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Ask The Expert: Liz Marek

Our expert this month is Liz Marek. She specialises in sculpted and special effects cakes with her work being featured in print and televised on Food Network’s Outrageous Wedding Cakes. The highly acclaimed author of Artisan Cake Company’s Visual Guide to Cake Decorating answers your questions and gives tips to your cake decorating problems. Find out more information on cake decorating at


Q: What is the best way to place your iced or ganached cake on your cake board?

A: After the final coat of buttercream or ganache, slide the cake carefully to the edge of the turntable until you can get your fingers under the cake. Put it onto a cardboard round larger than the cake and place into the fridge to chill for 15-35 minutes until it feels firm to the touch. I always chill my cakes overnight for easy transportation. Once chilled, you can easily handle the cake without damaging the sides. You can also ice the cake on the turntable on top of a piece of parchment to make it easier to remove from the turntable without damaging it.

Q: My ganache keeps splitting, what do I do?

A: If your ganache is splitting, you might have your ratios off. Not all chocolate is created equally. If the fat content is too high in your chocolate (milk chocolate has more fat than dark), it will affect the ganache. Ganache is an emulsion of fat and water (cream). For it to work, you have to have the right ratio. The general rule of thumb is twice as much chocolate as cream for dark or 2:1 and three times as much chocolate to cream for milk and white or 3:1. Bring your cream to a boil and pour it over your chocolate. Let it set for 5 minutes then stir until smooth. If you notice your chocolate splitting, add a tablespoon of HOT water and continue whisking. Sometimes an emulsion blender can bring it back together. Keep adding small amounts of hot water until it comes together. Your chocolate can also split if it doesn’t have enough fat in it, like a really high quality chocolate, so alternatively, you can add butter if it’s splitting.

Cake Levelling

Q: I can’t level my cakes, what is a quick way of doing this?

A:The cheapest and easiest way to level cakes is to use a ruler to measure equal distances in height around the cake round and insert a toothpick every 2” or so. You can use the toothpicks as a guide to cut off the dome of the cake. Ideally, you should learn how to torte cakes by eye eventually. To do this, place your hand flat onto the top of the cake round placed on a turntable. Using a bread knife longer than the cake round, start by cutting a line into the side of the cake right where the dome connects to the side of the pan. This is typically even all the way around and a good guide visually. Once the knife has made a line all the way around, start making little cuts as you rotate the cake, slowly making your way to the centre until the dome has been removed. Make sure you keep the knife flat as you cut. You can repeat the same process to torte cakes (cut in half) by cutting a line that is visually in the centre of the trimmed cake. If you’re really interested in quickly cutting layers, you can also check out the Agbay cake leveller, which is a professional and very SHARP tool for cutting cake layers quickly and evenly.

Non-alcoholic cake decorating

Q: When painting metallics, alcohol is used, is there anything else I can use for a customer who does not eat any alcohol based products?

A: If you do not want to use alcohol to paint metallics, you can use lemon extract, but you may not have a smooth result because there is quite a bit of water in extracts. The reason alcohol works so well is that it evaporates completely, leaving behind only the dust. If you want to buy a pre-made gold, I love Rainbow Dust metallic paints.

Chocolate Colouring

Q: What is the best way to colour chocolate?

A:To colour chocolate, you must use oil based food colouring or candy colours. Alternatively, there are some wonderful new concentrated dusts on the market that are oil soluble.

Piping Tips

Q: I hate piping lettering, are there any tips you can give me?

A: If you hate piping letters (like me), you might look into getting a set of the new Marvelous Molds Flexabets which is a silicone based cutter for making perfect letters. Best part? They come out of the mould very easily.

Expiry Dates

Q: How long does a regular vanilla sponge keep?

A:It really depends on the cake. A general rule is no more than three days. Bake on day one, decorate on day two and three and then delivery. If you have to bake your cakes ahead of time, wrap them in several layers of plastic wrap and freeze until you need them, no longer than two weeks or they will dry out. Adding simple syrup to your cakes can help keep them moist as well.

Lock in Moisture

Q: My cakes dry out when I carve them, what can I do to keep them soft and moist?

A:Carve your cakes and then crumbcoat immediately. Buttercream locks in moisture.

Baking Problems

Q: Do you have tips for baking deep and tall cakes, mine burn on the outside and are soft in the middle, what am I doing wrong?

A:To bake tall cakes, turn your oven down a few degrees. You can use pan liners to keep the edges from burning or you can use a heating core in the centre to help the middle bake evenly. I tend to just bake at a lower temperature for a longer period of time.

Cake Carving

Q: When carving cakes, I find my sponge crumbles off and does not keep a carved edge, what am I doing wrong?

A:You might be using a cake that is too delicate for carving. Using a cake that contains butter and is chilled before carving is ideal. Yolanda Gampp has a wonderful vanilla cake recipe that carves really well. I do not recommend carving box cake because it is so light and airy. You want a cake that has more of a closed crumb.