Cake Structure - #TipTuesday
As Cake Artists, and I mean that for pros and hobbyists alike, we work so hard to create beautiful cakes. We truly want to succeed! It is absolutely heartbreaking and devastating to watch all that hard work slowly (or quickly) lean and fall.
This was my very first tiered cake. Nothing like taking on a 4 tier to start things! This was long before the internet and YouTube. It looked simple enough. It never occurred to me that there needed to be structure in this cake. You are looking at 4 tiers of just cake. I did use a board under each cake, but that is it. What started out as 4 tiers of the same height has begun to smoosh the cakes below and has started to lean. This was my "gift" to the bride. Luckily another one of her friends noticed the cake and suggested we cut it early.
I meant well. My intention was to give my friend a beautiful cake. I wasn't being mean or setting out to ruin her day (it didn't). I didn't know. Once you read what I am offering here, you will know. This is the knowledge I have gathered from years of working with cake and by watching my Sugar Sisters work with cake. I have witnessed many cake fails and even had a few of my own. Lets start with the way I stack cakes and what I recommend as the best plan.
There are plenty of tools to use. I am of the philosophy that there is no such thing as too much structure. Sure, there are plenty of other boards and dowels to use, and some people will swear to you they have used them for years with no trouble. They get to do things differently. In my shop, I use the best tools with little risk. My tiered cakes are typically priced $1500-5000. I absolutely can not risk one falling or even leaning.
I recommend foam cake boards. These boards have an exterior that is impervious to fats and water. They truly are grease proof unlike the 1/8" corrugated boards that are white on one side. These are strong. When I hold one, it doesn't easily bend. In fact, it takes a great deal to get them to even dent.
When you think of dowels, I want you to think about structural beams of a building. Ever drive by construction of a new building? Ever see those steel support beams. We are building and we too need strong beams to support the weight of the tiers above. I use and recommend 1/2" poly dowels.
These suckers are strong! They are hollow so we don't displace cake and they are wide making them less likely to shift. Next time you see a straw (yes even those), try to stand it straight up on a table. It requires a bit of balance. Those straws (yes even those) also bend. I've tried them all. The strongest straw bends rather easily. I cringe at straws. I feel the same way about skewers and most wooden dowels. There should never be a point in a structure dowel. You ever see a support beam with a point on it? No? Me either! In this video, I explain what I use and give a quick demo of why.
So how many dowels? A good plan is to half the diameter of the cake. For odd sizes, half plus one. I also like to place on in the center. I've Created this charts to help.
Please note this chart is for regular tiered cakes. In a double barrel, I place the dowels closer to the edge.
Now, I know you have all heard about the center dowel. I very rarely use a center dowel. The theory is that the center dowel keeps the tiers from sliding or falling. That is true for a bump in the road, but in a real cake accident/cake structure fail, that center dowel is going to tear right through the cake. I've seen it. I also don't like the fact that a center dowel through all tiers means there is no structural support for the middle of the cake. When I need to ensure the cake won't shift, like in a double barrel, I use a wooden skewer. I place this through the top tier, in the middle of the dowel, and into the bottom tier. If you feel like you need more than one do the same to the outer dowels. These are not support. These are holding the cakes so they don't shift.
I start by marking the cake. I use a cake board the same size as the cake that goes on top.
Dowels need to be cut as accurately as possible. I use a sewing gauge to measure how long to make the dowel. The dowels should be flush with the cake. If they are too low, the cake will sink a bit and not always at the same rate. If it's too tall, the cakes can be wobbly and may even fall.
I mark the dowel, then use a miter box to cut the dowel straight. Double check the dowels to make sure they are all the same size.
The cake on the left needs to support an 8" cake. I used 5 dowels. The cake on the right needs to support a 6" cake so I used 4 dowels. I didn't feel like I needed one in the middle for this cake.
It's hard to tell from the photo, but, that cake on the left is a double barrel. There are 3 layers of cake and support for another 3 layers. The bottom tier has another 5 dowels (place farther out). If you look really close, you can see the wooden skewer I mentioned. It goes through the cake board and is in the center of the top and bottom dowels.
I use a bit of buttercream on the top of the bottom layer, and stack the next cake on top.
When I first started my cake business, I used and swore by a SPS (separator plate system). These systems seem like such a great idea. The really sturdy dowels plug right into the plastic plate. They are a great system. Until ... What I learned, from experience, is that larger/heavier cakes need more than 4 dowels for support. Those plates can actually bend.
I built a really big cake. It was big because of it's size and because of the decor and because of the price tag and because it was a very influential client and wedding planner. I stacked up the cake and went to celebrate with my husband at dinner. We had just ordered when I got a call from the planner. The cake was leaning could I come fix it. I wanted to cry. When I got there, sure enough, the cake was leaning. I fixed it but it wasn't as great as it had been. I also stayed until they cut the cake so I could see exactly what went wrong. Sure enough, the plate had warped and bent. It hit me like a ton of bricks! I wouldn't use 4 dowels to support some of the tiers. Why would I expect this SPS to? That was the last day I ever used them.
Structure is so important. I've shown you several examples of my mistakes so now I want to share with you examples of great structural moments. See the cake in the middle. When I delivered that one, the venue didn't yet have the elevator permit. Two of us carried this cake up 3 flights of stairs. I'm not kidding! There were several moments this cake was at a very big angle. It survived not only the drive but also the stairs.
If you are a member of a cake group, you have probably seen someone post about a caketastrophy. These posts usually show a photo of a cake that has fallen. The poster will say it was fine when it left. This is when the CSI (Cake Scene Investigators) break out magnifying glasses to determine if the cake was dropped or if the client slammed on breaks.
There is no way to know. We weren't there. Instead of immediately assuming the client wasn't careful, my reaction is to review what I used for structure. Did I do everything I could to make sure the cake survived?
When I say there is no way to tell, I mean it. I created a cake with the purposeful intent to fail. I did it because I wanted to post it so everyone could guess what happened. Many, many people guessed it was dropped or someone slammed on brakes. Some emphatically declared it was the clients fault even citing what they thought was evidence.
The cake never even moved. It just fell because I used straws and a regular cake board. You can see the whole story here.
As cake artists, we have to do everything we can to create structurally sound cakes. I hope this will help! There are lots of places to find the tools I use. These are my favorites:
If you are already buying lots of cake supplies, try Kerekes, CalJava, Flour Confections, and The Cake Decorating Company
If you just need a few or need them quickly, try Amazon
Global Sugar Art now on Amazon
You can find these in the notions section of most craft and sewing shops
Most hardware stores will have this in stock