Cake designs often follow very simple and traditional lines with round, square, and rectangular shapes stacked in clean lines. However, other cakes need to be carved into specific shapes to impart the impact required for a design.
Once you have mastered the basic carving technique, you will be able to produce just about any type of cake for astonished and delighted guests, from ships to pretty purses and everything in-between.
There are a few basic guidelines to consider before attempting your first carved cake design. These "rules" will simply help ensure success for all of your hard work and planning.
#1: Have a Plan
Make a plan before applying your knife to the cake. This means researching the shape you want to create from every angle.
Most complicated cake carvings will need a series of templates, so try to get images of your shape from every angle. Print off pictures or use real objects as guides whenever possible.
#2: Choose the Best Base Shape
Decide which base shape will work best for your finished cake. For example, a heart shape is easiest to cut out from a round cake.
Sometimes, a design needs to be created from different shapes that are put together rather than one big cake cut down. For instance, the easiest way to make an "S" shaped cake is to begin with a round cake. Cut it in half, then move the halves apart with the edges still touching. This is much simpler than carving an "S" from scratch.
Remember to take the time to follow standard foundation rules for cakes if you are stacking different pieces to create a finished shape. Use dowels whenever possible for stability and carve your cake on the prepared cake board to avoid moving the finished shape too much. It is heartbreaking to watch your carefully crafted cake break when moving it.
#3: Choose the Right Recipe
Choose a cake recipe with a dense crumb that will stand up to cutting. A light chiffon cake with silky mousse filling would not be a feasible choice for carving. This type of cake won't usually stand up to being covered with fondant or heavy icing either. Try a nice carrot cake or mouth filling fudge creation instead.
#4: Avoid Fillings
Don't fill your cake unless it is necessary. Most people like a layer of rich icing between their cake layers, but this addition can make carving very messy and difficult.
If you must fill your cake, keep the icing, jam, or glaze layer thin to prevent the layers from slipping. Also, chill the cake completely. Stability is the key to a good cake carving.
#5: Don't Cut Fresh Cakes
Never attempt to carve freshly baked and filled cakes because this type of cake will usually crumble. Anyone who has iced a fresh cake knows the frustration of crumbs and falling edges. This is why we "crumb" cakes - add the first layer of frosting - to avoid erosion.
Freezing your cakes will ensure that the carved edges are sharp and accurate. It will also make more detailed and complex designs possible.
#6: Sharp Knives Only
Use a very sharp knife to carve your cakes. You can also use an assortment of knives for intricate details or awkward edges. A serrated knife can be a good choice too.
#7: Clean Edges for Fondant
Make sure your cut edges are clean if you are covering the finished cake with fondant. Fondant is a very unforgiving product which will show every bump, lump, and crevice on the surface. This can ruin your design unless you are piping icing details on top of the fondant.
#8: Exaggerate the Cuts
Carve with a bit of exaggeration in the shape, almost like a caricature of the finished shape. This is important because details will be lost when you coat the cake with icing and fondant. You want a spectacular finished cake, not a vaguely recognizable blob.
#9: Do Your Best
Do the best you can and accept the fact that sometimes a design turns out different than what you envision from the start. Often icing, fondant or added design elements can camouflage errors, so be creative in covering them up.
With practice, your "errors" will be minimal so take heart and cut with confidence.