As the Boy Scouts say, “Be Prepared!” (Part I)

I love a girly girl cake, but purple fondant is not easy to work with!

Isn’t “Be Prepared” the motto of the Boy Scouts of America?  Well, it should be the motto of every cake decorator.  In October I had a cake delivery from hell and it was lucky that in my dash out the door I grabbed just about everything but the kitchen sink and threw it in a box “just in case.”

It all started out innocently enough, but first, I promised a post on preparing the cake for icing and fondant.  Let me stress that I am not an expert and I am still learning myself.  I took courses from Wilton, which are a great start, but they leave a lot to the imagination, in my opinion.  I eventually noticed that my cakes didn’t have the nice sharp corners of other cake decorators.  There are a couple of key points to getting a smooth cake with sharp edges and the Wilton courses never made a mention of them, at least when I was a student. 

I started reading books, researching on the internet and watching You Tube videos.  If you want razor-sharp corners, then check out You Tube videos from the Australian cake decorators, especially those from Planet Cake.  Their secret is that they do not ice their cakes, but ganache them, i.e. the cake is covered in a layer of chocolate ganache.  I have not taken this approach because it would cost my clients a fortune (I don’t know how much the Australian cakes cost, but I’m guessing that chocolate is cheaper there); however, I believe that with practice and attention to detail, one can get their cakes nearly as sharp without using the ganache technique.  The principle to keep in mind is that if you do not start out with a smooth and level cake, fondant will not improve that situation for you. Preparation is the key:

  1. Start with a level cake, which means, trim the cake as much as needed and use a level, if necessary.  I trim the tops off and a thin slice of the sides. Not all pans seem to be created equally as somehow my cakes always seem to be slightly different sizes. Shrinkage may be a factor as well.
  2. Fill the cake, using a line of buttercream around the outside edge as a dam to hold in ganache or any other type of filling.  If using a filling, chill it briefly before adding a layer of buttercream.  In my opinion, Swiss Meringue Buttercream is the best buttercream for this job.  Chill before adding a second cake layer.  I generally use 3 thin layers of cake per tier and so the second layer can be filled and/or iced and chilled before assembling all three layers together.
  3. Ice the assembled tiers once with a thin crumb coat of buttercream.  Ice the top first, then the sides, letting extra icing build up toward the top, then using an angled spatula, bring the extra icing in toward the centre of the top of the cake while turning the cake.  Level the icing with a bench scraper and chill the cake.  Add a second layer of buttercream, level it out and chill the cake again.
  4. Place a layer of plastic wrap over the cake and use it to smooth out any uneven edges.
  5. Keep the cake chilled until the fondant is ready to be placed on the cake.


Trim the cake until level and make your co-workers fat with the shavings.

A smoothed cake with two layers of buttercream.

I normally make the buttercream and ice the cake in the same night, otherwise the SMB will have to be beaten again before use.  I then allow the cakes to chill overnight before covering with fondant.  This is my schedule in a perfect world.  Be aware that SMB can become buttery and yellowish when overworked, as can be seen in the above photo.  It’s nothing to worry about, as long as the cake is covered with fondant.

Covering with fondant and smoothing it out is a technique that is really best shown on video and I’m sure there are many good ones on You Tube.  What I will say about this is that the fondant must be rolled out thinly.  Too thick and it will tear and crack at the top edges of the cake, as the weight will haul it down.  Too thin and it may tear as it is pulled and smoothed into place around the bottom of the cake.  I use two fondant smoothers at a time and a small pin comes in handy to release any air bubbles that inevitably pop up.

Be aware that colouring the fondant with dark or very bright colours will change the texture of the fondant and inevitably makes it more difficult to work with.  The use of food-safe gloves is highly recommended.  What follows is a spotty photo lesson in covering a cake with fondant.  It is very difficult to take photos while working with a substance that quickly dries out!

Roll the fondant out to about 1/8 to 1/16 of an inch.

Fold the fondant over the rolling pin to make picking it up easier.

Lift the fondant and place against one side of the cake. Roll up the side and over the top, to avoid trapping air bubbles underneath. Do not lay it over the cake like a blanket.

Lastly, and I’m sorry that I don’t have a photo (check You Tube in the meantime), use the fondant smoothers to smooth the fondant, working in one direction around the cake, pushing the fondant down and stretching lightly to get it in place without pleats or excess fondant.  I then use a pizza wheel to go around the bottom edge of the cake, trimming off the excess fondant.

There is a lot of discussion about chilling versus not chilling fondant-covered cakes.  What I have to say about that is:  a chilled cake can be easier to work with, there are fewer health concerns obviously, and lastly, I don’t have a sophisticated kitchen so I work with what I have.  I do chill my cakes after covering with fondant.  I’ve read that Ron Ben-Israel chills his cakes because he has specially calibrated refrigerators with the correct temperature and humidity for fondant.  I believe I’ve read that Duff Goldman never refrigerates his cakes because of the humidity factor (don’t quote me on this).  However, I don’t have a specially calibrated fridge and even with air-conditioning, my cakes tend to get humid and therefore a wee bit shiny.

So what happened with the delivery from hell?  Check back again…..