Katherine Sabbath's layer cake tips and tricks

Katherine Sabbath with one of her layer cake creations -  spiced caramel with rosewater cream.
Katherine Sabbath with one of her layer cake creations - spiced caramel with rosewater cream. Photo: Edwina Pickles

Job titles aren't what they used to be: Katherine Sabbath calls herself a "dessert creative". Last year she was a teacher. 

But then, last year she didn't have more than 100,000 Instagram followers (after only joining the platform in January 2013) and a hectic publicity schedule. 

A full-time high school teacher in Sydney's west, Sabbath scaled back to casual in December 2014, but for now, teaching has fallen prey to her "freelance caking" career and cult following.

From her one-bedroom inner-west apartment, the entirely self-taught baker constructs dizzyingly high, impossibly pretty and obscenely indulgent desserts. 

Exhibit A: a torso-sized layer cake of caramel and chocolate mudcake filled with crushed choc-honeycomb and mocha buttercream, covered in aqua Swiss meringue buttercream and hot-pink chocolate ganache, and topped with rainbow-coloured candy spheres, discs and triangles. 

It's like Dr Seuss and Andy Warhol baked a cake. Inside a rainbow. After taking acid. 

Each cake takes Sabbath around three days to make. Some are sold but her favourites are those made as gifts. 

"It's my creative outlet, I guess," she says. "I wanted to be an artist when I left school, but I didn't think it would be a financially viable career." 

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Sabbath started baking 11 years ago as a high school student, but she's (somewhat accidentally) stepped things up in the last few years, and her rainbow-striped, glitter-flecked star is clearly on the rise.

"It [the Instagram fame] completely took me by surprise," she says.

She now teaches baking classes and workshops, creates recipes for publications and recently collaborated with Shangri La's pastry chef Anna Polyviou on a sold-out two-night dessert degustation. 

Her website launches in June, and she hopes to eventually release a book and a TV series. 

"I'd like to move towards supporting the baking community, rather than having my own cake shop and competing against other bakers whose work I really admire," she says.

Layer cake tips and tricks

It seems like there are a hundred things that can go wrong when baking and constructing a layer cake, but hyperventilating won't help. Sabbath's top tip is to set aside plenty of time. 

"Don't rush it, because you won't enjoy it," she says. "And that's when you make mistakes." 

Tools of the trade

Sabbath uses a spinning cake turntable for slicing layers and decorating her creations. She also recommends a rubber spatula and an offset spatula for mixing and spreading icing. 

When it comes to ingredients, she uses the best-quality chocolate, vanilla extract, cream cheese, butter and flour, even though they cost more. "You can taste the difference," she says. 

Baking and slicing

Sabbath recommends lining  the spring-form tin with baking paper. To ensure even cooking, rotate the cake in the oven about three-quarters of the way through baking. 

Let the cake cool then cover it in cling wrap and refrigerate for an hour or two (or even pop it in the freezer if you're short on time). This hardens the butter and stops the cake from crumbling when sliced. 

When it's time to slice your layers, use a long, thin, sharp knife. Sabbath suggests first indenting a line around the cake to guide you.

Painting and decorating

"If you're not good at spreading icing, it's a really great idea to put your frosting or cream cheese in a piping bag with a star-tipped nozzle," says Sabbath. 

Then pipe your icing on in pretty little swirls. Just make sure the icing isn't too soft or it won't hold its shape. 

To prevent each layer from squashing the icing below, it can help to set each layer or two in the fridge for 10–15 minutes.  

When decorating your cake, you can follow a recipe or get creative with your own ideas. 

"It's nice to add bursts of colour and texture – that could be from crushed nuts or crushed meringues or freeze-dried fruit," says Sabbath. "If you're not sure about colours, you can test with a bit of icing first to see if you like it." 

Troubleshooting

It's true, things that can go awry. But Sabbath has some tips to help you sidestep major mishaps. 

  • To avoid burning your cake, ideally use a semi-fan forced oven, and rotate the cake during cooking.
  • Never try to ice a warm cake.
  • Set each layer or two in the fridge to avoid collapse. 
  • If your cake gets a bit wobbly, or you have to transport it and you're worried the layers won't hold, stick one or two wooden skewers through it.
  • If you're nervous, or making the cake for an important event, start it the day before to avoid unnecessary stress.