Why cake decorating is not as easy as those cake shows make it out to be

December 2012 Prof. Cassandra Lobiesk

I love cake. I love every kinds of cake.

Cake is delicious.

Anyway, I undertook a project I thought would turn out pretty badly. My sister was celebrating a birthday in October and I remembered her attempt at making me a Doctor Who TARDIS cake the summer before. So I thought I would repay the gift in kind by doing one of a Companion Cube (something from the game Portal, which my sister is a big fan of). Needless to say, I printed out a design, got some cake mix--because I didn't want to mess up at least one portion of the baking-- and prepared all that I needed for the icing (which would serve as decoration).

I will tell you right now, I am not an awesome artist. Seriously, my drawing skills need a heck of a lot of work. But the Companion Cube seemed doable, so I went along on my merry way to attempt at the decorating.

Word of advice: for first-time bakers, follow the cake recipes on the box. No, really, do it. If you have no idea why the ingredients are necessary and what they do to your cake, it's best not to scrimp and substitute. Once you get the hang of how much and how little you can use, then by all means, cut the butter in half and use less sugar! I can't guarantee it will taste the same, but maybe it will taste better. Or it will make you less guilty, take your pick.

Mixing is hard work. Since I don't have a mixer handy, I went about doing this the old-fashioned way: with a spoon. I can tell you right now, my right arm might have developed some type of muscle, since I had to do this mixing business at least twice for the amount of cake I was making. Each cake mix box managed to give me four batters total. So I divided them evenly (or, well, you know, eyeballed it) between the four square trays I had. You might also want to grease the pans before you pour the batter in. It might be harder to remove them out of the pan otherwise.

Now, this was where I made my first mistake. I had the not-so-brilliant idea of doing a cube cake design. This meant that I needed to make it symmetrical throughout. Not so good when you don't have enough height to your cake stacks. So I had to cut away a whole lot just to decorate the center portion of the cake. But don't worry! I'm not a food waster, so I put the rest of the cake aside for later purposes.

The icing kind of works just like cement or glue for cake stacks. You want to put them in between stacks to ensure that there's a fluid, moist taste there. It's also to ensure that the stacks don't come apart as easily once you slice it up. But yes, see how small the square really is? Such a waste, but as I said, I put the rest of the cake aside (I did have chocolate icing handy...but we'll get to that in a moment). For the decorated cake, I went with a lemon frosted icing, something I did the year before and was a hit with my sister's Nyan Cat cupcakes.

Alright, now here's where I started to play with the food coloring. I know it was going to be difficult to color the cake itself, so I went with buttercream icing as my color base. You have to be careful with the icing color, however. If you use butter like I did, you have to make allowances to the fact that butter will not make your icing off-white. It will be a light yellow tinge, as opposed to something like shortening, which is easier to get your base colors. However, after some testing, I managed to get the colors I wanted (a light grayish purple and a light pink).

Right, so again, I did print out a picture of how the companion cube is supposed to look like. And with my very little artistic skills, I aimed to make it look remotely similar to the print-out. Of course, this is rather difficult when you work slowly with buttercream icing. When it gets too warm, the icing tends to melt, and so you either work quickly on one layer, or cool the cake off in the refrigerator from time to time. I did the latter. Every time I finished one icing color, I took the cake and put it in the refrigerator for it to harden. It is especially important for things to harden when you're coating one color layer with a second, and then a third.

Now, how about the rest of the leftover cake? Worry not, because Cassie's got some chocolate icing! And Cassie always has a plan!

Since I tend to be more of a chocolate person, I obviously did not object to having that much chocolate on the cake as a result of leftover icing.

Now, after some refrigeration, the icing obviously solidified to form a much better--and non-melty-looking--version of the Companion Cube:

So yes. It was quite an experience, decorating cake for the first time. Maybe next time I'll have molds and edible paint to make myself a steampunk cake...

But for now, I think I'll stick to cupcakes and cookies.