Today I’m going to teach you all, the best I possibly can, how to frost a cake with buttercream to get a smooth, crumb-free surface, and nice sharp edges. Decorating poorly frosted vs. a well frosted cake is like the difference between painting on dry mud and painting on a brand new canvas. The next couple of times I post about cake decor, I’ll teach you a few techniques about piping and decor… But for now, we’re going to focus on the canvas. 🙂
First, you’ve got to make sure the cake is baked in good pans, with clean edges. If you didn’t read My Last Tutorial, check that out before you begin– You want to make sure you get off to a good start.
Next, make sure you have a good frosting recipe with a good consistency. You want it stiff enough to stay on the cake, but thin enough to prevent it from tearing up the cake when you spread it. Here is a basic recipe, and hopefully this will give you an idea of consistency. For an 8″ cake, you’ll probably want to double this to frost your cake.
Basic Buttercream Recipe
For perfectly white frosting, you’ll have to use clear vanilla and shortening. Butter will give the icing a yellowish tinge, and vanilla will add some ivory to the color.
1 c. butter or shortening, softened
1 tsp. vanilla extract
5-6 Tbsp. milk
4 c. icing sugar
Beat the butter or shortening until creamy; add the liquid ingredients and beat until incorporated. Gradually add the icing sugar until the frosting is light and fluffy. If it seems too thick with 5 Tbsp. milk, add another tablespoon and beat until well combined.
TIP: If your icing sugar is settled into a bag or container, loosen it up with your measuring cup before you measure it. If it’s too compacted, your frosting will be too stiff.
After baking the cake layers, you’re going to need to trim them to have level tops. I usually use a cake leveler (you can get these at Michael’s or Joanne Fabrics), but you can also trim them with a long, serrated blade. If you’re using a knife, make sure to use a gentle sawing motion to cut through the cake– you want to avoid any pieces breaking off, so be careful.
TIP: The cakes I’m using for this tutorial are fresh, but if you cover and refrigerate the cakes overnight before working with them, that is usually best. The moisture will soften the edges of the cake for easy cutting, and the time sitting will help the cakes settle into a more solid form. Fresh cakes tend to be a little lighter and more prone to crumble, so I usually like to leave them overnight at least before I work on them. Sponge cakes need to be decorated the day of, but butter or oil cakes, in my experience, are best to work with the day after they’re baked.
I usually start by flipping the cakes onto wax paper, trimming the tops, and then setting the cake layers aside onto a clean cookie sheet or clean sheet of wax paper. Then wipe up the crumbs from the trimming process and set aside the tops; you can snack on those, or save them to use as a cake layer in trifle later.
Try to keep your work surface clean at all times, if at all possible; this will help keep crumbs out of the frosting.
Once the cakes are trimmed and your frosting is made, you can begin assembly. It’s easiest to use a turntable of some kind to frost the cake, but you can make do without. I am using a small turntable, which I bought at Michael’s.
Place your cake plate or board onto the turntable, and smear a little dollop of frosting on the center of the board. Next, cut side up, place one of your cake layers onto the board and press it into the frosting– that’ll keep it from shifting around on the plate.
Next, spoon another dollop of frosting onto the cake and spread it evenly over the surface, applying enough pressure to “Lock the crumbs in.” Spread the icing far enough to peak over the sides a little.
Now, if frosting is the only thing you want to use in between the layers, you can leave it at that and put the next cake layer over top. I am going to teach you how to fill the cake with fruit or some other kind of filling, however, so that you know how to do that without getting berry juice oozing out the sides of the finished cake. For this cake, I’ve chosen to use fresh strawberries.
Once the frosting is spread over the cake, you might need to add a little more, and spread from the middle outward, until you get a border of frosting around the edge of the whole cake. You want this to be quite thick and high on the sides, and quite thin in the center– think of it as a sort of “Nest” for your fruit or filling. You can also do this by spreading a thin layer of frosting over the first layer, then using a large piping tip and bag, piping the nest around the edge of the cake.
Once that has been achieved, fill it with fruit. Don’t go too crazy on how much you put in there, especially if you’re using a soft filling. If there is too much in between the layers, it will come oozing out the sides, pretty much no matter what you do to prevent it. So be a little sparing on this part.
Since the strawberries aren’t sticky, I’ve stuck another little dollop of frosting on top of them before topping with the next layer. Place the next layer of cake, cut side down, on top of the first layer. Press that layer down until the white frosting from the edges comes squeezing out the sides. Press it nice and firmly; if you don’t now, the weight of the icing will later, and that’s when you’ll get it puckering on the sides. Try to squeeze out as much as you can without damaging the cake.
Now, using an angled spatula, spread the frosting sticking out the sides flat against the side of the cake. Then put another dollop of frosting on the top of the cake, and again, firmly spread that over the entire surface of the cake to lock the crumbs in again.
That is called the crumb coat on the cake. If there are any loose crumbs hanging around on your work surface now, clean them up before your proceed.
Then go ahead and add more frosting, and for this part, go ahead and add LOTS. It’s always easier to take some off than to try to patch up mistakes with this part. Spread the frosting from the center of the cake out, until it starts to droop over the sides a little and the top is well-frosted.
Spread the frosting down over the sides until the whole cake is well coated, preferably with more icing than less. Now, wipe the blade of your spatula, and run it along the sides of the cake as you turn it, smoothing the sides and scraping off excess frosting into a bowl as you go. Once the sides are quite smooth, there will likely be a little ridge of frosting standing up from the top– clean the spatula again, and spread from the edge toward the center of the top, till the icing is evenly spread over the top. Clean the spatula one more time, and go back over to smooth any ridges the best you can.
Remember: It doesn’t have to be completely flawless. Once this cake gets decorated, you can cover up any little imperfections with piping.
And that’s it! I hope this has been helpful! Feel free to email if you have any questions, or leave me a comment to let me know what you think. I hope this has been helpful!
Note: Congratulations to Tori and Ben for winning the contest from my last Cake Decorating Post! And a big huge THANK YOU to all who entered!!