Anytime you start something new, you’re bound to make some mistakes. Nobody’s perfect, right? We’re conditioned to be afraid of ‘doing the wrong thing’, of failing and making a fool of ourselves in the process. But hear it from me, mistakes are GOOD.
When I first started my cake business some years ago, I didn’t have any formal education in business management, nor cake making for that matter. I had been working towards degrees in journalism and landscape architecture, but couldn’t see myself working in those fields. So I started with the view that my business was going to be my ‘degree’, my real life training. I gave everything a go and welcomed every opportunity as a learning exercise. I made a ton of mistakes, most often eagerly so and I’ve learnt a plethora of valuable lessons in the process. Mistakes have built the sturdy foundation on which my skills, knowledge and experience stand today.
However, I did pay a price. The price was my time. Figuring things out on your own can be rewarding, but it is costly. There were certainly lots of mistakes that didn’t need to be made, mistakes that a ton of other people would have made before me and a ton after me. Mistakes that I wish someone had told me to avoid so I didn’t have to waste so much time making them.
I’m doing that for you today. Here are 5 rookie mistakes beginner cake makers should avoid.
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1. Testing a New Recipe on a Client
As you may already know, I am self-taught. Ten years ago, I learnt to bake and make cakes the way a lot of people did at that time – through blogs and YouTube. Even now, when I want to cook a meal, I’d Google the dish. I’d sort through the different recipes that come up in the search results, and usually end up picking one with the highest review. I’d make that recipe, make a note of what to do differently next time, and then change and tweak it every subsequent attempt. Eventually, I’d arrive at a true and tried recipe that I’m happy with, and this is when I’d consider cooking such a recipe for a dinner party.
Cooking is intuitive and forgiving for me, but even so I would never cook a dish I’ve never made before for a dinner party. Granted, my dinner parties are only for friends and family so the stakes are low. But still I wouldn’t test a new recipe on them. And if I wouldn’t do this when the stakes are low, I certainly wouldn’t do it when the stakes are high – with a paying client. Cooking food may be intuitive and forgiving, but baking is not. Baking is a science, and requires a certain precision.
So, never test a new recipe on a client, especially when you only have just a week or worse, a few days before the cake is due. I’ve done this and I’ve seen many fellow bakers and students do this before. It’s a recipe for panic and disaster. And after all the stress, the result is never ideal. The client is almost guaranteed to be disappointed.
DTC recipes are a whole system in and of itself. It’s something I spent years perfecting, however, if I’m trying something new, my go-to rule is to make it at least three times before offering it to a paying client. Your first go at a recipe will almost never turn out right. Even when the stars align and you’re happy with the result the first time around, there is always room for improvement. How would the result differ if you reduce the heat in the oven? How would it differ if you increase the heat? Bake in smaller/larger tins? Used cultured butter instead of normal butter?
When you add something to your offering, it needs to be tried and true.
What if a client is persistent in insisting on a flavour that you don’t offer?
I too have had plenty of these clients when I first started, and they can make you feel bad for saying no. Or maybe it’s got nothing to do with them and everything to do with a beginner’s lack of confidence. Regardless, when someone asks you to make a cake that you have not tested before – for example, they want a white chocolate mud cake when you’ve only ever made sponge cakes – the solution is to say no. I don’t mean ‘no’ literally. You can say something like:
‘Our specialty is [style of cake] which we have tried and tested extensively to ensure the highest quality. Unfortunately, white chocolate mud cakes are not on our menu but [another flavour from your menu] would be just as delicious, if not more.’
Whatever you end up saying, don’t give in to the pressure. And always follow a ‘no’ with a solution. Never just say no and turn the customer away.
2. Altering a New Recipe on the First Attempt
The second rookie mistake is also recipe-related. You should never alter a new recipe on the first attempt.
This rule applies to all things cooking-related in my life. I have a lot of experience cooking as well as baking so sometimes, my confidence and experience can get in the way. Occasionally, I’d look at a new recipe and think ‘oh, I wouldn’t make it that way..’. This is when I stop, and remind myself of my rule.
The rule is: always try to follow a new recipe to the tee on the first attempt. Don’t change anything on purpose. Without having made it exactly how the recipe called for first, you have no basis for comparison when you start making alterations.
As I tell all my students, in the first attempt, you should:
- Take notes – on what you did and what the result was like i.e , how long you mixed the batter, how much you filled the tins, how long the cakes baked for, what temp; was the cake burnt/dry/undercooked? etc.
- Take photos and videos of what you did and of the result.
Depending on how your first attempt turns out, refer back to your notes, photos and videos to identify where things may have gone wrong and make adjustments. But remember, only make ONE adjustment at a time. If you increase the oven temp as well as change baking powder brand and there is a difference to the result compared to the first attempt, you wouldn’t know what caused this difference.
I’m not trying to dissuade anyone from altering recipes here. In fact, I encourage you all to experiment with recipes! But, you need to understand the fundamentals, how the recipe works, and what kind of result to expect before making any changes.
3. Using a Cake Board That’s Too Thin
Cake boards often get overlooked in the teaching process. When you see someone teach cake decorating, you normally just see them stick a cake layer down onto a board, fill the cake, cover the cake, and so on. No one mentions anything about the cake board itself.
Cake boards play a crucial role in assisting the making and transporting of a cake. A cake board not only has to be big enough to allow the entire cake scraper to rest on it, but also sturdy enough to support the weight of the cake without bending. A board that is too thin will bend from the weight of the cake when you pick it up, which will cause cracks to appear around the bottom edges of the cake.
Back in the day, the common gold or silver foiled cardboard cake boards may have been sufficient in holding up cakes as the majority of those cakes were small – commonly 3 inches tall with two layers. Now, most modern cakes range from four to eight layers and are a lot more heavy. The regular cardboard cake boards just won’t be able to hold up. Use MDF cake boards instead.
Tip: A 5mm+ drum cake board is ideal for tall, heavy tiered cakes. However, cake drums are not the easiest to source at times. When you don’t have access to cake drums, stick two 3mm MDF cake boards (which are easier to source) together.
You can find the right cakeboards for you from the wide range of cake boards available at Caker’s Warehouse, our cake supplies partner.
4. Trying To Save A Dollar
Saving money is in my blood. Full disclosure, I’m Vietnamese and one of our standout traits – at least this was true for my family and our friends – is that we don’t waste anything. Turn off the lights when you leave a room, don’t leave the tap running, finish what’s on your plate… we don’t spend frivolously and that’s something that’s been ingrained in me all my life. So, if there’s a cheaper option, I’d naturally prefer it.
Being careful with money is a great quality to have when you’re running a business. However, sometimes, you need to step back and think: is saving a dollar here worth it? Going back to the cake boards, the cardboard cake boards are probably less than a dollar each whereas an MDF cake board could be $3 per board (or more depending on the size). That’s a 300% increase in price. However, when you look at it from the perspective of risk, by using the cheaper board, you’re risking your cake cracking or even toppling over completely. Days of your hard work are resting on that thin piece of cardboard. Would you rather spend the extra $2 or risk a disaster that’s a lot more costly?
The same applies to ingredients. At DTC, our mantra is ‘don’t cheap out on ingredients, cheap out on your time’. The difference in cost per kg between supermarket cocoa powder and premium cocoa powder may be $10, but that’s $1 per 100g. This means a difference of perhaps one to three dollars per cake. But the difference in taste? Paramount. Low quality cocoa powder (usually with a lower fat percentage) can make a cake taste dry. Premium cocoa powder on the other hand, gives a chocolate cake its decadent taste and moist texture. A few dollars here could be the difference between whether someone remembers your product positively or not.
So the bottom line is, don’t get caught up trying to save a few dollars in situations where the consequence of doing so is much more costly.
5. Don’t Believe Everything You See on Social Media
Social media is definitely a driving factor when it comes to our desire to make cakes. We see all of these beautiful cakes online and either go, “Wow, I want to make that too!” or sometimes even, “Wow, I can make that cake better!”. Either way, social media drives a lot of our inspiration and motivation to bake.
However, you have to remember that often, what you see on social media isn’t the full truth. For example, you might see an Instagram reel of someone mixing buttercream and notice that their buttercream is pure white. This might make you second guess yourself because your buttercream has never turned out that white! Well, chances are it looks that way because of a filter or colour grading in post production. In plain English, that pure white buttercream is really not THAT white in real life.
When I edit my cake photos, most often I have to up the brightness. I don’t do this to deceit anyone, but in most instances the picture looks crap if it’s all dull and dark. So, in order to make the picture look good enough to stop someone in their scrolling tracks, some minor editing is required such as changing the brightness.
The point I’m trying to make here is that social media is a highlight reel, it’s not ALL there is to anything. Use it to find inspiration if that’s your jam, but don’t let it skew your perspective and expectations of yourself. Instead, shift your focus into building the correct foundational knowledge and skills. This is the only way to build your confidence, when you KNOW how things work and how they’re supposed to turn out.
Making mistakes is inevitable anytime you try something new. Some mistakes are worth making for sure, the kinds of mistakes that teach you life altering lessons. However, when it comes to cake making, there are plenty of time-wasting mistakes that could be avoided such as the five I’ve listed above. If you’re interested in learning more about other mistakes to avoid, check out our Buttercream Cake Mastery course. This A-Z buttercream cake making course will teach you how to take control of your processes & master the foundational skills to create stunning, contemporary buttercream cakes that will wow not only your clients, friends and family but also YOURSELF!