Let’s talk about multi-tier cakes.
Cake is heavy. If you’re doing a one-tier cake, you can do what you want. But as soon as that cake starts holding up other cake, you need to start thinking in terms of building something, not just baking something.
You can start with a nice, sturdy cake. The vanilla cake recipe I shared with you back on day four of this series is perfect for this. The oil-based cakes from You’ve Been Desserted are good for this too – at least, JJR sure stacks the heck out of them! Not as great for this would be a box cake, made according to box directions. It’s just too spongey.
The second thing you need is a scaffolding. Think of it as your cake having a skeleton. Inside your cake layers, you need to build enough stability that it’s not just cake resting on cake. This has three elements: cake boards, short dowels between each layer, and a long dowel through the whole thing.
Part 1: cake boards. I talked about cake boards back when I discussed crumb coating and final coating. They serve a helpful purpose when applying your final coat, but when you’re stacking cakes, they serve an additional purpose in being part of your cake’s scaffolding. Yes, that means there are layers of cardboard between the tiers of your cake! You can’t leave this out. My mom made a gorgeous cake for my sister’s wedding, and she didn’t realize she had to leave the cake boards in. She used the dowels, but without the boards between the tiers to rest on the dowels, the cake couldn’t stay upright. It didn’t fall over, but it started leaning, so it became two cakes!
Part 2: short supports. Inside each cake tier except the topmost one, you will place a ring of short supports. You can use bubble tea straws for this. To see this done, here is an early video from JJR demonstrating this technique; just go to 4:30 to see it. I prefer to use dowels, because of the evils of plastic, and dowels are affordable and readily accessible in town. I just use a PVC cutter to cut the dowels. 1/4″ – 5/8″ seems to be about right.
I just stick a dowel straight into the cake, then mark the dowel with a Sharpie right at the top of the cake. (Sharpie is non-toxic.) I take the dowel out, cut right below the mark, and use that first dowel to mark the other pieces and cut them.
How many dowels? Use as many dowels as the number of inches across as the cake being supported. So, if you’re putting dowels into your bottom tier and it’s 10″, and your next tier is 8″, you need 8 dowels. Liz Marek is another cake youtuber I really trust; you can see her full lesson on this in this video, starting around 11:30.
I totally forgot to take pictures during the stacking of my Christmas cake. But here are the tiers separated at church while I was serving it. You can see the tops of of the dowels!
Part 3: Long Backbone.
If this structure is like a skeleton, then the final piece is the backbone. The cake boards and short dowels will allow the cake to support its own weight, but if the cake is going to be transported at all, you need a long dowel through the whole thing to keep it from wobbling over.
To do this, take a piece of dowel that is a little shorter than your stacked cake. Now you’ll do some whittling: sharpen that tip with a knife, so it’s sharp like a pencil. You will need it to be sharp in order to punch through the cake boards. Then, insert the long dowel through the whole cake, being careful to keep the dowel straight up and down, spinning it a little to help you keep it straight. It will take a little force to punch through those cake boards, but it’s doable.
I threw this image together to give you an idea of what the inside of the cake looks like. The black ovals are the cake boards; the red lines are short dowels cut to the height of the layer they are in, and the green line is a long dowel put through the whole cake.
You can skip the “backbone” step if it’s a 2-tier cake and you will not be transporting it. For a cake taller than 2 tiers, I definitely add a backbone, and I will do it for a 2-tier cake if it’s being picked up or delivered.
When do I do this? You definitely want to have the final coat on your cakes before you stack them. Any piping or little decorations you will want to add after the cakes are stacked. For some elements, like when the bottom of the cake is coated in sprinkles, I added the sprinkles before stacking.
What about transporting the cakes? Delivering cakes around town was the most stressful part of this work when I started! Now I have a better idea of how sturdy these cakes are. I have moved two- and three-tier cakes around, fully assembled, with no problems. I just drive very carefully. I also make sure any cake, stacked or not, is fully chilled in the fridge until right before transportation.
For the one four-tier cake I made, I did transport it in two pieces and assembled it on site. I brought my long dowel, extra chilled buttercream flowers, frosting for piping at the join and adding more buttercream flowers to complete the cascade. I think you can’t tell at all that it was transported in two pieces.
I think that pretty much exhausts my knowledge of stacking! It’s stressful at first, but something you can definitely get the hang of. And multi-tier cakes are so spectacularly celebratory, it’s worth the fuss!