There are few things that denote time spent in the kitchen and special celebration better than a multi-layered, immaculately frosted cake. Next to tart dough, this was probably one of the most intimidating hurdles I faced in pastry school. The challenges in mastering this genre of dessert are manifold: to bake up nice even cake layers, and then to split them into perfect halves, so that all the layers are of equal thickness; to assemble the cake with the filling without the layers tilting off or one side rising higher than the other; to frost the cake without getting crumbs tangled in the frosting and without those unsightly ridges and edges in the finish from haphazard spatula-wielding. My teacher, who has a successful wedding cake business, of course split her cake layers with a few quick turns of the knife, assembled cake and filling layers with the ease of a toddler stacking rings on a post, and had the cake frosted with nary a stray lick of icing in the time it took to spin the cake stand around. Meanwhile, we students laboriously squinted at cake layers as we tried to saw through them evenly or worked the spatula over the cake again and again, trying to eliminate the last few errant swirls of frosting but never quite succeeding.
Creating an elaborate layer cake is a an exercise in patience, technique, and judgment: there’s no way to make one in a hurry; you’ll definitely see if you, like me, have not been keeping up on your frosting skills; and you also have to be able to step away and realize, after the umpteenth pass with your spatula, when to stop messing with your cake.
A few other lessons I took away from class?
A rotating cake stand is nice but not essential. Sure, it makes you feel all fancy and professional to have the spinny stand, and it does help in applying frosting, but you can do pretty well by putting your cake on any platter or stand that you can rotate by hand. If you’re super talented like my teacher, you can balance and rotate the cake on one hand and frost with the other – not for the faint of heart!
Use a cardboard cake round under your cake. A cake round will provide a nice solid base and will make moving the cake much easier. It will also allow you to balance the cake on your hand if you want to do the frost-the-cake-in-the-air trick. If you need to transport the cake, placing a dab of frosting between the cake round and the serving stand/platter will help anchor the cake securely. Be sure you choose a cake round that is the same diameter as your cake so it will line up properly and the frosting will hide it.
Level your cake layers with a serrated knife and a circular sawing motion. If your cake layers have domed, trim them level first, then cut the layers horizontally into even layers. Don’t try to slice straight across as you will most likely tear through the cake crumb and end up cutting unevenly. Instead, place the knife edge against the cake, cut in just slightly, and then start turning the cake while working the knife in a slow sawing motion. Once you make a complete circle and you’re sure the cake is being evenly split, you can continue this turning, sawing the knife deeper and deeper until you finish splitting the cake layer.
Do a crumb coat first. Apply a very thin layer of frosting to the top and sides of the cake; this is to help seal in crumbs so they won’t get mixed into the top application of frosting. After applying the crumb coat, put the cake in the refrigerator for a bit to let it set before you do the top layer. It’s also a good idea to have a separate bowl for wiping off excess frosting from your spatula that has been contaminated with crumbs. Keeping your main bowl of frosting crumb-free is key to a clean application and finish.
Finish frosting the sides, then do the top. Some people like to put a gob of frosting in the center of the top of the cake, while others like to just start on the sides. Regardless, it’s best to smooth and finish the sides first, holding the spatula vertical and parallel to the cake, letting any excess frosting at the top edge spill over onto the cake top. When you move onto the top of the cake, you can smooth this excess into the rest of the frosting with the spatula. And really, know when to stop. If you’re really unhappy with how the frosting is turning out, you can scrape it all off and try again; if you’ve applied a good crumb coat that set it should remain after you get rid of the rest of the frosting so you can have another go. But it’s best to keep stepping back to get an overall view of your cake, and realize at some point that you’ll only make things worse if you keep messing with the frosting. Honestly, most everybody will be in awe when they see your creation and not even notice a single flaw. That’s the magic of these cakes.
Of course, when an occasion comes up that demands a fancy dessert, I get super excited. The celebration in question this last weekend was a picnic reception in the Berkeley hills for the wedding of a dear friend. The recipe I’d been itching to try was the Black and White Chocolate Cake from Dorie Greenspan’s Baking: From My Home to Yours. Layers of moist buttermilk cake are sandwiched between dark chocolate ganache and white chocolate whipped cream, then finished off with more white chocolate whipped cream. The cake is light and fluffy, the fillings smooth and rich, all the flavors blending together into a harmonious whole. I was quite pleased with the cake: it is surprisingly light in texture but satisfyingly substantial – you can taste the richness of the chocolate, the delicate crumb of the cake, the weightless give of the frosting beneath your bite. This is really a cake where using good ingredients will make it shine.
I am also fond of the elegant look of the interior, with its alternating dark and light stripes. With a crown of chocolate shavings, this makes for a very photogenic cake! I was determined to document the weekend of labor for my blog, although I did feel a little self-conscious explaining to the groom that I needed to take some pictures of the cake before the gathering crowd could eat it, and that, yes, I would have to cut into it, but rest assured that besides that the cake would be unharmed.
The skies may have been slightly overcast and the winds a bit nippy, but the barbecue was delicious, the guests merry, the happy couple glowing, and we had cake for dessert. Does it get any better than that?