I have said in previous posts that I don’t really want to get into food on this blog — this is for crafting, electronics, and “making” rather than food. Besides, so many other blogs do food so much better than I can. However, I put cake decorating in a crafty category as it focuses more on appearance than on the taste. If you doubt this, consider that, in 4-H cake decorating (at least as of about fifteen years ago), the upper levels allowed, even recommended, using wax-covered styrofoam cake forms instead of real cake for all show pieces. Level 1, the basics of cake decorating, focused on the two most fundamental of cake techniques: baking a dead level single-layer cake, and frosting it smoothly. This post is essentially my reintroduction to Level 1 cakes.
My husband had a birthday recently and, as he didn’t grow up with nearly as many cakes as I did, still quite enjoys a good birthday cake. He offered several options, and of those I chose to make a carrot cake. Since it had been so many years since I decorated a cake, I wanted to get some of the tools and make one my cake decorating mother would be proud of.
So, off to the store I went! I needed a couple cake pans for layers, so I grabbed two 9″ pans for baking. Cooling racks were next for cooling the cakes rapidly (and because I’ll use them more for cookies). Wilton baking strips are, in my opinion, very helpful for baking a level cake (meaning you don’t need to cut off much to make them perfectly flat). A couple Wilton spatulas (angled and straight) make frosting cakes much easier — do take a look at those if you aren’t sure why I’d want a special spatula. I also picked up a piping bag and several tips, though, as you’ll see, I didn’t end up using them on this cake.
Step 1 was to begin by soaking the baking strips in water. These strips are thick cloth that absorbs water and are wrapped around the outside edge of the cake pan and held in place with loops. Cakes bake from the edges in (and, to a lesser extent, from the bottom up). On an unwrapped cake, the edges will set before the cake has much of a chance to rise. Since the center of the cake sets last, it rises most, leading to a very domed cake. The baking strips keep the sides of the cake cooler, letting the cake bake more uniformly and creating a more even cake.
Next is preparing the cake pans. I employed the method I learned in 4-H. Grease the entire pan (or just the bottom, for better results). Next, cut and place a circle of wax or parchment paper that will just fill the bottom of the pan. Grease the top of that, then flour the whole pan. This creates a layer that won’t stick at all to the pan and will stick very little to the cake, making for a cleaner release. Though it’s sometimes a bit overkill, this method does work well consistently.
Next, mix cake. I followed the recipe for Super Moist Carrot Cake from Sally’s Baking Addiction, with the modification that I split the cake into two layers and proportionately cut the baking time.
Pour cake into pans. This was a very thick batter, so I did need to spread it around with the spatula. The next baking trick for a level cake is to make surface tension work in your favor. If the batter is just poured in, the batter on the edges will need to overcome surface tension to rise up the sides. If the batter is spread up to about halfway up the side of the pan by tilting the pan around, then the batter isn’t fighting to rise up those sides.
Here I put on the soaked baking strips. Note that I should have A) Put the strips on before filling the pans, and B) Sized the strips before soaking them. The strips have loops, rather like a belt, that hold it to the right size, and it’s really difficult to move them when they’re wet. It’s been a while since I did this, so I’m remembering as I go along.
Bake cakes, test doneness with a toothpick (just comes out clean from the center of the cake) and let cool slightly in the pans. Next, run the cake spatula around the edges of the cake to loosen it from the pan (I forgot this step) and turn the cake out onto a cooling rack. Let cool fully before trying to decorate.
Again from the land of my 4-H experiences and my cake decorator mother, a cake shouldn’t be on just a plate (and definitely not on anything with a raised edge because it makes decorating more difficult). So, I decided to make a cake board sort of how I remembered.
Draw a circle on cardboard about 1-1/2″ larger than your cake. Cut it out, cut a second one out, and glue the two together with opposing grain. Then cover the whole thing in a couple layers of aluminum foil, with a neat little circle on the bottom to cover the edges. I didn’t have a box cutter, a glue stick, or a good way to make the circle the right shape, so I used scissors, spray glue, and my eyes to make it. It’s… not pretty, but it works for now.
By this time, the cake is mostly cooled, so I made up the cream cheese and butter frosting. Time to stack cakes!
And here would be where I start decorating. A thin layer of the frosting on the cake, let dry, can help keep the cake from dropping crumbs as it’s frosted. You can see this on the sides of my next picture, as well as the beginning of frosting the top.
By now, the frosting was about the consistency of homemade whipped cream, much too soft to spread smoothly. Into the fridge went the cake and the extra frosting to firm up a bit.
A while later, the top of the cake looks decent (not 4-H standards, but what can I say) but the sides aren’t cooperating at all. They were crumbling, I was getting the cake showing through the frosting, and I was running out of time. So I remembered a trick my mom taught me: crumbles hide many sins. Chopped pecans to the rescue!
It’s not the cake I intended to make for my husband. I did want to put little piped Pi symbols all over it (his birthday was on Pi Day) but that wasn’t going to happen. He said that it looked much better than the cakes he would see from when he worked in a grocery store bakery, so I call that a win. Unrelated to this blog, it was also delicious.
Note: I did put a few links to products I used in this post. These aren’t paid advertisements, and I receive absolutely no compensation for this. They’re provided so you can see what I like to use and to provide context.