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With the advent of baking challenge shows, cupcake wars, cake contests and pastry bakeoffs, we all get a good look into the world of baking. But there is quite a bit going on behind the scenes that America doesn’t see. Anyone with cake experience can tell you that there is a laundry list of details that have to be right for a cake to turn out perfectly. For those of you who are curious about it, I invite you to read on.

You may think, after watching a few of these crazy baking challenges, that buttercream icing comes in decorating bags that just magically fill themselves, and baked and cooled cakes are sitting in fantasy refrigerators somewhere. The process starts long, long before a single egg is cracked. The amount of time required to shop for ingredients isn’t something that we often think about. For small scale bakers, this means (most likely) trips to several stores to gather supplies. For commercial bakers, it may mean hours online trying to find the highest quality ingredients, not just for cake but for icing as well. Every detail must be considered, right down to the type of food coloring that will be used. The wrong type of confectioner’s sugar will cause buttercream to have a total meltdown, for lack of a better term. Planning is essential, and mistakes during the initial phases can spell disaster later on.

Planning of time is critical as well, as there will have to be time for the cakes to be mixed, baked, and thoroughly cooled before any icing can be applied. During the cooling process is often when the icing will be whipped up, if icing is being used. For a buttercream cake, which we’ll discuss here, a few different consistencies of icing will have to be prepared. Most bakers will layer their cakes with a stiff icing between the layers, to add support and stability to the cake. From there, most cakes will be covered with a crumb coat, in order to keep tiny flecks of cake out of the decorative layer of icing. The cake will be returned to the cooler for a brief time so the crumb coating sets and dries out a bit.  The next step is the base layer of frosting. This will be a fluffier layer, lighter but still stable. Each cake decorator has their own method of application, from spatula to putty knife, and it comes down to what has become comfortable for that artist. And finally, the cake will now be ready to decorate.

Decorating the cake is a feat on its own, and most televised contests will only show a small portion of this process. While the thought may be that they are carefully concealing the secrets of each cake designer, the truth is that it’s that long of a process. From the first detail piped onto the cake to the finish of the last border, this is where each artist has the opportunity to really shine. You’ll notice they are accompanied, in most cases, by a staff that runs to fill pastry bags and fetch tools out of reach of the designer.

At the end of the show, only one contestant can win. Processes are condensed to fit into a time slot determined by the network. But after consideration of all that goes into the making of these confectionary masterpieces, anyone who crosses the finish line truly deserves a prize.

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