all my life i've wanted to learn how to make a real grown-up chocolate cake with layers and pretty frosting, just like the ones i imagine i'd see in a charming bakery shop window if only i actually shopped at charming bakeries, and, no, costco doesn't count. it's why i had kids, i think--so that one day one of them would ask for one for her 9th birthday, and i'd have to rise to the occasion or fail her as a mother, and yes, i'm being dramatic.
look! we did it, olivia and i. it isn't perfect by any means, but for a first effort it's not bad. and, hey, under some very specific circumstances, unevenly distributed frosting might even be considered a good thing. (diabetic? you bet! on an all-sugar diet? you too! step right up, folks, and get your custom-frosted cake slice right here!)
okay. moving along--
making her birthday cake is a fun tradition to do together, and we'll continue to do it as long as her interest lasts. last year we made this simple (but still impressive, no?) 8-layer icebox cake. this year she wanted something a tiiiiiny bit more amibitious. we learned some things along the way (some of them a bit surprising, maybe?) and i thought i would share our tips for all you other aspiring makers of pretty layer cakes out there:
1) do yourself a favor and step away from the boxed cake mix. yes, i know that sounds snobby, and, listen, for a potluck church social for 100 people, a boxed cake mix will do just fine. but now i know why all my previous attempts to make a pretty frosted cake ended in a sorry, crumby mess. i was using boxed cake mixes! and here's the secret: aside from tasting only okay, they're simply not dense enough to stand up to the clumsy frosting attempts of a beginning cake decorator. use this recipe from Cook's Illustrated instead. i know, baking a cake like this from scratch is time-consuming and a tad involved, but believe me. it's worth it--from a flavor as well as a presentation perspective. trust me. you'll thank me later.
2) same thing goes for the frosting in a can. don't do it! it doesn't spread very well, compared to a homemade frosting. here's the recipe we used, and the flavor and consistency are miles above anything i've ever tried before.
3) also, while we're on the subject of frosting-in-a-can: totally misleading. no way is one of those enough to frost an entire layer cake. and why wasn't i smart enough to know that? i dunno. but now you are.
4) to properly frost a cake, both your cake and your frosting must be at room temperature. warm cake + cold frosting = disaster. but i'm sure you already knew that. still, it's worth noting.
5) a pretty cake needs a pretty cake stand. some people will tell you it's optional. they're wrong.
6) to protect your cake stand from inevitable drips and splatters, slide 3"-wide strips of parchment paper an inch or so under your bottom cake layer. remove them after applying your final coat of frosting, but before you pop the cake in the fridge to chill.
7) when frosting your cake, apply a thin coat first to seal in any crumbs. (but you're using the recipe i gave you, right? so you shouldn't have very many of those.) chill for 30 minutes before applying a thicker topcoat.
8) always spread the frosting in the same direction, turning your cake as you go. (this tip is my favorite and the key to a smooth finish.)
are you a baking expert? do you have tips of your own to share? i'd love to hear them--even if they seem totally obvious!
p.s. those strawberries on top (9 of them of course!) were 100% made by olivia and are a totally do-able kid project.