Photo courtesy of: Cindy Kunst, CLicKs Photography
This post is for those of you who, like me, love to bake from scratch, have no professional training, and suddenly find your loved ones requesting a fancy cake for a special event. In my case, weddings and a baby shower. I will begin by confessing that I’ve only made a total of 3 tiered cakes ever, and I always stress myself to the max worrying about all that could go wrong. When you’re making a tiered cake it’s generally for a big celebration so stakes are high. Practice that yoga breath y’all, deep breathing will help!
My first two attempts at tiered cakes turned out okay, but they were both a little wonky from inexperience. On the upside, they were still delicious and went over well in the casual settings in which they were served, and I learned valuable lessons both times. If you make a mistake, don’t beat yourself up but do recognize your errors and learn from them so that your next masterpiece will turn out that much more awesome.
The sugared rose petals and kiwi decor on my first wedding cake looked a little funny, but the notion of edible flowers (faaancy) created a good distraction. The contrast of dark and white chocolate cake layers with bittersweet ganache filling and whipped white chocolate buttercream didn’t hurt either.
My good friend Beth Ann of Clever Creations is a genius with fondant and did an amazing job with the Mario decor on the baby shower cake in the second photo, so, even though it turned out uneven, it was still a hit. Moral of the story: if your cake turns out looking goofy just make sure it tastes good, then slap some fun decor on top and go with it. Try to remember that most people aren’t bakers and will be impressed regardless of how “perfect” the final product turns out.
MC and I attended THREE weddings this fall; apparently multiple weddings a year becomes a thing in your thirties. And we already have another to attend in a couple of months! When my friend Ruth first asked me to make her wedding cake, I hesitated a bit. I wanted to make sure that she was aware of my limitations before agreeing, though I did feel significantly more confident this go-round. We started by discussing her preferences: a simple, moist cake made from quality ingredients with a light not-too-sweet frosting. She had zero interest in things like solid white cake (which requires bleached flour and no egg yolks), royal icing or fondant–all standard components for flawless, professional-looking wedding cakes. I was relieved that her vision lined up so well with my own baking style; it helped me feel more confident agreeing to take on the task.
When I told her that I had a tried-and-true recipe for a moist cinnamon vanilla cake, she was immediately on board. This recipe uses unbleached flour, whole eggs and ground cinnamon, which gives the cake a rustic almond color. We tested a couple of different frosting/filling recipes and decided to go with whipped french vanilla buttercream, a speckled off-white frosting which provided a nice contrast to the darker color of the cake. Ruth also wanted to keep the decor simple, so we ordered red gumpaste roses and I brushed up on basic border piping techniques. And that was it, the cake went over well, no disasters, and this was my most successful tiered cake to date.
I realized from this experience that a comprehensive DIY tiered cake guide would be just the thing to share with my readers. I’ve improved with baking and assembling cakes over the years using free online resources, so now I’m sharing the love. Feel free to comment with any questions or share other cake-making tips that I’m forgetting here. Godspeed and good luck; if I can do it, so can you!
DIY Tiered Cake Guide
- cake lifter
- frosting spatula
- piping tips
- ziplock or pastry bags
- popsicle sticks and/or wooden dowels
- cake boards
- serving platter/cake stand
First Things First
Find and test recipes for the cake, filling and frosting ahead of time. You will likely have to convert your recipes. The wedding cakes I’ve made were 3 tiered with a 12”, 9”, and 6” tier. Each time I started with a cake recipe for a 9” cake and converted the recipe accordingly for the 12” and 6” tiers. A trick to this is simply making batter in single, double or triple batches, then seeing how much batter you need to fill your cake pans ½ to ⅔ high. Make sure to fill pans approximately the same amount high so that all of your cake layers turn out the same height. Make more batter as needed, reserving leftover batter from each batch for next batch. For filling or frosting, you’ll want to estimate how many overall cups you will need, do a test batch with your recipe and see how many cups that makes, and then multiply accordingly. I suggest at the very least doing rough conversions in advance as that will help with your shopping list and making sure you have enough of everything on hand. I always buy more than I think I need of each ingredient just in case. There are many guides available online which can help with the conversion and planning process. I found Wilton Wedding Cake Data to be comprehensive and very helpful. Be sure to look around the Wilton website while you’re at it, they post tons of useful info for home bakers.
Plan your baking and decorating schedule in advance. Allow extra time for making mistakes. I work full time Mon-Fri in addition to my home baking adventures, so when it’s time for a big endeavor like a tiered cake I do as much preparation as possible ahead of time. My schedule for this last wedding cake was as follows–
- Weeks ahead of time: Test and convert recipes, plan schedule, order any supplies not to be sourced locally
- 1 week before wedding: Complete shopping for ingredients, decor and supplies
2 days before wedding: Bake all cake layers
- 1 day before wedding: Make frosting/filling, trim all cake layers, fill and crumb-frost each tier on cake boards
- Wedding day: Transport each cake tier and all supplies to venue, arriving 2 hours early. Add final layer of frosting to each tier, stack tiers on serving platter, pipe borders and decorate
Prepare Each Tier
If you have to bake your cakes a couple of days ahead of time it’s generally fine–simply bake each layer, allow to cool completely on wire racks, then wrap individually in airtight plastic wrap and store at room temp.
When ready to assemble, first use a serrated knife to trim the domes off each of your cake layers, otherwise there may be an unintended Leaning Tower of Pisa thing going on when all’s said and done. I failed to trim the layers on my first two tiered cakes because they didn’t seem that uneven to my untrained eye, but trust me, when you’ve got multiple layers and multiple tiers you want each component as even as possible. Lesson learned, and as you can see from the photos my last endeavor greatly benefited from this step. Best part is, it’s actually really easy and quick to do so it doesn’t feel like extra work. The final result is definitely worth it. I also recommend saving trimmings so you can put a wedge underneath thinner areas of cake to even it out where/if needed while filling and frosting in the next step. My kitchen floor is uneven, so my cakes are sometimes slightly thinner on one side.
Construct tiers on appropriately sized cake boards and smear a thin layer of frosting on each board before placing the first cake layer, essentially gluing the bottom of each tier to the board.
Frost each tier with a thin crumb layer of frosting and refrigerate a few hours or overnight before the final frosting and decorating. The crumb layer of frosting will stiffen as it chills which seals in the crumbs and helps the final frosting layer come out crumb-free and smooth. Once crumb layer is sufficiently chilled, add additional frosting and fondant, if using. Store, covered, at room temp or in fridge, depending on the stability of your cake components, until ready to stack and decorate.
When it’s time to stack the tiers, insert dowels into each tier and mark a line on each dowel slightly above where it sticks out of the frosting/fondant, then remove dowels, cut to size, and reinsert in pre-made holes. I use 3 dowels per tier, but if you are working with tiers larger than 12” you may want to use more dowels accordingly. Make sure the dowels go all the way through each tier. Some bakers use wooden dowels for this purpose, but I actually use cardboard popsicle sticks that are available in the baking section of my local craft store. They are cheap, easy to work with, and have served me well for this purpose.
Place bottom tier on serving platter, then stack each tier. A cake lifter is very helpful for moving the assembled tiers around, especially in the stacking process. I also use my cake lifter to move cheesecakes from springform pan to serving platter; it’s one of my all-time favorite, inexpensive kitchen tools. If you have to carry your cake completely assembled you will want to purchase a wooden dowel long enough to push through all of the tiers which you will insert into the very center of the stacked cake to hold everything together. Make sure you leave holes in the center of each cake board if you intend to insert the long dowel for transporting the cake pre-stacked.
First consider whether you are adhering to a specific theme or color scheme. Some ideas: plastic or edible cake toppers, fondant covering for a smooth finish, fondant decorations/borders, pre-made gumpaste flowers, organic edible sugared flowers, fresh flowers, etc.
I used red gumpaste roses this time since I knew the cake would have to be decorated at the venue last-minute. I also piped frosting borders around the bottom of each tier to give the cake a more professional appearance, which I especially recommend if you aren’t covering it in fondant. If you are using a white or light colored frosting you can use food coloring to create accent colors for the decor. Think creatively and research/practice techniques in advance if needed.
Additional Tips & Tricks
- As an alternative to stacking tiers directly on top of each other, use a tiered cake stand. There are many designs and price ranges to choose from.
- Create thin cake layers by using unflavored dental floss to cut each trimmed cake in half, like this video. I used this method on my first wedding cake with alternating layers of white and dark chocolate cake, 4 thin layers per tier, and it worked beautifully.
- Piping tips are inexpensive and a great way to create an impressive presentation. They provide you with tons of decorating options. Check out this Pinterest page if you need some inspiration or direction: Piping Techniques.
- If you don’t have a pastry bag you can DIY it: Cut the corner off a ziplock bag to fit your piping tip, insert tip from the inside out, fill bag with frosting, push air out and tie off top of bag with a rubber band or twist tie.
- If you are transporting the cake pre-stacked make sure to bring extra frosting, fondant, supplies, etc. in case any minor touch-ups are needed.
- One last thing that you may not think of but which you may be asked to do if you make the cake and attend the event–disassembling tiers and cutting the cake. There is a trick to cutting 8” or larger tiers so that you don’t end up with huge pieces, which also helps if you are trying to make the cake stretch to a specific number of servings. Here’s another helpful Wilton link which covers all you need to know about cutting the cake: Cake Cutting Guide.
Photo courtesy of: Cindy Kunst, CLicKs Photography