Breaking down a decorated cake

You know those short clips on social media of someone decorating a biscuit in royal icing, in an amazing design and getting it perfect every time?  Well, I’m obsessed with them, I can watch them for hours, over and over and over again.  Why, you might ask yourself.  Indeed, Why?  Because I cannot decorate biscuits, I’ve tried many a time and the outcomes are ridiculously bad, so much so that I’m mortified when people eat them just so I can get rid of the evidence.

The reason I’m divulging my biscuit decorating traumas is because I’m not afraid to admit I cannot pipe royal icing. I’m practising it, I’m trying really hard and I’m making a little progress but I will never achieve what I see on the videos.  BUT I would never dream of going on social media (or anywhere else for that matter) and say what a rubbish technique it is, how it’s only good for covering a bad bake or that it’s not skillful,  just some of the nasty and naive comments I’ve read this week on Twitter regarding cake decorating (we won’t go into the comments about wedding cakes).

Now, obviously those comments have possibly been made in jest, or maybe I’ve read them out of context, but what I think (and I know a few other people who had the same reaction) is that these were made by people who have the same issue with fondant as I do with royal icing.  They’ve tried working with it, it’s not for them, which is fair enough but shall we try to be a little more mature about it? As what has been said this week is quite derogatory towards a wide range of talented people who do this, many as a living or for fun, or as a stress reliever or all of the above.  Yes, we’ve all seen the cake disasters (think Bake Off Extra Slice), they’re very funny and amusing (think my iced biscuits!) but we all have to start somewhere.  Sadly, sometimes our first attempts don’t match expectations, but it shouldn’t also allow for people to make snipey comments, when in all honestly, maybe they should first judge their own abilities.

So in reaction to this, I’ve decided to make a record of all the stages a cake decorator will go through when making a custom cake.  Just to clarify, I am a home baker, my tutors have been social media, YouTube, baking friends, lots of books, some courses and above all, a great deal of time, effort and practice.  I only make cakes for friends and family, because it’s wonderful to see their reactions, but if I’m honest, I prefer developing my pastry and bread making skills, improving my patisserie skills, again lots of time, effort and practice needed.  So this isn’t a definitive guide, it’s how I work and there are many other ways to make a cake, but what I wanted to do was highlight what goes into the hours of making a cake covered in fondant.

I was asked to make this cake by a work colleague, for her Grandad’s 80th birthday, he’s still a handyman and has an allotment, so she wanted this to be shown in the cake.


Stage 1 – research and planning

I like this stage.  You get to sit down and discuss how you can bring a persons idea to life.  It’s fun, although sometimes you do have to rein them in a bit and remind them its cake and sugar you’re basically working with!  We draw up a few ideas, decide cake flavours and I then do further research, mainly on Pinterest (if you’re not using Pinterest, get on there!), put together a final drawing and cost it.  Once this had been approved, I go online and order everything that is needed, such as cake drums and cards, fondant, ribbon and so on.

Stage 2 – making the cakes

I have set recipes and flavours that I use for my cakes.  Sometimes I make the cakes in advance and freeze them, other times I’ll make them on the first day of making the overall cake, it depends on the time I have available.  I always use good quality ingredients, never a packet mix!

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I like using the chocolate recipe as it stays moist for a long time, rises evenly and well, and overall tastes amazing.  But you also need to ensure that you have a recipe that is robust enough to hold the other cake(s) up and the amount of fondant that is needed for decoration.

Stage 3 – preparation

So while the cakes are baking (just over 3 hours to get all tins done) I get started on preparing any shapes/features that may need time/overnight to dry.  So for this cake it would be colouring and cutting out shapes for the shed and ladders, as well as covering the cake drum in fondant.  If this cake were to have flowers on, this stage could take several days as a great deal of drying time is needed between each stage.

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Stage 4 – assembling the cakes

This is when I make the buttercream and turn into a plasterer!  Each cake has to be cut into equal layers ( I use a cake slicer, if I used a knife they’d be even more wonky).

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Then construction begins!  Better known as stacking/layering and creating a crumb layer.  This is where the foundation of the cake begins, get this part wrong, the whole cake will look wrong.

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Between each layer is buttercream, which is then smoothed over using a palette knife and side scraper to get the crumbcoat finish.  This is then placed in the fridge to chill, allowing the butter to go firm, giving a base for the fondant to lie on.

Stage 5 – covering the cakes

I’m not keen on this stage, in fact I worry about this stage, but I’m getting better.  The fondant needs to be kneaded until soft, rolled out to a 5mm thickness and then placed over the cake.  The top is then smoothed down before you start working on the edges, otherwise you’ll end up with pleats or folds in your fondant.  This needs time and patience, but you also need to be careful that the fondant doesn’t rip (this will happen if you have too much fondant) or air bubbles appear ( can be easily removed by placing a small hole in fondant and smoothing over, not ideal but it happens).  Then the bottom needs to be trimmed and then the cake is further smoothed depending on the type of edge you want your cake to have, bevelled or sharp!

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Stage 6 – stacking the cakes

Once the cakes have been covered, ideally you should let them dry out overnight, so that the fondant hardens a little.  As the cakes are heavy now with buttercream and fondant, you will need dowels in the base cake to support the weight of the top cake.  Recently, I make a three tier wedding cake which had a central dowel running through the centre of the cake to stop the top layer toppling off and keep everything central.  Icing is used to hold the cake on the board, dowels are placed in the correct position in the cake, marked for length, cut and then another layer of icing for the next layer to sit on.

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Stage 7 – decorating the cake

Now the fun stage, as the cake is starting to take shape and you can see it slowly transform into the idea that was discussed all the way back at the initial idea. How long this stage takes depends on how it is being decorated, for this cake I started by adding the garden fence, rolling out the fondant, imprinting the wood grain, cutting the shapes out with a special cutter, allowing to each piece dry slightly then placing on the side of both cakes with edible glue.

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Grandad also had to be finished!  Now, I’m proud of Grandad, he’s only the third figure I’ve ever made out of fondant and I think he’s cute!

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Then there was the shed assembly, making the potatoes and carrots for the allotment, some of Grandad’s tools to be lying around, the bushes and flowers.  So royal icing (yes!!! I use it on cakes, I’m OK with it on a cake).

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Which takes us to the finished cake!

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How long did this take?  18 hours in total.  So please, the next time you feel the urge to write an ill-thought comment about working with fondant, spare a thought for all the hard work,range of skills, knowledge, time and effort that has gone into it.  Better still, give it a go yourself, you might find it’s not something to be afraid of.




5 thoughts on “Breaking down a decorated cake

  1. Sammie says:

    Brilliant post. Personally fondant is my enemy. Although over time I am improving. My skills are in flavour pairing and creating recipes from scratch. It is all to easy for one, or more people to tear down someone’s effort. We all have to start somewhere. What took you 18 hours would have take at least 3 times as long and looked nowhere as good. I’m ok with that. Your cake decorating is a constant inspiration to me. Well written xx.


  2. zoetcm says:

    Great post breaking down all the stages. It’s easy for some people to tear down in seconds something that has taken hours/days and even weeks to make. People don’t realise how much time goes into making and decorating a cake from scratch. I struggle with covering a cake in fondant smoothly. I haven’t had loads of experience but hope to get better with each cake i do. Your cake is brill, keep up the good work! 🙂


  3. davieslifemap says:

    Well written Sandra – few people realise how long a custom cake takes from the research to final touches and packaging. We all have our own skill sets – my nemesis is chocolate, no number of tutorials or courses have turned me into a tempering temptress!!


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