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2000s Archive

Building A Tiered Cake

Originally Published September 2004

Before a smidgen of frosting makes contact with your cake, be sure you have all the necessary tools clean and close at hand. A long narrow offset spatula is extremely helpful for spreading wide swaths of frosting. If you plan to create a piped design, you’ll need at least one good-sized pastry bag (or one for each color of frosting), the proper tips, and the couplers to attach them to the bags which provide an extra measure of security. A cake-decorating turntable, similar to a lazy Susan, isn’t essential for most cakes, but it does make smoothing the frosting on large cakes a breeze, and it certainly enables you to feel like a pro. If you do use a turntable, then you’ll also want a cardboard cake round to rest the cake on and two wide rigid pancake turner-style spatulas to move it from turntable to cake plate.

Splitting cake layers: We try to avoid splitting cake layers—it is difficult to make them even and once split, they are very fragile—but if you are going for a big four-layer cake, it makes sense. To do this, insert long wooden skewers horizontally into the cake halfway up the side in about eight places. Then rest an 11- to 12-inch knife (preferably serrated) against the sticks and use a long sawing motion to cut the cake layer in two. If your split cake layer is on the sturdy side, lift off the top half with the two wide metal spatulas, so it doesn’t crack or break. If it is more fragile, gently lift up one edge of the top half with a spatula and then carefully slip the removable bottom of a tart pan or a rimless baking sheet between the layers and lift off the layer. Bear in mind that frosting can cover a multitude of mishaps; if that top half cracks or breaks, gently piece it back together on top of the filling and frost.

Prepping for frosting: Prepping a cake for frosting is a lot like getting a wall ready for painting: cake crumbs, like dust and grime, are the enemy. Once you have stacked your layers and lightly brushed them free of loose crumbs, apply what’s called a crumb coating (think primer), a thin layer of frosting all over the top and sides, to seal any remaining crumbs in place. Chill the cake to firm up the frosting, then watch as your second coat goes on effortlessly. Put a generous amount of frosting on top and spread it until it begins to slump over the side, then go vertical: After spreading a small patch of frosting down the sides with a 6- to-8-inch narrow offset metal spatula, keep that hand still and slowly spin the turntable or turn the plate with the other, spreading the frosting smoothly and evenly.

Protecting your cake: Once your masterpiece is finished, the best way to protect it is to keep it in a cake keeper. There’s no better way to preserve both the decoration on the outside and the moisture on the inside. We love the elegance of a glass dome if your cake is staying put, but if it’s going to travel, you’ll do well to invest in a plastic version, preferably with handles.

Decorating a wedding cake: You don’t need a degree in pastry arts, or architecture, to make a wedding cake. The Chocolate Cake with Orange Buttercream is a very straightforward high, three-layer cake, but its beauty and sophistication—its perfection in every detail—will take your breath away.

The recipe for Lemon Blackberry Wedding Cake, old-fashioned pound cake with cream-cheese frosting and a filling of dark, winy blackberries will produce a more traditional tiered wedding cake. Elegant, yes, but relatively simple to prepare, assemble, and decorate. What you need is a talent for organization and plenty of space in your refrigerator. Generous amounts of time, patience and grace under pressure are nice too.

Because the layers of this cake are so high, we rely on Magi-Cake Strips, which ensure that the cake layers bake to a level-topped finish and look professional. Without the strips, the layers form a dome shape as they bake. The aluminum-coated fabric strips, dampened and wrapped around a pan, keep the pan cooler so the edges of the cake rise at the same rate as the center.

You can easily make strips yourself, using nothing more than foil, paper towels, scissors, and large paper clips: Tear off three different lengths of foil, equivalent to the circumference of each of the three cake pans. (Relax, we did the math: the 6-inch pan will require a 19-inch sheet of foil; the 9-inch pan, a 29-inch sheet; the 12-inch pan, a 38-inch sheet.) To make the strip for the 6-inch pan, dampen a length of paper towel (two connected sheets are just enough; they should be moist but not dripping) and fold it into a strip 1 1/2 to 2 inches wide. Align one long side of the paper towel strip with one long side of the shortest sheet of foil and fold the foil over it twice, trimming the excess width of foil sheet. After wrapping it snugly around the side of the pan, fasten it with a paper clip.

After baking and cooling the cake layers, assemble and frost each tier on a cardboard round as described in the recipe (a cake-decorating turntable will make this part much easier). Once everything is frosted and thoroughly chilled, it’s time to build. The only tool you’ll need is decidedly low tech: plastic straws cut to size, to help support the cake tiers. Stacking the tiers on their cardboard rounds reinforces the structure, making this a very easy cake to put together. Then it’s time to spackle any gaps between the tiers and cover up any other imperfections. Be sure to save some leftover frosting for last-minute touch-ups.