Specialist and Novelty Cakes – The Low Down

Sometimes it seems like the cake world has gone through a wormhole into another universe. What happened to the days when wedding cakes were round or square, two or three tier and white or pastel? When did birthday cakes stop being simple butter-cream supports for candles and become sorting hats, hello kitties or angry birds?

Of course there are reasons to be thrilled about this sudden interest in all things cake. TV programmes like The Great British Bake Off and nostalgic dramas like Call the Midwife remind people of the great heritage we have in baking.

But it’s not the traditional Battenburg or Maid of Honour that’s exciting the current cake buyer. Today novelty cakes have become a talking point and the baker’s skills are constantly being tested with innovative new techniques and demanding recipes.

There are good and bad points to this enthusiasm for specialist cakes:

The good

  • 1. More educated and informed cake buyers will quickly drive stodgy, tasteless cake bakers out of the market.
  • 2. Continuing development of the cake baking industry means there’s a niche for every good baker.
  • 3. Lots of publicity for amazing cake artistry boosts every baker’s order book.

The bad

  • 1. Customers (and family and friends!) can expect to get artisan cakes for supermarket prices.
  • 2. Cutting edge cake skills in others can cause a good baker to doubt his or her worth.
  • 3. It can feel difficult to keep up with a fast moving industry, especially if our skills are ‘traditional’ ones.
  • 4. Time management is tricky. Multi-skill cakes, where baking, icing and assembly all take time can leave the baker out of pocket, because he or she didn’t budget for all the finicky elements.

The ugly

  • 1. There are whole internet sites such as Cake Wrecks purely devoted to revealing the level of failure that’s possible when people’s ambitions outstrip their technical skills!
  • 2. Pricing can be a nightmare – when a customer (or friend) wants something novel, they aren’t usually keen to pay for the three or four ‘apprentice’ attempts we have to produce before we turn out the ‘masterpiece’.
  • 3. Saying no is tough, but saying yes to something we’ve never baked before can be a disaster too! Either way, we can end up with damaged relationships or a reputation for being awkward.

So how does an average cake maker develop the kind of specialist skills that normally earn thousands of pounds for their possessor? We can learn a lot from other professions.


Hairdressers have apprentice rates and model nights. This is where people pay less to have their hair cut by a new hairdresser or even pay nothing, but accept that they aren’t in charge of the process – the stylist is going to cut, colour or style as they wish, not as the client wishes.

Cake bakers can have model cakes too. Offering to bake a cake for a special occasion, without pay, is an ideal way to upskill yourself. You might want to try one of the two examples in this article and ‘give’ the resulting cake as a birthday present. That way you get to experience the baking process and learn some key tricks and tips, without the pressure of knowing that somebody is paying for, and expecting, perfection.


Interior and garden designers work out a complete plan, with lights, fabrics, furniture, plants etc all included. This makes it easier for them to source materials and allows the customer to see the ‘whole thing’ rather than just concentrating on one item.

While most of us just want to bake cakes, we could work with other caterers, party planners, entertainers etc to offer a complete package, so if we’re making a novelty cake, the rest of the catering could complement the central baking, maybe with strawberry printed napkins and pink lemonade for a kids party or strawberry daiquiris and chocolate dipped strawberries for a more adult event. Being able to offer this kind of complete service when required would take the pressure off us to present the ‘big finish’ and could get us more referrals from the other people we work with.


Yes, seriously! The point about fishing is that you throw back the fish that aren’t big enough to be worth taking home, so that they can grow bigger and be caught again later.

If we want to be specialist cake makers, we may have to ‘discard’ the bog standard orders and hold out for the work we really want to be doing. It’s good to have somebody you can recommend to take on orders you don’t want to fulfil – that way they can also pass your name to people who want cakes beyond their skills.


A celeb can’t buy a pizza or fall off her Michael Kors heels without ending up all over the newspapers, gossip mags, facebook and twitter. So when we make a really special cake, we should try to get ourselves some celebrity coverage too.

A simple press release, of about 300 words, describing the cake and the reason it was made, with a really good jpeg of the finished article, can be emailed to the local press and to specialist publications. Make sure you have the client’s full consent and that you don’t publicise a surprise cake before the celebration takes place! On a slow news day, good craftsmanship and a happy local story can get our story into the press and before we know it we’ve become a local expert.

Techniques of Baking

So, once we’ve got the theory under our belts, what about the practice?

Here are a couple of the most challenging current cake designs on offer – the hidden shape cake and the outer stencilled roll. Both have technical issues that need to be overcome and both have a huge ‘wow’ factor that can really move a baker into the expert category.

Hidden shape cakes

You can find instructions for hiding one shape, usually a coloured sphere or cube inside an apparently plain cake, on many internet sites. What is often left out of these instructions is the detail of how to construct the cake and how to overcome the problems that may arise.

Mixture – the absolute key to this kind of cake is to have the same mixture for both the coloured shapes and the exterior cake. However, the colouring you use in the shapes will make them more moist and dense than the plain batter. Don’t panic! The idea is to have the coloured elements just barely cooked (very moist and still a little soft) as they are going to be baked again. This stops them either rising through the plain mixture or dropping to the bottom as during their first baking they will have risen as much as they are going to, but still have enough moisture to taste good.

Colour – the hue of the hidden shapes has to be really intense, but adding too much liquid to the mixture will change its structure, causing it to act oddly when cooked for the second time. Stick to gel colouring rather than liquid and maybe, if your first try doesn’t work, add a teaspoon of cornflour to the coloured batter for every three spheres or cubes you aim to include.

Don’t freeze – there seems to be a school of thought that says you should freeze the hidden forms. Don’t! The way this cake works best is if the shapes and the mixture are at the same temperature when they enter the oven together. This means the shapes have to be fully cooled, but if they are even a couple of degrees chillier than the outer mixture, they will tend to drop to the bottom of the tin and balls may even flatten out, losing their spherical shape.

Trimming – there’s always going to be a risk that a cake will dome up when baked but trimming a hidden shape cake can ruin the effect of the interior shapes. “To deal with a cake that rises slightly in the middle – turn it upside down onto a piece of lightly cornfloured baking parchment. Sometimes it will flatten all on its own, if it is not too domed. “If a cake has risen to a pronounced dome, turn it out of the tin straight away and invert it so the dome is pressed against the base of the tin. Boil a kettle and, wearing thick rubber gloves, soak a hand towel in the boiling water, wring it out and fold it in four. Put the towel on a heatproof surface, put the tin on the towel and gently press down on the flat bottom of the cake with a shiny paper plate, distributing your weight evenly. Leave for ten minutes on the towel and another ten in the tin on a cool surface. Usually this flattens the dome perfectly.

Cutting – have a clean cotton tea towel to hand. As you cut the cake (or the customer does) wipe the blade clean before each cut. If you don’t, colour from the balls will start to bleed down the cake from top to bottom with each successive slice – ruining the effect of all your hard work.

Outer stencilled roll

These stunning cakes have a simple appearance which belies their difficulty! There are several different techniques to their construction that must be mastered to get a really good product.

Stencil design – the best way to design your own stencils is to use a silicon sheet and draw your design on it with indelible black pen. Then lay a sheet of top quality greaseproof paper over the silicon and pipe onto that. Almond oil is a good greasing agent for the paper as it has no flavour or colour. Make sure you remove every single crease or crinkle from the paper in the tin. Silicon is not as easy to roll as greaseproof paper and seems to cause more cracking in the cake.

Coloured mixture – while you want the deepest possible colour for your stencilled shapes, each addition to the mixture will change its consistency and may make it perform differently to the main mixture when baked again. Each baker has to find their own solution to this problem, which depends on recipe, oven temperature and altitude. Try out a few sample patterns before making a celebration cake for somebody else.

Freezing – this is one recipe where you do need to flash freeze the stencilled designs between each baking. A key point is to use a design, where possible, which starts with the darkest colour and works to the lightest. A strawberry with white seeds is particularly tricky as the seeds must be piped and baked first, then again with the red strawberry covering, and a third time for the green stems and leaves before a final baking with the main mixture. This can lead to the white discolouring badly. Yellow may be a better choice for the seeds, or rethink your design and choose a more manageable subject matter such as watermelon, which starts with black seeds!

Fixes – when this cake goes wrong, it’s often because the stencilled design bleeds into the outer mixture and there’s not much you can do about that, except try to make a stiffer coloured batter next time around. However, there are a couple of fixes for other problems. “Cracking happens if the cake gets too dry. It’s a particular problem with the final plain batter, and keeping the cake moist as it cools by placing the Swiss roll tin on a damp towel can help prevent the problem. “If one colour of the stencil bleeds into another, like the flower centres bleeding into the petals, or seeds into fruit, you can fill and roll the cake and then use edible glitter or coloured sugar and gum Arabic to fix the problem – just mix 10ml gum Arabic with 60ml warm water, gently dot with a fine paintbrush on the problem area and then use a dry brush to transfer the glitter or sugar to the gum, it will stick and cover any unsightly bleeding – just remember you’ll have to cover every single repeat of the pattern, not just the dodgy looking ones!

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