Icing on the Cake

Week 10.

Remember in my last post the exuberance I had about the fact that class was moving on to cakes? Do you also remember my mentioning that I wondered if past debacles with making Italian meringue buttercream and frosting a cake during the same class may have sent too many students over the edge? I was right – it would have sent me over the edge, and very nearly did during week ten’s class, even though that was pretty much the only thing we did. It’s interesting how quickly exuberance can turn into despair.

Icing a cake, excuse me, building a cake as it is technically known in the pastry world, is not easy. You may be envisioning afternoons of your youth with your mother or grandmother happily smearing icing all over a cake and thinking “What’s so tough about that?” That’s not building a cake, that’s what. Building a cake involves anywhere from 12 to 17 steps depending on how many coats of frosting are applied. Typically, a birthday cake requires three to four coats while a wedding cake requires seven to eight coats (probably more) and, of course, the requisite chilling of the cake in between coats. I’m sharing with you the process so you can understand for yourself.

Step 1. Mis en place. In French, this literally means “put in place” and is a technique used as well in cooking. It means having all ingredients, pans, tools, etc., in place before setting out on the recipe, or cake building as it were. Mis en place for cake building includes “bringing back” the buttercream (assuming that is what you are using for icing) to its original state because it should always be well-chilled before using, but you can’t work with it when it is well-chilled. Bringing back buttercream to its original state is a delicate exercise of alternating between mixing it, placing it over a pan of steaming water and stirring it without melting the butter (as my partner and I did, a little, and which is not good because it can permanently alter the buttercream’s consistency such that you have to start over) and trying to get it back to its original consistency. Once that’s done, assemble the pastry bag with pastry tube of choice (we used a #15 star), fill bag with the buttercream and set aside. Mis en place for cake building also includes having the right tools set out, to include: large knife, spreader, spare bowl, parchment paper and shot of tequila.

Step 2. Cutting the cake. There are two steps to cutting the cake: removing a thin layer off of the top dome and cutting in half horizontally the cake. Supposedly the first step is optional, but Chef Theresa did it during week nine’s class and Chef (he’s back!) did it during week ten’s class, so that’s enough evidence to suggest I should be doing it, too. The top dome layer is removed by shaving off the top layer of the cake with a long serrated knife to create a nice even surface with which to begin working.

Then, using the same knife, cut the cake in half. This is most easily accomplished by sawing back and forth with the knife while simultaneously moving the cake around the knife. In other words, the knife should remain in place, but the cake is rotated around the knife. I know, just trust me. Remove the top half and brush off any crumbs on the bottom (and top) half. Insider’s tip: crumbs are cakes’ kryptonite and can easily ruin a cake (and your mental health). So, regularly scrape up crumbs and place them on a piece of parchment paper away from the cake; keeping the cake building area clean and crumb-free.

Step 3. Creating the “dam.” The dam is a ring of buttercream (or whatever icing you are using) piped around the outer edge of the bottom layer. The dam holds in soft or semi-liquid fillings. I didn’t ask, but it seems it wouldn’t be necessary if the filling is all buttercream or some other stable filling.

Step 4. Spread around the filling inside the dam. The filling doesn’t need to be anything fancy. We used raspberry jam. You could also use the buttercream to make it really easy, but that isn’t as visually appealing as a pretty pop of red color. Start with a fairly large dollop of jam and spread it around from the middle out, making sure it is smooth. The trick here is to avoid picking up crumbs while in the process of smoothing out the filling. I suppose it doesn’t matter if there are some crumbs mixed in with the filling, but I think that looks amateurish and we are striving for perfection, remember?

Step 5. Place the top half on top of the bottom half, press down lightly. I actually took a picture of this. Why? I know, Step 5 is the most self-explanatory of all the steps. Sigh. I am becoming neurotic about capturing every piece of information. Help.  

Step 6. Icing the cake. This is when it is appropriate to have that shot of tequila. Icing a cake requires a steady, deft hand. The first coat is called the “crumb coat.” The crumb coat is a thin layer to seal in as well as remove excess crumbs. It doesn’t need to look perfect, but it is still tricky to accomplish. Start by placing a large scoop of buttercream on top of the cake. Spread the buttercream out with a large spreader, always moving the buttercream from the previous area to a new area. Keep moving along the top and side of the cake, smoothing out the buttercream. If crumbs are picked up in the buttercream on the spreader, scrape off the buttercream into the spare bowl. Chef said this buttercream may be saved and used for another cake’s crumb coat. If there is excess buttercream without crumbs on the spreader, scrape it back into the bowl of “good” buttercream.

(Editor’s note: My cake, crumb coat completed, is the one at the bottom of the picture.)

Step 7. Chill the cake for at least ten minutes or until the crumb coat feels firm. Integral to cake building success is ensuring the coats are well-chilled between each one which makes the icing application go much more smoothly (pun intended). Repeat the icing process described in Step 6 (although, in theory you shouldn’t get any more crumbs in your buttercream at this point) until you’ve reached the desired number of coats. Unfortunately, we were in a bit of a rush during class and we were only able to do two coats after the crumb coat. Nina, class assistant extraordinaire, kept telling me not to worry, normally the cake would be chilling longer between coats, we wouldn’t be rushing and so on. Yet, I noticed she was spending a fair amount of the icing time by my side, saying these things and helping me. Hmmmm. She even offered to let me come and watch her some time when she’s building a cake (she does it on the side). Basically, that was her polite way of saying I needed some extra help, I think.

Step 11 (or up to Step 16, depending on the type of cake you are building). I say Step 11 because technically the minimum number of coats is three. So, Step 7 is chilling the cake after the crumb coat, Step 8, 9 and 10 (with chilling in between which I’m counting as part of each icing coat step) are the minimum number of coats, at which we arrive Step 11 (or up to Step 16 if you’re crazy enough to work on a wedding cake) – finishing the cake. The cake should be very cold before beginning this step. Using a spreader dipped in hot water, very lightly work the final layer of icing so the cake is shiny and smooth. The following is my cake at the finishing point, but it is not truly representative of what a cake would look like at this step.

Step 12 (or up to 17). Decorating the cake. There are three basic piping shapes for cake decoration: dropped star, rosette and shell. Rather than attempt a written description of each, here is a picture of the drawing in my notes:

As you may notice, I also don’t draw well, but hopefully you get the idea. A couple of notes about piping shapes and placement. Traditionally, the rosette is used to indicate the number of slices intended for the cake. So, if you see a cake with, say, eight rosettes evenly placed around the top of the cake, the pastry chef intended that eight slices would be served from that cake. The shell shape is typically not used as an individual decoration; instead it is connected together to create a chain pattern. Regardless of the shape or pattern used, when creating a border on the cake, the shape should be placed two-thirds on the top and on-third on the edge. Take note of this the next time you’re in the market for a new cake.

I chose the dropped star pattern as it seemed like the easiest to pipe and somehow I managed to be the last person in class decorating her cake, so I was under the gun. When everyone has left the practice kitchen and Chef comes in and starts counting, you don’t mess around. I’d like to say that’s why my decorated cake looks a bit blah, but who am I kidding. I’m not sure it would have looked any better if I had a little more time. Not to worry, that’s what practice is for!

And hopefully with practice I can one day make something like this:

Chef’s Boston cream pie creation he made and decorated in class, an example of fine piping technique. A slice of that along with the maple ice cream he also made, maybe cake building wasn’t so bad after all.

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