Sometimes, I feel like people think cake decorators are wizards. And, in a sense, we are (although I'm STILL waiting for my Hogwarts acceptance letter...). We are able use butter and sugar and chocolate to create pretty awesome, edible, and sometimes unbelievable art! But, when folks call a bakery asking for a custom cake to feed 85 people for pick up by 6pm tonight, that kind of magic isn't always going to happen. You see, cake decorating is a process. Many times, the entire process takes 2 to 3 days, and sometimes even more depending on how intricately the cake is decorated. Yes, there are times when we cake decorators can rally and pull something amazing together at the drop of a hat (shout out to my How Sweet It Is family- remember our super last minute cakes for David Beckham and P. Diddy/Puff Daddy/Sean Combs??), but most of the time we require a 24-48 hour window of notice. In this blog, I'm going to show the step-by-step procedure for assembling and decorating cake to help people understand why cakes can't be magically whipped up in mere hours.
If I have a cake order for Saturday, I like to start my process on Wednesday or Thursday, depending on how intricate/complicated the decorations will be. I make my cake batter and bake my cakes. I like to make my fillings and buttercreams. If I'm making any fondant or sugar decorations that need to dry, I'll also start working on those at this time. Once my cakes are baked and cooled completely, I remove them from the pans and wrap them tightly in plastic wrap. I store them at room temperature until I'm ready to fill and ice. I NEVER refrigerate un-iced cakes. Refrigerating them will dry them out, or they may start to absorb some of the smells from your fridge. I always like to bake my cakes the day before filling/decorating because it allows the crumb to firm up a little bit. Just baked cakes are often super soft and tender (which isn't a bad thing, really), and that ultimately makes them more fragile and harder to handle when decorating.
When I'm ready to start filling and icing my cake, I gather my equipment and my fillings/frostings/cakes (mise en place!).
I assemble my cakes with 4 layers of cake and 3 layers of filling, though this is not how everyone does it. Because I baked two cakes I have to carefully cut each cake in half. I do this with a long serrated knife. I've sliced hundreds, maybe even thousands, of cakes, so I'm pretty good at getting even layers without using any special tools or tricks. Like anything, practice makes perfect, so don't be discouraged if your first cakes are slightly uneven.
I start to assemble my cake on a cake board and lightly brush each layer with simple syrup before filling with buttercream. My favorite kind of buttercream is Swiss Meringue, but at Give Me Some Sugar we always use Italian Meringue, which is also pretty great!
Once filled, I brush the top with a little more simple syrup and do my crumb coat. While your crumb coat doesn't have to be perfect and pretty, I still try to make mine as smooth and straight as possible because it will make icing my cake with the final coat a little easier. At this point, I refrigerate my cake. I'll refrigerate it for at least 30 minutes and up to overnight.
Once my crumb coat is chilled and firm, then I start the final coat of buttercream, what I like to call the beauty coat. It is important to wipe down your table, tools, and cake board before starting this step. You don't want to get crumbs in your beauty coat! A messy table will make a messy cake. You also need to try to work quickly in this step. If you are too slow, your buttercream from the crumb coat starts to warm up and get soft. It will smear into your beauty coat and all those crumbs that you tried to seal in earlier start to show up in your clean icing. I smooth my icing with a straight edge or some sort, like a bench scraper. After my beauty coat, before I start to decorate, I like to stick my cake back in the fridge for a little bit to firm up my buttercream again.
Once my buttercream is chilled, I can do my finishing decorations. I like to do this on chilled buttercream because it's a little easier to fix/clean up if I make any mistakes, which does happen! A chef in school told us something that I'll never forget, which was that people think cake decorators are perfect, but in reality, we are just really good at hiding our mistakes!
Once I'm completely finished with my cake, I have to decide how to store it. If it's really warm in my kitchen, it has a super soft filling like pastry cream or curd, or if the cake needs to be transported elsewhere to it's final destination, I like to refrigerate it. The added simple syrup one each layer helps keep the cake moist, and the buttercream acts as a barrier and seals in the moisture. Otherwise, I will leave it at room temperature until it's time to serve. If necessary, the cake can be stored at room temperature for a few days, though I'm not sure why you would just have cake lying around the house for that long!
I hope this helps to illustrate the cake decorating process, and also answers some of your cake assembling and storing questions! If you want to learn more, be sure to join us for our Basic Cake Decorating class every Saturday and Sunday, and for the more advanced/ambitious decorators out there, my upcoming Buttercream Flowers or Two Day Wedding Cake classes!