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Baking and Icing Cakes: Tips for Beginners
September 3rd, 2010 by Jessica

My Simple Birthday Cake

My Simple Birthday Cake

Whether you use a boxed mix with canned icing, or the freshest ingredients from scratch, yummy cakes are always a welcome treat.  The occasional cake makes its way out of my kitchen, and many people jump at the chance for a slice when I make the effort.  I will be the first to admit that I’m no baking expert.  I don’t do this for a living or even an extensive hobby. Over the years I have picked up on a few things that might just help a beginner out there get the most out of their first few cake-making experiences.

I have taken all of the Wilton courses and have made a few elaborate cakes such as the Wilton Course II Final Basket Cake, the incredibly intensive Course III Final Tiered Wedding Cake with over 60 fondant roses, a basic Fondant and Chocolate Rose Cake, elaborate Cupcakes with Chocolate Candies, a Haunted Graveyard Cake, and even our infamous Optimus Prime Transformer cake in Vehicle Mode. Still, I don’t pretend to be any good at it.  If the cake is yummy, my job is done.

If you read this post and you have an idea for how to do things better/faster/yummier/prettier, by all means I would love to see your comments below!  First, a sincere word of warning for all of my readers: I like icing.  A lot of icing.  I also waste a lot of cake when I make my cakes, but that’s just because it gives me an excuse to eat the excess tops while I’m baking.  Yum!  I also don’t like fondant, not because it doesn’t look beautiful but because I hate the texture.  I usually steer clear of it on edible cakes, and use it for presentation when the look of the cake really matters.

Tips for Baking

I am a huge fan of all things Wilton, including their cake pans and the Wilton Yearbooks (which I often pick up at used bookstores on the cheap).  I assure you, I don’t work for Wilton, although it may sound like it from the way I lust after their products.  I always follow the instructions that comes with the pans for my cakes to see how much batter to put in each pan, and how long to bake it.  I often weigh my batter  with a kitchen scale to ensure it is as close as possible to the same in each pan.  I have a variety of 2- and 3-inch deep pans in 6″, 8″, 10″ rounds, squares and oval sizes.  With a pair of pans in each size you can combine any number of them to make any shape you want.

Cooling the Cakes
Cooling the Cakes

Once you bake your cakes, one of the most important steps is how you cool them down.  If you don’t do it right, your cakes will either stick to the pan, stick to the rack, or might even fall apart.  Here is my method for cooling a cake:

  1. Remove the cake from the oven and check it with a toothpick.  If it comes out clean from the center, the cake is done.  Be careful not to over-bake the cake or it will come out dry.  If it’s still wet in the center, give it another minute or two in the oven and check it again.
  2. Once done, leave the cake in the pan to cool for 5 minutes.  No less, no more – 5 minutes is the key here.  Take them out right away and they will fall apart because they haven’t had time to set up yet.  Wait 10 minutes and it might stick to the pan.  Set a timer for 5 minutes and hang around nearby.
  3. Once 5 minutes has lapsed, use a thin decorating spatula to run around the sides of the pan to loosen the cake.
  4. Grab 2 sets of 2 paper towels, leaving each set connected.  This will give you two two-layer paper towels.
  5. Place one set of paper towels over top of the cake that is still in its pan.  Place your wire cooling rack upside down on top of that.
  6. Quickly flip the whole thing – cake pan, paper towels and cooling rack – upside down and gently remove the cake pan.  It should come off perfectly clean if you waited 5 minutes for it to cool in the pan.  You will end up with an upside-down cake on a set of paper towels, on top of the cooling rack.
  7. Start a timer for 2 minutes and wait nearby.
  8. When 2 minutes are up, take the second set of paper towels and place it on top of your cake, which is currently upside down.  Pull the bottom set of paper towels onto your hand and flip the cake, placing it back on the cooling rack with the paper towels still underneath.  Now your cake is right-side-up and sitting on another set of paper towels.  Gently peel off the original set of paper towels and keep them nearby.  Be careful doing this because sometimes the paper towel will adhere to the top of the cake a little bit, especially if you left it sitting on that set too long.
  9. Start a timer for 2 minutes again, and repeat the last step.  Keep doing this every few minutes for about 15 minutes, or until the cake has cooled down dramatically.  It seems like a lot of effort, but it works.  The paper towels keep the cooling rack from indenting your cake, and they soak up excess moisture which makes it easier to frost later.
  10. When the cakes are cooled, make sure they rest right-side-up until you are ready to frost them.

Tips for Icing

Cake Leveler
Leveling a Cake

A cake leveler is a must for anyone who wants to make layered cakes.  It is basically a piece of flexible wire that is taught between a wire frame with a handle on top.  It looks sort of like a hacksaw and it’s used to hack the top of your cake off to make it easier to layer more than one cake together.

This is where I get wasteful with my cakes.  I hack the tops off completely, just under the “hard line” where the edges are crusty.  Many people don’t go this far down on the cake, instead choosing to fill up the uneven tops with icing.  It’s up to you.

If you want to get a smoother surface to ice on, find the cake with the lowest salvagable point and set the cake leveler to that point.  Use that same height to cut all of your cakes so they are all exactly the same.  For example, if you’re making a two-tier cake with three layers each you’ll be working with six cakes.  Each cake should be the same height to help keep it level and easy to ice.  Any “top cake” can be put on a plate and munched on during the rest of the process.  If you’re into that kind of thing… :)

Two tiers of iced cakes, ready for decorating
Two tiers of iced cakes, ready for decorating

There are a bazillion books and tutorials on how to ice a cake, so I won’t go into much detail here.  You can use an air can to clean off the cake so all the crumbs are removed before you start icing.  The only tip I really have is to always use more icing than you think you’ll need, because it’s much easier to ice when you don’t run out of icing.  That can cause you to accidentally uproot chunks of cake and get crumbs all over the place.  You can always remove excess icing from the base if you have too much at the end.

Tips for Decorating

My favorite thing to decorate cakes with are icing roses and candy melts.  The standard Wilton Rose can be created  ahead of time from stiff buttercream and stored in the freezer until they are placed on your cake.  Take a look at any of the Wilton decorating books for instructions on how to create the Wilton Rose.  It’s so much easier than you might think!

Candy melts are also great for decorating cakes.  Wilton makes hundreds of candy molds and candy colors and flavors to create elaborate candies.  I use the ceramic decorating cups and food grade paint brushes to hand paint chocolate molds with various colors.  These lightweight edible creations are great for placing on the sides and top of cakes for a splash of color.

Video Icing Example

Here is a video I posted on YouTube to help beginners learn one easy method to ice a cake.  And before you say it, yes, I KNOW I use a lot of frosting. Yum!  Oh yeah, and please ignore the cheesy background music.  There is no real audio to speak of.  (Get it? To speak of?  Hardy-har har!  Nevermind.)

I hope some of these tips have been helpful to you.  If you have tips to share, be sure to leave a comment below so I (and other visitors) can learn from your expertise!

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© 2013 Jessica M. Green