Billowy tufts of swirled buttercream, sleek royal icing supporting a filigree of fondant – the perfect cake should be a visual pleasure long before the first bite is taken. Like judging a book by its cover, a lot of this anticipation stems from the allure of the cake’s icing. But as any novice baker can attest, icing is no piece of cake. The tools of the trade are available at any cookware store, and craft stores stock a wide selection of cake decorating paraphernalia, but most of the essentials can be drummed up in your own kitchen. A platter, waxed paper, cardboard, a soft-bristled pastry brush, a long, serrated bread knife, a flat metal spatula, and a few tips are all you’ll need.
1. Before baking cake layers, make sure the batter is evenly distributed in the cake pans, and that the oven racks are level (angled racks make sloped cakes). Once baked, cool cake layers completely on wire racks before assembling and icing.
2. Trim cake layers if necessary. With a long-bladed serrated bread knife, remove any ragged edges using a gentle sawing motion. Slightly rounded tops are easily covered by icing, but excessively large bumps may have to be cut off.
3. Loose crumbs make icing difficult, so brush all crumbs from cakes with the palm of your hand (or by blowing gently if you’re not fearful of germs). A soft-bristled pastry brush will also remove crumbs without eroding the cake.
4. Place the bottom layer upside-down (to provide a flat surface for the filling) on a cardboard cake circle of the same diameter. (This can be purchased or made of available cardboard.) To prevent the cake turntable or serving platter from getting smudged with icing, cover the border of the cake platter with 2- to 3-inch-wide strips of waxed paper before you set the first layer upon it. You can fill and frost with abandon. (When you’re finished, gently pull the strips out, revealing a spotless border.) Place the first layer in the center of the cake turntable or regular platter.
5. Plop a big dollop of icing in the center of the layer and spread filling out to the edges. If the filling is different from the outside frosting, be careful not to spread the filling over the edges. Use a judicious amount; if applied too heavily, filling will ooze out when top layer is put in place.
7. Place top layer on bottom layer, right-side up, so that the two cake bottoms touch each other. If a thin icing is used, pour or spread the icing onto the center of the cake. Then spread it to the edges and down the sides with a spatula. If a heavy icing is used, it may be easier to spread the sides first, then place a good quantity of icing in the center of the top and push it to the edges with a spatula.
Pushing the icing rather than pulling or dragging it with the spatula prevents pulling up crumbs and getting them mixed with the icing. Use a pushing motion from the center of the cake with a long flat spatula, turning the cake turntable or serving plate as you go.
Use enough icing to cover the entire cake generously, but not excessively, with an even layer. Reserve a bit of icing in case of emergency – if crumbs are incorporated into icing, a final swirl of reserved icing may save the day. Smooth the icing with long strokes of the metal spatula, or leave it textured or swirled, as desired. The finished cake should have a perfectly level top and perfectly straight, even sides.
Boxed Tip: Splitting the Layers
If desired, layers may be split to accommodate extra fillings. To split a layer horizontally, set the cake on waxed paper. Place one hand flat on top. With a long, serrated or very sharp knife (a fish slicer works well), slowly cut through the center of the cake with a gentle sawing motion until halved. If you’re going to be fitting the layers back together after filling them, stick a toothpick in each half, one above the other, to match up the layers later.