Justine Costigan

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How to ice a cake

Christopher Montebello from Let Them Eat Cake shows us how to decorate a cake using butter cream and fondant icing.

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Icing has a special place in every baker's repertoire. Not only can it turn a simple, if delicious, cake into something special, but it also has the power to transform a baking mishap into something spectacular.

Apprentices spend months perfecting the art of making and using icing, but even the occasional icing user should, with practice, be able to produce a perfectly iced cake.

From the pages of a book to a cake, reader Anna Shead shared this one: Click for more photos

Kids' birthday cakes

From the pages of a book to a cake, reader Anna Shead shared this one: "I made this for my son's recent 2nd birthday. The vanilla cupcakes were perfect to share with all the young ones at day care. I used cream cheese for icing to keep the sugar down! The face was made of chocolate cake for the carers. Very easy to make." Photo: Supplied

There are many options when it comes to icing. Pettinice, or fondant icing, is usually best left to the professionals. If you want to try to achieve this perfectly flat, firm icing do what many professional pastry chefs do – buy it from a cake supplies retailer.

Pastry chef Christopher Montebello from South Melbourne's Let Them Eat Cake has been making and decorating cakes for 32 years, perfecting the art of baking at iconic cake shops such as St Kilda's Monarch Cake Shop, Arnold Swiss Cakes and in the kitchen at Florentino's. He recommends home bakers use buttercream icing, as it is more forgiving.

Montebello is passionate about cakes and believes they are not just celebratory but are present at all important life occasions.

Baker Christopher Montebello of Let Them Eat Cake in South Melbourne.
A fondant creation ... Christopher Montebello at work. Photo: Eddie Jim

“The cake is the crescendo of every function,” he says. “A cake is always appropriate and always makes people happy. It provides the ooh and aah moment at every event.”

In demand as a baker (even making a cake for Oprah) Montebello shares his techniques and tips for the perfect icing with goodfood.com.au

Before you start

Sketch out a plan for your cake. Plan the colour scheme, shape and size and have the correct sized cake board for your cake. Montebello recommends going to Spotlight or a cake supplies store to source cake boards and decorations.

Make sure your butter is at room temperature and don't risk heating it to warm it up. Thirty minutes out of the fridge is all you need to bring it to softness, unless it is a really cold day.

Measure and weigh all your ingredients.

Tips

Hot weather: Ideally, once you've iced your cake keep it out of the fridge but if hot weather is likely to make your icing sweat, put it into the fridge to firm. Remove the cake from the fridge an hour before serving to allow it to return to room temperature.

Cutting layers of cake: Montebello recommends cutting your buttercake into three layers and filling each layer with icing. To make this process easier, freeze your cake until firm (not frozen) then slice it into thirds, turning the cake as you cut.

Wonky cake?: Icing is designed to cover all manner of baking sins. Cut away any undesirable bits of cake (crumbly edges, scorched sides) until the cake has a smooth surface and an even shape. Ice the cake and watch all evidence of your mistakes disappear.

Decoration

To avoid a sloppy icing, fill the layers of your cake first, then firm it up in the fridge before applying the final layer of icing. Hold the cake board in one hand and rotate it as you ice. Use a cake spreader or spatula to achieve a perfect smooth result. Steer clear of the "stucco" effect – aim for smooth.

Montebello suggests using restraint with decoration. Use just one form of embellishment and a simple colour theme: choose from fresh edible or icing flowers, a pretty ribbon, 100s and 1000s or silver cachous. To apply decorations such as 100s and 1000s onto the side of the cake, cup the 100s and 1000s in the palm of your hand and gently push into the icing.

Flavour and colour variations: To add colour to your icing, set aside a small amount and add a drop or two of food colouring. Slowly add more icing until you have the colour you desire. Flavours: add cooled espresso to the icing for coffee flavour or melted and cooled couverture chocolate for a richchocolate taste and colour. Try pureed or chunks of fruit, praline or nuts as desired. Kirsch can be omitted from the icing altogether (a good idea for children's cakes) or substituted with another liquor of choice.

Basic buttercake icing

Equipment

  • Electric mixer
  • Rubber spatula
  • Sugar thermometer
  • Saucepan
  • Cake spatula/spreader for applying the icing
  • Large pre-prepared butter cake
  • Cake board

Ingredients

  • 240g white sugar
  • 145ml water
  • 150ml egg white
  • 490g unsalted butter, chopped
  • 27ml kirsch (optional)

Additional

  • Large butter cake, cut into three layers
  • Cake decorations

Combine water and sugar in a saucepan and bring to the boil. When the sugar reaches 120°C (soft ball stage), remove from the heat.

In the meantime beat the egg whites until they reach soft peaks, then slowly add the sugar syrup, beating continuously until the whites have firm peaks. Allow sugar syrup and egg white mixture to cool slightly.

With your mixer on low speed start adding small pieces of butter, continue beating until all the butter has been incorporated, then beat for a further 5 minutes.

Mix in the kirsch if using.

You should be left with a soft, smooth icing, the consistency of whipped cream.

Ice your prepared cake immediately as the icing will be at optimum consistency as soon as it has been made.

This quantity will cover one cake or a dozen cupcakes.

Troubleshooting

Split icing: Buttercream icing freezes well but if it seems grainy when you defrost it, warm it gently, then re-whip until it returns to the correct consistency.

Over-colouring: Montebello says if you have a colouring disaster don't throw the icing away – rethink your concept to adapt to the new hue or make a new batch of icing and use it to dilute the colour. Icing can be wrapped in cling wrap and frozen so the extra icing won't go to waste.