The Anatomy of a Cake

This week, I have been making Mothers’ Day Cakes, and it dawned on me that I had received several questions about terms I used in describing what I had learned at Cake Decorating class. So I decided that perhaps I ought to take the time to show the insides of a cake, and discuss its anatomy.

Now, a cake can take on many different guises. The simplest of cakes is a box from the grocer, three eggs, some vegetable oil and water mixed for a couple minutes and baked at 350 degrees for about half an hour. Then a can of pre-made frosting spread between the two layers and over the outside of the resulting cake. If we are lucky, the frosting between layers creates a flat space so the dome of the baked bottom layer doesn’t interfere with the setting of the top layer, and of course the dome of the top layer will give the cake a bullet head look.

anat 016A flat, smooth frosted cake ready for decorating

So, the ideal is to have cake layers that are flat, and frosting that is smooth so that it can be decorated. I am not yet an expert in getting all that, as this picture shows, but I am getting close. Here are some hints about getting to that point.

First, I use much more dough than the box from the grocer suggests; that box implies that it is enough for 2 8-inch layers. I find that I need to add a half a box more in order to get a good 2 8-inch layers of cake. Now that would seem to be a problem since we are told to use 3 eggs for a box; I learned that I can use 2 eggs for a half a box (by weight) and get good results. So, I am increasing the powder by 50%, and also the vegetable oil and water, but increasing the egg count to a total of 5 eggs for 2 8-inch layers. (For 10-inch layers, I would use a full box of cake mix for each layer, and for 6-inch layers, a full box of cake mix will make 2 layers).

Now that we have enough batter in each pan, we need to consider the cooking of the cake. The dome is formed because the edges of the cake cook faster than the center of the pan, so the center keeps rising after the edges have crusted so that they can no longer rise. I do two things to combat the quicker cooking of the edges of the cake. First, I turn the oven down 25 degrees from what is “suggested” on the cake box; I cook the cakes longer at 325 degrees- until a bamboo skewer into the center comes out clean. That usually is almost 50% longer so instead of 30 minutes, it takes more like 45 minutes. And second, I use insulation around the cake pan. There is a product known as Magi-Cake that consists of fabric that I soak in cold water then wrap around the cake pan before putting it in the oven. This also slows the cooking of the edge of the cake so that it rises more and gives a much less dome to the baked cake layer.

Once the cake is baked, I cut off what little dome remains; this gives me a flat layer with which to work. I also cover my wire racks on which I will cool the cake with paper towel so that the wires don’t cut into the cake.

Now, you could go forward with making a perfect cake from this point. You no longer have a dome with which to contend, and you can get a nice flat-topped cake to frost and decorate. I like to tort my cakes; that is, I cut the layers from the cake pan in half and put some flavoring in between the two halves. But a warning; when you cut the layer in half, you need do be very careful not to pick up the half layer as it will often break. You want to lift the edge and slide a thin board under the half layer to support it. I use my acrylic cutting boards, or you can use plastic or cardboard cake boards.

What I am going to show in several steps is the making of a cake that contains three tort layers; that is, one and 1/2 layers or pans of baked cake. Because I was making multiple cakes, there was no problem on using only 1/2 of a layer in a single cake.

The first step is to position the bottom tier of cake on the finished cake platform. I am using cardboard cake plates that you can get at cake decorating shops. The plate is a couple inches wider that the cake, so these are 10 inches wide. I put a dab of frosting on the cake plate to help anchor the bottom tier in place. Now you are ready to fill for the next tier of the cake.

I am filling these cakes with two things; first a layer of strawberry glaze, and then a layer of macerated strawberries cut into small pieces. The glaze is sticky, and would not run out the side of the cake, but the berries would probably ooze juice out the side of the cake and make a mess, so I need to construct a dam to keep the juice in place.

anat 001First tier of cake showing dam to hold loose filling of berries; glaze already spread.

In this photo, you can see the dam I have created around the edge of the bottom tier, and then the glaze I have spread within the dam. The dam is butter cream frosting I had left over from a different project that I have piped about 1/2 inch thick around the edge of the bottom tier of the cake. (In the back of the picture you can see a second dish of glaze in a bath of hot water and a couple dishes of the berries all measured out ready to go. I discovered that 4 ounces of glaze and of berries was about the correct amount for each layer of filling). Now I add the berries to this layer of filling.

anat 002And with the berries added.

And that is the first tier with the filling going between it and the second tier. I slide the second tier of cake over the filling and we have a two level cake.

anat 003Gaps between first and second tier of cake filled.

The filling between the second and third tier is just the same as between the first and second tier. I create a dam, spread the glaze, and spread the berries. The interesting thing to notice in this photo is that I was not very careful in making the dam at the very edge of the cake, and this will create a gap between cake tiers. I need to go back and fill that gap so that the edge of the cake stays vertical. I have already filled the gap between the first and second tier of cake.

anat 004Space between second and third tier filled.

Again, I slide the next tier of cake onto this layer of filling, and now I have my three tier cake, ready for crumb coating. The crumb coat is a very thin layer of very thin butter cream frosting that locks the cake crumb onto the cake so that it doesn’t come up when I am icing the cake. Again, I am using some left over butter cream frosting from a different project, and thinning it down with a little more water. The tricky part is getting it thin but not too thin. I need about 1 1/2 cups of icing for the crumb coat. I understand that professional bakers do not use a crumb coat; this is an extra step for them and they do not have the time for making this step. But then, I would guess that with experience, you can spread the final icing without rolling up any crumbs into it.

anat 008The crumb coated cake

With the crumb coat on and dry, I am ready to ice the cake. I will be using a butter cream icing that crusts; not all butter creams crust and dry, but I am most comfortable with a crusting butter cream icing. I start by glopping on plenty of icing. After I get the cake covered, I will take off extra icing and start smoothing it out.

anat 010Cake with icing glopped on.

Now, I need to smooth the icing out. I start by flattening the top a bit to get an edge between the top and sides of the cake. Then I work the sides; this is where most of the work goes. I use my cutting board scraper to work the sides somewhat like a lathe; I rotate the turn-table on which I have the cake while holding the scraper against the side of the cake. All this removal of excess icing gives me a cake that has shape, but is still not smooth.

anat 012Cake with sides turned down to final thickness.

At this point, I use the “hot knife” technique to smooth the cake to its final state. There are other techniques like using parchment paper, but I have my best results using the hot knife. I also get moisture into the icing which also helps it give to be smoother. Still, I am not very good at this step, and am still getting my experience in getting the cake into its final smooth state. You will also note that the top edge of the cake is somewhat messy; I excuse this at this point in my learning because we normally decorate that edge to hide it anyway. But, I do need to learn to put a sharp edge on the top of the cake.

anat 016Final cake ready to decorate.

I hope you found this look into the anatomy of a cake interesting. Even though I have now made several cakes, there is still a lot of experience I need to gain to make an extremely smooth cake ready for decorating.

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