Let’s be honest here – cake is just a vehicle for frosting. Now that we’ve baked up a couple of beautiful cake layers (or cupcakes) the real work of cake making begins. There are several types of cake frosting including French and Italian butter creams, meringue (often called 7-minute icing, and American style buttercream. American style buttercream is the easiest, uses the fewest ingredients and it what we are going to make and use here. We’re also going to make a simple syrup for the cake before we cover any trimming or filling of the cake.
Simple Vanilla Frosting
A lot of American style buttercreams call for a whole raw egg or milk as an emulsifier in the recipe because either will help hold the butter and sugar together. You’ll notice below that we call for a little bit of mayonnaise instead. This probably sounds incredibly weird! But the mayonnaise actually helps hold the sugar and butter together and cuts the sweetness of the powdered sugar; And because mayonnaise is shelf stable ,you don’t have to worry about feeding kids raw egg. Pinky promise that the frosting won’t taste like mayonnaise at all, but it can be omitted.
- 8 ounces unsalted butter, at room temperature
- 2 tablespoons mayonnaise
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt
- 1 pound powder sugar, sifted
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Makes about 6 cups frosting – enough for a 9-inch layer cake or 24 cupcakes
Step 1: Combine the butter, mayonnaise, kosher salt with a heavy-duty mixer on medium high speed for 1 minute.
Step 2: Add the sifted powdered sugar by the cup full to the butter on medium high speed, stopping to scrape down the sides of the bowl as needed.
Step 3: Add one teaspoon of vanilla extract after the last addition of sugar.
Beat the mixture for an additional 3 to 5 minutes until smooth and fluffy.
Simple syrup is the professional baker’s secret to sweet, moist cake every time. Brushing a little onto the cake layers will make finished cake last longer. Also if you ever over-bake a cake brushing the still warm cake with simple syrup can save the cake from certain doom.
- 1 cup granulated sugar
- ¾ cup water
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Makes 1 ½ cups simple syrup – enough for a 9-inch layer cake or 24 cupcakes
Step 1: Combine the sugar and in a small saucepan over medium heat
Step 2: Bring to a simmer, stirring occasionally.
Step 3: Cool completely before using.
Putting The Cake Together
With our frosting and simple syrup ready, let’s get ourselves organized for cake building. Here are a few tools we will need:
- A pastry brush for applying simple syrup.
- Cardboard cake rounds – not an absolute must, but handy if you want to transport your cake for serving. You can find these at most arts & crafts stores.
- Off set spatulas – a large one is best and a small one is helpful too.
- Long serrated knife – the best tool for trimming and halving cake layers.
- Board scraper – the secret to perfect smooth cake sides!
- An empty bowl for cake scraps
- A couple of clean kitchen towels
Leveling The Cake:
First step in preparing the your cake layers for frosting is leveling. Use the long serrated knife to remove a thin layer off the top and bottom of each cake layer. This is our opportunity to remove any humps in the cake layers and make sure each layer is about the same thickness. If you baked your cake in 2 layers this is also the best time to cut the layers in two – again use the long serrate knife for this and work slowly to slice the cake in half horizontally.
A turntable is a really helpful tool if you decorate a ton of cakes, but if you’re only decorating a few cakes a year you don’t really need to invest in one. An elevated surface – such as a cake stand – is the best place to set your cake for decorating.
Trimming The Cake:
Stack the leveled cake layers on top of one another and remove the outermost edge of the layers using the serrated knife. This removes the golden brown edge of the cake and makes a perfectly white cake for frosting.
Prepping The Cake Plate:
Whether you’re building your cake on a cardboard cake round or directly on a cake stand, put a small dab of frosting in the center of your work surface. This is will keep the cake from moving around while you fill and frost it. Another tip – line your cake plate with 4 strips of parchment paper before you set the first layer down. These strips can later be removed from underneath the cake but will keep your cake plate clean while you work.
Filling the Cake:
Set your first layer of cake in the center of your cake plate and press down slightly to secure it with the frosting. Brush with simple syrup and give this a minute to absorb. Use a large spoon or ice cream scoop to put about a cup of frosting on top of the first layer of cake – spread this into an even layer, pushing the frosting as close to the edge of the cake as possible. Piping frosting around the rim of the cake and also help insure your layers have the same thickness of frosting between layers. Repeat simple syrup and frosting filling on the remaining layers. When you place the final layer on the cake be sure to brush it with simple syrup as well.
The final preparation step for cake decorating is crumb coating. A crumb coat is fine layer of frosting that filling in imperfection of the cake and seals the crumbs out of the final frosting of the cake. This is ESSENTIAL when you plan on making a chocolate cake with white frosting (unless you like dark specks showing up in your frosting – ha!)
Start with about a cup of frosting on top of the cake. With an off-set spatula, spread the frosting out towards the edge of the cake, try not to worry about the frosting falling over onto the sides of the cake. Smooth the top of the cake and work the extra frosting around the sides of the cake. This crumb coat can be wonky with some cake showing through. Refrigerate the cake for about 30 minutes before applying the final layer of frosting. This is a good time to wipe up your work surface down, eat cake scraps, and clean off your spatulas.
Pile the remaining frosting on top of the crumb coated cake – we will be removing some of this later. Again work from the center to smooth the frosting over the top of the cake and down the sides.
Now hold the board scraper with one hand and rotating the cake with the other, use the smooth edge of the scraper to evenly spread the outer layer of frosting all the way around the cake, scraping off extra frosting as you go. You can repeat this maneuver once or twice until the sides are as smooth as you’d like. Smooth the top of the cake with a light.
Come back next for our final installment to see FOUR inspiring ways to decorate a party perfect cake……. that don’t involve any piping skills!
Meghan Splawn is a professional recipe developer, food stylist, and candy eater. Her personal blog, Stir& Scribble, is full of clever cooking, classic cocktails, and useful kitchen tips.
Recipe, styling, and photos: Meghan Splawn of Stir & Scribble