I think every Muddy's baker would agree with me: it's not easy! But with a little practice, it becomes much more doable. 9 times out of 10 (or possibly more!), we find a crumb coat to be necessary to keep those crumbs out of sight and where they belong.
A crumb coat is a rather unglamorous -- but extremely practical -- thin coat of icing you put over an entire cake to catch the crumbs, which you then allow to harden before applying your beautiful coat of smooth crumb-free icing. I will provide you step-by-step instructions for creating the crumb coat, followed by a few pointers for creating fewer crumbs.
Note, these instructions were written with buttercream icing in mind. They may or may not apply with other varieties!
1. Get your cake ready for icing. Make sure it is completely cool! If it is a layer cake, go ahead and assemble it. Don't worry about crumbs in those icing layers between layers; you can always blame them on the knife when you cut the cake!
3. When you need to load your spatula, load it with as much icing as it can comfortably hold. The less you have to remove your spatula from the cake to reload with icing, the better.
4. Create a thin, smooth layer of icing on your cake. You may, like Karen here, prefer to make a thicker coat of icing and then scrape off the excess. Slide your spatula from the cake when you must remove it, rather than lifting it directly from the cake. Lifting tends to pull and tear crumbs from the cake, no matter how gently you do it.
5. Do NOT dip your crumb-coated spatula back into your nice clean icing! This is where a lot of crumb-icing contamination begins. Scrape and/or wipe all of the crumbs off the spatula first.
6. Complete your crumb coat. It doesn't matter how many crumbs are showing, but do make sure it is fairly smooth and even. You will thank me when applying your final coat of icing!
7. Allow your crumb coat to set completely before icing the rest of the cake. At Muddy's we like to allow the cake to sit uncovered at room temperature for 15-30 minutes, but if you don't have that kind of time or your icing refuses to harden, there are options! To speed up the set time of your icing, just stick the cake in the refrigerator or freezer for 10 minutes, more or less. Don't do much more, or you'll dry out your cake! You can cover the cake to prevent drying it out during this time, but it may slow down the hardening process further.
8. You are ready to apply your fresh, crumb-free final coat of icing now!
And now, a few additional pointers to keep in mind:
1. Before you start, make sure you have more icing than you think you will need for you cake! Once an icing is contaminated with crumbs, well, it is contaminated with crumbs. If you should ever pull your spatula from the cake and it be covered with crumbs, scrape the crumby icing into a separate container and wipe the spatula clean before continuing on your merry way.
2. Make sure your icing is the right consistency! Of course you don't want it too loose, as that may cause it to slide off the cake and/or your layers to move around. But too thick of icing can really tear a cake up and cause a plethora of unnecessary crumbs.
3. I cannot stress enough, do NOT pull or lift your spatula straight off the cake. It will tear up your cake! Slide the spatula off gently.
4. When possible, apply icing toward what you have already iced, rather than toward bare cake. This is somewhat difficult to explain, but what you want to avoid is running out of icing on your spatula while on top of bare cake. The cake will want to come off with the spatula, and we don't want that.
5. Have fun! Keep calm and carry on, no matter what happens. As with most types of art, almost any mistake can be undone or incorporated into an even better final product. And hey, if all else fails, cake pops!
Happy icing, my fellow bakers!