Not too long ago, if you wanted to see a really creative cake, you had to show up at a wedding reception, and even then, the cake could be hit or miss. Today, imaginative cakes steal the show at everything from birthdays to bon voyage parties. Those folks at the bakery aren't just cake decorators anymore -- they're confectionary or sugar artists, creating masterpieces that are demolished in a feeding frenzy day after day.
Sure, you can still get your share of oohs and ahs with a cake baked in a custom pan or decorated with an edible photograph. And if you spend some quality time with an ordinary bowl of buttercream frosting and cleverly wielded spatula, your cake will look just fine. But with these 10 techniques, you can transform a cake from a simple baked desert to an original, edible centerpiece.
Break Out the Paper Towels
When it comes to cakes, paper towels are good for more than just wiping stray flour off the counter. They're also the secret to getting buttercream icing to look almost as smooth as professionally rolled fondant. First, slather on your buttercream using the spatula. Smooth it out as much as you can, moving up to an icing smoother to get the last of the bumps out. Then, take a break and relax for a few minutes while the icing sets up and forms a light crust. You don't want the icing to be hard -- just lightly crusted on the surface. For a final touch, take a smooth paper towel (not one with lots of textured decorations, unless you want a nubby cake) and gently place it against the side of the cake. While holding the towel still, rub your hand lightly against it. Pick the paper towel up, and voila! Silky-smooth buttercream.
If you can't find smooth enough paper towels, parchment will work, too.
Maybe a super-smooth fondant or paper-toweled buttercream cake isn't your thing. There are dozens -- if not hundreds -- of ways to add texture to your cakes instead. You can use fondant or gum paste to mimic just about any surface. With royal icing -- an egg-white icing that hardens when it dries -- you can create lace designs to add to your cake's surface. With patience and a piping bag armed with a basket weave tip, you can even completely cover a cake's surface, giving it a woven look. Or, try using mesh to make spots of patterned detail or create an all-over textured look. If you've decided to go with smooth fondant, you can still add a little texture by cutting it out with a patterned roller.
And it's not all about the frosting. Candies, sugar beads and edible flowers can add an extra touch of texture to any cake.
Forget the Photo Printing
Following the trend of photo mugs that say "World's Best Dad" is the photo cake: a cake topped with an edible photo print. And while it's a clever idea, the finished product doesn't always look as good as the original snapshot. But with the same concept, you can do so much more than plunk your vacation pics on top of your cake. With edible paper (and similarly edible ink) you can do everything from adding embellishments to planning an elaborate design.
These thin sheets of translucent paper are made from rice or potato starch. You can write on them with pens filled with food coloring, or you can print on them using your printer -- as long as your cartridges are full of edible ink. Depending on what kind you're using, the paper will either melt into the frosting or stay on the surface of the cake.
You can find all these supplies online or at baking supply shops.
Practice Your Carving
You can buy specialty cake pans in just about every shape you can imagine. But if you want a truly unique form, a knife will be your best friend. With a serrated knife, you can cut cake layers any way you want. Is it messy? You bet. But it also leaves you free to create on a grand scale. With an understructure to add support, a talented carver can go big and bold with sponge cake and buttercream.
Start with sheet-cake pans that will give you layers the size and shape you want to work with. Fill and chill the stacked layers, and then cut the cake into the shape you want, like a Christmas tree, freight train or elephant, with a serrated knife. Cover what's left with fondant or frosting.
Sculpt and Mold
Gum paste, marzipan and fondant are the modeling clays of cake making, and if you're good at shaping clay and dough, you can work wonders with them. With time and care, you can create anything from realistic flowers to whimsical 3-D characters from film and fiction. You can even use these sculptures to make completely unique wedding cake toppers.
It's not just about sculpting your paste or fondant to the right shape. Elaborate color shading techniques are helping cake pros push the envelope with sculpted decorations. But you don't have to be over-the-top to be effective. A few marzipan figures or flowers can transform a basic cake into one that's adorable or memorable.
Use Special Effects
Sometimes, a couple of marzipan mice just won't cut it -- you want your cake to be really dramatic. For example, once you've carved and iced a cake to look like Mount Vesuvius, an erupting chocolate lava flow will make it a memorable volcano. Cake artists have used everything from dry ice to electronic devices to give their cakes extra flair.
There are two things to keep in mind if you decide to unleash your inner mad scientist on your next cake. The first is that you'll usually want to have a big reveal: Time your effects carefully to make the biggest impact. The second is that your decorations might be inedible or even dangerous if eaten. If you're lighting your cake with light-emitting diodes (LEDs), for example, you'll have to take the decorations off before serving and keep the battery well away from the rest of the cake.
Think Outside the Cake
A cake is a cake is a cake, right? That's only true until creative bakers start adding things that definitely aren't cake -- or even food -- to their creations. From cakes that conceal live doves to ones built into television sets, these projects require talent, organization and the ability to wear lots of different hats.
It's not just that you need to combine baking with construction, though. You'll need to have a good sense of how all the elements of your cake and its presentation are going to go together. And you'll also need to plan ahead in case anything goes wrong. There's a reason for that old saying warning directors not to work with children or animals -- they're a little unpredictable.
Find a Theme
Sometimes, cake decorating is all about function instead of form. In other words, it's not about which elements you decide to add -- it's how the elements add up to create a theme. A skewed topper transforms a wedding cake into a divorce cake. Different colors of cupcake can act like pixels or dots: Combine them to make characters from old video games, like "Super Mario Bros." Want to go a little dressier? Put a plain, rectangular cake into a box and use icing and decorations to turn it into a man's folded dress shirt, complete with a tie. Themes like this are becoming more popular at weddings, as couples opt for more personalized wedding cakes.
Become an Architect
If you've made cakes for a while, you've probably run afoul of gravity at some point. Cakes spread outward as they bake, but cake decorators usually build upward as they design. Still, the sky's the limit: You can use cunning and unexpected tools to add reliable architecture into cake decorating.
The trick is to add levels of support and stability with tools like:
- Threaded pipe
- Food-grade plastics
- Cake drums (non-edible separators used between cake tiers)
- Foamcore (two sheets of white cardboard with Styrofoam in the middle)
You've seen those spectacular specialty cakes that seem to do the impossible. You know, the ones that tip or arc at offbeat angles. They look impossible, but defying gravity just takes a solid foundation -- and a good sense of balance.
Show Your Support
All those dowels, cake drums and pieces of foamcore? Unless they're the elegant columns in a multitier wedding cake, they're usually invisible, hidden by frosting or the cake itself. But you don't have to keep your supports out of sight. With a little ingenuity, you can bring your scaffolding into the foreground, using colorful dowels, decorative (but food-safe) wire, or intricately textured plates to construct your cake. You can even put the same idea to work on a smaller scale by building a creative cupcake tree and focusing your piping and sculpting talents on the frosting and decorations for each miniature cake.
Want a recipe to help you get started? Take a look at the ones on the next page.
HowStuffWorks looks at some great British Baking terms — and some American ones as well.
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