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The 'cake fail' is almost a rite of passage for every new parent. Despite our best intentions to bake a great birthday cake for our child, something goes askew and we find ourselves crying into cake crumbs the night before the big day.
After six years as a professional cake maker and baking instructor, Jacki, a mum of three boys, has accumulated plenty of baking tricks and tips for the parent who wants to make their child's birthday cake:
1. Keep it simple
"Don't bite off more than you can chew," advises Jacki. If you're baking the birthday cake for the first time, select a small, simple design. "Once you get more confident, then you can start to get more creative."
2. Be organised in the kitchen
This might sound basic, but before you start, check that you have all the ingredients available, as well as the tools for preparing and icing the cake. And allow enough time for cooling, icing and decorating the cake. (See below, you may need to allow more time than you thought!)
3. Select the right cake size for your party
A good rule is to allow a two inch square piece of cake per party guest. If you're serving lots of sweets—think cookies, macarons, cake pops— reduce the serving size to a one inch square piece of cake. For a party of 12 kids, a 20cm round cake tin should suffice. A shaped cake (like the number one) will seem bigger than a round cake, but remember you cut off a lot of cake when shaping it, so you need to start big.
4. Use good quality products where you can
"Try and buy the best quality ingredients and products that your budget will allow," suggests Jacki. Good quality cocoa or chocolate gives a better texture and flavour. Buy cooking chocolate that has a higher percentage of cocoa (over 60 per cent). Even a good quality baking paper will make the job easier.
5. Lightly spray your cake tin with oil
While our mothers may have greased and floured the cake tin, "that's too much cleaning," says Jacki. She lightly sprays her cake tins with a canola oil spray before lining the tin with baking paper that extends slightly above the rim.
6. There's nothing wrong with packet mix
"If the packet mix is going to help you get the cake done, then use it," says Jacki. While Jacki makes every cake from raw ingredients, not every parent has the time or interest to start from scratch.
7. Not all cakes are created equal
Don't panic if your sponge cake mix looks different to the chocolate mud cake mix you made last week, says Jacki. "A dense cake will generally have a more runny mix while a sponge cake mix will look light and airy before it's baked."
8. Stick to the recipe
Again, a basic rule but sometimes easy to disregard. Trust that someone else has worked out the right liquid:dry ingredient ratio and cooking temperatures and times.
9. Introduce some yummy flavour combinations
When you're feeling confident, experiment with flavour favourites. "White chocolate and raspberries—I use frozen raspberries—is popular with my customers, and so are chocolate with mint, and coconut and lemon/lime." The rind of a lemon will give more flavour than the juice—"but sometimes the recipe will need the juice component as part of the liquid ratio in the cake," explains Jacki. If you're making a classic vanilla cake, Jacki is adamant on the use of vanilla extract, not essence. "It's a much better flavour, not fake."
10. Don't overfill your tin
A good measure is to fill the tin to two thirds capacity. "You may need to experiment with this based on your oven and your cake mix—for example, a vanilla cake tends to rise a bit more." And an ice cream scoop is a good measure for a cupcake. "I use just under one ice cream scoop of mix per cupcake," explains Jacki.
11. Cream the butter and sugar well
Don't overlook the importance of what is often the first step in making a cake. Spend the time to mix the butter and sugar until it is pale and creamy. That way, you won't need to overwork the batter after you've added the dry ingredients.
12. Bake on low and for longer
Jacki never bakes cakes in an oven hotter than 150°C fan forced. And keeping the cake tin on the middle to lower rack allows the heat to circulate evenly around the cake. "If the temperature is too high, the first thing the cake will do it rise and spill over, or rise and leave a large dome on the top…or collapse in the middle if you lower the temperature mid-bake."
13. Test it is cooked
The old skewer test still works here. A clean skewer from the middle of the cake is a good test that the cake is cooked through. Another positive sign is when the cake shrinks in slightly from the sides of the tin. "The proteins have shrunk and the cake is cooked."
14. Cool in the tin until cold
A lot of recipes call for a cooling time in the tin of five minutes, but Jacki cools her cakes in the tin until they are cold. Often baking late into the night, she may turn out her cakes the following morning.
15. Do two layers of buttercream icing
Use a palette knife —you can buy these from a kitchen shop—dipped in hot water to smooth the first layer of buttercream onto the cake. This is called the 'crumb coat' and will smooth over the crumbs on the cake. Cover the cake well and return it to the fridge for an hour or even overnight. Your next layer of buttercream should go onto the cooled cake and smoothing it with the palette knife will take it from good to awesome.
16. Use cornflour to roll out fondant
"I used to use icing sugar until someone told me cornflour makes the fondant easier to roll." Working with room temperature fondant—fondant gets hard if cold—Jacki dusts her benchtop with cornflour before kneading and rolling it out with a non-wooden rolling pin (use acrylic or stainless steel). "And turn the fondant a quarter round after a few rolls, it helps to keep the shape you are making." Jacki rolls the fondant to the approximate shape of the cake, and rolls it to around 3mm thick. Avoid joins if possible: "They generally can't be hidden."
17. Use gel paste for intense colours
The liquid colours readily available from the supermarket won't deliver the intense colours you may be hoping for. Use gel paste colours available from cake decorating shops. "A little goes a long way," says Jacki.
18. Never put fondant straight onto the cake
"Fondant needs something to stick it to the cake," explains Jacki. Use buttercream or ganache as a layer between the cake and the fondant. A layer of ganache (melted chocolate and cream) will set hard and make the cake more stable. If using buttercream, allow it to set in the fridge, then allow it to come to room temperature before putting the fondant on top. Fondant will get sticky if put onto a cold cake as the moisture from the cold cake will seep into the fondant.
19. Use the rolling pin to get the fondant onto the cake
Roll the fondant onto the rolling pin. Starting at the top edge of the cake, unroll the fondant until it is over the sides of the cake. Using your hands, (lightly) secure the fondant on the top of the cake first, (otherwise it might stretch down the sides and tear) removing the air pockets as you go. Cut off excess fondant at the bottom edges of the cake.
20. Buy a smoother
A fondant smoother bought from a cake decorating shop will give your cake that professional finished look, says Jacki. They are inexpensive and worth the investment.
21. Cover the cake board
This will make a huge difference to the presentation of your cake, says Jacki. Cover the cake board with fondant or even a printed piece of paper covered in clear contact.
22. Decorate with a touch of style
A simple way to finish off the cake nicely is to tie a ribbon around the bottom of a fondant-iced cake. Or decorate the bottom of a buttercream iced cake with buttercream swirls or lollies, to give it a nice substantial base and finish. Jacki uses a turntable (or lazy Susan) when decorating her cakes so she can see all angles easily. While theming and styling parties is popular, Jacki says you can keep it simple by matching napkin or paper plate colours to your cake.
"But creating memories and baking with love is the most important thing of all," reminds Jacki.