For a refresher, our cakes tend to look like this.
This is why we favor glaze over icing. You just dump the glaze on, and in five seconds your cake is done. Nevertheless, cake decorating is a required class, and so we finally had to subject ourselves to it.
For the big midterm, we had to do a cake that met a long list of specifications (must have two of the following six flowers, must have one of these types of top borders, one of these types of bottom borders, etc).
We at A Book of Cookrye realized that if we didn't attempt this a few times beforehand, a grading disaster would befall us. However, not wanting to spend a lot of grocery money, we economized in a way that practically never happens at A Book of Cookrye.
Yes, that is white cake mix. We haven't so much as opened a box of that powdery stuff in a long time. But we had four cake layers to make in one night, and that would have been a lot of butter and sugar. The cake mix was $1 a box. I have to say, I was getting some powerful olfactory flashbacks. It smells like the cheap vanilla candles people put in the bathroom when company's over to hide the smell of any guests' embarrassment.
Anyway, for the midterm, we decided to practice at home twice: Once with just white icing to see if it'd work, and once with actual colors.
Not to bad, is it? I mean, if you ignore that the icing has so much shortening in it that it tastes like a sketchy Oreo knockoff from the dollar store. But that's all right, the cake itself tastes like it was made from $1-per-box cake mix. Putting a really good icing on such a crappy cake would have been a waste. I mean, I know a lot of bakeries do just that, but we at A Book of Cookrye have standards-- most of the time.
Anyway, having actually done the icing once, we tried to do it in full color while watching the time to see if we could do it in the equivalent of one class period. When this is literally for a test grade, you want to make damn sure.
|Note the deliberate avoidance of any decoration that would require drawing a straight line.|
You may be wondering what it looked like on the big day when my grade was on the line. And I have to tell you it was pretty.
|You may notice the results of a sudden increase in the food coloring budget once I can help myself to the school's extravagant supply.|
You may think I attempted to artistically scatter the flowers atop the cake in a pleasing asymmetrical design. But I actually didn't even think about where the flowers would go until after I did that squiggly lace pattern over the cake. Then I put a big flower on top of every spot that I messed up.
I passed the midterm with flying colors (given my ineptitude that drove me to attempt this twice, about the only thing I get complimented on regularly is my use of color).
Unfortunately, all my pre-midterm practicing meant I had two cakes at home that I needed something to do with. A friend and I tried eating one. Keep in mind that as exquisite(?) as the decorating may have been, this was shortening-heavy icing on top of some seriously questionable cake mix. I hadn't made this thing to taste good, I'd cranked it out so I could have a vehicle for decorating.
There's a metaphor here, really. You know how how people bred Red Delicious apples to look prettier and brighter without thinking about the flavor until we ended up with a very photogenic apple that tastes like sugared upholstery? Well, you're looking at the cake equivalent. I didn't expect much from bargain-brand cake mix, yet this was worse. As my friend so eloquently put it: "This tastes like shit."
We found a simple solution: cake balls!
When you've spent hours fussing over icing flowers, this feels fucking great.
Now, we thought that adding a bit of random cream cheese from the refrigerator and smashing this thing up would make it taste better. It did not. It tasted like artificial vanilla and shortening. But there was an easy way to salvage this mess:
|Yes, that is a second cake we still haven't dealt with.|
I don't know if the lemon cut through the shortening the way an acidic barbecue sauce cuts through all the meat grease that your grilling relative swears is flavor, or if it just overpowered the fake vanilla and made everything all right. But now that this tasted fit for human consumption, we could commence cake-balling.
As shown above, we ran out of plate space before we ran out of cake mush to turn into balls. And so, we hastily decided we were doing, um, cake-ball-bars.
Looks like a plate of ugly mush, doesn't it? This is the time for my new cake decorating skills to really pay off! We popped some canned icing into the microwave (even though this is like 50% icing by volume already) and made a beautiful white glaze that would tempt the eye as much as the palate!
Actually, once you sliced it up, the pieces looked rather nice. Or they would have if we'd cut them into cute little squares or something. Both the "cake" and the icing firmed up really nicely after a while in the refrigerator. Really, this could have made a decent tray of petits fours. At the very least, you could be sure someone would bring an uglier-looking plate to the potluck than yours.
Kinda looks like an iced vanilla brownie, doesn't it?
But you may feel that this... er... lacks color. You may think that it looks about as festive and bright as the contents of a sack of flour. If you feel this needs further ornamentation, my friend has you covered.
I may invite said friend to write a guest post on the expressive use of hot Cheetos.
Anyway, we at A Book of Cookrye would like to share a few handy tips for anyone thinking of attempting this for themselves- from one beginner to another.
Plenty of people who've bedecked cakes for years will do some incredibly difficult decorations in a matter of seconds and then chirp "It's so easy!" Those people piss me off because they should know damn well that the only reason they can make it look so easy is that they put in years of practice. And then people like me watch the video, fail utterly at the allegedly easy task, feel stupid because the chipper person in the video said it was supposed to be easy, and foul language ensues.
Anyway, here's some advice for people who can't do fine-detailed things and really are just starting out:
- Be nice to yourself. Cake decorating is harder than actually baking the cake (unless you have a natural knack for fine-detailed work).
- You can save a lot of money on cakes by practicing your icing skills on newspaper, cardboard (like the circles that come under frozen pizzas), and the like. Porcelain plates don't work very well- they're so slick that your icing will slip everywhere instead of stay in place long enough for you to turn it into a design.
|Many thanks to my sister's no-good ex for the Collected Works of Edgar Allan Poe boxed set. After the breakup, she handed the books on to me.|
- If you're practicing on anything besides an actual cake, you can save even more money by just scraping the icing back into the bowl and reusing it over and over. While I personally wouldn't serve a cake with icing I've reused ten to twelve times, it's a great way to avoid wasting a lot of grocery money while you practice on random flat household objects.
- Have a damp rag in a bowl for quickly cleaning off your fingertips. They will get sticky often.
- Closely related to the above: Either get a huge case of paper towels or have a lot of dishrags handy. You will be wiping icing smears off of things a lot. Cake decorating is sticky and messy.
- Do yourself a favor and purchase only a few basic icing tips at first. If you just go to any baking store (whether online or in-person), you will find that icing tips (and other cake decorating supplies) are like spices: there are approximately eleventy-billion-and-one of them. And just like spices, there are many things you may use only once only have them sit alone in the back of the cabinet forever afterward. You can get the specialty things as you need them, thus guaranteeing that actually use them at least once (instead of buying one of those 50-tip box sets and only using like 6 of them). The cost of icing tips adds up quickly, so don't buy twenty bazillion of them. Keep your money for other things.
- If you decide you're going to dress cakes a lot, a turntable will be more useful than you may think. If you're like me, you won't run out and buy one, but instead you will be grateful that spinning cake plates were fashionable enough in the days of yore that your great-grandmother got a fancy one, and hope that you don't shatter a family heirloom in a decorating mishap.
|I wasn't worried about breaking the cake plate, but I did fear getting icing permanently stuck in some of the scrollwork in the base.|
- Closely related to the above: unless you intend to serve the cake on the stand you're decorating it on, be sure to put the cake on its own serving plate before you start icing it. Yes, I found this out the hard way. If you have a super-wide spatula (the sturdy and extremely oversized sort they sell in the grilling aisle for men who want to look manly despite holding a kitchen implement), you might be able to carefully lift it off the decorating stand without smudging anything, but that is unlikely.
If you don't know what sort of platter you can put your cake on and have nothing suitable in the kitchen, they sell cardboard circles and rectangles just for cake serving. But you can easily cut one out of the side of a box instead of stopping by the nearest baker's specialty store. Once you wrap it in foil, it'll look fine. If anyone checks under the foil and finds an old shipping label, that person was so picky and snooty that they clearly didn't want cake and instead wanted to find something to be dissatisfied about.
- When setting up your space, we at A Book of Cookrye really recommend putting down a mat you can throw away- something like parchment or newspaper. Things will get messy, and it feels so great to be able to roll up the whole sticky surface and throw it away when you're done.
- Have a dedicated saucer, tiny plate, or other receptacle for the icing tips you've used. Cake decorating involves a lot of tiny little overpriced tools that love to roll all over the table. If left unattended and uncontained, all those little icing tips and other accessories are very good at hiding. Keep them corralled or else you will go insane from constantly having to stop and hunt for the latest thing to go missing.
|Pictured: as close to well-organized as I'm going to get. Note the container lid holding the various used tips, the wet dishrag in a bowl, and the parchment pan liner saving me a lot of future counter-wiping.|
- As you can see above, if you like using lots of different colors, prepare to have a lot of little bowls and spoons to wash.
- This is less of a practical tip and more of a general note about icing. A lot of decorator's icing tastes like crap. This is generally because it's mostly shortening and powdered sugar. You'd think it's hard to make something that's almost pure sugar and fat taste bad, but shortening makes it happen. If you're making your own icing, you may decide to use all or mostly butter instead so it will taste good. But keep in mind that if butter sits out of the fridge for too long, it melts. So if your buttercream is actually made with butter, your cake decorations will droop unless it's cold out.
In other words, if you want to leave your cake out on the table for a long time, keep in mind that your icing will probably melt and look sad. You'll have to either make a Crisco compromise between looks and taste, or keep the cake in the refrigerator right until you serve it.