The cake is often the highlight of the table, at any celebration.
But how often do we consider the role played by the different parts of a cake?
In this article, I will dissect what’s really in your cake. We’ll tell you why certain ingredients are important, explore different cake terms, and tell you all about the types of toppings that exist out there!
The Anatomy of a Cake
A simple cake consists of cake and frosting, though it will often have a filling too. A cake base (made from different ingredients to the cake itself), syrup, and extra decorations are optional.
Cakes with several layers usually have a base as a foundation that holds the layers on top. For this reason, cake bases need to be robust.
Having a stable base to cut through makes the cake simpler to slice, especially when there are layers of filling. After all your effort in making the cake, you don’t want to make a mess when serving it up!
The most common cake base is a cake board, cake stand or any type of board you can get your hands on. Depending on the size of your cake, you’ll want a board that is thick and sturdy and doesn’t bend.
Many cake makers go one step further and will cover their cake board with fondant so it flows well with the rest of the cake. Others simply stabilize their cake by sticking the first layer on with some buttercream.
For really big cakes, like wedding cakes you might want to stabilize each layer with a thin cake board the same circumference as the cake sponge. This adds an extra layer or protection so your cake doesn’t start resembling the leaning tower or Pisa.
Other popular cake flavors include red velvet, vanilla, carrot, banana – and of course, rainbow cake!
There are even more options when baking a cake yourself, depending on your creativity. You can mix and match layers and flavors.
So, What Are Cakes Made From?
If you have flour, eggs, fat such as butter or oil, sugar, salt, milk or other liquid, baking soda or baking powder, and flavoring (such as cocoa or dried fruit): You have all you need to make a cake!
Flour is the main ingredient in a cake. It’s strong due to the gluten content that helps to bind the cake together. You can use gluten-free flour, but it’s harder to get a light cake texture using it.
The eggs help to hold the cake together too, adding lightness to the texture.
Liquids such as milk bind the dry ingredients together and, of course, moisten the cake. If you use milk with a higher fat content, your cake will be lighter and moister – in other words, perfect!
Sugar not only sweetens the cake, but also keeps the batter stable and adds to the moisture and texture of the cake. Caster sugar is ideal for cakes since it dissolves so easily.
Finally, although it’s not strictly necessary, vanilla enhances whatever other flavors you are using and adds a delicate, subtle taste to your creation.
Apart from the delicious addition to the flavor of the cake, syrup works to keep the cake moist. This is important for fancier gateaux where the cake can tend to dry out in the time that it takes to decorate it!
Syrup is a boiled solution of water and sugar, with other ingredients added to flavor it. Vanilla syrup is one of the most versatile flavored syrups that can be used on virtually any cake to add that “x-factor.”
Butterscotch (made with brown sugar), caramel, chocolate, honey, liqueur, peppermint, and fruit syrups are also hugely popular with cake makers.
Here’s a secret from professional patisserie chefs: The syrup actually helps cake decorations or fondants stick to the cake!
You can spray or brush the syrup onto the cake layers or the top of the cake, or just apply it to the edges of the cake which dry out first.
When deciding how much to use, make sure to tread lightly with denser cakes. However, cakes such as sponge and butter cakes can absorb more syrup.
The filling can be the same as the frosting – or it can be entirely different! The most common fillings are buttercream, ganache (liquid chocolate made with cream), whipped cream, custard, and fruit fillings.
Much like the filling of a sandwich, the filling of a cake helps to hold it together. Additionally, it adds to the flavor and appearance of the cake as well!
Gateau, like my own personal favorite Black Forest Gateau, tends to use several different fillings.
There are five main types of icing (and many more variants beyond that):
- Buttercream is a soft, easily spread icing that tastes great and is often used in the filling layers of a cake too. It’s made from sugar, butter, and flavoring.
- Whipped cream consists of cream beaten with sugar and, if desired, flavors such as brandy essence.
- Royal icing is a classic for Christmas cakes and fruit cakes. It is a white icing made from egg whites and icing sugar that hardens when it sets.
- Cream cheese frosting is a delicious, slightly sour frosting that goes especially well with carrot cakes! It is made from buttercream and cream cheese.
- Pastry cream or crème patisserie is a custard that’s mixed with whipped cream to pipe on top of a cake.
As well as frosting, there are several sorts of coatings that can be used to finish a cake:
- Glaze is a thinner type of decoration that is slightly liquid-like to work with, being made from icing sugar and water. However, it sets to become harder when it dries.
- Ganache is sometimes used to finish a cake as it is easily piped. Made from proportions of one part cream to two parts chocolate, it can be whipped if you want a lighter finish or left as it is for a dark, shiny look.
- Fondant is used on decorative cakes. This heavy icing is made from water gelatine, glycerine (or marshmallow), sugar, and fat. Fondant is ideal for fancy cakes because it can be easily shaped into flowers or other shapes.
- Marzipan is used as a base layer under the fondant on Christmas and fruit cakes. However, as it can be easily shaped, it’s often used to make cake decorations as well.
You make marzipan from ground almonds, sugar, and egg whites. It’s similar to almond paste- only sweeter!
- Mirror glaze is an impressive, highly-decorated gloss you can make by combining white chocolate, condensed milk, glucose syrup, and gelatine. Although it sounds difficult to make, it’s not actually that difficult to get it right!
For extra special occasions, you can add piping or candied flowers around the edges of a cake. However, for everyday creations, fresh fruit and whipped cream make perfectly delicious decorations.
For children’s cakes, rainbow sprinkles are an excellent addition to the top of the cake, and there are many cake ornaments that you can add as well! If you are confident and have a steady hand, you can also add lettering with frosting pens.
In terms of overall presentation, use mirror icing or plain icing for a sophisticated look, or piped borders for a fancy cake.
Ultimately, the sky’s the limit in terms of decoration – but do bear in mind the anatomy of the cake in terms of layers, ingredients, and flavors when deciding exactly how to decorate it!
Watch how to layer, fill, ice and decorate a cake from start to finish with Cupcake Jemma!