Here are 6 tips to help you make a fabulous large cake to serve a crowd either at a wedding or your next large celebration.
1. Find out how many mouths you have to feed.
How many people will you need to serve? Knowing the guest count will help you determine exactly what size tiers you are making. (See How to Cut and Serve Large, Round Cakes for details on how to cut the cake and how many each tier will serve. While cakes can be made in just about any shape, I am limiting our discussion to rounds to give you the gist.)
2. Choose your flavors wisely.
Taste must come first for any cake. Begin with the likes and dislikes of the person of honor. It is their day; find out their taste preferences. And remember, you will never please everyone in a crowd of 100 or more, so don’t worry about whether Aunt Ida prefers vanilla over raspberry frosting. Cater to the person(s) being celebrated.
3. Choose cake, frosting and filling recipes that highlight your chosen flavors.
Once you know that they love chocolate and coffee and hazelnuts, you are on your way. Now you have to work with those flavor profiles and choose recipes carefully that work within a tiered creation. Remember that the cake tiers are going to be layered on top of one another and will most likely need to be transported somewhere. This is not the time to make a whipped cream frosting or a soft, slippery, thick (as in tall), unstable mousse filling.
For cake, I recommend our Easy White Cake, Yellow Cake or Easy Chocolate Cake as a starting place. They do scale up. Doubling any of those recipes will give you one 12-inch tier. Halving any of those recipes will give you two 6-inch tiers.
For the exterior, I have used Italian Meringue Buttercream Frosting (IMBC) almost exclusively for all the wedding and large celebration cakes I made over 25 years – even when the cake was going to be under a tent in the middle of summer. I find it to be the most versatile buttercream – I like it in its vanilla incarnation as much as I do espresso, chocolate or Grand Marnier – and it has a workable texture as well. You can create smooth-sided cakes (just as flawlessly as fondant), you can easily pipe it or you can slather it on with a spoon and make pretty peaks and swirls.
Consider using IMBC for the filling as well, perhaps in a different flavor.
With the aforementioned coffee/chocolate/hazelnut flavors as an example, you could make a chocolate cake, brush the layers with Frangelico hazelnut liqueur, fold some crushed hazelnut praline into part of the IMBC for the filling and use a vanilla or Frangelico IMBC for the exterior.
4. Prepare to assemble.
Cardboard rounds must be on your shopping list. These are cardboards that are pre-cut in the same sizes as cake pans. (Don’t try to cut your own; you will never get them exact enough.) Their smooth sides act as guides when applying buttercream. If you have a three-tiered cake made up of 6-inch, 10-inch and 14-inch tiers to serve 100, you will also need 6-inch, 10-inch and 14-inch cardboard rounds. The cardboards are necessary, as they will be working in conjunction with internal supports, such as wooden dowels, to support each cake tier. If the cake tiers were put on top of one another directly without such supports they would collapse.
5. Get out the calendar.
Now is also the time to consider your schedule. If the party day is Saturday, I bake, prepare buttercream batches and make my crumb coat all on Thursday. The separate crumb-coated cakes can be refrigerated overnight. On Friday, when my eyes and energy are fresh, I apply the final IMBC coat and then chill those individual tiers.
Now, we stack the tiers. For a center-stack configuration, which is the most common, the 6-inch tier will sit centered atop the 10-inch cake and the 10-inch tier sit will sit centered atop the 14-inch cake. To begin planning this out, take the 10-inch cake pan and visually center it over the 14-inch tier. Let it lightly touch the surface of the cake and make marks in the IMBC. Insert 4 dowels within that circle, cutting them to the exact height of the 14-inch cake tier. Smear a bit of IMBC within that circle, then take your 10-inch tier on its cardboard round and place it on top of the 14-inch tier using the marks as guides. The IMBC will act as glue. Repeat the process for placing the 6-inch tier upon the 10-inch, this time using 3 dowels. Apply any final IMBC borders or embellishments and chill the cake overnight. You did remember to make room in the refrigerator, right?
I always bring an icing spatula and any pastry bags and tips along with some soft IMBC to the venue for minor touch-ups at the last minute.
Please note that this is meant to be a primer. For a much greater, in-depth explanation of the planning, baking and decorating of large cakes, please refer to Wedding Cakes You Can Make: Designing, Baking, and Decorating the Perfect Wedding Cake (Wiley) or The Wedding Cake Book (Macmillan). The cake recipes in my books are broken down for many sizes and there are many diagrams and photos to help you along. If you have any questions, please feel free to email me: email@example.com.
Image: Dédé Wilson