I love to bake and I love fancy party cakes, but I'm sort of "freewheeling" about it. I've never had any formal training or classes, although I have TRIED to take the local Wilton classes. (They always seem to get cancelled on me.) So I've found my own way and it works for me.
Let your cakes cool exposed to the air: I was always under the impression that if I left my cakes uncovered while cooling that they would dry out. Not so! I always bake my cakes at least a day in advance and leave them out for at least 12 hours uncovered to cool. If you cover them, condensed steam will make the exterior too moist and your layers and frosting will be slip-slidin' away. Leaving them uncovered also seems to let the cake itself settle and strengthen. It is less likely to crumble and break.
Level your cakes: There is a nifty tool you can buy at the craft store (use a coupon!) that yields perfectly level layers every time. Buy it and use it! Irregular layers, domed or concave tops, and the like will yield lumpy, misshapen cakes prone to falling apart. Wilton Ultimate Cake Leveler
Don't overextend yourself: All cake really needs to be is yummy. You don't have to make something elaborate for it to work. And almost any idea can be distilled into a simpler version - just be creative. Check out the Backyardigans cake below for more on this.
Do a test run if at all possible: This may be hard for us thrifty people, but it is a very, very good idea. The last thing you want is to end up with no cake on the day of your event because you ran into a logistical problem. It may not be feasible in all situations, but I definitely recommend demo'ing what you can. Some of my fails below...
Lego Cupcakes Fail
This was a demo fail, thank goodness. I decided to make cupcakes from scratch and tried new cupcake recipes - the yellow one was delicious and beautiful just out of the oven but upon cooling, the size reduced considerably. Who wants to eat a cupcake 1/2" high? The chocolate recipe had an inexplicable fishy aftertaste. Fish cupcakes? Yuck. I also tried a cooked frosting recipe. I followed the directions to the letter, but it never whipped up and ended up being a gloppy glaze instead. And my chocolate Lego toppers, while the idea was cute, it looked ridiculous in reality, given the dimished size of the cupcakes and the flat frosting. So glad I didn't have to serve these to people...
Castle Cake Fail
I went wrong here by not fully cooling and leveling the cakes. After assembly, the turrets immediately started to collapse and my poor castle looked like it was sacked by the Huns. My husband suggested that we try to buttress the turrets by threading wooden kebab skewers through the cake. Because everyone loves a cake full of splinters! Yum! There was no demo cake in this instance, so picture me frantically calling bakeries the day of the party looking for ANYTHING to replace it. Don't let this be you!
Between you and me, in retrospect, I wasn't that sad that it fell apart. It was a supremely ugly cake. I don't know what I was thinking. Those jellybeans - ugh! If you look closely at the front on your left, you will see a kebab hole. Fancy! Again, a dmo would have shown me that these colors and embellishments weren't going to work.
I am proud to say that I have learned from my mistakes and here are some of my triumphs. Disclaimer - these are MY triumphs, which will likely seem underwhelming to a good baker. This is because as you see from my fails, my personal bar is set very low. After several baking debacles, my family is super proud of anything I make that remains intact and doesn't taste like fish or is otherwise inedible. I don't have time to go into my other fails - the cookies that accidentally tasted like peanut butter and black licorice or the slug cookies. (As in, they were so bad that no creature that walks, flies, or crawls would eat them - not even slugs. Literally. They were passed up by seagulls, feral cats, and slugs - all came, sniffed, and left. Can slugs even smell?)
Backyardigans Cake Triumph!
I was envisioning a 5 layer cake with each one representing a different Backyardigan. I wisely realized that 1) this was too much cake for our little shindig and 2) no way could I pull that off. This is what I came up with instead. I printed the characters on card stock, cut them out, mounted on popsicle sticks, and popped them on top of the cake. It cost no money (unlike if I had special ordered cake toppers - which by the way I find are generally off-putting when you look closely at them) and was cute and festive!
Rose Cake Triumph!
This was for a Paris in Pearls party for my 9-year-old. I wanted an Eiffel Tower cake, but knew that was out of my wheelhouse, so I opted to reflect the theme in a different way - with a fancy rose cake. I was planning to buy one from a local baker, but couldn't justify the $60 price tag. Yes, $60. They are out of their minds. So I tried to make it myself (did a demo 1st) and it was a showstopper. There are many tutorials out there on this cake. Here's the one I like: Rose Cake Tutorial
It really is that easy. And the impact is very high. Two things I did learn. When I did the demo, I used a Crisco frosting and switched to a butter frosting for the real cake for better flavor. I should have stuck with Crisco. It was less sickly sweet and the roses were bigger and more beautiful. You'll note that I added edible pearls to the roses. They turned out bee-yoo-tee-full!!!