First, I spread a thin layer of frosting on the outside of each tier. This layer doesn't need to be pretty, but it should be smooth. This is called crumbcoating - it creates a crumb-free surface for frosting the cake. After crumbcoating each layer, I put it in the refrigerator to chill.
|My first crumbcoated tier|
Since this cake was just for practice I saved time by filling and crumbcoating my tiers with store-bought frosting, but the outer frosting layer was Swiss Buttercream.The high butter content of this frosting makes it smooth enough to spread easily, but also hold its shape well, especially when cold. I never thought I could achieve a pretty, smooth surface with buttercream alone (I planned to cover it with fondant), but I discovered that a good buttercream practically smoothes itself.
|Spreading frosting over the crumbcoat|
The frosting surface will never be perfectly smooth, but there are a few techniques you can use to get close. One is hot-knifing, in which you warm your spatula in hot water, dry it, and quickly smooth your frosted tiers. I tried this with good results, but found that even without a hot knife, going back over the frosting after it had set resulted in a smoother finish. Another technique, the paper towel method, requires a crusting buttercream, which has more sugar than Swiss buttercream. You take a soft paper towel (Viva is recommended) and lightly press it against the frosting surface to smooth any lines or bulges. I've read that this technique works very well, but it would require me to find a different recipe. Note: I plan to experiment with shortening-based frostings soon because they stand up better to heat and humidity.
|I never got the tops flat, but had better luck with my next cake.|
Ideally you would chill all the tiers after frosting them, but I just didn't have enough space. I learned that it's a pretty important step and will never skip it again! Now it's time to prepare the tiers for stacking. I used thin wooden dowels for my support this time. I learned that I don't really like this method because they shift easily and are a pain to cut evenly. No matter what you use for support, it's important to measure accurately. What you should do is take a dowel and insert it in each spot you will place cut dowels, marking the depth of the cake in each spot. Then, cut each dowel piece 1/8th of an inch shorter than the shortest depth. This way the dowels end just below the cake surface. I rushed this step and since my tiers were a tad uneven, they didn't stack flush. Oops!
|Cutting dowels to the right length is important!|
You should place some dowels just inside the edge of the tier that will go on top of it, and the rest should go closer to the center. I didn't place any in the exact center because I planned to finish the cake with a long, sharpened dowel through all the tiers for stability. I ended up not doing this because I ran out of long dowel pieces due to remeasuring. Once the dowels were placed in each tier (except the top), I spread a small amount of frosting on top of them to act as a glue between the tiers.
|Poorly measured dowels (too high)|
Stacking the cake was the most nerve-racking part of the process for me. I learned that if you don't chill your tiers you're likely to ruin much of your hard work. It's nearly impossible to stack the tiers without touching the sides, and it's hard to fix the side of a tier without messing up the top of the tier below it. Eek! Chilling the tiers makes the frosting more solid and harder to sink your fingers into.
|The stacked tiers needed sealing.|
Even when tiers are stacked directly on top of each other (without the awkward gap my doweling situation left me with), they generally need sealing. At first I tried piping a bead border at the bottom of each tier, but I wanted a smoother, more modern look. So, I used a small offset spatula to fill in the gaps and cover the cardboard circles the tiers were resting on (I should have trimmed these at the beginning when I saw they were a little bigger than the cakes). At this point, my cake was ready for decorating!
My plan was to decorate the cake in a bunch of different ways, but life got in the way. Instead, I tried one of the designs that Roberta sent me a picture of. More on that later...