I very specifically remember my grandmother teaching me to alternate the flour and milk when mixing cake batter, always starting and ending with flour. Together, and usually with my sister, we baked too many confections to count as I grew up. I remember forgetting to put the pecans in the Christmas pecan sandies, spilling a newly opened bottle of vegetable oil on myself and on everything around me, and eating as much batter as I could get away with. Those happy memories of making a huge mess in her green and white kitchen before getting to eat our delicious desserts will always stick with me. In many ways, the fun we had during our baking adventures is why I still bake so avidly.
Our confectionery endeavors included traditional cakes, cookies of every variety, candies, and everything else that we ever wanted to try. However, the older I got the busier life seemed to get as well. In my late teens and my college years we didn’t bake nearly as much. I continued baking as I knew how to, and challenged myself with new things, like learning to use icing bags and tips for cupcakes, messily attempting royal icing on sugar cookies, and daring to make macarons. But those are stories for future posts.
I have a solid foundation in cake sciences as far as baking them is concerned. And while icings alone are simple enough, I have always had issues making these two components look good together. I also have no experience with tiered cakes. So why not try to make a two-tiered cake for my little brother’s first birthday party? The plan seemed simple enough: make a double batch of the yellow cake recipe from the Brown Eyed Baker, make tons of icing, and put it all together to make one two-tiered cake and one small smash cake.
My first major mistake was forgetting to put the eggs into the cake batter until I had already started adding the dry and wet ingredients. My general protocol for cake batter is: 1) cream butter and sugar together 2) add vanilla and eggs, then alternate the dry ingredients and the milk. I’ve done this dozens of times. Despite this, I only realized that I hadn’t added the six eggs needed because it suddenly occurred to me that a yellow cake batter should be yellow, rather than the off white color that it was. That’s what I get for trying to catch up with my best friend while trying to bake at the same time. Oh well, we fixed it. The batter then went into two 8-inch round cake pans and two 6-inch spring form pans to make the main cake. After those finished baking, the rest of the batter was split between the spring form pans again to make the small smash cake.
The cakes baked beautifully, and since I broke our kitchen thermometer, we only tested their bake by touching the tops and hoping they were springy. Next: icing, the scary part. Make icing too soft and it won’t hold its piped shape; make icing too think and it won’t pipe. I hardly ever use a recipe for icing, and fortunately for me and my brother, it turned out fine. My biggest worry, though, was making the icing look decent once on the cake.
Using Wilton’s gel food coloring, I colored fractions of the icing and got started assembling the cake. The bottom tier was easy enough to ice, but that wasn’t the tier I was concerned about. I added dowels, i.e. cake pop sticks, to prevent the top tier from putting too much pressure on the bottom. I then added a 6-in cardboard round to the center of the cake so that we could cut through the top alone. Once the structural necessities were in place, I added and iced the top tier. This became my biggest problem in decorating the cake.
I am a perfectionist, especially when it comes to baked goods, and particularly when those baked goods are for others to see and eat. I wanted the cake to look nice and smooth like those you see on the Great British Baking Show and on all of the annoyingly pretty cooking videos now popping up all over Facebook.While I iced the top tier, I continually messed up the bottom tier. Using a long and flat spatula from Wilton, I kept smudging the bottom tier’s icing around the base of the top tier.
I kept nicking the bottom layer as I iced the top
It was frustrating. And I swiped the spatula so many times around both of the tiers to try and fix it. It didn’t work. But I still stayed a bit obsessive. Eventually my step mom asked me if I would ever stop and reiterated that it really was okay. Finally giving up, I moved on.
Once I gave up on my dreams of perfectly smooth buttercream, I added the decorations. Beatrix Potter themed, this cake would include green piping around the edges, yellow and pink icing decorations, and paper cut outs of characters. Cutting out the Peter Rabbit disks seemed to be the worst part of the decorating. As cute as they were, they were a pain in the butt to cut around.
The cutouts added, I began piping green around the tiers, slightly mimicking grass, hoping to give the sense that Peter and his friends were standing in grass, not just pasted onto a cake. The additional icing also helped hold the paper to the cake, since cutting them took long enough for the icing to start to harden. The borders around the bottoms of each tier proved easy, but maintaining a smooth circle around the top proved challenging. I probably should have given it more time than I did. Adding random orange and pink “flowers” and a medley of each accent icing color at the top, I placed my little brother’s first birthday candle on top. Then I just had to clean what was left of the kitchen.
I also made the now popular smash cake.
The smash cake
It ended up being the easiest of the cakes, simply iced with chocolate buttercream and lightly decorated with my brother’s name and a leftover Peter Rabbit medallion. It was cute, but no one considered what it would look like when a one year old smeared brown and green icings across his face.
Overall, the experience taught me a lot, like to look for different icing spatulas, level the cakes before stacking them (if you look closely, you can see that it is a little tilted), and to actually plan it ahead of time. And that I’ll be okay if it isn’t perfect. I’m happiest that I got to make my little brother’s cake and that, although he won’t remember it, I always will. Happy Birthday, Aidan!
The finished cake!