I’m planning a cake for an upcoming occasion and I thought I’d do a multi-part series here on the creation of a special occasion cake. Today I’m in the design phase, so let’s talk about major considerations when planning a cake for the big event.
The cherry blossom themed cake above was one I made at culinary school, in Advanced Baking class, with another student. We made a buttercream for the exterior icing, (Italian meringue buttercream, as I recall.) The layers were a vanilla white cake interspersed with lemon curd. We beat some of the extra lemon curd into some leftover buttercream to get a flavorful and opalescent effect, and those are the “pearls” you see around the perimeter of each layer. For the cherry blossom branches, we formed the blossoms out of rolled white fondant and dusted them with a shimmery edible powder in shades of red and pink, and crafted the branches out of modeling chocolate. It remains one of my favorite cakes I’ve ever made.
Still– can’t rest on my limited laurels. So each time an opportunity presents itself to design a new cake, I try to do something different. Let’s step through the considerations.
Here are the main categories and questions you need to ask yourself in the design phase:
Theme- This consideration is the most fun– think about the occasion, the individuals being fêted, their interests and hobbies, their favorite colors, and anything else that will lead you to design a cake sure to delight them. Read below to see how I combined my knowledge of some of my grandmother’s favorite things into a unique design for her 80th birthday cake.
Structure- Sheet cake? Layer cake? Round? Tiered? If tiered, how many? The fussy look of plastic Roman columns separating the tiers on cakes seems out of style at the moment– a brief search of “cake ideas” on Pinterest will confirm this. The style now is to have your tiers flush with one another. In a later part of this series, I’ll explain how to use cardboard cake rounds with dowels or straws to keep the layers from sinking into each other. Offset layers, square layers, and fun shapes and tilts can be considered too.
Environment- This question mostly pertains to what sort of icing will work for you. If the cake is going to have to sit for a long time, or for any amount of time in a warm place, you’ll want to use a stable icing. Swiss meringue buttercream is the most stable of the meringue buttercreams (Italian is next most stable; French is least). Fondant holds up very well, although you’ll have an icing underneath it to consider. Still, the fondant will provide some protection. A straight buttercream made with butter, sugar, and flavorings only might “break” in a warm environment; introducing shortening to replace some or all of the butter will stabilize it. Buttercream made of just shortening and sugar might outlive us all.
Transport – Do you have to drive this cake somewhere? In the case of a tiered cake, I highly recommend saving final assembly for the destination, so it doesn’t topple over in the car. I pack each frosted tier separately, in its own cake carrier. If you’re serving the cake within a few feet of where you’re making it, you can probably stack your tiers whenever convenient, especially if you’d like to finish the cake. Just keep in mind that a multi-tier cake gets heavy, so make sure it’s on a sturdy base. You might want to enlist help if you need to move it from room to room or even island to table.
Flavor(s)- It’s hard to beat the strategy of just finding out– whether by asking directly or surreptitiously– what the guest of honor(s)’ favorite flavor(s) are. Then you can plan your cake layers and fillings accordingly. In the case of a multi-tiered cake, keep in mind you could easily try different cake and filling flavors per tier, but still use the same icing on all the tiers, to maintain a consistent look on the outside.
Party Size/Number of Cake-Eaters- When considering how large a cake you need to make– and most likely, number of tiers– you need to start with how many people you’re trying to serve. Good rules of thumb include– a 6 inch layer cake serves 8-10; an 8 inch layer cake serves 12-14; a 10 inch layer cake could serve 24! So that particular and popular combo could well take care of 48 guests.
Prep time- Are you going to turn this cake around in a single day? (Or just for added fun, a single evening? I’ve done that before. At a certain point, it’s 3 in the morning and you’re still rolling fondant. You wonder what possessed you to turn out a multi-tiered cake, by yourself, in a single evening. Don’t do this.) Can you start making some of the components in advance? Baked cake layers freeze and thaw well, assuming they’re well-wrapped to protect against freezer burn. Consider baking your layer cakes up to a week in advance. Are you planning any fussy decorations– say, hand-molded and painted edible flowers of gum paste or fondant? MAKE THESE IN ADVANCE. In fact, stop reading and go start them right now. My point is– allow yourself a full day and evening at a minimum. If you’re not going to have that much time available the day before/of the big event, do yourself a favor and bake in advance.
Equipment– Do you have the right equipment on hand for the cake you’re planning? You’re going to need good quality, heavyweight cake pans. If you’re planning round or square layers, make certain to choose straight-sided 3 inch-high pans– ideally two pans per layer size you plan to prep; otherwise the baking phase is going to take forever. Common layer sizes include 6 inch, 8 inch, 9 inch, and 10 inch. Restaurant supply stores are a great place to get these without paying, let’s call it, a “hobbyist’s premium” that I have observed in the cake supply departments of craft stores. You’ll want parchment paper to cut into circles to line the bottom of your pans and help with smooth release. A large serrated knife will help you to even and flatten your layers after baking. A big, flat, narrow icing spatula is a must, and to get that smooth bakery-iced look, a cake turner is imperative. If you’re planning to use fondant, you’re going to need a good rolling pin and tape measure, too. And if you’re planning flush tiers, you should pick up some cardboard cake rounds to match your layer sizes.
The picture above is of a cake I made for my grandmother’s 80th birthday. (That’s her on the right!) Let’s run this cake through the categories I listed above.
Theme- The occasion was a large family party for my grandmother’s 80th birthday. The party wasn’t formal, but it was definitely festive, and I wanted the cake to reflect that. She loves flowers, so I certainly considered the edible candy flower path, but I’d done that before on previous cakes for her and I wanted to do something new. Then it hit me– she loves champagne; everyone in the family knows this and everyone associates it with her. I envisioned a champagne glass atop the cake exploding with bubbles, and the bubbles cascading down the cake– so that’s what I built. I placed a (plastic) champagne glass atop the cake, filled it with “bubbles” made of rolled fondant– some white and some sprayed with edible gold dust, used decorative wires to suspend a few of the bubbles in the air, and used the rest of the bubbles to encircle each tier.
Structure- Related to the categories of equipment at hand and number of cake-eaters, I chose a tiered structure of round layers.
Environment- The month was April and the weather relatively cool. The cake was to be displayed and served indoors. I did have to transport it and so I had to keep sunlight in mind. Therefore, I had to choose a reasonably stable icing.
Transport- Considerable– I would have to drive the cake about 250 miles. That was another reason to avoid a delicate icing. I prepped and frosted each tier on a cardboard cake round with the plan to assemble the tiers once I reached the party location. I then packed each one in its own cake carrier. I packed extra buttercream and my icing spatula so I could touch up the tiers when I arrived and repair any smushing of the buttercream that occured in transport. I made the fondant champagne bubbles in advance but waited until I’d assembled the cake at the party to incorporate them.
Flavor(s)- My grandma is not big on chocolate; she does love cheesecake and is fond of all fruits. I wanted the look and flavor of buttercream, but I also needed a stable icing, and so for those reasons I made a lemon cream cheese buttercream. For the interior of the cake I settled on yellow cake layered with a lemon curd filling.
Party Size/Number of Cake-Eaters- My extended family is not what you would call “small” and there’s always the chance at an informal party that extra people will show up. For that reason, I decided on three tiers, secure in the knowledge that no one would be disappointed if there were leftovers.
Prep time- I baked the cake layers and made the lemon cream cheese buttercream and lemon curd filling earlier in the week; I assembled the layers; iced them, stuck the tiers in the freezer (briefly uncovered) long enough to harden the buttercream, then carefully and thoroughly wrapped them in plastic wrap and returned them to the freezer. The morning of the party, I pulled them out first thing to begin thawing. I knew they’d complete the process during the drive. I made the fondant champagne bubbles the night before. My original plan had been to make smaller, finer “bubbles,” but time ran short and the bubbles grew progressively larger. Sometimes you have to adapt on the fly.
Equipment– I had all the equipment I needed to make round tiers– pans, cake boards, etc.– on hand, so that was a major determinant in choosing this particular cake structure.
I hope these considerations have been helpful in designing and planning your own special occasion cake!
Check out Part 2 to see how I applied these ideas in creating my next cake.