It all started when I called our local cake shop to have a cake made for Valentina's Birthday. My soon-to-be 3 year old daughter asked for a Ballerina cake and I, knowing absolutely nothing about cakes except from what I learned watching Neurotic Mom's instagram videos, chose the most beautiful cake with the fondant ballet slippers on top. When I received the quote I almost spit out my coffee. $245 for a birthday cake? To be fair, I surely chose the most expensive version (those fondant ballet slippers were exquisite) but still, it is the sticker shock that drove me into action. I was going to attempt to make the cake myself. It turns out it was a lot more difficult than I thought, but I am so glad I did it. Here are the 6 Birthday Cake baking fails and how to fix them.
I had watched each season of the Great British Bake Off. I had even learned to bake beautiful baguettes during quarantine, surely I could do this! Really, how hard could it be? With the kind of delusional self confidence that drives one to sign up for boot camp classes without having worked out in years, I threw myself into the project.
First, I consulted my sister. Truly a master birthday cake baker if ever there was one. My sister makes cakes that designer pastry shops would envy. It is worthwhile noting that my sister lives in the UK and should definitely be a contestant on the Great British Bake Off.
Get the equipment:
- Baking tins (8 or 9 inch is standard - you will want 2 or 3 depending on the height you are looking for)
- Piping bags (plastic disposable ones are the most convenient - but make sure to buy a sturdy kind that won't burst)
- Piping tips ( I bought this kit from Wilton, but I really only used the star tip)
- A palette knife for smoothing on icing. (if you don't have this - the back of the butter knife can also work but is a little more fussy)
- A pivoting cake stand is a nice to have. I happened to have a lazy susan style wooden cheese board that worked beautifully.
1. Find the perfect base.
If you do not have a recipe that you have already tried and trust, go with a Betty Crocker Mix. Seriously.
Baking a cake that is the right consistency and height takes practice and was harder than I expected. I first used a Victoria Sponge recipe that my sister sent me and failed spectacularly. Note to self: self-rising flour is NOT the same as all purpose flour... my Victoria Sponge resembled a very dense & heavy pancake. Fortunately I failed publicly on social media and the King Arthur baking people came to the rescue with their tried and true recipe. The cake ended up truly delicious, but I still had to use my pancake-esque Victoria Sponge as the bottom layer just to get the height I wanted. A 9 inch pan will make for a shorter cake. Remember this!
2. Butter takes 2 hours (at least) to get to room temperature
When making a buttercream icing it is crucial that the butter be at room temperature. This is not a step that can be rushed by the use of the microwave. While you are at it, take double the amount of butter that you think you will need out of the fridge. Buttercream icing uses A TON of butter. I ended up using 8 sticks of butter in the end. You can't easily bring more butter to room temperature if you find yourself out of buttercream ¾ of the way through. (Note I used my sister's UK recipe for buttercream which was equal weights icing sugar and butter, but with Le Chef's guidance brought the sugar level down half)
3. Evening out the layers of the cake is a thing
Fortunately I had the help of Le Chef on decorating day. When he saw me begin to put to the layers together he jumped in to intervene. The layers have to be even!! (really??) He very gently sawed off the ever-so-slight-I-would-never-have-noticed-it dome of my failed Victoria sponge layer with a serrated bread knife to make it look exactly like my beautiful King Arthur baking recipe cake layers. Honestly you would never know that I used 2 different types of cake. What I couldn't believe is how many people commented on the layers.
4. Chill those cakes!
Cakes preserve beautifully in the fridge. Do not attempt to bake and decorate the cakes in the same morning. Leave this to the pros. Buttercream icing on a hot cake, even on a slightly-warm-you-can-barely-feel-it cake, becomes melted butter. Trust me.
5. Fresh Fruit is delicious in between the layers, not in the icing.
Another buttercream icing faux pas. It seemed simple enough, why wouldn't I just chuck real strawberries into the buttercream to make a delicious strawberry butter cream icing? Because it curdles. That's why. Save yourself from having to start again and just slice the fresh strawberries thinly on top of a beautiful vanilla buttercream. Also- I appreciated having the fresh fruit instead of a jam because there is already so.much.sugar. in the buttercream.
6. Piping is a skill. Practice.
It looks so easy on all of those instagram videos. I mean, how hard could it possibly be to pipe rosettes? Turns out, much more difficult than I thought. I also made the mistake of not cutting the piping bag up high enough on the nozzle...I couldn't figure out why my rosettes looked like blobs until Le Chef intervened and pointed out my mistake. Oopsy.
What do you have to lose?
At the end of our tiny birthday celebration (the only guest was the little girl we share a babysitter with - a sort of Covid-era daycare pod arrangement if you will) Le Chef made an off hand comment that really resonated with me.
"You know you could have never pulled this off if we had invited more people, right?".
This hit home. He is absolutely right. If we had had more people coming to the "party" the pressure would have been higher, and I would have had many more things to do to prepare for our guests. I doubt I would have even attempted to make my own cake.
I felt comfortable enough to try a risky new skill, knowing that the stakes weren't that high anyways. Am I ever glad I did! Even if I had never bought that $245 cake, I might have bought the 100$ cake. 100$ x 2 kids x 20ish years of at home birthdays = 4000$ on cakes that I probably won't have to spend, and that makes me feel pretty good about trying out something new.
Smaller gatherings allow for more risks in the kitchen. So try it out!
In the end I was pretty proud of my cake, it turned out better than I expected. And the parts that didn't look so great? I improvised and covered them with rose petals.
Have you tried anything new in the kitchen this year? I would love to hear about it!
I hope you learned something from the "6 Birthday cake baking fails and how to fix them".
Le Chef's Wife