Preparing a layer cake for decorating

Here’s a skill that every aspiring baker needs to master. The good news is it isn’t difficult, especially if you work with pre-made and pre-frozen layers. Take the crumbles and tears out of the process and it becomes, well, a cake-walk (sorry).

So then, armed with two frozen 9-inch layers, begin by trimming them to shape. Start with the tops if your baked layers are “domed” at all on top, since that will seriously foul up your structure. These layers are nice and flat so I’m not going to bother (though I would if I were planning to brush cake syrup onto them, which I never do, so then I guess I won’t). However since most cake layers emerge from the oven with a slight “flare” at the bottom, I’m going to trim those off.

Not all of the brown edge needs to come off, just enough to make the layers roughly square and even, like so:

Now then, seizing the closest available cardboard cake circle (ideally one with a wax top), trim it to size. But Joe, can’t I just buy one that’s pre-cut to size? Yes and no. I made 9-inch layers and this is a 9-inch circle, yet the layers emerged from the pan a bit smaller than that. In order to get the edge of the cake flush with the edge of the cardboard base, it needs a little customizing.

There we go. Don’t worry if the circle isn’t perfectly circular. It’ll eventually get covered with icing anyway. Oh, and did I mention you can make your own base out of scrap cardboard if you want to? You can.

So now, once that’s all squared up, take off your layers and apply a dollop of buttercream. This is will “glue” the cake onto the base.

Replace your bottom layer…

…and apply your filling. This can be anything you want. I’m partial to raspberry, but it can be buttercream, whipped cream, whipped ganache, cooked fruit…ze sky, she iz ze limit. If the cake is going to sit for a ling time, of if you’re concerned about it weeping into the cake, apply a thin scraping up buttercream as a barrier first. Spread the filling around…

…but be sure to leave about a half-inch of space around the edge. What for? Well, to ensure that your lovely filling doesn’t squirt out the sides of the cake and ruin the look of your icing, that’s what for.

To make extra sure, pipe a “dam” of buttercream around the edge, like so (notice my highly sophisticated pastry bag, courtesy of Ziploc):

Apply your top layer and push down firmly, until the buttercream oozes out between the layers.

Now it’s time to employ the master baker’s secret weapon: the Ateco revolving cake stand:

These things are not only amazingly helpful to a cake maker, they’re practically showpieces of industrial art. Just look at that cast iron beauty, will you?

Of course a stand like this is by no means essential. You can easily do without one, but if you aspire to make a lot of cakes, it’s an investment you might want to consider. Buy one new, or source a used one at a restaurant supply store, where it’ll run you about thirty bucks.

So then, plop down your assembled cake…

Then a large quantity of buttercream.

Then go at it with your icing spatula…

…pressing the buttercream out toward the edge…

…then down along the sides.

Don’t worry about being neat, however do be firm, since the object here is to press the buttercream into all the nooks and crannies to create a nice flat surface all around.

Once you’re satisfied that you’ve got the cake good and covered, start scraping the icing off. What?? You heard me, start scraping it off. You only want to leave the thinnest possible layer on the cake at this point. It’s what’s called a “crumb coat”. The purpose of course, to stick down any crumbs that might mar the final layer of icing, but even more than that to define the shape of the cake before you start decorating. Not only is it highly functional, it really takes the pressure off the cake maker, since it divides the “structural” and the “ornamental” phases of the cake building process into two separate tasks.

You’ll notice that the cold of the frozen layer will rapidly firm the buttercream that’s in direct contact with the cake. That’s good for a couple of reasons. First, because it glues the whole cake together into a cohesive mass. Second, because a nice firm cake means you can manhandle it a little more. Using your icing spatula, scape the top…

…then the sides:

Notice I’m not at all worried about getting a uniform coating on the cake. There are bare spots. But not to worry, the main thing you want to accomplish in this step is a nice cylindrical shape. The final icing (whether another layer of buttercream or a sheet of rolled fondant) and decorations will cover all that up anyhow. Now just stash that puppy in the fridge for an hour (or overnight if you’d like)…

…and let it chill until you’re ready to decorate it, which will be, you know, just after you polish off a couple of those beers back there.

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16 Responses to Preparing a layer cake for decorating

  1. Nicole says:

    So, I’ve read in multiple places that frozen cakes are easier to handle and to decorate, but I’ve always worried about weeping problems. Can you always get away with decorating frozen? What about a poured fondant frosting? What about really hot, humid weather? What about poured ganache? And should you let the cake thaw after the crumb coat, or can you apply the final decorations while the cake is still frozen? Mind you, this question has always been somewhat academic for me, as there is never, ever room in my freezer for cake layers, but still – one day I’ll get a standing freezer.

    • joepastry says:

      Hi Nicole!

      Good questions all. Cake layers won’t weep if they’re frozen. In fact they freeze beautifully. Just make sure to wrap them well so they don’t pick up odors. However your concerns about low temperature on icing and fillings is well founded. Usually, once I’m done trimming and assembling, the layers are already well on their way to thawing out. Buttercream can handle those semi-frigid temperatures (it firms, but as long as you work quickly that’s not much of a problem. But I always let the cake warm up before I apply the final layer of frosting. That’s especially true for a ganache or poured fondant, which would be wrecked by cold temperatures.

      Thanks for the email!

  2. Lani says:

    I have heard about wiping the cake board with alcohol to sanitize it and keep the cake from molding. Do you think this is necessary and if you think this is a good precaution, how would you go about it? Do you mix the alcohol with some water first and than wipe it on board and will you have to dry it out? Also is that isopropyl alcohol or something like vodka?

    • joepastry says:

      Hi Lani!

      In fact I’ve never heard of that. It makes some degree of sense, since the bottom of a cake is open and can come in contact with a work surface. I generally don’t let that happen, I put a cardboard cake circle under the bottom layer, mostly so the cake is easier to work with.

      Regarding bacteria, most cake batters are so sweet that bacteria have a very, very hard time growing in them. I don’t see them as a food safety risk under normal circumstances (i.e. no raw meat, eggs or shellfish on the board before the cakes goes down).

      Hope this helps!

      - Joe

  3. jes says:

    Hi Joe! After adding a crumb coat and then frosting/decorating entirely, I want to put my cake back in the fridge until ready to serve. (So the icing doesn’t bleed into the layers when I cut.) BUT I’m particularly nervous that refrigerating it will cause the cake to dry out, and I despise cakes that aren’t moist. Blech. So, my questions are: (1) Would the fridge dry out the cake? And if not, (2) How far in advance do you think I could get away with making/refrigerating a cake before serving? Obviously, I’ve never refrigerated my cakes before – but I see it in cake shops all the time! Thoughts?

    • joepastry says:

      Hey Jes!

      Never fear, your cake will not dry out in the fridge, especially with a crumb coat on it which acts like tupperware. Yellow cake layers will hold for at least a couple of days like that. If you’re nervous you can paint on a little cake syrup for insurance before you apply the crumb coat. Don’t do too much since wet cake layers are just as nasty to me! But a couple of ounces per layer will ensure a moist product!

      Have fun and let me know how the cake turns out!

      - Joe

  4. Katzies says:

    Joe,
    Do we need to peel the top crust of the bottom cake before putting on the cream? I’ve seen layered cake slices and — especially with light-colored butter cream– the unpeeled crust shows brownish lining in between the layers which kind of ruined the beauty of the cake. What do you think?

    If peeling is preferred, any tip on how to do it easily?

    Thanks!
    Katzies

    • joepastry says:

      Hey Katzies! Yes I trim off both of the top crusts. I like to freeze the layers then use a long serrated knife (you can also use a specialty knife called a “cake saw”) and gently slice it crossways. Does that help?

      - Joe

  5. Katzies says:

    Yes!
    The cake turns out very professional!! Thanks Joe!

    A big fan,
    Katzies
    I learned from you how to crack opera cake when I didn’t know a difference between genoise and joconda! I’ve gone a long way since, and I am forever indebted!

    • joepastry says:

      You made my day, Katzies!

      Thanks so much for the delightful comment. Send pictures one of these days!

      - Joe

  6. Saki says:

    Joe,

    Thanks for doing a wonderful job by helping novice bakers like me. This website is my go to reference for anything regarding pastries. Do I have to torte the cake before freezing or after?

    Thanks again
    Saki

    • joepastry says:

      Hey Saki!

      Thanks very much! Do you mean “trim”? If that’s what you’re asking, then definitely freeze it first since that will make the whole process easier!

      Cheers,

      - Joe

  7. Saki says:

    Also , please help me with this.

    I am having my daughter’s birthday party on Saturday. Planning to do castle cake and bake the cake a week before. Can I do this,
    1. Once the cake cools completely , freezing it.
    2. Thursday, taking the cake out of freezer, thaw at room temp for an hour , then torteing, leveling , raspberry filling and Swiss meringue butter cream crum coating. And cover loosely with plastic wrap and keeping it in refrigerator for overnight .
    3. Friday final frosting with Swiss meringue buttercream and other decorations. Then keeping the finished cake in refrigerator .
    4. Can I make Swiss meringue butter cream 2 days before( that is on Thursday)?
    5. Also does keeping the cake in refrigerator makes it dry?

    I know I am troubling with too many questions but please help me .

    Thanks
    Saki

    • joepastry says:

      No problem, Saki!

      Your plan sounds great. You can make buttercream ahead, however you’ll probably need to re-beat it if it’s been stored in the refrigerator. You’ll need to let it warm completely to room temperature first. If it breaks during the beating, just keep the mixer running until the temperature evens out and the buttercream fluffs up again.

      Otherwise you’ll want to freeze the cake before you trim it, since that’s really the point of the freezing. Keeping the cake in the refrigerator will not make it dry, you don’t need to worry about that.

      Have fun!

      - Joe

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