story & photos by Bakery Boy
At every office I’ve worked in, I’ve been the go-to guy for cutting cakes. Whenever there’s a birthday, promotion, engagement, newborn, retirement, or just Friday to celebrate, one co-worker or another swings by my desk, tells me in a stage whisper of a party about to happen, and says to grab my knife and come along.
Known for being raised in a bakery, I’ve gotten used to this. It’s a good reputation to have because I get to eat cake often. So I always keep a cake knife in my top drawer.
My training was entirely informal, the result of growing up surrounded by cakes at every stage of their life-cycle, from batter to slices. Ever since I can remember I pitched in at my family’s bakeshop to mix, pour, bake, cool, stack, frost, decorate, and even deliver cakes, plus I helped cut and serve cakes at home or at wedding, anniversaries, ribbon-cuttings, and other events we catered. I know a few tricks, yes, but for this essay I decided to seek an expert’s opinion.
PROFESSIONAL HELP So I contacted Susan Green, owner of Birmingham Bake and Cook Company. Susan loves knives and teaches a monthly kitchen knife skills class. A Culinary Institute of America graduate with 35 years of experience in the food industry—including purchasing equipment for countless restaurants from Boston to San Francisco to Manhattan—she knows all about cake knives.
Susan invited me to her kitchen-supplies store, where she and various guest chefs teach two culinary classes each week. She had new knives still in their wrappers to show me plus a venerable pair she’s been using since 1981. “They’ve held up well,” she said.
Susan focuses more on preparation (slicing layers horizontally before frosting them) than on serving (my forté), but she spoke confidently about both. Here are some of her tips:
• “There are two kinds of cake knives—serrated and not. Use the serrated knife for less-dense cakes with textures softer inside and harder outside, like birthday and wedding cakes, and for angel food or Bundt cakes with more of a crumb factor. Use the non-serrated knife for denser cakes where there’s less difference between inside and outside textures, like nut-bread or cheesecake.”
• “Choose a knife that’s a couple of inches longer than the cake is wide. A 14-inch blade will handle rounds up to 12 inches or a full sheet; a 10-inch blade works for layers less than 10 inches or a half sheet.”
• “Pick a serrated knife with good scallops, each little curve coming to a point.”
• “You want a thin and flexible blade, not thick or rigid like a chef’s knife.”
• “You don’t want a curved blade for cake. Straight blades cut straighter with less sawing.”
• “You don’t need a sharp tip at the end because you don’t poke into a cake. Let the long edge, serrated or not, do the cutting. Save tipped knives for carving details if you’re creating unusual shapes.”
• “A turntable lets you rotate the cake and not reach out awkwardly. Keep your elbow close to your side, maintain a firm grip, and hold the blade horizontally to get layers of even thickness.”
CAKE TIME Okay, your co-workers have gathered in an office or conference room, you’ve sung Happy Birthday, and you’re ready to eat. It’s your turn to slice and serve. Here are tips—some Susan’s, some mine—to help you cut cake like a pro.
• Top tip: Be the person with the cake knife, so you always get invited.
• Hot water is vital. If there’s a sink, run the blade under hot water and wipe it with a clean kitchen towel between each cut. Paper towels or napkins will suffice, but they get messy quickly, so keep reaching for new ones.
• No sink? Bring a pitcher of hot water, dip the blade in between cuts, and wipe with a towel. No pitcher? Do your best by wiping the blade each time.
• Never breathe on the blade to warm or polish it. Don’t lick your fingers while serving.
• Don’t saw through frosting, which will just smear. Press straight down for a nice clean cut.
• Work quickly to get through layers while the knife is warm. This keeps frosting between layers neat instead of smeared.
• On a round cake make the first cut all the way across at the center. Poking a knife tip into the middle first and pulling toward the outer edge is asking for trouble.
• Wash your hands before starting and avoid touching your hair, nose, or anything else. Don’t be that person whose hygiene leaves people wondering if they really want to eat cake after all.
• Avoid touching cake slices. Let wedges fall over if necessary and then slide the wide flat knife under to lift them onto plates. A fork in your other hand helps.
• To really impress, bring a fresh pair of rubber gloves. Keeping an apron handy, well that takes the role too far. You want to be the helpful office-mate, not the one who secretly longs for a different career entirely!
BRAND CONSCIOUS Susan’s store stocks cake knives from Ateco of New York; R.H. Forschner – Victorinox of Switzerland (which makes Swiss Army Knives too); Kuhn Rikon of Switzerland; Messermeister of Germany; Wusthof of Germany; and Shun of Japan—all worth consideration. Prices vary widely, but for the new Ateco knives shown here expect to pay about $17 for the 10-inch or $27 for the 14-inch.
DON’T BE AFRAID “People are intimidated by knives,” Susan says. “Knife skills are where many home cooks have the least training, and yet it’s the one area that will most improve their experience in the kitchen. That’s why I teach my knife classes once a month. Even those who come again and again learn something new.”
TURN, TURN, TURN About the turntable recommended for preparing cake layers: “Don’t call it a Lazy Susan,” says Susan sternly. I guess no Susan likes that term. And what, I’m going to object while she’s holding a big knife? “I sell a Fat Daddio’s 12-inch plastic turntable with ball-bearing swivel for $12.95,” she says, “and an Ateco 12-inch aluminum cake stand with non-slip pad, ball-bearing revolution system, polished finish, and a 200-pound capacity for $67.95.” See, I told you she knows her stuff.
GOTTA DASH Someone just dropped by and told me to grab my cake knife and come along to a surprise office party for several co-workers who’ve been laid off. It’s not a great cause for celebration, but hey, there’s cake! Now I’m wondering: What song do we sing for people at a layoff party?
INFO Learn more, sign up for classes, or order knives from Susan Green at Birmingham Bake and Cook Company, 5291 Valleydale Road, Birmingham, AL 35242; www.bakeandcookco.com; call 205-980-3661; email firstname.lastname@example.org.