A Tale of Two Fishes

If you are more interested in eating delicious cake than creating it, then feel free to move on. However, if like me you are more of an amateur baker and could use a few extra tips, proceed!

kissing-fishes

A few weeks back, a friend of mine asked for some help with her wedding cake. I was little hesitant to say yes, as I wasn’t sure I was up to the task. However, it was a low-key cake for a lovely, low-key wedding, and it seemed like something I could actually do, so I agreed to help.

Our friends had the super-fun and playful idea of having two kissing fishes for their cake.  I worked off a template of a fish cake made from cupcakes and a smaller, divided 6-inch cake. (I love the concept of cupcake cakes; they are adorable, and you can just pull them apart! Plus, it’s a little like assembling a jigsaw puzzle.)

I love baking, but icing cakes properly has always been tricky for me.  Making them tasty is no problem, but more often than not they do not turn out exactly as I hope (largely due to the dreaded crumb lifting).  Usually this is no big deal, but presentation was obviously important in this case.  I was happy with the results, but there were definitely a few bumps along the way.

Here are a few things I took away from the process (some of them not for the first time!):

Practice ahead of time. Although the cake was a super-simple concept, I decided to make a test fish well ahead of time to see how things went.  I am glad I did, because it took me twice as long as I anticipated, and it turns out that crumb coating and icing a small cake with funny angles and corners is not as straightforward as it looks. Plus, no one in my household would be upset by the presence of extra cake!

test-fish

Batter dispensers are awesome. I stumbled across this handy little tool on clearance and decided to try it out.  I am so glad I did! I had to make a number of cupcakes and mini cupcakes and this sped up the process a lot.  Releasing the pressure on the piping bag immediately stops the flow of batter.  There is the extra step of adding the cake batter to the bag, but the ease of being able to squeeze just the right amount of batter into the pans made it worth it. This was especially helpful with the mini cupcakes where only a tiny amount was needed to fill the cups half way. (Note: The dispensers are inexpensive to begin with, so they are definitely worth trying out.)

batter-dispenser

Resist the urge to overfill cakes pans.  I have always struggled with this, and it’s another good reason to try a test run.  For the 6-inch cakes and all the cupcakes, the half-way mark was perfect. Anything more and you will often end up with a rounded, uneven top layer.

baked-cupcakes

Do not skip the crumb coat, no matter how tempting it is.  The crumb coat is a super-thin layer of icing that is applied to the cake so that the crumbs will adhere to it, helping them stay in place when the final layer is applied. This step feels somewhat frustrating, because it is not supposed to be pretty and it always feels to me like I need to keep picking at it. It is also time consuming, and requires some chilling to set the icing in preparation for the next layer.  But when the final layer goes on so much more smoothly, it is worth it.  Speaking of which…

All these finicky curves and angles need a good crumb coat.
All these finicky curves and angles need a good crumb coat.

Use more icing than you need. Really! When the crumb coat has chilled (I pop the cake in the freezer for about 30 minutes), applying far more icing than you think you need to the top of the cake allows the icing to run down the sides on its own.  This makes for much easier spreading, especially into finicky corners.  Usually, I try to apply it more sparingly which ends up pulling more on the cake, and is more likely to result in crumb lifting.  More icing also means that if you are using a buttercream, it should be easier to smooth it out.  I applied the abundant layer of icing and spread it out with a spatula, and then used a baker’s blade to gently take off the excess.  The blade worked great for smoothing certain areas, too.

final-orange-fish

Prepare icing ahead of time. I made my own buttercream icing (using shortening – ick, but holds up well at room temperature) and had to tint it in several colours.  Buttercream can be made well ahead of time and even frozen for up to three months.  It made life much easier to have the icing prepared and tinted well before the baking began.  Plus, when using colouring gels, the colour of the icing sometimes deepens over time.  So making and tinting at least a day or two in advance allows you to see if you will need to adjust your colouring or not. The icing may separate a little when made ahead, but easily mixes back together.

In addition to making it ahead, I made a couple of extra batches of white icing just in case!

burnt-orange-icing

A hot spatula is a good tool for quick fixes.  With larger cakes, in the past I have used parchment or wax paper and a large spatula to smooth out the icing once it has had time to crust .  This time, though, it was more difficult to do with the small surface area of the cakes as well as the finicky corners.  One tip that worked really well was to take a metal spatula, run it under or dip it in very hot water, then dry it quickly.  Applying the hot spatula gently to the icing allowed me to smooth over some rough patches.

This cake was definitely a bit out of my comfort zone, but it was a fun project to work on!  If you have any additional tips for making the baking process go more smoothly, I would love to hear them.

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