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So you've got a nice, flat-topped cake after learning on Seasoned Advice how to eliminate doming and now you wish to ice it as perfectly smooth as you see it sometimes done commercially: no ridges with a even sheen.

Any secrets beyond patience and an artistic flair?

I already use a long, flat icing spatula.

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6 Answers

up vote 12 down vote accepted

Professionals ice on a turntable. Turntables for home use are affordable, and make icing much easier.

Your spatula should reach to about the centre of the cake when held steady and comfortable. As @rfusca suggests, heating it for buttercream is a good idea. You can also wet it for other icings, to make it glide smoothly.

For the icing process itself, start with the top of the cake. Apply a generous amount of icing; you will be thinning it out with the spatula, not smearing it right and left to get an even thickness. Hold the spatula to an angle to the cake, tip at the centre, and rotate the turntable. Let excess icing drop to the side of the cake. When you have done the top, smear icing thick on the side, hold the spatula vertically, the edge at 45° to the cake side surface, and again turn the turntable. When you have finished, you will have raised icing on the edge of the cake. To finish the cake, smooth these edges.

To do this, you need enough icing. "The professional chef" recommends 340 g (12 oz) for a 20 cm (8 in) cake and 454 g (1 lb) for a 25 cm (10 in) cake.

This all assumes buttercream icing or other spreadable icings such as ones based on whipped cream or creme fraiche. It is somewhat tougher for semi-liquid glazes such as ganache.

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semi-liquid glazes can be an advantage, as they're like self-leveling compound; you pour it on, and tilt the cake so it's coated and drips down the sides. Or see How to get glacé icing right on a cake? –  Joe Oct 11 '12 at 12:36
    
Depends on how liquid the "semi-liquid" is, and also if you have enough to pour over the whole cake and let it drip on the sides. If you get aluvial patterns from dripping it sparingly, or from using a thick ganache, and tilting isn't enough to make it smooth, you have to start levelling it with the spatula, which doesn't look as good. –  rumtscho Oct 11 '12 at 16:38
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If you're talking about buttercream or such icing - warm your spatula just a bit so that the icing melts just slightly as icing spatula hits it. I keep a bowl of hot water for this purpose beside the cake while icing.

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This + practice... lots of practice. –  ElendilTheTall Mar 15 '12 at 8:00
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i've actually heard that you can use a hair dryer set low to do this, too.

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I don't wish to detract from the answers offered already, but for a smooth professional finish what I think you may be looking for a product called Fondant

cake layer covered with fondant

Fondant is an extremely versatile product that can be used in a variety of ways.

It can be rolled out and draped over a cake to give it a smooth clean finished look. The cake to the right has a full layer of white fondant as the base, and is accented with the stripes of red fondant to give it an old fashioned candy look.

Fondant can also be poured over a cake as a liquid to give it a pristine, clean, and professional finish.

One source of fondant can be found at "The Wilton Web Site". (link provide is an example of fondant, not an endorsement of the product) However, if you have a local cake decoration shop you can probably get it there.

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I would make my fondant at home if I needed any. However, it tastes very different from icing, so it changes the cake a lot. –  rumtscho Mar 15 '12 at 22:12
    
When OP asked for a 'smooth' finish fondant is what comes to mind. Personally I prefer icing on a cake. –  Cos Callis Mar 16 '12 at 6:50
    
I'm going to assume that you've never actually used fondant -- as you'd know that it is not a saving grace, and that you have to do a lot of work to get the cake underneath smooth, with an even layer of icing, or the cake will have a strange lumpy look to it. –  Joe Oct 11 '12 at 12:27
    
@Joe, I don't think I said it was a "Saving Grace", I know from experience that it is "easier" to get (what OP asked for) a 'professional smooth' appearance with fondant than with traditional icing. –  Cos Callis Oct 12 '12 at 2:07
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There actually are a few tricks that haven't been mentioned, other than years of practice:

First, you need to start off with a crumb-free cake. That is, you don't want any loose crumbs from poking through the icing, ruining the coat. After stacking, I first brush it off with a pastry brush, then I apply a 'crumb coat', a thin layer of icing that's let to set up, locking in any remaining loose crumbs.

If you're not going to do a crumb coat, you want to put all of the icing on top of the cake that you're going to use, and slowly work it down. You tend to use more icing in this procedure, so that you're not scraping too close to the cake, and use a looser icing on the final coat.

For the final coat, you really need to use a turntable -- when doing the sides, you hold the spatula still, while turning the cake. It's also useful for the top, so that the height's the same on all sides.

Now, for the trick -- there's a time when some icings will develop just a bit of a crust on top. (I don't know if this happens for ones made with butter; I use shortening to get stark white) It won't be sticky, but the icing below's not fully firm. When you're in this limited window, you can place a sheet of waxed paper on the cake, and rub lightly to smooth out spatula marks or any other imperfections.

Your typical problem spots are right at the bottom edge where it meets the platter, and the top corner ... so you cover those up with a rope or other border. (another place where the turntable helps)

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Use a paper towel to smooth out icing. Trust me, google it!!!

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For this to be a useful answer, you should explain in detail the technique. Asking the OP to google it isn't helpful. –  lemontwist Dec 26 '12 at 11:56
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I'm going to assume it's the same trick that I mentioned (although I used waxed paper). You can use paper towels, but not all of them will work. I was told to use the 'shop towels' sold for automotive work, not the kitchen paper towels, but that was almost a decade ago and it's possible that it's changed. And it ends up generally flat-ish, but with a slight texture. It might be better for afixing decorations on the sides of the cake, and it helps to make imperfections less noticable ... but for smoothest, use waxed paper. –  Joe Dec 26 '12 at 16:38
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