Friday, September 13, 2013

Cake Decorating 101: How to Make a Beautiful Cake at Home

Let’s blame it on those Food Network cake shows that we feel like every cake has to look ready for competition.  Nothing short of fondant, flowers, birds, fountains, and 6 layers is going to do.  Some frosting slapped on a lopsided cake just doesn’t cut it.

Yes - that is a cake!
But, do we really need all that? Can’t we make a presentable cake for our kid’s birthday or the PTA bake sale without calling in the professionals?  Yes, we can, says the namesake of Fancy Cakes by Leslie.

Leslie Poyourow started decorating cakes after basic lessons, not from a culinary school, but from her local craft store.  Since then, she’s continued to experiment and learn her craft.  Over eighteen years of professionally decorating cakes, she’s been featured on the Today Show and won numerous best cake awards, including The Knot’s 2013 Pick for best wedding cakes.  On the day I stopped by her bakery, she and her team of about 8 bakers, frosters, and decorators, were busy in various stages of preparing cakes for weddings, birthdays, and other happy occasions.

I’m going to share her tips for making a pretty cake at home, but here’s what I learned to be one of the most important ingredients: time.  You can have butter imported from France and sugar straight from Brazil, but if you just throw it all together, you’re still going to end up with that crooked cake that looks like a Kindergarten class frosted it.  Allow yourself time and it will be beautiful.

Start with a good recipe that will give you a firm cake and use the proper pans.  Fill your cake pans to about 50%.

After baking and removing it from the pan, wrap the cake in plastic wrap (not the cheap plastic wrap, use the good stuff) and let it cool completely.  This step will help keep the cake moist while it cools.

Cut off the rounded top for a flat, level cake.
Make the cake level.  I’ve heard this tip before, but I always think I can skip it and my cake will still look straight.  Nope, rarely ever does that work.  Use a sharp, serrated edge knife (the “bread” knife in your set) and carefully cut the top of the cake off, the part that’s mounded.  Now – what do you do with this leftover cake piece because no-one wants to throw away good food?  Two options: (1) give it to your kids to eat or (2) make cake pops and then give it to the kids to eat or make them part of your party celebration.

Use a good icing.

Use an icing recipe that does not include liquid.  A good icing will include the basics – sugar, butter, flavor – but no liquid like water or milk.  We’re talking about the regular fluffy, creamy icing, no fondant, no rolling pin.

Frost your cake with a cake spatula, not a butter knife or spoon or whatever else you have in your kitchen.  It has a nice long handle and your fingers won’t get in the way.  There’s a long edge and you can cover the entire cake in one swoop.

Make gum paste or buy it already made from a cake supply store

Want to be fancy and add special decorations?  Use gum paste, a sugary mixture like fondant, but firmer, that you can buy from cake supply stores or make at home.  It looks like play dough, but it is edible.  When I was there, the decorators were making stars and an Eiffel Tower.  Roll it out, cut out your shape, decorate with piped icing if you wish, stick it on your cake. And how do you get an Eiffel Tower?  Print a picture at the size that you want it, cut it out, and trace it with a knife on your gum paste.  This is something I am really wanting to try.

A little something extra - add fresh fruit (here, raspberries) in between your layers

What if you don’t even own measuring spoons and Betty Crocker is your best friend?  Leslie’s got a few tips for you, too.
  • Splurge and buy two boxes of mix.  One is never enough for a decent looking 2-layer cake.  There will probably be left over batter – make cupcakes!
  • Store-bought frostings are not made to look fancy in the end, so don’t fight it.  Don’t try anything too decorative, but neatly put your frosting on and enjoy the nice “homemade” look.

Still feeling that pressure to buy the beautiful cake in the bakery window for your kid’s birthday party?  This, I thought, was a gem of advice for us stressed-out, gotta make it all perfect moms.  Leslie said that even if you don’t think you’re a great baker or artist, try it anyway for your kid.  She mentioned, repeatedly, that kids love the idea that mom made their cake and will think it tastes good just because you made this special effort for them.

Red velvet, S'mores, Chocolate Chip Cookie, Nutella, Vanilla, and Cookies & Cream
And how do her cakes taste? You know I didn't get out of there without a chocolate cupcake. And it was delicious! The cupcakes were moist and the frosting was light and not-too-sweet.

Enjoy your baking!

Thanks to Leslie and her staff for letting me wander around her sugar-scented haven.  If you live near the Bethesda, Maryland area and want more hands-on tips, check Fancy Cakes by Leslie’s class schedule.

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Nancy Hill said...

It is true that kids love the fact that Mom baked the cake. My daughter, now 23, still talks about how my Halloween cakes are some of her very favorite memories of elementary school. They were just a flat cake, iced with chocolate frosting, with rectangular cookies arranged like headstones and a marshmallow Frankenstein or ghosts.

*I found you in my comments on Reason Creek. Hope you enjoy the upside down cake!

Winnie said...

Nothing better than making a cake yourself. I took 3 courses of Wilton cake decorating with my sister when we wer in our 20's. It was a hoot, and some of the cakes were hysterical. But after we were done, both cakes would go to her kindergarten class each week. Enjoy your creation!!