Everyday Food Blog

Frosting a Cake 101

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Some kitchen tasks are way more fun than others. Mincing garlic? Hate it. Whipping up meringue? Love it! Charring and peeling bell peppers? Ugh—THE worst! One of my absolute favorite jobs in the kitchen is frosting a layer cake—I find it to be such a calming, zen activity. (Or, I’m just a sugar addict. I actually aspire to be one of those people who perpetually keeps a frosted layer cake sitting on the counter at home under a glass dome, like the folks at my local diner or Meryl Streep’s character in It’s Complicated.)

Recently, our senior editor Merritt Watts asked me to whip up a simple layer cake for a photo shoot. (We shot this ingenious device that turns any plate or platter into a cake stand.) So, I made my favorite cake combo: Golden-yellow cake with rich, fudgy chocolate frosting. As I smoothed the dark frosting over and around the cake layers, Merritt peppered me with questions. Clearly a tutorial was in order….

Hard at work...

Here are my top tips for making a photo-shoot ready cake.

1. Invest in a couple of offset spatulas, a large one and a small one. They are inexpensive and will make frosting a cake SO much easier. That said, a butter knife and the back of a spoon will work well too.

2. Always frost a cake that has cooled completely, otherwise you will melt your frosting. Just remember: warm cake + buttery frosting = a great big mess.

3. While not always essential, it’s generally a good idea to trim the domed cake tops with a serrated knife. This will ensure a beautiful and even looking cake with a flat top and straight sides.

4. Room temperature frosting is much easier to work with. Cold frosting will tear your cake up. (Think about spreading ice cold butter on bread. Kind of a drag, right?) So if you’re making your frosting well in advance and want to store it in the fridge, just be sure to bring it to room temperature before you begin working with it.

5. Crumb coats will change your life. What’s a crumb coat? It’s a thin initial layer of icing that you spread all over the cake trapping those pesky crumbs. After you’ve done this, simply pop your cake into the fridge for 15 minutes or so and wait for the frosting to harden. Then you apply a second, thicker layer of icing that will be amazingly crumb free!

6. Know when to walk away. I can sit in front of cake and either smooth or swirl it all day long. Don’t do this. Smooth it as best you can and then simply walk away. In fact, every single time I frost a cake, I have to remind myself that no matter how much time I spend working that frosting, it will never be perfect, and that’s ok. It will still be delicious!

Hope these tips help, and if you have any cake decorating tips of your own be sure to leave a comment, and let me know what I missed! And, of course, there's more than one way to frost a cake. If you're looking for one that's faster and a little more casual (but every bit as delicious), go for a sheet cake, which simply calls for spreading a layer of frosting on top. I love this Vanilla Sheet Cake with Malted-Milk-Chocolate Frosting.

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