Icing A Cake 101: Perfectly Smooth

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I've been making and icing cakes for over two decades now and seriously, it's definitely one of those situations where anything that can go wrong will go wrong if you are not careful.

From iced cakes that are smeared with chunks of cake crumb, to cakes that look like they were just thrown in the microwave, I've seen it all. Luckily, it only took me about, oh, I don't know, twelve years to really get down my technique for creating that picture-perfect, smoothly iced cake that is ready to be decorated.  

It's actually a very simple technique and I assure you it will not take you twelve years to learn how to ice a cake. In fact, I'm actually pretty confident that after you go through the steps below you'll be able to jump on to icing your own cakes to picture-perfect perfection after just a couple of tries! 

The instructions below are for icing a two or three layer cake, and do not include a cake recipe. Simply follow the instructions from your box mix or other recipe up until the step where the cake layers have been baked and are cooling, and then proceed with the instructions below.   

So, what are you going to need? This stuff:
  • 2 or 3 baked and cooled cake layers
  • 3 - 4 cups of icing (the only icing that really won't work with this method is anything extremely thin and liquidy that is meant to be used as a glaze. All standard icing, butter cream and shop-bought icing will work fine as long as they are at room temperature.
  • serrated bread knife
  • offset spatula
  • Greaseproof paper
  • Plastic wrap
  • Large piping bag fitted with Wilton cake icer tip if desired, though the tip is totally optional and if you're in a pinch a large Ziploc bag with the corner cut off will do
  • 1 heat-safe mug or jar
  • Kitchen roll 
  • Rotating cake stand, optional
Four strips of greaseproof paper to maintain a clean surface while icing the cake.
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Four strips of greaseproof paper to maintain a clean surface while icing the cake.
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Level the Layers

Once your cake has cooled, take the fresh-baked layers of cake and place them on a clean surface (or your rotating cake stand if you have one) and carefully use your serrated bread knife to gently cut off the top bulbous part of the cake to create an even, smooth layer.
Leveled cake layer ready to be filled
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Leveled cake layer ready to be filled

Freeze the Layers

You heard me! To get this cake super smooth, we're going to need to freeze or at least chill our layers. Trust me, I know it's painful to take a fresh baked cake and freeze it, but I've got to promise you the flavour and texture are not at all affected by it! I've done this a million times and the flavour and texture always turn out the exact same as a fresh baked cake. The frozen layers allow for a much sturdier base when icing the cake, and the cold temperature enables your offset spatula to create a crisp and uniformly smooth surface. 

Once you've levelled your layers, tightly wrap them in plastic wrap and place them in the freezer. For best results, freeze the layers for four hours to overnight, but if you're in a hurry just one hour will do well enough. 
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Fill It Up

Prep your cake stand with four pieces of greaseproof paper cut outs that will cover the base of the stand. See photo above for an example. This allows you to keep a clean surface while you ice the cake, as they are removed once the cake icing is finished and you are ready to serve the cake. 

Once your layers have frozen, remove them from the freezer and place back on your rotating cake stand or clean surface.  Fill your piping bag or Ziploc bag with your icing (you may not be able to fit it all, which is fine, you can always add more as you go), leaving enough room at the top of the bag for you to comfortably place your hands. Form a thick ring of icing on the edge of the first layer, rotating inward until you've got the entire first layer covered in icing. Place your next layer on top (and if you're using a third layer, repeat the last filling step). 
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Evening out the layers and filling.
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Evening out the layers and filling.

Crumb Coat

Now we're going to need to use our fun spatula technique. Fill up your mug or jar with super hot water and place your spatula in it. Let it heat up for about 15 seconds before removing from the water and drying off with a clean cloth or piece of kitchen roll. You're going to repeat this process of heating and cleaning off the spatula throughout icing the cake whenever your spatula goes back down to room temperature. You may need to refresh and heat your water multiple times during icing the cake. 

Pipe a mound of icing onto the centre of the top layer of the cake. Using your heated spatula, slowly work a very thin layer of icing towards the edges of the top of the cake and begin working it down to evenly coat the outside of the cake. You want this layer to be extremely thin and should be able to see the cake through the icing at this point. This is our crumb coat and will work to protect the outside layer of frosting from being dirtied with any crumbs. Once you've got your smooth layer and the cake is evenly coated, place the cake in the fridge or freezer for another 15 to 30 minutes to firm up your crumb coat.
Piping a mound of icing onto the top centre of the cake for the crumb coat.
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Piping a mound of icing onto the top centre of the cake for the crumb coat.
Crumb coat is done and needs to be chilled for about half an hour.
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Crumb coat is done and needs to be chilled for about half an hour.

Final Coat

Once your crumb coat has chilled, remove your cake from the fridge and create another mound of icing on top. Use your spatula to gently work the icing around the surface of the cake, working towards the edges and down the sides of the cake. A rotating cake stand really helps as you can hold your spatula steady while rotating the cake itself to create a super even layer. Continue this process of gently spreading the icing with your heated spatula until you have got a smooth layer. If you begin having problem with the icing separating from the cake, place the cake back into the fridge and let the icing firm up before repeating the process. Also, don't forget to continuously heat your spatula, as it is a crucial step in creating super smooth icing. You may need to pour out the old water if it becomes too dirtied with icing, and reheat a new mug of clean water.
Crumb coat has chilled and now it's time for the final coat!
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Crumb coat has chilled and now it's time for the final coat!
Smoothing out top of final coat and working way down to sides.
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Smoothing out top of final coat and working way down to sides.
Basically done just doing some final touches!
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Basically done just doing some final touches!

Extra Toppings & Decorations

This super smooth cake is beautiful on its own but a little plain. Luckily, it is basically a blank canvas for you to show off fun decorations or toppings. One of my favourite ways to jazz up a cake without much intricate detailed piping work is to pour a little shop-bought caramel sauce or chocolate ganache on top of the cake before topping it with caramel popcorn, chocolate sweets or other fun treats!
Cake topped with caramel and popcorn.
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Cake topped with caramel and popcorn.
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WRITTEN BY:  probably_this
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