you really can't tell. Very white.

And then I took it home and ate the whole thing. :)


  1. OMG that looks like so. much. fun. And you girls look so pretty! I had no idea about all these techniques for cake decorating, seriously!

  2. I need to take this class!!! I can't decorate a cake to save my life. Sure, I can make one that is mighty tasty, but, it will not be pretty.

  3. Haha, I laughed out loud at this:

    "I just thought that if your top was domed, you flipped it over and that was obviously the bottom. Not so, my friends! Not so."

    That's exactly what I do!!! But I guess I shouldn't anymore....


  4. Your cake looks beautiful! I'm utterly impressed! Next up, 10 more layers for a wedding cake! It's white, after all!

  5. Mmmmm, I love the cut off part of the cakes! A friend's mom used to make cakes for people (including ours for our wedding) and I loved visiting when it was cake day. :)

    I think you did a great job on the piping!

  6. Hahha- I need to take this class. My baking skills have improved but it's all for naught due to my lack of decoration ability. What a fun and tasty thing to learn.

  7. You are so freaking domestic these days- you're totally inspiring me to get off my lazy behind and do something!!