Ever since Max's 1st birthday last June, I've been thinking about his 2nd birthday cake. You see, I had some issues with the 1st birthday cake that can pretty much be summed up with this statement: don't put fondant decorations on cool whip icing. They melt, they slide, they make a big sticky colored mess.
For birthday #2 we are going to do a train theme. So i've been looking at google, pinterest, and everywhere else you can think of to come up with some ideas. I now have 3.
Along my search I came across a few tiered cakes that did a spiral train track down the cake. How cool. So I spent hours reading blogs and trying to figure out exactly how to carve this spiral into the cake.
I just couldn't wrap my head around it. One night while on travel for work, I literally stayed up so late making drawings on scrap paper that I only got 5 hours of sleep. It's a bad obsession.
So last Sunday I decided it was test cake time. The best way to learn is to do... so I did.
In this blog I'm going to go over how to make the spiral cake, and also some tips that I've learned over the years. It's going to be a long post, but if you're making a cake, I think you will find it very informative. It's also a way for me to remember what I've done :)
They're more like guidelines...
First, a few rules I've come up with for fondant and tiered cakes. These come from my experience, reading blogs, and fixing mistakes.
1) freeze cakes overnight
- if possible, use a denser cake on the bottom tier and lighter as you go up. Super soft moist cakes don't hold up as well to heavy fondant (at least I've found). Box cakes are doable, but can be more troublesome.
2) assemble each layer separately, carving and filling as desired.
- also cut the bottom board of each tier to the correct size at this point.
- you may want to put a pilot hole in the center of each cardboard at this point. this will make it easier to drive the final center dowel into the cake once constructed.
3) let sit on counter for 3 hours to allow crumb coat to harden and cake to settle and it to come up to room temperature
- can assist this with the use of light "weights", but the idea isn't to squish the cake, just to get the filling and cakes to settle.
4) add thin buttercream smoothing layer. Use a glass of hot water to dip your metal curved spatula in while smoothing.
- your thick buttercream for tasting layers should be in the middle.
- For this layer, you do not want to let this one "harden" (like in the fridge or freezer) but just start working with your fondant and cover. You want this layer to stay smooth and hardening it too much will cause it to become crusty and could cause bumps, which is the whole thing you are trying to avoid.
5) fondant cakes.
- do use corn starch on your hands and surface to prevent sticking
- do kneed and work the fondant a lot ... a lot a lot, until it pulls easily and is very very pliable. If it's too stiff and hard it will crack.
- do elevate the cake or you'll get bunching around the bottom.
- don't make fondant too too large or it will "pull" as it's draping and cause tares. (test cake did this, but I had a very large piece of fondant so there was a lot of weight pulling it down in the back)
- Ask a helper to gently hold the fondant up on the back side if you're worried about it causing pulling on large tall cakes. I haven't found this to be an issue on single layer cakes but on the cake below, the entire green part is one piece of fondant and it seemed to pull downward from gravity a lot while I was working with it.
- DO work very quickly getting the top and sides done. (longer it sits, the more prone to tearing it is as it dries out).
HERE is a good quick blog about a simple fondant cake.
6) add structure to each bottom layer with wooden dowels or smoothie straws
- To avoid repeating tips i'm going to link a few good sites here
WILTON - a good general overview with this pro tip: Finely shredded coconut or confectioner's sugar, placed in area where cake circles or plastic plates will rest, helps prevent frosting on the cake from sticking
Make Fabulous Cakes - very detailed.
Dowels - these are plastic Wilton ones you can get on amazon. I've also used wooden dowels and smoothie straws in the past.
- Don't forget the final dowel that goes through each layer
The spiral cake
The two blogs that I used to guide my direction on this cake were Cake Central and Baking in Faith. I had some trouble following the end steps of Cake Central's explanation, but that's where just working with real cake helped a lot.
Also you'll notice two big differences in the above blogs. The Cake Central blog talks about adding additional cake to make the second half of the spiral. This leads to a bigger cake and a bigger top section. The Baking in Faith blog simply uses the cake you already have. This leads to a smaller top piece. Because I wanted the ramp to go round the front, then down the back, then back around the front (for two ramp layers in the front), I needed to do something closer to the Cake Central approach. (see picture at the top of this blog)
1st - make yourself a lot of cake. Since I was just using this as a test cake and wanted a medium to use that would be quick, I used 4 box cakes (on sale for $1.50 each... score).
Yes, you read that right, I used 4 box cakes. It's a lot of cake.
I made 2 - 7" layers for the top of which I only needed one). The 7" layer was 1lb 4oz of cake mix + pan.
I also made 4 - 9" layers. 3 of the layers were 1lb 8oz, then the 4th layer was way heavy. basically the rest of the cake. I was trying to get a very thick cake so when baking the 4th layer, I dropped the temperature of the oven down to 300 deg and let it in there until set. Probably 30-40 minutes but I wasn't keeping track.
In retrospect, I would do the following combination:
1 thicker 7" layer
3 normal 9" layers
2 normal 11" or 12" layers
As you'll see below, I used the thicker 9" layer to make the bottom of the ramp which was a bit tricky. Ideally you'd want the inner diameter of your bottom ramp to be the same as the outer diameter of your bottom layer. So a 11" or 12" cake would work better, as it would hold the shape easier.
1) arrange your cakes with filling inside and let sit for 3 hours to let settle. (remember point 3 above?) This cake was a chocolate cake with chocolate buttercream and raspberry filling.
2) measure in from the outer edge for the width of your ramp. I used 1 3/4" for my ramp. Use toothpicks and mark all the way around the center.
3) choose where you want your ramp to start and stop. I wanted half the top to be the train track, then start down the spiral, so I picked half the cake to work with.
4) decide how steep you want your ramp. I knew I wanted the majority of the ramp to be around the front, and since this was the back of the cake, I made this section less steep. The ramp around the back side only went down the first layer.
using toothpicks, place them at your start and end, then fill in the rest to create the downward spiral.
5) as you can see from this top down picture, the top circle unwinds at the point where the ramp goes down. So I added a few more toothpicks to bring out the circle. It' looks funny, but you'll see.
6) using a sharp knife, follow your toothpicks along the top toothpicks then along the spiral on the side. I did this a few inches at a time.
Here you can see the spiral start to take shape.
And here's the final part of the top spiral.
7) now for the additional cake. For this I started cutting the 4th thick layer that I made. Because it was so thick I only needed to stack at the highest points. But I really think you could do 2 normal layers and stack (and fill) them. Also, this is where I diverged from the Cake Central blog above. I couldn't figure out what she meant when she talked about cutting the cake flat then turning it up on end and I found my approach just as easy.
8) Measure in 1 3/4" (or your ramp diameter) into the cake. If you use the suggested cake diameters above, this center ring will be the approximate diameter of the main cake which will make nesting easier. Here you can see how tight the inner circle is, which made nesting the cake together a bit difficult. Of course it may not be exact, unless you can find just the right shaped cake pans. We're going for approximate here.
9) Using the 4th layer you just measured out, start adding cake around the bottom layer to create the bottom ramp. (Again, you can also see what I was talking about earlier, how the outside diameter of the main cake should be the inside diameter of the ramp layer that you are adding, so they fit nicely together. Because I used the same size cakes, the outer diameters were the same so it made it hard to fit the ramp on without breaks in the cake. I had to have a lot of pieces, which doesn't help the structure at all.)
IMPORTANT - if you look closely you can see that I did not put icing between the main cake and the spiral cake pieces that I was adding. this was a mistake! it meant that the outer crumb coat was the only thing holding the spiral piece to the main cake and I could tell that caused some structural issues once the fondant was applied. Do NOT forget to attach your spiral with more icing.
If you look at the below picture, you can really see how important this is where the bottom spiral made of extra cake came to meet the main cake. That's such a thin piece there that it pulled away from the main cake because I didn't do a good job 'gluing' it with icing. This caused the fondant to bulge in that area, but I didn't notice until the next day after transport. (and we all know transport doesn't help things)
10) now that you've added extra cake do the same thing you did above and measure the width of the ramp to be 1 3/4" (or whatever you are doing) and then mark your spiral downward for the bottom ramp. Again cut in and then down to remove cake.
Ta Da. You have a spiral!
11) For the top piece I used that 7" layer and cut this weird shape. As you can see in the final pictures below, I wanted the left edge to look like a mountain and tunnel so that's why the extra cake there. Since I was doing a mountain I didn't care if it came exactly out to the edge of the main cake, because I could just fill in with fondant rocks.
12) Add a crumb coat to the entire cake and let sit to harden (or put in fridge)
13) Then add your smooth coat (which I forgot for this cake... it was getting late)
14) structure, fondant, decorate as detailed above in the first list.
Here is the final product.
Here I borrowed Max's "mo mo" train for effect, but I will probably look for smaller trains with more cars for the final product.
You can also see the upper ramp that I talked about earlier. If you look at the Baking in Faith blog that I mentioned above, then you won't get this upper ramp.
I think if you thought about it enough, you could do a two ramp spiral using all one main cake (green part above), but you'd need a big cake to start with (maybe 12" for a 9" top with a 1 1/2" ramp). You'd have to create a 9" circle around the top, then you'd have to measure 1/3 of the way down and cut in 1 1/2" to make sure you have the correct top section. Then start doing the spiral. As you cut the spiral around the front you'll be taking away more cake, so I think it would be okay. I don't have it drawn off hand since I just thought about it while writing this, but I think its' doable and might lead to a more structural cake especially with the bottom ramp. If I decide to go this route for the actual cake, I may have to give myself extra time and try that.