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Demo: Topsy-turvy cake

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#1 bkeith

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Posted 18 July 2005 - 12:51 PM

I finally got an interesting project to demo and a working camera all at the same time. People ask me all the time how I do the topsy-turvy Mad Hatterish cakes on my site and how on earth I get them to the customer site without a disaster. I know there are lots of folks out there doing lopsided cakes and using various forms of construction, but this particular method is what I came up with to suit my needs.

Some background. First thing to know is that I HATE setting up cakes on site. When I'm working in my own place, if I happen to drop a dollop of icing or drizzle some chocolate on the table, it's no big deal. Just clean up and keep going. But at a reception site you have to work on a table that's already dressed, and the extra pressure of trying to work super clean to avoid mussing the tablecloth pretty much guarantees that I'm going to leave a spot dead center in front of the cake. So my preference by far is to assemble the entire cake at home, drive it to the site, walk it in, set it down, and disappear. I can't always do it -- separations are a problem, and some cakes are just too darned heavy to carry by myself once they're all assembled -- but most of the cakes I do arrive with no assembly required. The fact that I'm a big guy and can carry a 150+ serving cake all assembled sure helps in that regard.

This particular cake wasn't for a wedding, but rather a birthday party. The youngster's parents rented out a movie theatre for a private showing of the new "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" movie, and wanted the cake to be reminiscent of the movie. Since this was opening weekend of the film, I obviously wasn't able to see it in advance, so I had to rely on some stills from the movie website.

So, wacky cake for 100. Here we go:

First, for the topsy-turvy cakes, I like them tall, and I like them to taper such that the base of each tier is smaller than the top of the tier. That helps to add to the appearance of instability. For each tier, then, I bake 3 2" layers in graduating sizes. This is a 3-tier cake, and the sizes I'm using are 6-7-8, 8-9-10, 10-11-12. I.e., the top tier consists of a 6" layer, a 7" layer, and an 8" layer, etc. I think the proportions work well when the largest layer of one tier is the same size as the smallest layer of the tier it sits on. (The 6-7-8 top tier sits on top of the 8-9-10 middle tier which sits on the 10-11-12 base tier). Make sense? Base tier is chocolate, and the middle and top are white.

OK, here they all are, tops leveled, wrapped up, and ready for a chill before torting:
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The 10" and 11" layers of the base tier get torted as normal:
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Then assembled with a buttercream filling. I'm taking a hint from chefpeon here and building this part of the tier upside down (thanks, Annie!). I used to stack the smallest, then the middle, then the largest layers, which makes for some floppy edges to deal with. This way things stay where you want them until it's time to trim and clean up. I don't place the 10" layer dead-center onto the 11" layer on purpose. The slant that lends helps with the illusion:
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The 12" layer gets torted at an angle. I don't worry about super precision here since imperfect angles just add to the effect. I just hold the knife at the top edge on one side and aim for the opposite corner:
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Here's a slightly better shot showing the cut angle:
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When I fill and reassemble this layer, I rotate one of the pieces so that the thicker sides are together:
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Everyone goes back in to chill a bit and set up the buttercream. Then remove both pieces, flip the 10-11 part to put the 10" part on the bottom, slap on some more buttercream, and place the angled 12" layer on top:
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(top secret recipes hanging on the fridge -- no peeking!)

I use a sharp knife to clean up the sides a bit and get rid of any corners sticking out, then give the whole thing a crumb coat and stick it back into the fridge:
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Here are all three tiers assembled, cleaned up, and crumbcoated:
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OK, big secret number one. The topsy-turvy thing is an optical illusion. Each tier is actually sitting on a flat surface, just like a regular wedding cake. The question is, then, now that we've made all these angled cake tops, how do we come up with a a flat surface to set the next tier on? Start cutting, baby. This is the 10-11-12 tier. On it will sit the 8-9-10 tier, so I need to make an 8" round flat spot. I take a cake cardboard (or pan or, in this case, cheesecake pan insert) and set it on the tier where I want the next tier to sit:
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I then cut vertically into the cake, all the way around the circle:

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Next, place the knife in horizontally at the lowest spot of the circle you've just cut, and move it side to side (extracting and reinserting as necessary so you're not trying to cut with the back of the blade). Then remove the chunk of cake you've just freed from its moorings:
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Spread buttercream over the now naked surfaces and re-chill. (Note to self: next time no matter how late it is and how tired you are, don't just try to slap icing onto a freshly cut chocolate cake unless you really DO want crumbs in the icing :angry: ). After it's chilled, I'll use my impeccably clean hands to finish the smoothing (thanks again, Annie):
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OK, here are all three tiers. Two have been modified to create a shelf for the next tier up. Obviously, the top tier doesn't need this since it's the top. The modified tiers always make me think of a baseball stadium:
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Now cover with fondant. In this case they're all green because I was going for the look of the inside of the chocolate factory, with the rolling green hills, chocolate river, and candy plants. Typically I'll use 3 different colors, then mix and match those colors for accent pieces:
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Prep the board. I use 1/2" foam board for pretty much all my bases. Lightweight, strong, and easy to cut with a utility knife to the size and shape I want. Here it is, covered in green foil:
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I also use foam board instead of cake circles as a base for each tier. For this, I use the 3/16" thickness. Plenty sturdy to hold a tier - even up to 20" or more -- and WAY less likely to flex or collapse than cardboard cake circles.

For any cake that's 2 tiers or more (and for some cakes that are only one tier), I like to put feet on the board. Trying to get my fingers under a cake board with a heavy cake on it is no fun. The feet give me room to get under there so I can pick it up. For a wedding cake, it also gives you space to tuck the stems of flowers and greenery for a nice finishing effect:
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(Want to know where I got those cute little plastic feet that I hot-glued onto the bottom of the board? Keep reading...)

This is my favorite assembly method for tiered cakes. It's called the Single Plate System from Bakery Crafts. The legs fit very snugly into the fittings on the bottom of the plate, and the whole assembly pushes down into the supporting tier to make a very stable platform for the next tier to sit on. The legs are 9" long, so they're a good height if you're doing separations. Most of my cakes are stacked, though, so I cut them:
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When I'm stacking a cake, I like to remove the ring around each of the fittings in the bottom side of the plate. It lets the assembly push down into the supporting cake without displacing any more cake than we have to. That ring look familiar? That's what I use for feet under the base. I always wind up freeing up more of them than I use on any given cake, so I've now got a bucket full of them. Maybe I should start selling them. :laugh:
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After removing the rings, place the plate atop the tier it's going to sit on and pretty gently to mark where the legs will go. This will help later to line up the legs and make sure they're going in straight. Also gives you a place to measure the height of the tier:
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I use a hemming ruler to measure the height and mark my legs for cutting. Just stick it straight in to the cake where one of the leg marks is, slide the little marker thingy down to the top of the cake, and extract. I usually then subtract another 1/8" to make sure the plate will sit snug on top of the cake and not sit up at all. In this case the height of the cake came to exactly 5 inches. I'll let you believe that I planned and executed perfectly to make that happen if you like:
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The hemming ruler goes through the dishwasher with no ill effects, by the way.

Cut the legs to the measurement you need. I use my adorable little battery-powered circular saw -- my dad would be so proud (sniff). If you don't have one, you can use a hacksaw:
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Make sure to clean off any residual plastic oogies left by the saw, and WASH THE LEGS THOROUGHLY. Don't want to leave little plastic bits in the cake. Ick. As added protection, I make sure the cut end is the one that gets inserted into the plate, just in case. Stick the legs firmly into the plate, and your assembly is ready to go into the cake:
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Line up the leg bases with the marks in the cake and press gently but firmly to insert the little "table" all the way into the supporting cake.

Big secret number two: Carpet tape. I get the "high traffic area" 2-inch wide stuff. A couple strips go down onto the base, and the bottom tier is stuck down. Then a couple strips go on top of each plate before the next tier gets placed on. Do make sure to start peeling the backing from one corner before sticking it down. It's much easier than trying to peel it once it's on the plate:
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Note that when I inserted the plate assembly, I mucked up the fondant on the inner vertical part of the stadium. That's going to be hidden by the next tier, so it doesn't worry me too much. In order to get the plate as snug as possible into that curve, you almost have to do a little damage.

Here are all three tiers stacked and ready for decoration. I like to turn the tiers so that each one looks lopsided, but the overall effect is balanced. I decided it would be easier to get the chocolate waterfalls in place as I was stacking rather than trying to fit them in after the fact. There's another on that you can't see emanating from a pool on the top tier going down the back side to the middle tier:
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For a border, I usually make a bunch of balls of rolled fondant of varying sizes. These are then placed at the base of each tier such that the largest ball sits at the highest spot of the supporting tier, and they graduate down so that the smallest ball is at the lowest spot. Helps add to the illusion. This time, though I wanted the peppermint stick effect, so I made snakes of rolled fondant in red and white, thinner at the ends and thicker in the middle (like a snake that's just had a meal!), then twisted them together and wrapped around the base of each tier, fattest part at the high side of the supporting tier, thinner parts at the low side.

Here's the finished product after decoration and delivery. I made a bunch of odd trees, mushrooms, bushes, pumpkins, vines, and stepping stones from colored modeling chocolate. Same for the spouts that the chocolate is gushing from. I decided that the waterfalls looked too flat, so I went back and painted more chocolate onto the surface to make it look more like it was flowing. The lighting on the photo isn't terrific because it was in a movie theatre where the lights are always somewhat dimmed.
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#2 oggi

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Posted 18 July 2005 - 01:06 PM

This is fantastic - I've been thinking about making an attempt at this for some time; I think what you have put together here is fantastic.

I do have a question though - I have never purchased one of these cakes, or even been at a celebration where this style of cake was presented - So, my question is, what is the appropriate way to cut/serve this?
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#3 HeatherM

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Posted 18 July 2005 - 01:07 PM

Brilliant! Thank you! I had always wondered how those were done and why they didn't topple over. And now I know the trick :biggrin: Now I just have to gather my courage and try it...

#4 bkeith

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Posted 18 July 2005 - 01:24 PM

I do have a question though - I have never purchased one of these cakes, or even been at a celebration where this style of cake was presented - So, my question is, what is the appropriate way to cut/serve this?

View Post



Kinda depends on how wacky and varied you want the slices to be. You can certainly just cut it straight (the smaller tiers, anyway) and get some odd-shaped pieces, some 4" tall and some up to 6" tall. What I suggest, though is that the server make a horizontal cut a little below the top, starting at the low side. Cut up odd-shaped top piece into things that approach a normal serving size. Then you're left with the remains of the tier which are regular cake height, just with slopings sides. Cut that as you would a regular cake tier of its size and let people pick which type of slice they want.
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#5 K8memphis

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Posted 18 July 2005 - 01:43 PM

Oh you are awesome!!! I don't have time to read it all right now--but I'm gonna tell all my cake buddies on all my boards you've got this over here, Keith--thank you so much!!!

I've actually made a coupla these cakes from your instructions that have circled the internet.

This is very gracious of you. Thanks bunches!!!

#6 Wendy DeBord

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Posted 18 July 2005 - 02:36 PM

Thank you so much BKeith!


If you don't mind, could you provide a link to your source for purchasing those cakes plates? Do you have any "tricks" for getting your legs evenly cut? I've always struggled with that......even though I measure correctly....... the width of the saw add's confusion........ and sometimes I my cut seems to be angled.

Do you like the double sided tape for holding your tiers together better then a center dowel when your transporting cakes?

#7 chefpeon

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Posted 18 July 2005 - 03:14 PM

Wow Keith......
the way you go about doing a "topsy turvy" or a "Polly" as I call it, is so completely different than the way I do it! Very interesting indeed.

Maybe next time I do one, I'll photograph it so you can see what I do. Share techniques and all that. :smile:

#8 jgarner53

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Posted 18 July 2005 - 05:07 PM

Wow! Very cool! I'd always wondered how these are put together, and after Anne's post, I'm doubly curious as to how she does it!
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#9 mpshort

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Posted 18 July 2005 - 05:34 PM

Excellent demo! I too have made this cake with your written directions; it's so much clearer with the photos. Thank you for taking the time!!

#10 DianeB

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Posted 18 July 2005 - 06:36 PM

thank you so much for these wonderful directions and pictures!!! maybe now I won't be quite so intimidated!!

#11 K8memphis

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Posted 18 July 2005 - 08:38 PM

...The hemming ruler goes through the dishwasher with no ill effects, by the way...

...Cut the legs to the measurement you need.  I use my adorable little battery-powered circular saw -- my dad would be so proud (sniff).  If you don't have one, you can use a hacksaw...

... Big secret number two:  Carpet tape...

View Post


Hemming ruler!!! Pure genius!! I insert & mark a dowel, remove it, clean it off so I can cut it without making a big mess. Chances are I wiped the mark off--grr--Hemming ruler--I love it!

And I'm gonna find a little circular saw too, when I'm shopping for the carpet tape.

Make sure to clean off any residual plastic oogies left by the saw,

View Post


:laugh: plastic oogies :laugh:

Note that when I inserted the plate assembly, I mucked up the fondant on the inner vertical part of the stadium.  That's going to be hidden by the next tier, so it doesn't worry me too much.  In order to get the plate as snug as possible into that curve, you almost have to do a little damage.

View Post


Many many cake buddies are really digging this demo!!! I got to translate 'mucked up the fondant' for my dear Chilean friend--basically told her to substitute the m in mucked for an f--poof goes the language barrier. :laugh:

Fantastic demo, dude.

#12 Arleti

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Posted 18 July 2005 - 08:46 PM

Congratulations Kathie, thats a wonderful info demo.
Nothing compares to instructions plus pictures. Just great!
Thanks a lot! :biggrin:

#13 Deborah

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Posted 18 July 2005 - 08:53 PM

Wow! Thanks for this amazing demo! Someday I will try making ones of these cakes...someday. :smile:

#14 racheld

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Posted 18 July 2005 - 09:00 PM

Wonderful pictures, wonderful work. I'd seen pictures of Colette Peters' upsydownsy teapots, etc., but it was so nice to see step-by-step from a REAL PERSON who is willing to share all the ways and means.

Just marvelous. And I love all your innovative tools. Where would we be without power saws?

And "plastic oogies"-----I see that you, too, graduated from the Annie Wilkes School of Cake Design. :laugh:
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#15 LCS

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Posted 18 July 2005 - 09:58 PM

Woo hoo! Thank you Keith!

#16 freddurf

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Posted 19 July 2005 - 01:45 AM

Thanks so much for this demo! I'm sure that the plastic dowels attached to the cake plate really add to the stability of the cake. Do you think using wooden dowels with a cardboard round would be too unstable?

Edited by freddurf, 19 July 2005 - 01:47 AM.


#17 bkeith

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Posted 19 July 2005 - 06:01 AM

Wendy says:

If you don't mind, could you provide a link to your source for purchasing those cakes plates? Do you have any "tricks" for getting your legs evenly cut? I've always struggled with that......even though I measure correctly....... the width of the saw add's confusion........ and sometimes I my cut seems to be angled.


The plates and legs are from Bakery Crafts (www.bakerycrafts.com). Wholesale accounts only. They're a little tough to find in cake shops as far as I can tell. I stocked them in my storefront, but I don't know of many other cake shops that do. I guess I should stock up and put them up for sale on my website.

No real tricks for evenly cutting the legs, unfortunately. Since the saw is light, I find I can hold it still and move the leg across the blade. Hold the leg tight against the flat plate on the bottom of the saw, then bring it toward the blade. The little markings on the legs every 1/2" helps. Even when I'm not cutting directly on one of them, I can still use the marking as a guide for keeping the
same angle through the cut.

Do you like the double sided tape for holding your tiers together better then a center dowel when your transporting cakes?


I like the tape MUCH better. For one, I'm not really big on putting wooden dowels in my cakes. For one thing, I can taste the woody flavor they impart if they've been in there a while. For another, even though I've not experienced it personally, I've been told of cases where the wooden dowels left in a cake for a few days absorbed moisture from the cake and started to mildew. Plus, since the plates are plastic, I'd have to drill holes in each one if I wanted to drive a dowel down through the whole cake. I didn't point it out earlier, but if you look closely at the top side of one of the plates, you'll see a little plastic knob sticking up. That punctures the board of the cake that goes on top of it, and the combination of that and the tape makes a very sturdy cake.



Annie says:

the way you go about doing a "topsy turvy" or a "Polly" as I call it, is so completely different than the way I do it! Very interesting indeed.

Maybe next time I do one, I'll photograph it so you can see what I do. Share techniques and all that


I'd love to see that (but then, I'm your number one fan!). I know there are lots of ways to do this. I've seen a handout that Colette did on her tilted cakes, and much as I'm awed by the finished product, she uses a LOT of wooden dowels. Not my favorite technique, but each to his or her own.



K8 says:

Hemming ruler!!! Pure genius!! I insert & mark a dowel, remove it, clean it off so I can cut it without making a big mess. Chances are I wiped the mark off--grr--Hemming ruler--I love it!


I'd love to claim that as my own original idea, but I can't. I learned that from Earlene Moore a couple years ago.

And I'm gonna find a little circular saw too, when I'm shopping for the carpet tape


Good luck with that. I got mine years ago, and since then I never see them in stores. A few of my students have come back to me saying that they've asked, but the big home improvement stores just don't carry them any more.

I've found them online here
, but the first time I did it, it took me a while (search the power tool collection for the term "VersaPak" -- that's the batteries it uses). Of course, you can't buy it online direct from B&D.

Maybe if cake folks all over the country keep pestering their local Home Depots, they'll start carrying the darned things again.


Racheld says:

Wonderful pictures, wonderful work. I'd seen pictures of Colette Peters' upsydownsy teapots, etc., but it was so nice to see step-by-step from a REAL PERSON who is willing to share all the ways and means.


But, but... Colette IS a real person. Just existing on a higher plane than folks like me. :raz:

And "plastic oogies"-----I see that you, too, graduated from the Annie Wilkes School of Cake Design.


Man, I love it when people get my offbeat references. :laugh:


Freddurf says:

I'm sure that the plastic dowels attached to the cake plate really add to the stability of the cake. Do you think using wooden dowels with a cardboard round would be too unstable?


Sure. It's all in what you're used to and how you handle it. Wooden dowels, plastic dowels, drinking straws, etc. will all work as supports. But if I were using any of those, I'd want to use something as a side-to-side stabilizer (dowel driven through the middle, etc.) for transport. Or stack the cake on site. And I wouldn't be nearly so cavalier about setting the complete cake in the back of my SUV and hopping on the DC Beltway to deliver it.

For some sculpted cakes I use a steel pipe attached to a flange which is bolted to a wooden board for this sort of support. Cover it all with contact paper to keep it away from the cake, drill holes in each cake and board, and slide them down onto the pipe. In that case, I'll use straws for vertical support, and let the steel pipe be my side-to-side stability.
B. Keith Ryder
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#18 JacqueOH

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Posted 19 July 2005 - 06:25 AM

Awesome demo and an awesome cake! LOVE it! Thanks so much.

I'm curious... what type of buttercream do you use? I saw Annie's tip on smoothing the icing with clean hands after chilling and I forgot to ask her what type she uses. (Hello, Annie, are you out there?) I'm assuming this smoothing trick will only work with the meringue buttercreams, not the so-called "American" buttercreams.

#19 RuthWells

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Posted 19 July 2005 - 06:36 AM

What an amazing demo -- thanks so much for your generosity!! I'd love to attempt one of these (someday.......).

I too would love to hear how others achieve the same effect with different techniques. Whimsical Bakehouse achieves a tilty effect without reshaping the cake layers, but by varying the depth of the filling (one deep end, one shallow end). Keith's method looks more stable to me.

#20 Gwhit

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Posted 19 July 2005 - 07:21 AM

Thank you so much for this demonstration. Though I just do cakes as a hobby I have thought it would be fun to attempt one of these and now I know how. I just finished my son's wedding cake which turned out really great. I used hemming ruler to mark a straight line on the cake so guess my ideas are right up their with the pros. :raz:

I have learned so much from this forum so thank you again.

GO

#21 chefpeon

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Posted 19 July 2005 - 02:48 PM

I'd love to see that (but then, I'm your number one fan!). I know there are lots of ways to do this. I've seen a handout that Colette did on her tilted cakes, and much as I'm awed by the finished product, she uses a LOT of wooden dowels. Not my favorite technique, but each to his or her own.


Funny you should mention that! I just recently shelled out some dough for Colette's book, "Cakes to Dream On" (not her best cakes in my opinion). I read her instructions regarding assembling the topsy turvy type cakes and I just dropped my jaw when I saw all those dowels.....TOTAL overkill and completely unnecessary!

#22 In2Pastry

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Posted 19 July 2005 - 05:24 PM

bkieth, once again I am awestruck! Ever since I saw you demo at an ICES Convention years ago, I have been a fan. Your talent has just amazed me. I am happy to find that you contribute to this site and with so much generosity. Thank you for doing this demo for people like me who need to SEE things not just read them. Once again, you are outstanding. Well done ~~ :rolleyes:

#23 heavenlybakes

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Posted 19 July 2005 - 07:52 PM

I second.

Thank you so much for doing this...it is really helpful to "visual" people like me. BTW, your chocolate cake is too die for!!! Perfect in texture...now I'm wishing my cakes would turn out as great as yours...hmmm, maybe in a million years.
Wilma

#24 bkeith

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Posted 20 July 2005 - 06:32 AM

I'm curious... what type of buttercream do you use?  I saw Annie's tip on smoothing the icing with clean hands after chilling and I forgot to ask her what type she uses.  (Hello, Annie, are you out there?)  I'm assuming this smoothing trick will only work with the meringue buttercreams, not the so-called "American" buttercreams.

View Post



You're right - it is a cooked buttercream. Sort of a cross between standard French (yolks only) and Italian meringue (whites only). I use whole eggs it's based on the Cupcake Cafe buttercream (recipe in this thread). I can't imagine the hand smoothing trick would work on a shortening-powdered sugar icing.


heavenlybakes says:

Thank you so much for doing this...it is really helpful to "visual" people like me. BTW, your chocolate cake is too die for!!! Perfect in texture...now I'm wishing my cakes would turn out as great as yours...hmmm, maybe in a million years.


Heh. Sometimes it feels like I've been doing this for a million years. Usually Friday nights around 2:00 am. :wacko:


And thanks to everyone for all the nice comments! :wub:

ICES Convention next week, and I usually come home jazzed from that. I'll try to focus that momentum into getting a couple more demos done during the slow slow slow month of August.
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#25 TraciiTVCL

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Posted 12 January 2006 - 12:14 PM

One of the best demos I've seen, BRAVO, I genuflect at your feet :wub:

Here's my question...How do you guage servings for this style of cake. I price by servings and get totally confused with this one??? :blink:

#26 bkeith

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Posted 13 January 2006 - 09:04 AM

One of the best demos I've seen, BRAVO, I genuflect at your feet :wub:

Here's my question...How do you guage servings for this style of cake.  I price by servings and get totally confused with this one??? :blink:

View Post


I do my best to underestimate servings on these, assuming whoever's cutting will make a mess of it even with a guide to cutting.

Essentially, for each tier, I figure the number of servings of the middle-sized cake, 6" high, then multiply by 85% for a fudge factor and to compensate for the chunk of cake that's taken out.

So for the 8-9-10 tier, I figure the servings for a 6" high 9" round cake (1.5 times the number of servings for a 4" high 9" round cake), and multiply by .85.

As a cutting suggestion, I tell folks to make a horizontal cut all the way across, starting at the low edge of the slanted top. Cut up the weird slanty piece into roughly serving-sized chunks. Then cut what remains as a normal tier.
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