Guys! I cannot emphasize enough how very very important an internal structure is to a cake. I don’t care if you’re doing two tiers, or eight. If you have a good internal structure, you’ll be fine. If you don’t … you may still be fine … or you may not. And after having spent the last four or five days on this sucker, do you REALLY want to take that risk?
The purpose of an internal structure is to remove any and all responsibility from the cake itself to support anything but the weight of its own torted layers in one tier, and its filling. Each tier should be supported by the internal structure directly beneath it, which in turn, should be supported by the one beneath that, eventually sending all that weight and support down to the table/floor. I am not kidding when I say you don’t need a sturdy cake – you could use a flippin’ angel food cake for this, guys. You DO need an adequate internal support structure.
There are three ways to go for an internal structure. Two of them are serious and work well – the third is a bit of an improvisation, and (you’ll realize, after enough 4-tier cakes) a crap shoot.
Let’s start with the crap shoot. Hopefully, I’ll convince you it’s not worth the effort, risk, and only marginal cost savings.
- Dowels/straws/boba tea straws:This is a time-honored way to support cakes, and many many home bakers do it. And if Sylvia Weinstock comes out tomorrow telling us all she uses dowels to support her cakes, then more power to her and I will never say a word.
But here’s the deal, guys.
First of all, the dowels/straws people use are supporting a cardboard circle that your cake is placed on. That cardboard circle, no matter how waxed and food safe, is still just a cardboard circle. It still has been sitting there, collecting ambien/cake moisture, and is not a perfectly stiff wood/acrylic board that can support the weight of a filled and decorated tier evenly across its entire surface.
Second, if you’re using dowels, realize that you are DISPLACING cake when you insert them into your beautiful filled tier. Which, essentially, breaks the tier up into segments by breaking the continuity of the cake’s own structure, making it less stable. Some people get super excited, and in an effort to support the cake even better, use extra dowels (six? eight? ten?). Which only leads to more holes, and more breakage in the cake. Every one of those holes is an opportunity for collapse, guys. Plus! You’re cutting your dowels, and while there do exist perfectly even and professional ways to do this, many people do it with a home handsaw, or even a pair of kitchen shears. Which means that the dowels aren’t EXACTLY PERFECTLY even. And you’re inserting them by hand with no way to verify that they are going into your cake at an exact 90 degree angle. Which means that as they bury themselves into that more-or-less soggy cardboard circle they’re supposed to be supporting, they are not all perfectly lined up OR perfectly straight, OR perfectly even at the top … do you see where this is going? My cakes frequently weight 60 pounds or more. You better bet your Agbay I don’t want some misaligned dowel failing, because guys, that is ALL IT TAKES to bring down that monster.
(And don’t forget, guys – those wooden dowels may have been clean in their package, but if they’ve been exposed to cutting equipment, or if you bought them unpackaged, their porous surfaces can’t be cleaned reliably enough to put into a cake and just leave them there. You’re going to want to wrap them somehow.)
Third, while straws do not displace cake like dowels do, you still have exactly the same issues with lining them up straight and cutting them perfectly flat and even across the top. The only way in which a straw can support any weight is by placing the weight firmly and flat over the top. Try it. If you tilt your straw even a couple of degrees, any weight you place against the top will collapse that rinky dink little piece of plastic you are counting on to support your baby. I’ve seen strong accomplished bakers lose even two-tier cakes over this, guys … if you (or your friend/family member transporting your cake) haven’t lost a cake yet, it’s just a matter of time.
- Homemade internal structure – the good kind!You can make a customized internal structure for a cake – either a shaped cake, or a simple multi-tiered one – out of steel rods and all-thread, or PVC pipes. That’s a lesson for another time. It’s reusable, yes, but only if you are using the same structure in another cake. It’s harder to cut a cake placed on one of these. And it’s just complicated. A beautiful alternative, if you have a very specific plan in mind, and it gives you complete control – but there are definitely easier and more affordable solutions, that you don’t need to spend extra time in putting together.
- Pre-made Internal Structure: enter the SPS system.There are several companies that make similar systems, but guys, the SPS system will never steer you wrong. It’s essentially a plate that locks four legs into place to support it through the cake underneath. You’ll see what I mean.
This is the best of both worlds. Simple, affordable enough to give away with each cake (so it COULD be “disposable” if you needed it to be), but easy enough to rescue and reuse after each cake, and easy to wash in the dishwasher. It doesn’t displace cake, with its hollow legs. It comes scored to make it easy for you to cut to exactly the height that you need, and if your cuts aren’t perfectly and exactly flat, it doesn’t matter, because the columns lock into a plate, ensuring that the not-perfectly-perfect edge still supports your plate evenly. The fact that it does lock into the plate it’s supporting (which Wilton and other companies don’t feature when they sell you columns and plates) ensures that the columns will go down straight into the cake, and hit the plate underneath it evenly, with no room for legs going at a wonky angle. And your cardboard circle will rest on a solid flat plate, so the cardboard is not responsible for any cake weight at all.
SO WHAT DO I NEED TO BUY?
You need one plate per tier you want to support, the size of the round you are supporting. Your bottom tier will need no plate. So, for example, if you have a two-tier cake where the bottom tier is 8 inches wide, and the top tier is 6 inches, the top tier (6-inches wide) is the one that needs a (6-inch) plate. If you have three tiers at 16 inches, 12 inches, and 8 inches wide, you will need a 12-inch plate and an 8-inch plate for the top two tiers.
You will also need four columns per plate. They make standard pre-cut 4-inch columns (because that’s the industry standard height for a tier), but I always buy the 9-inch scored columns, because I frequently have 5-6-inch tall cakes.
You’ll need a super perfect marble (or equivalent) counter, to some sort of mat to roll your fondant. A piece of rolled vinyl works well, but is easily creased, so just be careful. Ideally, you want something you can use and reuse and reuse, without any creasing (remember any creases will ruin your fondant!). I love these two:
- Big Ateco mat – it’s 24×36 inches, especially useful if you ever do double-barrel cakes with the wrap method. Notice how nice and thick it is – that’s what you really want, if you can get it.
- Small Ateco mat – 24×24, so not really small at all, will work for anything up to a 12-14-inch round cake, depending on the height of your tier.
- Rolling pin
Your regular pie-crust rolling pin won’t work here, because you need such large expanses of even fondant, no matter how small your cake. You want a looooong rolling pin, preferably without handles so you don’t nick your fondant with the edges or your knuckles. Ask me how I know. I have a huge rolling pin that Wilton used to make, but I haven’t seen it around in a long time. Steel rolling pins are wonderful, though – you want to avoid anything porous that will absorb water and muck up your fondant (it’s all sugar, remember!).
- Sharp knife, X-acto, or pizza cutter
- Fondant Smoother
- Fondant Tools