Building your cake
No matter whether you plan to pipe designs in buttercream, or smooth fondant or marzipan over the cake, starting with a well-built base makes any cake look more even and helps ensure that the cake holds together well. Click through this slideshow for foundational tips and tricks.
There's a lot of tools needed for cake assembly, and the whole thing goes a lot better when you're organized. Begin by gathering what you'll need: soaker and pastry brush, damp and dry towels, cardboard round, scissors, dowels, offset spatulas, and piping bag and decorating tips, turntable (if you have one), and frosting, whipped to the right consistency.
Apply the soaker
Place the first layer on the cardboard round and apply the soaker. "Soaker" is the term bakers use to describe a solution of water, sugar, and flavoring/liquor that they use to moisten cake layers and give them extra flavor. Apply the soaker to each layer as you build the cake, using a pastry brush.
Distribute the filling
Use an offset spatula or knife to spread out the frosting into one flat, smooth layer.
Cover with the next layer
Once the first layer of filling is smooth, cover it with the next layer. (Note that in the photo this layer of cake has a huge tear in it; it's very common for bakers to create layers by piecing together pieces of cake. When assembled correctly, no one will notice in the finished product).
Repeat the process
Once the second layer is in place, repeat the process: apply soaker, pipe outer circle of buttercream, pipe filling, smooth, and cover. Repeat again for any additional layers.
Apply the crumb coat
Begin by spreading the icing across the top in the thinnest layer possible. Smooth any excess down over the sides of the cake.
Finish the crumb coat
Then, spread the crumb coat in the thinnest layer possible around the sides of the cake, filling in any gaps between layers with frosting. It's fine if you can see through the crumb coat; the most important thing to aim for is a smooth flat top and sides.
Mind the crumbs
While applying the crumb coat, scrape the spatula down on a separate container, away from the one holding your clean frosting, to avoid tainting it with crumbs.
This step is not always necessary, depending on the size of the cake, but it's a great trick to know, especially if you are filling the cake with pastry cream or a loose curd, which might cause the layers to slide. If the cake needs to travel I'll do this as a precautionary measure. Insert five wooden skewers or drinking straws all the way through the cake (if the cake is much larger, you can do a second, concentric placement, closer to the edge of the cake).
Pull the dowel up out of the cake just a bit and cut where the dowel met cake. Then push the top of the dowel bak into the cake. Do not worry about how this looks, it will be covered by the second coat of icing. If you choose to use dowels, it is very important that the person serving the cake is aware that they should use caution when cutting and serving the cake.
Apply the final layer of icing
Once the crumb coat has chilled, the cake is ready for a heavier coat of icing. To apply this coat, pipe a good amount of frosting on the top of the cake, and smooth it evenly over the top with an offset spatula. Smooth excess over the sides of the cake. Add additional frosting to the sides until the entire cake is smooth and covered.
For some ideas or help with piping techniques, don't miss last week's slideshow, Piping 101.