My father always said that for people who love baking, it’s like therapy.
A home baker myself, I can attest to that. And though my confections always turn out delicious, they don’t always turn out looking … appetizing. I know I’m not the only one with this issue, so we decided to seek out an expert to show us a few tricks of the trade — without the professional equipment.
Joan Fairfax, owner of Chez Monet Patisserie inside the Missouri Capitol, has spent more than two decades baking and cooking. She previously owned Chez Monet on High Street, opening in 1991 and closing its doors in 2013 in order to focus on her baking in a business based out of her home. A few years ago, she reopened her shop inside the Capitol and, this past spring, announced plans to open a second location inside the Governor Office Building at 200 Madison St.
Fairfax loves baking, and you can see it in her final products. She graciously allowed us into her kitchen and shared her own tips for how to get that cake looking so good your friends will be sure it was made by a professional.
Fairfax said she often uses cake mixes (she prefers Duncan Hines brand) but noted some choose to “doctor them up.” You can find many recipes online. When mixing the ingredients, she advises sifting and being sure not to over mix. To ensure even baking, you may consider using a small cake nail, also known as a flower nail, in the center. (This tool can even be used for decorating.)
For that professional look to your cake, you really need to make more than one. That way, you can take those small cakes and make a beautiful layered creation.
Once your cakes are out of the oven, Fairfax recommends freezing them.
“I don’t know why, but it really does change the cake,” she said, noting it comes out more moist and dense.
But you don’t ice it frozen. Fairfax said you need to let the cake thaw, at least somewhat, first, as you may get cracks or bubbling otherwise.
Before starting to ice, she recommends cutting off the top “hump” of the cake using a knife with a serrated edge. (Save those pieces! Fairfax said you can use the scraps to “shim up the layers where needed” to ensure a level surface.)
Place your cake on a plate with the cut side facing up and spread a layer of icing on the top. Take your second cake and repeat the process of cutting off the hump and then place it cut side down on the iced layer of the other cake. (At this point, you may want to use the scraps to level things up.)
Then, it’s time to ice the cake all over with “a very thin, crumby layer of icing,” Fairfax said.
“It doesn’t matter how many crumbs are in it, just so it is smooth,” she said.
Place your cake back in the freezer for about 10-15 minutes. Then, do another layer of icing — this time, the crumbs will not be an issue, she said.
“Get it as smooth as you can with your spatula,” Fairfax said.
Let it sit for another 10-15 minutes.
If you don’t have one, you’re not alone. (There is definitely not one in my kitchen … yet.) But the tool is available for less than $10, so it definitely seems like a worthwhile investment. If you don’t want to go that route, a quick Google search will give you a couple of alternate ways to tackle this next step.
You will also need some paper towels. (Fairfax recommends Viva brand as they have no pattern.) You’ll take the fondant smoother and paper towels “and slowly iron the cake” with the paper towel between the cake and the smoother. Be sure to change towels often, as they are quick to get sticky and that can cause issues.
Now, it’s time to really decorate.
If you want to use actual fondant, Fairfax has a few tips for how to make it work for you. If you’ve ever watched a baking show (Any “Nailed It” fans out there?), then you’re probably somewhat familiar with this edible Play-Doh-like substance. You can tent it, knead it, roll it out, cut shapes or mold it into objects, whatever you want for your cake.
If you want something to harden and keep its shape, she recommends using a little tylose powder, or “magic gum,” by kneading it into the fondant. It’s best to let it dry over night, but several hours should do in a pinch. If you need it to dry in a standing position, try using toothpicks or a pinch of flattened fondant and a tiny bit of water.
For icing decorations, Fairfax said you can use parchment paper, cut into triangles and rolled into a cone as a makeshift pastry bag. Make sure you don’t over fill your cone, as things will quickly get messy. If you want to write something in icing, cut the tip off your cone. Fairfax said writing should be kept tall, thin and straight as it looks the nicest. If you want to make roses, cut a large slanted edge at the bottom of your cone. For leaves, cut a point. (Lots of tutorials are available on YouTube for anyone who would like a more visual instruction.)
If you decide to freeze your cake after completing your icing, Fairfax said you should make sure to bring it to room temperature before opening the box or cake container.
Hopefully, these tips will help you up that decorating game so your treats will look as good as they taste. I know I learned a few things.
JOAN’S BUTTERCREAM RECIPE
Editor’s note: This will likely create more than you need, but better to have enough for all your decorating needs (and potential mistakes)!