"My 3-year-old son loves to go grocery shopping," says the young mother, "because he gets a chance to check out all the decorated cakes. We always have to go to the bakery first."
The fancy cake is an attraction that starts at a young age and stays with us through fanciful teen birthday centerpieces, multitiered wedding confections and retirement party sheet cakes.
Cake-decorating expert Linda Bunn has an explanation for our fond affection for these frosted expressions.
"People like fancy cakes because it's an art form that's not too expensive, can be easily personalized to match someone's personality or hobbies and can be enjoyed by everyone," says Ms. Bunn.
She has been decorating cakes and teaching cake decorating since she got hooked on the process 22 years ago.
Here are some of her time-honored tips.
Don't bake the cake at the temperature called for in the recipe or on the back of a mix box. Instead, bake the cake at 25 degrees less than the recipe calls for. This means the cake will take about five to 10 minutes longer to bake but should help eliminate or reduce the "hump" that normally appears in the middle of the cake. She cautions: "Everyone's oven is different so you need to practice with your own. You may need to lower it a little more or a little less than 25 degrees."
Always check the cake with a wooden pick in the center for doneness. Don't rely on a visual check to see if it is pulling away from the edge of the pan; it may still be uncooked in the middle.
Cool the cake for 10 minutes in the pan, then turn it out onto a rack to cool completely.
Use shortening rather than butter in icing. It blends better and will not give you a "greasy" taste.
If you buy 2-pound bags of powdered sugar, the sugar doesn't have to be sifted for icing.
What's the difference between the 2-pound plastic bag and the 1-pound box, which does require sifting?
"The plastic bags are airtight so moisture can't get in, as it can in the cardboard box packaging," she says. "It's the moisture that makes the powdered sugar lumpy."
She says the 2-pound bags are also available in supermarkets -- right near those familiar boxes.
Ms. Bunn says it is important to make sure that oven racks are actually level. Here's how to check: Place a cake pan on the oven rack, and then pour water into it until the pan is full. If water spills unevenly over one of the sides before pan is full, the oven is not level. She says there are usually adjustable screw-type legs under the range that level the appliance.
"Your cake will never stick in the pan again," she says of her tried-and-true pan coating.
Ms. Bunn shares the coating mix with readers: Mix 1/2 cup of any solid shortening with 1/4 cup all-purpose flour. Store mixture at room temperature in covered container. Use it to coat pans instead of the usual separate greasing and flouring of pans so the cake won't stick.
"This will also bake a smooth, professional-looking finish on the cake, and eliminate a lot of the usual crumb problems," she adds.
If the cake cools in the pan, reheat pan over low heat on the stove burner and the cake will still fall out without sticking.
Here is her favorite icing recipe for decorating cakes. It's the one she gives out in her classes.
Buttercream decorator icing
Yields frosting for a 9-inch round or 13-inch sheet cake.
1 1/2 cups solid vegetable shortening
1/4 teaspoon salt (see note below)
1 teaspoon meringue powder (available in cake decorating or kitchen shops)
2 pounds sifted powdered sugar
1 to 2 teaspoons vanilla or other flavoring
1/2 cup milk or water (add more liquid as needed for consistency)
Mix solid shortening, salt and meringue powder with electric mixer just to blend. (Turn it on for about 30 seconds then turn it off.) Add powdered sugar, vanilla and liquid and blend by hand until sugar is absorbed into liquid.
With mixer, beat on medium speed for 2 to 5 minutes or until smooth and a little fluffy. (The time will vary depending on the power of mixer. A heavy-duty mixer will take only 2 minutes, a hand mixer will require 4 to 5 minutes. Don't over-beat or you will get a lot of air bubbles. If mixture is too stiff and you can tell mixer is straining to blend, don't be afraid to add more liquid to obtain the right consistency.
Note: You should always add a little salt to this icing to help cut the sweetness.