By Jason Shriner, The Aubergine Chef
This new year I decided to dedicate my time to reviewing the basics. There’s something to be said for having a strong foundation and practicing fundamental skills. Refining your basic baking skills doesn’t mean you have to spend a great deal of money. For example: Icing a cake only requires four important tools.
A serrated knife (also called a bread knife) is a standard utility tool in your kitchen and is a must for cutting even layers. Purchase a knife that is at least 1” longer than the cake. The design allows you to gently and evenly saw through cake without squishing or crushing it. This design is also helpful for other things around the kitchen, such as cutting perfect slices of tomato. You may be tempted to purchase a wire cake leveler but a serrated knife is going to be much more useful in your kitchen.
If you want to ice a cake professionally you need to get your hands on a turntable. I prefer a metal turntable rather than plastic ones for several reasons: The heft keeps it from moving while you’re working, they tend to glide more smoothly than plastic, and the durable metal lasts forever. If you’re looking for a bargain check thrift stores, estate sales, and restaurant auctions for used turntables.
To apply the icing you’ll need a spatula. I prefer a 10” offset spatula. The longer size makes it easy to ice a wide variety of cake sizes and the offset style helps keep your hands away from the icing. Offsets also make moving and setting down cakes and other pastries easy.
A bench scraper is an amazing tool. For cakes, it effortlessly makes smooth sides. Besides cake duty a bench scraper is great for cleaning surfaces, cutting up soft fruits, and portioning dough. While you could get smooth sides with just an offset spatula, a multi-purpose bench scraper is totally worth a $5 investment.
There are a handful of other tools I would recommend for icing cakes, but they aren’t as vital as the four above. If I were to pick just one, I would suggest purchasing cardboard cake circles. Purchase cake circles that are 1” larger than the pan you bake your cakes in (cakes usually shrink about ¼” from the edges if yours didn’t, trim it down) and use it as a guide for icing your cake by holding your bench scraper against the cardboard as you turn the turntable. Cake circles also make moving your cake around a breeze.
Jason Shriner owns the baking & pastry blog The Aubergine Chef, which contains free tutorial videos and recipes. He also teaches baking classes at the Manassas Park Community Center. You can visit his blog at www.TheAubergineChef.com.
Vanilla Swiss Buttercream
Upgrade your icing this year with a bakeshop favorite!
1 ¼ cups granulated sugar
½ teaspoon salt (optional)
8 ounces egg whites (about 9 eggs)
1 pound 12 ounces (7 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature
1 1/3 cups powdered sugar, sifted
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
1. Prepare a double boiler with a pot with 1-2 inches of water brought to a simmer. Use a stainless steel bowl (or an electric mixer bowl if it’s large enough) for the upper part of the double boiler.
2. Wipe out the electric mixer bowl, the stainless steel bowl, and whip attachment with a paper towel dampened with vinegar. Combine all of the egg whites, the granulated sugar, and salt in the bowl you are using for your double boiler. Whisk together gently just to combine.
3. Bring your sugar and egg white mixture to the double boiler and stir gently and constantly with the whisk until it reaches 150-165 degrees F.
4. Remove from the heat and place on the electric mixer with the whip attachment and whip to medium-stiff peaks.
5. Once the meringue has reached medium-stiff peaks add in the butter on low speed one stick at a time.
6. Once all the butter has been added, whip on high speed until it resembles icing. It may look broken at one point but just continue mixing and it will come together.
7. Scrape down the sides of the bowl, add in the vanilla extract, and whip on high speed until incorporated.
8. Repeat with the powdered sugar, but start with a low speed to prevent the powdered sugar from blowing out of the mixer.
Total shelf life: 5 days room temperature, 10 days refrigerated, 6 months frozen