Monday, April 13, 2015

Make a Cheap Birthday Cake That Looks Like A Million Bucks!


We all lead busy lives. Long gone are the days where everyone cooks and bakes their meals from scratch. But fear not! You can easily take pride in making a birthday cake for little money and great taste, all while having it look like you spent a couple of hundred bucks! Here's how:

At first glance, this post might seem like a lot of information. Don't be alarmed or get overwhelmed! I have simply tried to describe each step in detail for those that have never done this before. Skip over any sections that you might already have knowledge and/or experience with.  And for those who are first-timers, once you've read or skimmed through the whole post, you will find that it's not as hard as you might have thought when first looking at the length of the post.  

First off, buy boxed cake mix when it's on sale for $1! I usually stock up on a couple of boxes at this time so that I always have some in my pantry for impromptu treats, or occasions such as this. You can either make your cake with icing in between the layers, or make a pie filling/pudding mix such as lemon or coconut to fill the layers and fancy it up. The pie filling/pudding mix is usually around $2 when it's on sale. So stock up on that too when it's at a good price! While the ingredients are not that expensive in the first place, there's no sense paying full price if you can get it for half! You will need a cake board, either round or square that is about 2" wider than your cake pan. If you will be doing a smaller cake for the top, you will need a round cakeboard that is the exact diameter of the smaller cake pan, so that it doesn't stick out over top of your bottom cake. If you can't get one the same size as the small cake pan, then purchase the next size up. You can then trace the proper size onto it, cut it to fit the diameter of your smaller cake and then wrap it in tin foil so the cardboard is not exposed to the cake. You can also make your own cake boards, but they are inexpensive to purchase. 

Decide on your theme. Google and/or peruse Pinterest to come up with ideas on what you would like to create. Keep in mind what you already have in your cupboard that you could make use of. Some examples of these items would be the food colouring selection you already have on hand, and cookie cutters you might be able to utilize. You can buy many different regular or mini cookie cutters at most bulk food shops for about $1 a piece, if not less. You can also make great use out of little figurines your kids might already have for the theme you've chosen that you can be incorporated into the design, after giving them a good wash, of course. I had wanted to make a Bubble Guppies cake for my little guy's birthday using figurines. It turned out great considering I'm "just" a Mom!

Once you've decided what you are going to do, make a list of what supplies you will need to design and decorate your cake. The last thing you want is to be in the middle of the decorating process and realize you forgot something like food colouring or icing sugar! Also, the first time I did a cake using fondant decorations, I also wrote down all the things I would need to do with the fondant. This way, I wouldn't forget any steps along the way, until I was confident using it.  I was worried that making fondant decorations would be challenging, but they were surprisingly easy. So, once you have all of your items ready to go, you can start creating your masterpiece! 

I like to dye my fondant beforehand so that it's one less thing I have to do the day of. It's best to use neutral coloured fondant when dying the fondant with bright colours.  Be sure to wear latex or plastic gloves while doing this so that your hands don't turn the colour you are creating! You will likely only need 1 tub of fondant, as it goes a long way. If you are unsure of how much you will need, bring a picture of what you are trying to create into a cake or baking supply store and have the staff ensure you have the right amount. 

Cut the fondant into sections so that you can dye them the different colours that you will require. If you need only a small amount of one colour, then simply cut a smaller section of fondant to apply colour to. Do the opposite for colours that you will require more of.  Take one section that you've cut and microwave it for 5-10 seconds to soften it, depending on the strength of your microwave. You don't want to heat the fondant, you just want to soften it so that it is more malleable to work with. Add a few drops of the food dye and work the colour through the fondant so that the colour is fully worked in. Add more dye if needed to achieve the right colour. Seal each dyed piece in individual Ziploc bags immediately after dying it so that it doesn't dry out. Repeat the same for each individual colour. Store the Ziploc bags containing each colour inside an airtight container until ready for use. 

Personally, I like to make a 2-tiered cake using two 9" pans for the larger bottom cake and a 6" pan for the smaller top layer cake. I typically make 2 different flavoured cakes so that guests have something to choose from. Take out your cake pans and give them a very good spray with Pam or a food release spray. Be sure to spray the corners and crevices well so that the cake comes away from the pan easily once it's baked. Make your cake batter according to the directions on the box, and pour into your pans. If you are using 2 round or square pans, be sure to pour the batter evenly into each pan so that they each have about the same amount in them. This way, they will cook for the same amount of time, and be about the same size. Once they are done, let them cool about 10 minutes in the pans.  Then, put a wire cooling rack over top of the cake pan and turn it over gently while holding it tightly against the cake pan so the cake can release itself properly without breaking apart. Leave the cake on the same cooling rack to cool to room temperature.  

While the cake is cooling, create your fondant decorations. You don't typically need any special tools to do simple designs with the fondant. I normally use letter cutters, cookie cutters, as well as a paring knife to cut out my shapes. Often times, you can even borrow tools or other items such as cookie cutters from a friend. Have a tray or plate ready with a piece of parchment paper on it. Also have a clean dry tea towel on hand to cover up the cut out fondant so that the designs do not dry out while you are working on your other colours. 

Roll out one fondant colour on a second piece of parchment paper until about a 1/4" thick. Create all your fondant designs for that colour.  Then gently peel them off that parchment paper and place them on your tray or plate that you've set aside. Cover them up with the tea towel and move on to the next colour. Repeat until you have all of your fondant designs completed. Put any leftover fondant back in their respective bags once you have completed each colour in case you need them for some reason. If you want to do 2 layers of fondant for a place to put the name for example, just dab your finger into a little bit of water and spread it across the back of the top layer and then "stick" it to the bottom layer. Be sure to only use a tiny dab, or very thin film of water on the back of the one you will be sticking. If your cookie cutters are sticking to the fondant, try using a tiny little bit of icing sugar to "flour" the cutters and that should prevent that issue. 

Once the cakes are cooled, cut them horizontally through the middle with a long bread knife so that you have 2 even layers of cake. Grab your cake board and spread a little bit of icing a bit smaller than the size of the cake onto the board. This will stick your cake to the cakeboard, preventing it from sliding off. Place the bottom layer onto the cakeboard, making sure that it is evenly in the centre of the board. Next, either spread a layer of icing or pudding mix over top of the bottom layer and then put the top piece of cake on top. 

If you are putting a smaller double layer cake on top of that, you will need to make sure you put small dowel rods into that initial larger cake, so that you can support the weight of the 2nd cake without it collapsing through the bottom cake. While it sounds complicated, it's actually very easy to do. Take your second smaller cake board and outline it in the centre on top of the larger cake. Stand a dowel up near the cake and mark it where the top of the cake is so that it would stand right at the top of the larger cake when inserted into it. Cut the dowel where you marked it. Make 3 other dowels the exact same height. Next, push all 4 dowels into your bottom cake in a square pattern making sure that they are placed about 1 " away from the outer diameter of your smaller cake board outline. You want your second smaller cake board to be able to "sit" on top of the 4 dowels, so the larger cake doesn't have to support the weight of the smaller one. Take your smaller cakeboard and spread some icing in the centre. Put the bottom layer of your smaller cake on top of that. Spread icing or pudding over top that layer and then add the top half of the cake. Place the smaller cakeboard with the cake on it, centered, on top of the 4 dowels. 

Next, you will apply a crumb coat. Spread a thin layer of icing all over the cake. Use this as an opportunity to fill in gaps, and apply more icing where it is needed to even out the appearance of the sides and top of the cakes if they are slightly irregular. Once you have that coat on, place it in the freezer for about 15 minutes or so, until the icing is nice and firm. Doing this prevents your outer layer of icing from having cake crumbs in it, which can make the finished product look dirty or rough in appearance. This is especially important to do if you are using lighter coloured icing, where icing crumbs can be very visible. Once it's been in the freezer and the icing is firm, you can apply your 2nd and final coat of icing. 

A lot of people use fondant for the outer layer. I don't because most people, including myself, do not eat it and it goes to waste. I'd much rather have a yummy buttercream frosting (recipe below) on the cake and you can make it look almost as good using this instead of putting fondant over the whole cake. The way I do it is to apply that final layer of icing smoothly all over the cake as previously mentioned. Then, pour some boiling hot water into a large cup or measuring cup. Take your icing spatula and dip it into the hot water for a few seconds. Wipe it quickly dry with a paper towel. You don't want any water to get on the cake. Start gently smoothing out the icing with the hot spatula blade. Using the spatula with a hot blade allows the blade to melt the icing a bit on contact. It allows you to blend it all in nicely together so it appears more like fondant. Keep repeating that process every few seconds or so until your cake has a smooth finish on it that would resemble a fondant coating. 

Now you are ready to apply your fondant designs! 

Immediately after putting on your final icing layer, gently stick the decorations to the icing by pushing them very delicately into place. You do not need to wet them first, as the icing will still be soft. Keep doing that until you've got all the fondant decorations on. Apply your character figurines by gently pushing them into the icing so that they will be stuck into place.  Using a piping bag and tip, make little rosettes or whichever design you'd like around the bottom of the upper cake, and around the bottom of the lower cake.  Slap on a candle and voila! 

If you will not be eating the cake right away, store it in the fridge. I always make sure ahead of time that I have made enough room in the fridge to store it. You can leave it in the fridge just like that if you will not have any strong odours like onions or spicy foods whose scents may permeate the cake. If this will be the case, then plan ahead and purchase a cake box from your local bakery supply or bulk food store.  In my experience, they are generally inexpensive, at about $3 or less per box. Plus, this way, you won't accidentally bump the cake by getting something in or out of the fridge. 

Below, you will find the Buttercream Frosting recipe that I use. If you are using only 1 boxed cake mix, a single batch of frosting will do. If you are doing 2 boxed cakes, then you will need to double or even triple the recipe depending on how big your cake is. You could theoretically also use tubs of pre-made icing, but they aren't typically as thick as I would like my frosting to be. You'd have to beat in extra icing sugar to stiffen it up a bit to have it be strong enough to hold your fondant appliques. 

Buttercream Frosting Recipe: 
1/2 cup butter
1/2 cup margarine (can substitute with shortening)
1 1/2 tsp vanilla
5 cups of icing sugar
3 tbsp of milk
1) Beat margarine, butter and vanilla together until smooth.  
2) Beat in 1 cup of icing sugar at a time into the butter mix on medium speed, until it's all dumped in. 
3) Add milk & beat on high until light and fluffy. 
4) Separate your icing into batches if you will be making different coloured icing and add the food colouring. Stir or beat it until the colour is fully blended into the icing.  If you want to make tie-dyed icing, check out my cupcake post to see Cake Boss's tie-dye icing method
*If you find the icing too dry once mixed, add in another teaspoon more of milk at a time until desired consistency. If it's too moist, add in a bit more icing sugar at a time until you get it the way you'd like. 

Here are a few other tips!
*Purchase a basic frosting piping kit, which would include a frosting spatula, piping bags and a selection of the most popular icing tips. This one retails for about $35, but if you get it at Michael's, you can use their weekly coupon and you would save anywhere from 40-50% on it. It's a great investment not only for this cake, but for future projects as well. 
* Consider purchasing a gift for the birthday child that includes figurines in the theme you will be using for your cake. This way you get the most bang for your buck, by using the figurines as part of your cake design! I did this with my Bubble Guppies cake by purchasing an interactive book that included the little characters. It cost me about $10 and was completely worth the small investment. 
* Peruse your local cake supply store, bulk food store, or craft store like Michael's to get inspired and get your creative juices flowing. 
*Join Facebook groups for those that like to bake so that you can get advice, suggestions and support at the drop of a hat from the other members. Their guidance and feedback is invaluable and often times includes those who have plenty of professional experience in cake decorating. 

Did I miss something? Do you have another great tip to offer? If so, please comment below. 

Good luck and happy baking!

***** These views are mine, and mine alone. As with anything, you are responsible for assessing whether this item and/or activity is safe and suitable for your specific needs. InfoMommy does not make any warranties of any kind, expressed or implied, and assumes no responsibility and/or liability for any actions taken as a result of this blog post.*****


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