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The perfect Christmas gift for you or a loved one
MAKING THE CAKES: Make the basic Easy vanilla cake recipe (see 'Goes well with'), following the instructions below for each tier, then cool and drench with the syrup. The cakes can be frozen ahead, without icing. However, if you bake them three days before the wedding, the cake will be fine until the big day.
For the bottom tier, triple the quantities for the basic cake mix, then spoon into a ready-lined deep round 30cm cake tin. Bake for 2 hrs 15 mins on the middle shelf until risen and cooked through as before. While this cooks, make up a quadruple batch of the syrup - this will be enough for all three cakes. Cool and drench the cake with syrup as before.
For the middle and top tiers, double the quantities for the basic cake mix, then spoon it into ready-lined 15cm and 23cm cake tins, filling each to about two-thirds full. Bake them together on the middle shelf, taking the small cake out after 1 hr 15 mins, and leaving the larger cake to cook for 1 hr 30 mins in total. If you know that your oven has hot spots, quickly move the cakes around after 50 mins. Cool and drench with syrup as before.
LAYER AND COVER THE CAKES: Make the buttercream as in the basic recipe. You will need 5 x basic quantity - this is a lot, so split your weighed-out quantities in two before you start mixing. You may have some left over, but better too much than too little. Weigh out the buttercream - you will need approximately 400g for the 15cm cake, 600g for the 23cm cake and 1.3kg for the 30cm cake. Spread a little buttercream over the 15cm cake board. Level the top of the cake if you need to, then upturn the 15cm cake onto it. Split into three using a bread knife. I like to mark the front of the cake on each layer before lifting it off, using toothpicks, so I can reassemble it in exactly the right way. Take the top third off first (what was the bottom of the cake) and set aside. Carefully cut the middle layer and set that aside, too. A flat baking sheet or cake lifter can be very helpful here to slide the cake layers off and then back onto each other.
Spread a layer of buttercream over the cake on the board. Return the middle layer, lining up the toothpick markings, then spread another layer of buttercream on top. Add a little jam if you like, dotting it over, then spreading evenly. Top with the final piece of cake, then dust off any crumbs on or around the cake. Now brush the whole cake with a thin layer of apricot jam. This should stop you getting too many crumbs in the buttercream. Sit the whole cake on a large sheet of baking parchment.
Spread the rest of the buttercream over, starting with the top, then smooth and paddle it around the sides and down to the board. Repeat the whole process with the remaining cakes, using the corresponding boards and the different quantities of buttercream. The cakes are now ready to be iced. You can leave them overnight if needed, loosely covered with cling film.
COVERING THE CAKE WITH ICING: You will need about 500g icing for the 15cm cake, 1kg for the 23cm cake and 1.7kg for the 30cm cake. Dust the work surface with icing sugar, knead the icing until pliable, then use your rolling pin to roll it into a circle large enough to cover the sides and top of the cake, with a little left over. Use string to check the size. Use your rolling pin to help you lift the icing over the cake.
Smooth the icing around the cake with your hands, easing it over the edges and down to the board. Then trim off the excess with a sharp knife, flush with the bottom of the cake board. Smooth any marks with the flats of your hands, buffing the icing to a slight shine.
Once you've iced all the cakes, cover the thick base board. Lightly brush with cooled boiled water, then lay the icing over. Trim to the edge of the board with a knife (I tend to do this like I would a pie crust, holding the board in my left hand, and knife in my right), then leave the board and the cakes to dry overnight.
STACKING THE CAKES: Dowels, which are basically plastic sticks, provide stability and strength to tiered cakes, and polystyrene blocks allow you to add a 'floating' layer of flowers. By measuring and cutting the dowels to the same length as the polystyrene, you'll provide an even platform for the next cake to sit on, even if the cake below is a bit wonky.
Sit the 15cm dummy centrally on top of the biggest cake. Insert four of the dowels into the cake, around the outside of the dummy, in a square shape. Push them right down until they meet the cake board. Mark with a pen where the top of the dummy comes to.
Carefully pull out the dowels; then, using scissors, score around each dowel where you marked it. Snap the plastic cleanly. Re-insert the dowels in their original holes, rounded end down. Repeat the process with the 23cm cake and the 12cm dummy.
Position the biggest cake in the middle of the covered board. Run a thin line of glue around the base board and fix the ribbon around it. Fix the ribbon around each cake, using a spot of the glue on the ribbon to secure it to itself. If you're moving the cake to a venue, put the cakes into their boxes now. Make a little kit to take with you - glue, scissors, etc - just in case you have to re-do anything.
ON THE DAY - STACKING AND DECORATING THE CAKE WITH FLOWERS: I used hydrangeas - they're beautiful, in season and you can achieve a dramatic effect with relatively few blooms. On the day, save putting the flowers on the cake until as late as you reasonably can. Cut the stems of the hydrangeas to about 2-3cm. Split your least-favourite bloom into smaller pieces - this will help you fill any awkward gaps later. Make sure you save one beautiful bloom for the top.
Insert a length of floristry wire into each stem (or wind it around the stem), leaving a spike of wire about 3cm long. Push this into the polystyrene dummy. Repeat until the two dummies are surrounded with a halo of flowers. The bottom cake should be in its permanent position now - out of direct light and away from any radiators. Lift the 23cm cake onto the bottom polystrene dummy, taking care not to squash any petals, then repeat with the top cake. Fill any gaps with the broken-up flower head you reserved earlier. Sit the final bloom on top of the cake, and you're done!
CUTTING THE CAKE: Cut the cake across, in a grid, rather than into wedges. You should be able to get 50 servings from the large cake, 30 from the middle and 12 from the top, when cut into 2.5 x 5cm pieces.