The topsy turvy cake, also known as the wonderland cake, mad hatter cake, or falling down cake is a popular cake design technique that involves carving and the physics of counterbalance. This tutorial demonstrates how to carve and assemble a topsy turvy cake using a minimum amount of knife work and a very handy upside-down method.
Topsy Turvy Cake Basics
VIDEO #1: Topsy Turvy Cake Intro
The topsy turvy cake method is similar to the ancient sculpting technique, contrapposto, which in Italian means counter pose. That is how a sculpted human form like Michelangelo’s 14-foot statue of David remains stable without keeling over.
The key is counterbalance. Note how both structures involve wedge shapes. As long as each wedge counters its neighboring wedges, the weight distribution remains stable and the structure won’t topple over. This video series includes tutorials on how to carve, frost, and stack a topsy turvy cake.
I recommend starting out using this professional method of filling and assembling cakes in the pan.
I use an upside down carving and frosting method so the cake cardboard that goes on top is eventually going to represent the bottom. This cardboard should be at least one inch smaller than the cake to get a tapered effect. In this case, it’s two inches smaller in diameter than the cake itself.
If you don’t happen to have the right sized cardboard circles then all you need is a compass and a ruler to cut whatever you need down to size. In this case, I begin with another set of cardboards that are the same size of the cake when what I want are circles that are two inches less in diameter than the cake.
First, locate the center of the circle by measuring the diameter and marking a line in the middle. Then, turn the board 90 degrees and do the same thing, again marking a line in the middle. Wherever those two lines intersect is the best approximation of that circle’s dead center.
Second, measure the amount that you want to carve off. In this case, since I’m tapering a total of two inches off the base of the cakes, I measure one inch on each side of the circle.
Third, plant the point of a compass into the center point and open it to reach one of the side markers. Use that bearing to then draw around with the compass. The result should be an exact circle that is two inches smaller than the cardboard.
Fourth, use scissors to trim around that circle. Repeat that same process on the rest of the cardboards until there is a bottom board for every tier of the cake.
Topsy Turvy Cake Carving
VIDEO #2: Topsy Turvy Cake CARVING
Topsy turvy cake carving involves two stages: tapering & wedging.
Carving Step #1 – TAPERING
Begin with a semi-frozen cake. I suggest beginning with one of the middle tiers as the medium size is usually easiest to handle. Once you get the hang of it, you’ll be ready for the smallest and largest tiers, which are more challenging. Here is the cardboard that’s the same size of the cake, which goes on the bottom now but will ultimately be on top.
And here’s the cardboard base that will ultimately hold up this cake from the bottom. Because this process happens upside down, the cake is now on its head.
Using a serrated knife, carve the cake on a diagonal starting from the cardboard’s edge, using the two cardboards as guides. Hold the smaller cardboard in place on the top of the cake so it does not slip around. The first stage is to remove the ledge that’s surrounding it. Now because this cake is frozen so it’s harder to cut but the advantage is that you can cut at a very precise angle all around.
Clear off the bulk of the scraps and put them into a bowl.
Once the bulk of that edge is removed, dig in more to straighten out the sides. Towards the end, run the knife in long sawing motions across the sides of the cake to shave off any last bits that are sticking out. Again, clear off the scraps and put them into a bowl then seal that bowl with plastic wrap and put it into the refrigerator.
Carving Step #2 – WEDGING
First, Wedge the Top (which is really the bottom)
Remove the smaller cardboard and push the knife gently just into the ‘top’ (which will eventually become the bottom) of the cake, right down the middle, to mark the halfway point.
Then cut a half moon sliver out of the surface, on a bias. Be very careful of the free hand here. If you are not sure with the knife, wear a cutting glove on that opposite hand.
Once that sliver is removed, flip it around and press it into the mirroring side of the circle to extend the cake on that side. Trim and move around any bits of cake that are needed to make that surface flat.
Second, Flip the Cake Over and Wedge it Again
Press the smaller cardboard round into the ‘top’ of the cake and flip it over so the smaller end is on the bottom and the wider end is on top. Now, the cake is right side up.
Make a mark down the middle of the cake on the same axis that was just made previous. Cut a half moon sliver from the same side of the cake from which it was just cut previous. Build it into the same mirroring side of the cake as well. The results should be a cake tier that is both tapered and wedge-shaped, leaning off to one side. Press the larger cardboard circle into the top of the cake and wrap the whole thing in plastic wrap, still sandwiched between the two cardboards. Put it into the refrigerator and repeat this process on the rest of the tiers.
Topsy Turvy Cake Frosting
VIDEO #3: Topsy Turvy Cake FROSTING
The best way to frost a topsy turvy cake is upside down, because that positioning exposes the sides of the cake better, making them easier to access with tools.
1. Continue here as with the carving of the sides by working on the cake upside down, keeping it sandwiched between two cardboards. Begin applying a crumb coat of buttercream frosting while pressing on the top of piece of cardboard with the opposite hand to maintain leverage with the cake. Do not frost on top of the cardboard and do not remove that top cardboard. Just hold it in place.
2. Once the crumb coat is complete on the sides, return the cake to the refrigerator for ten minutes or until the frosting is hard.
3. Next, apply a thicker finish coat. Note how much easier this is to do on an upside down cake. Now the finish will have spatula marks on it at this stage and that’s okay. Don’t waste time trying to perfect it. Instead, return the cake to the refrigerator for at least one hour or until the frosting is fully hardened.
4. Once the frosting is hard, whittle it down to a smooth finish by spinning the wheel while working the blade of a bench scraper up the sides. Clean off the blade periodically. You can also use the blade to redistribute frosting if a dent or hole needs to be patched or smoothed over.
5. Return the cake to the refrigerator for ten or more minutes, until the frosting is fully hard again.
6. Once the frosting is set, run a small offset spatula around the base of the cake to release it from its working platform. Press down against the board when doing this so as not to cut into the buttercream finish. Then flip the cake right side up. Clean any excess frosting off of the platter.
7. Remove the top piece of cardboard then add a thin crumb coat of buttercream to the top. Chill the cake until the crumb coat is hard.
8. Add a second, thicker layer of buttercream, filling in the gap where the cardboard was. As long as the cake is well-chilled, it should hold its edge. Once the top is all filled in, use a medium offset spatula to level it off. Then, clean up the sides, making them smooth. A lip should form around the top edge. Level that off. At this point, it’s important to clean the spatula after every swipe. Use only the outside edge of the blade as that yields a smoother finish with less jagged spatula marks.
9. Return the cake to the refrigerator for at least one half hour before proceeding with the doweling and decorating.
Decorating a Topsy Turvy Cake Upside Down
If it’s possible to work it into your process, I recommend decorating the cake tiers while they are still upside down. The angle is easier to work with. In the mountain cake example below, I piped a green ombre fir tree design while the tiers were still upside down. I covered the rough edge with dripping chocolate.
Topsy Turvy Cake Doweling
Video #4: Topsy Turvy Cake DOWELING
1. Mark the top of the cake where you plan to insert the dowels. The dowels should go ½ – 1-inch inside the outline of where the tier above will rest. In the video I’m eyeballing it but I recommend using a parchment paper guide that is the same size as the base of the tier that gets stacked above in order to position your dowels correctly.
2. Insert lollipop sticks or long skewers into the cake. Insert them at a slight angle matching the slope of the cake. You want the dowels to be vertical once the cake is assembled so you have to account for the fact that this tier will be sitting on an angle.
3. Mark the stick to measure the height of the cake. Since the cake is sloped, you will need to do this more than once since the height of some of the dowels will be different.
Remove the sticks from the cake. Be sure to keep careful track of which sticks go with which cake tier.
4. Use the sticks to mark wooden dowels then cut and sand them down to size. I recommend marking the dowels 2 millimeters shorter than the marks on the sticks so there is no chance that the dowels end up being too long. If the dowels extend beyond the surface of the frosting, that could compromise the cake’s stability once it’s stacked.
5. Make sure the matching dowels are true before inserting them into the cake. Press down on each one to make sure they hit the cardboard base.
For larger tiers that require a star configuration of dowels, some of the heights may match but it’s possible that they will all be different so each hole should be measured separately.
For the thicker center dowels, use a saw to cut them down to size. To make room in the cake for thicker dowels, I recommend coring out holes using bubble tea straws or an apple corer. If you don’t remove the cake that will be displaced by a thick dowel, you run the risk cracking the surface of the cake from excess pressure. Base tiers often require thicker dowels all around. Top tiers require no vertical support dowels since nothing gets stacked on top.
6. Once the dowels are all inserted into the cake tiers, I recommend decorating each tier separately before assembling the cake. I also recommend placing a piece of parchment paper on the top surface of each of the lower tiers. It should be the same size as the base of the tier that gets stacked above. This will help guide your placement as well as prevent the tiers from sticking together so you can shift them around if you need to when you stack them. It will also make it easier to disassemble the cake when it’s time to cut it.
7. Once the tiers are stacked, secure them from shifting side-to-side by passing long pointed dowels through the cardboard into the tier below. You may need to use a hammer to penetrate the cardboard. I call this type of dowel “horizontal supports” since they prevent the tiers from shifting horizontally.
Once all the tiers are stacked with pointed dowels holding them securely in place, you may add the topper.
Topsy Turvy Mountain Cake Example
The 4-tier red velvet cake that appears here served 100 and consisted of the following levels, all of which began as cylinders that were 5” in height before carving.
- 5” diameter round top tier (tapered down to a 4” diameter base)
- 7” diameter round tier (tapered down to a 6” diameter base)
- 9” diameter round tier (tapered down to a 8” diameter base)
- 11” diameter round base tier (tapered down to a 10” diameter base)
These measurements are for a skinny topsy turvy look. For a more squat, Alice in Wonderland cake shape, opt for wider tiers that are 3” or 4” apart from one another in diameter.
Items needed to carve this 4-tier skinny topsy turvy cake (note: if you don’t own all these sizes of cake circles, use a ruler, compass, and pencil and to trace their outlines and trim them down to size).
- 4” diameter round cake cardboard
- 5” diameter round cake cardboard
- 6” diameter round cake cardboard
- 7” diameter round cake cardboard
- 8” diameter round cake cardboard
- 9” diameter round cake cardboard
- 10” diameter round cake cardboard
- 11” diameter round cake cardboard
- Serrated knife
- Plastic wrap
1. Taper each tier using my upside down cake tapering method.
2. With a serrated knife, saw across the middle just enough to mark the top of each cake.
3. Angle the knife 15° and slice a half moon wedge off ½ of the top. Start and end the cut shallowly but arch downwards in the middle to slice ½” – ¾” deep.
4. Flip the wedge of cake onto the opposite side to complete the angle. Secure it with a thin layer of buttercream frosting.
5. Return the appropriate-sized cardboard to the top of the cake, press, and flip the cake upside down.
6. Repeat the same process on the bottom of the cake, cutting from the mirroring side and building onto the mirroring side so that the end result is a tilted cake that is wedge-shaped.
7. Repeat the process on all tiers. Store the tiers wrapped in plastic with the cardboard circles on both top and bottom at all times. The cardboard will help each tier hold its odd shape.
► For a cake that requires a level surface for a topper, refrain from angling the top end of the top tier.
8. When all the tiers are carved, stack them as they are meant to be assembled to test their balance and approve the overall angle of the cake. They should be able to stand alone without any help. Carve adjustments at this stage if needed.
10. For topsy turvy infrastructure, I have used both the dowel system and the SPS system successfully many times. My preference is the dowel system. There is more measuring involved because the interior supports are at different angles but it follows the same rules as an ordinary stacked cake.
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