Best tips for making a birthday cake
Birthday celebrations are a once-a-year proposition (unless, of course, you have more than one child!) and so most mums want to go big - even if it's in a small way - on the Big Day. And the best way to do that? Make the birthday cake of your child's dreams. Which can be a challenge if your idea of the perfect birthday cake is one collected from the local bakery!
But with our practical no-fail birthday cake tips from cake-making enthusiast, Sonia Anthony from Chef Sonia & You, you can give yourself the best chance of success in the kitchen, and turn out a cake you can be proud of - all while staying sane!
Tips for time management and cake making
- Don't leave your cake making until the night before! Not only will you be totally stressed but will most likely end up getting a late night only to have to start early the next day - not a great time to be tired! And if you are icing the cake, it will need to be completely cooled before any icing can be applied. You can make your cake a month in advance, wrap it well in cling film and freeze. That way, you only have the decorating to think aobut.
- I base my cake designs around the stores which I have in close proximity to my house. I don't have a cake specialty store nearby so rather than hiring cake tins which need picking up and returning, I have a couple of round tins and a couple of square tins in my collection and base the cakes I am going to make around those. I also have two cake boards which fit the sizes of the tins. I do have terrific fabric, craft and novelty stores nearby, so make great use of these for the decorations.
- Make extra cake mix and bake some cupcakes - you are making an extra party food option without using extra time in preparation. Finish with buttercream icing and fondant decals.
- Use a really good foolproof cake recipe that you know will work for you. Not only will you know the cake will taste delicious, you will be familiar with its preparation and save yourself time.
- Break down each part of the cake making process and allocate small blocks of time around your busy day rather than trying to find large blocks of time to do it all at once. For example:
One month prior:
- Bake the cake and freeze
- Make buttercream icing and freeze
- Purchase fondant icing, cake board, candles, ribbons and decorations
- Buy fondant decals to decorate. They can last over 12 months in a dry cool place like a kitchen pantry
- If you are making the decorations yourself, make them during this time and allow them to dry on a tray with greaseproof paper in a dry place - the high shelf in your kitchen pantry will do the trick
10 days prior:
- Remove cake and icing from freezer and defrost.
9-7 days prior
- Prepare buttercream icing and cover sponge.
- Roll out fondant icing and cover sponge. Position onto cake board and keep in a dry place. Don't cover completely with cling film or put in the fridge - the fondant will start to break down and go mushy.
7- 2 days prior:
- Finish cake with decorations
Day of party:
- Position candles onto cake - don't do this any earlier as the candles will break the cover of the fondant and dry out your cake.
Tips for icing the cake
There are a few covering options for your cake. You can simply cover with buttercream or royal icing and finish with decorations or prepare a crumb coat layer before covering with fondant icing. Although covering with fondant icing takes more time, by using it you can prepare the cake ahead of time which I find works best for me.
Fondant icing acts like cling film and will keep your cake moist and delicious for a week to 10 days (depending on the weather) so you can make the cake well ahead of time and have a major part of your birthday party organised. Any leftover fondant can be wrapped well and frozen or made into decorations for the cake and cupcakes. It's available at all major supermarkets and you can also buy it already coloured from specialty cake stores.
To prepare fondant icing, take it from the packet - it may be quite firm. Sprinkle icing sugar on a clean surface and crumble the fondant into small pieces. Continue to pinch the fondant in your fingers until you find it gets softer and easier to manipulate. Bring the fondant together into a ball and begin kneading as you would a bread dough and use icing sugar as you would flour to prevent the fondant from sticking. It is ready to colour or roll out when it is smooth and soft (like a baby's bottom!)
Avoid working with readymade fondant icing in humid conditions as moisture and fondant icing do not mix! (And you will be fighting a losing battle, trust me!)
If you're not up to trying fondant icing - or the weather isn't being your friend - try covering your cake with royal icing. It gives a light, marshmallow feel to the cake and is easy to prepare!
In a kitchen mixer, combine two egg whites with two teaspoons of fresh lemon juice and 330g of icing sugar. If you like, add some vanilla essence or a tiny amount of food colour at this stage. Mix on low speed until combined, to avoid icing sugar spilling everywhere, before turning the speed on high. Beat for approximately 5 minutes or until the egg whites are stiff and shiny. Once made, cover the icing in the bowl with cling film at all times to stop it hardening. You can cover your cake using a pallet knife or piping bag with star nozzle. This is best done on the day of the party as the cake is best left out of the fridge to avoid the royal icing breaking down and going liquidy. Any leftovers can be used to decorate cupcakes or piped onto greaseproof paper and left to dry to make meringues.
Buttercream icing is the most simple - and most forgiving icing - to work with. It won't give you that smooth, professional finish that fondant and royal icing can, but does that really matter?
This icing is simple to prepare and freezes well. In a kitchen mixer, slowly combine 100g of softened butter with 400g of icing sugar and four to six tablespoons of milk. If it looks dry add more milk. When it's combined turn onto high speed and beat for 5-10 minutes until light and fluffy. Finish with some vanilla essence, grated orange zest or 75g melted chocolate.
Because of the butter in the icing, a cake decorated with buttercream icing needs to be stored in a cool place until served.
Crumb coating is crucial when using a fondant icing because it will:
- stop the crumbs from spreading on the fondant
- help secure the fondant on a smooth, even surface as the fondant won't stick on uncoated cake
- make your cake taste better!
Even if you aren't using fondant icing, doing a crumb coat is a good idea as this thin layer will capture all the loose cake crumbs - particularly important if you have been cutting and shaping your cake - and bind them to the cake. Once your crumb coat is set, you can then apply your top layer of icing crumb-free.
The best options for crumb coating are:
- Buttercream icing - Follow instructions above.
- Chocolate ganache - This is equal quantities of chocolate and cream, melted together. Use good quality chocolate (which is around 60 - 70% cocoa bean) if you can as eating chocolate already contains high amounts of sugar, fat and milk and won't produce as good a result. Place your cake on a cooling rack which is sitting on a clean tray. When the chocolate and cream is melted, smooth and shiny, pour it over the cake, trying to cover the entire sponge surface before the ganache sets. Allow the ganache to set on the cake before moving it from the cooling rack onto your cake board. You can set it in the fridge if needed. Any leftover ganache can be re-melted and used for covering cupcakes or making a delicious ice cream topping!
Tips for cake decorating and equipment
- Use greaseproof paper wherever possible - it makes life so much easier with baking, working with fondant and giving the flexibility to move the cake from one surface to another where necessary (I should buy shares in the company I use it so much!)
- Invest in a piping bag and a few nozzle sizes - they are inexpensive and give a professional finish.
- Have a medium-sized pallet knife in your kitchen utensil draw - this is essential for cake decorating and it gives a much cleaner finish to your icing (and it's so much easier to apply the buttercream icing to the cake too). You can find them at specialty cake shops and hospitality stores. Whatever you do - make sure it's metal and not plastic! You can't feel how you are applying the icing with a plastic one (this sounds odd but it's to do with the thinness of the metal pallet) and you often need to heat the pallet knife and retain heat - plastic won't keep the heat.
- Invest in some cake tins - choose the best size according to the size of parties that you generally host. I have two round and two square tins which are around 18cm and 26cm wide.
- Buy one or two cake boards to fit the size of your tins. Decorate them with fabric to match the theme of the party and once the party's over, remove the fabric to re-use the board for the next cake! I wash the fabric and add it to my kids' crafting box.
- Bright fabrics and ribbon are terrific for cake decorations and do a great job of hiding any imperfections.