Tasty, but not so pretty
August 13, 2010 5:29 AM   Subscribe

How do I make cake balls look neat and pretty?

My husband and I are tasked with making desserts for a large family gathering, and my mother requested something that's already portioned out (as opposed to cakes or pies which require cutting and serving). We'd like to serve a variety of cake balls, which we've made a few times at home. The problem? They never look as neat/pretty/professional as cake balls we've bought at bakeries, and my family can be somewhat judgmental about appearances.

For tools to dip the cake into the coating, I've tried tongs like these, and my husband has tried using a plastic fork after breaking out the middle prongs. For the coating, we've been using bark coating, primarily, although I tried one mix of dark and semisweet chocolate with chocolate bark. We've been double boiling on our electric stove, but we have a fondue set that has yet to be opened.

What are some ways to ensure that the coating is smooth around the entire cake ball? Anything that we're doing wrong? Is there something that would work better?
posted by Terriniski to Food & Drink (11 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
This post from Pioneer Woman, but really from Bakerella, may be of some help to you.
posted by litnerd at 5:54 AM on August 13, 2010 [1 favorite]

I suggest using melting quality chocolates rather than bark coating. You could also thin out the bark chocolate by adding a little (tablespoon or two) of Crisco, but I'm not that big a fan of shortening.

As full disclosure, I manage the cafe portion of a bakery & the task of making caketop pops (as well call them) is all mine. So, I've made them in a variety of ways over the past year & a half. This is my favorite way, to ensure overall smoothness:

After forming cake balls, stick them in freezer to harden. Melt chocolate. Use lollipop sticks and insert into cake balls, dip into melted chocolate, let excess drip off back into bowl. Place upright and let them harden.

If the dipping process is challenging so they are lumpy, coat cake balls in sprinkles. Sprinkles hide all imperfections. I'm like you and prefer to have the finished product smooth. However, it has been my experience that people love them no matter the appearance. Don't overstress getting them perfect.
posted by ms.jones at 5:54 AM on August 13, 2010

Best answer: My suggestions:

Add a few pads of unsalted butter to your chocolate to make it less viscous (do a test batch first).

Make sure no water is getting inside your chocolate. Chocolate can seize (turn grainy and unappetizing) if even the smallest drop of water lands in it. Use the fondue pot, but be careful - chocolate can burn. Maybe invest in a candy thermometer. Chocolate should never get above 120°F/49°C

Consider dipping a ice cream scoop in the chocolate, and rolling the cake ball around in that instead of a whole pot.

If all else fails: add a drizzle of contrasting chocolate (white, if you're using a dark chocolate) on top.
posted by royalsong at 6:00 AM on August 13, 2010

Best answer: Hmm. I have never made cake balls, but I've eaten quite a few, and I've made other confectionery so I'll brainstorm on this one.

I'm assuming that the coating looks bumpy and rough, rather than smooth and round, yes? Have you tried making the balls of cake as smooth as possible before dipping them? A local bakery here in Dallas chills the cake/frosting mix to almost frozen before they scoop out the balls, which they say makes them less crumbly.

I read that another bakery here (people in Dallas talked about cake balls a LOT last year) does a very fine frosting layer over the naked cake ball, before dipping, which I would presume is for smoothing purposes. If you chilled them after, I see where this would work.

Similarly, you might consider a transitional layer of glaze. A sugar glaze would harden slightly and make a nice smooth surface for your coating.

Or you could pick off any crumbs, and use a paring knife to make them perfectly round. You might have to make them a little bigger to start with, so that as you shave off imperfections, the portion doesn't disappear.

Can you go to a heavier coating than bark? Possibly fondant or ganache, something slightly thicker that would be more forgiving?

I had a similar problem in dipping truffles, back when I used to make those a lot. The process of dipping them and putting them on the wax paper always smudged them, and I wanted that perfectly round outer shell. What worked for me was a unitasking tool called something like a bonbon dipper. It was made by Wilson and I found it at the local Michael's/craft store. It looks like a tiny plastic off-set spatula but made with two flat prongs. You place the naked truffle on the prongs, and lower it into the coating like a bath; then when you put it on the drying surface, you just slide out the flat tool without touching the truffle. It was pretty small, wouldn't hold anything larger than a golf ball... but maybe you can reverse-engineer that process of dipping without touching? I can see where tongs could mar the finish. And of course with the spear-and-dip method, the issue is how to get the dipped treat off the stick after. I like ms.jones' idea of just leaving them on the sticks to cool/harden.

Which leads to the question... have you considered putting the cake balls on sticks and serving them as cake pops?

Maybe you could switch to petits fours... which are similarly pre-portioned, iced cake servings... but easier to get smooth and pretty since you pour the icing over.

I'll try to find a link to the bonbon dipper in case my uncaffeinated description isn't helping you.
posted by pineapple at 6:18 AM on August 13, 2010

The bakeries probably use molds - like the ones you see here.
posted by watercarrier at 6:56 AM on August 13, 2010

I made several dozen cake balls last Christmas and came up with a pretty good way of making them look nice and uniform. I baked the cake like normal, then crushed it up and mixed it with a container of frosting. I used generic grocery store almond bark in chocolate & vanilla flavors. I made about four different cakes' worth, so I got the hang of it.

I washed my hands well and then rolled the cake balls up so they were nice and uniform (which is tough, because the batter is sticky- too sticky for a cookie scoop or even a spoon). I laid them out on a cookie sheet spread with a piece of waxed paper. Then they went in the freezer for 20-30 minutes. This is the important part! They have to be cold! Freeze them!

Then I dipped each ball into the melted almond bark twice- once for the bottom and once for the top. This made the most uniform appearance. They looked pretty good! Before the almond bark hardened, I shook sprinkles on them.
posted by aabbbiee at 7:16 AM on August 13, 2010

Oh, for clarity: I dipped every cake ball on the cookie sheet into the melted chocolate once, and then went back around to dip them in a second time after the first dip had hardened. You'll know it's hardened because it will peel easily off the waxed paper.

The first dip should be minimal. When you dip the second time, hold on to the hardened chocolate base and then coat as much of the cake ball as you can. This helps with the uniform appearance because it overlaps only at the base.
posted by aabbbiee at 7:22 AM on August 13, 2010

Okay, it was Wilton, not Wilson, and apparently they don't the off-set version anymore because I could only find these.

This article confirms that a few hours' freezing is the key. (That's the recipe from The Cake Ball Company of Dallas, who is widely credited with launching the trend in 2006, so they probably know their stuff)
posted by pineapple at 8:03 AM on August 13, 2010

I've been making cake balls for a few years, and coating them is definitely the trickiest part. I only dip each one once, and I make sure to have a nice layer of coating inside the spoon as I scoop it out of the bowl and roll it out onto the freezer paper to set. After a few minutes I visually inspect each one and spoon a little more coating over any areas that need it.

The decorative drizzle on the top is the real trick, though. Easy-peasy but the people eating them will get big, round eyes and ooh and ahh about how professional they look. Just melt more bark/candy coating and spoon it into a sandwich bag and snip off the tiniest bit of one corner (you want a thin line, not big globs), and just quickly go down the rows of set balls zig-zagging back and forth three or four times on eah one. You can use more of the same bark you used to coat them, or you can use a contrasting color. Either way, it really hides what to the baker's eye are major flaws.
posted by Brody's chum at 2:23 PM on August 13, 2010 [1 favorite]

My sister's been making them semi-professionally for a couple years. Her secret tip is lollipop sticks. Once she dips them, she stands them upright on a board she made with holes in it for the sticks. Then it's just a matter of adding a dab of chocolate later to fill the hole.
posted by web-goddess at 5:10 PM on August 15, 2010

Response by poster: I bought a candy dipping set (as pineapple suggested) at Sur La Table. (The Wilton sets are apparently out of stock online and I couldn't find them among the Wilton baking supplies at some of the local craft stores.) I tried thinning out the bark with quite a bit of unsalted butter (until runny) and that worked pretty well.

I went to one of the local cupcake shops at which I've bought cake balls before, and they said they mix their dipping sauce (didn't ask if it was bark or chocolate) with milk. So I'll also be trying a test batch of that. But I'm pretty pleased with the initial results from the butter and the use of the candy dipping tool.

Thanks everyone for the suggestions!
posted by Terriniski at 8:41 PM on August 15, 2010

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