Six Assembly Steps

Let’s talk about putting a cake together. Here, I’m not going to say anything that you couldn’t learn from watching just about any instructional video about making cakes, from someone who does it better than I do. But it would feel strange to omit this part of the process – where the baked cakes actually take their final shape!

1) Cake Board: This isn’t exactly a step, but unless you’re making a lot of cakes, you probably will be making a cake board rather than ordering one. A cake board is a piece of cardboard that’s the same size as your cake pan. Surprisingly, a smooth, round cake board is a rather important step in getting a really nice final coat. You’ll see why below.

To make your own, just find a clean piece of cardboard, trace around your cake pan, and cut out the shape with a nice, sharp craft knife. The craft knife gets you a smooth, clean edge without bending the cardboard.

Now, be warned, if you’re just making these, they aren’t going to be certified as food safe or anything. I like to wipe mine down with a disinfectant wipe. You can buy them pre-made if you want to be safer; Amazon has the Wiltons’ brand ones. For my most common size – 8″ round – I invested in a bulk order of pre-made Uline ones from Ebay. But I had to buy way too many than is sensible, so if you want any, you can have some!!

2) Tort: This is a fancy word for cutting the tops off your cake so they’re very flat. Some people say you don’t have to do this, if you let your cakes cool upside down so the domes get squashed. But that doesn’t feel right to me somehow. The tops of cakes also tend to be rather sticky, and I want to get that stuff off.

This is where your bread knife comes in handy, as well as your turntable. You hold your knife level while you spin the table, and start by tracing a line where you want to cut. Then you slowly cut as you turn, slowly going towards the middle of the cake. You can trim off just the dome, as I’ve done here, or if you have a very thick crust at the top edge of your cake, you might want to take the whole lid off. It’s nice to get rid of those crusty bits.

A torted layer

I prefer to tort all my layers at once and then stack, but sometimes I get lazy and tort as I stack. But I always regret it, as things start to get a little wobbly toward the top.

You will now start to accumulate what we at our house call “garbage cake” (a term stolen from JJR). I went through a phase of saving this garbage cake in the freezer to make cake pops, and then to make ice cream cakes. Now my kids just snack on it and when they’ve had enough, I throw it out. Choose your own adventure!

3) Stack + chill: Now you get to stack the cake! I shoot for about 1/4″ or .5 cm of thickness between the layers. Your offset spatula is awfully useful for smoothing it out, but it’s not really necessary in between layers.

I’ve gotten a little funny about the stacking and crumb coating. I used to think you just put the same icing in the middle of the cake that you put on the outside, but I’ve gotten a little opinionated about it. If I’m making a chocolate cake, I will stack and crumb coat it in chocolate frosting if I have some handy. I didn’t here because I didn’t have any handy, but I just like that chocolate frosting so much that I try to get some in there, even if the color of the outside is supposed to be something else.

On just about any cake now, I’ve started avoiding using colored frosting for stacking and crumb coating. Maybe it’s because I tend to get a pretty large crumb in my cake, with some big bubble holes, and seeing those cavities filled with colored icing does not look appetizing to me. So regardless of the color of the final coat, I prefer to stack and crumb coat with white. Is that odd?

Now this next step is important: once you’ve stacked your layers, pop it in the fridge for 30 minutes. That will get your frosting nice and hard so it’ll hold steady while you trim it.

4) Trim: After it has chilled for 30 minutes, we trim the edge of the cake. This serves two purposes: it gets rid of the crusty bits at the edge of the cake, and it makes a space between your cake and the edge of the cake board for your final coat. If you don’t mind/don’t have the crusty bits, and/or if you’ve cut your cake board a little big, you can skip this step. You also want to skip this step if you’re making a “naked cake” (a cake without the final coat, see below).

As you can see from the dollop on the top, I almost started crumb coating before I remembered to trim. It happens.

I did notice that when I was starting, I found it easy to trim off too much cake, or to angle in while I was cutting. You’re aiming for about 1/4″ of board to show, not more. It’s really not much you’re trimming off, usually.

5) Crumb coat + chill: Now you add a thin layer of buttercream that traps the crumbs, preventing them from becoming visible in your final coat. This coat doesn’t have to be perfect, but it’s a good opportunity to practice your bench scraper skills. Watch just about any You’ve Been Desserted cake video and you’ll see how to do this.

Hold the scraper at a 90-degree angle while you turn to get a very smooth edge.

Do the top first, smoothing with your spatula, then the sides, smoothing with your bench scraper. If you put enough on the sides, you’ll have built a nice wall at the top edge of your cake. Then you can give that top edge a “haircut” by smoothing it towards you with your spatula, and that’s how you get those nice, sharp edges.

If you did not trim your cake edges, you can stop here and have a “naked cake.” These are very trendy. Add some drizzly-drippies to the top and it looks downright finished. This is how I do black forest cakes, with all credit for the recipe and design going to Sally’s Baking Addiction.

Assuming for the sake of this list that you are adding a final coat, before you do so, chill your cake in the fridge for another 30 minutes.

6) Final coat

Most of the time, when making a buttercream cake, I’ll add that final coat. You put it on the same as you did the crumb coat, you just want it a bit thicker. Do the top first, then the sides.

This is where you understand the point of the cake board. You butt your bench scraper up to the bottom of the cake board, not the cake, and the cake board becomes a guide for the scraper. That’s what gets the even look.

Take your time to scrape, then fill in holes, then scrape again, until the sides are smooth and you’ve built up a wall around the top edge. Then you do the “haircut” thing again to get the top edge really sharp.

I didn’t take any more pictures of this process as again, you can watch like any instructional video on the interwebs and find someone more qualified than me teaching the technique. But here’s one of my favorite final coats I did not too long ago.

The final coat is where you add the base layer of colour. Here rather than do a solid colour, I made three shades of purple, put them in piping bags with a big hole at the top, and applied them around the cake, then smoothing them together. It was a simple design, so I wanted it to be as sharp as possible, though you can see very well I have plenty of imperfections. Unfortunately this was a cake where my baking was not up to snuff, which was a real heartbreaker for all involved. But it looked good. *sniff.*

So that’s how I usually go from layers to cake. This is just one sort of basic way that I like to use because I can build lots of designs on top of it. How do you like to do it? Do you have any different tricks, or hacks to get around certain tools?

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