Icing The Cake — Baking Tips From A Pro Chef

Produced in Partnership With The Culinary Institute of America

Cake frosting is not nearly as daunting to make and use as you might think. These basic tips from a pro chef will ensure you get professional looking results on your next homemade masterpiece!

Cake Frosting

The Everyday Gourmet: Baking Pastries and Desserts Learn the secrets of baking like a professional with this course taught by a master pastry chef from the world’s premiere culinary college, The Culinary Institute of America


Cutting the Cake

Cutting the cake properly is the first step in successful cake frosting. It’s not unusual for a finished cake to form a dome. To make it level for frosting, trim the top with a long, serrated cake knife. The trimmings can be dried out and ground to make cake crumbs for another use.

To divide the cake into layers, hold the serrated knife level about one-third of the way down the cake and make a score mark around the outside by turning the cake and sawing a bit back and forth. Once you’ve gone all the way around, push the knife forward and cut toward the center; this method generates fewer crumbs. Take the top third off and repeat the process for the next layer. Sweep away any crumbs on your work surface so they don’t appear on the finished cake.

A turntable allows you to get an even, level distribution of buttercream for cake frosting, but you can also hold the cake in the palm of your hand. If you’re using a turntable, place a piece of cardboard on top as a base for the cake, and make sure you place the cake in the center.

To frost a cake, first even off the top by trimming with a serrated knife. Create layers by scoring around the outside of the cake, and then cutting through the center. Make each layer of frosting about half the thickness of the layer. Seal the edge of the crumb coat (on the top layer) with a palette knife, add a little more frosting for the finish coat, and decorate with a topping, such as crumbs of croquant.

Frosting the Layers

Make each layer of cake frosting about half the thickness of the cake layer itself. Remember, you’re making a birthday cake, not a birthday frosting, so the emphasis should be on the cake!

When you add the second layer on top of the first, press it flat with your hand; if the cake is delicate or moist, press it with a second piece of cardboard. Use the same amount of frosting on the second layer as you did on the first.

For the finish coat, add a little more frosting across the top and sides, if necessary.

Try to get an even layer across the top without any crumbs. To form the crumb coat, hold your palette knife at an angle close to the blade and seal the edge. At this point, you may want to refrigerate the cake to give the crumb coat a chance to firm up before you apply the finish coat.

Slip your palette knife between the bottom of the cake and the cardboard to remove the cardboard and transfer the cake to a presentation plate.



French-Style Buttercream


  • 12 oz sugar
  • 4 oz water
  • 6 egg yolks
  • 16 oz butter softened
  • flavoring as needed vanilla extract and brandy

For More About Cake Frosting, Check Out The CIA Culinary Blog

French-style buttercream is an incredibly rich and luxurious frosting with a wonderful mouthfeel. Other types of buttercreams are made with egg whites only and are meringue based.

We start by making a mixture called a sabayon, a sauce consisting of egg yolks, sugar, and wine, liqueur, or brandy. First, heat sugar and water to make a syrup and then add a little bit of vanilla extract and brandy. To the syrup, add egg yolks and put the mixture over hot water on the stove.

Be careful that the flame is not so high that it starts to come up over the sides of the pan.

Cook and stir until the egg yolks start to thicken, which may take some time— 2 or 3 minutes. Look for the egg yolk mixture to “hold a ribbon,” meaning that when you pull the mixture up and drape it over itself, you will be able to see some shape in the eggs. If you can see the bottom of the bowl when you’re whisking, that’s also a good indication that the mixture is thickening.

As with any other cooked-egg mixture, such as the crème anglaise we made earlier, there is a danger of overcooking, so be careful that you don’t go too far.

cake frostingTransfer the sabayon to a mixer and whip it on high speed until it cools to room temperature. Add the softened butter after the mixture has cooled; otherwise, the butter will melt, and you won’t get the volume or texture you’re looking for in the finished product. Add the butter in pieces, allowing it to blend into the sabayon.

Again, if the butter is too hard, it won’t blend in, and you’ll end up with a lumpy mixture. Wait for each piece to blend in before you add more.

Once you’ve added all the butter, turn the mixer back up to high speed to make sure that it’s thoroughly incorporated. Use the finished buttercream to frost a cake or freeze it for future use.

 From the lecture series The Everyday Gourmet: Baking Pastries and Desserts
Taught by Professor Stephen Durfee

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