I am trying to ice a mini 3 tier round cake and my icing is horrendous. I can't get it to look smooth and polished. Ever time I lift the spatula the icing comes off and the outside of the cake looks all lumpy. Help please
For the mini tier cakes such as 2",3",4",5" layers, I have found (through several trial and errors) that the best way to ice these cakes smooth is to ice the bottom tier completely, let it crust, smooth it, then place the next tier on top of the bottom tier. Ice it on top of the bottom tier, fixing any boo boos in the base tier if necessary, let that icing crust, smooth it, and place the next tier on, etc...you get the picture. For the very small 2" round, you may want to stick a straw down the middle of the little cake once it is stacked. Then, use the top of the straw as a handle while you smooth the sides of the cake. Either remove the straw to ice the top of the tier or cut the straw and use it as a dowel to hold the tiers in place.
Now, if it's just two tiers (5", 4") you can ice them separately and then assemble them with the aid of a long spatula or cake server. Make sure you ice them on a turntable that has some no-slide shelf liner on it so the little cakes don't move around on you. But, if the tiers are smaller, it has been my experience that icing them stacked looks much nicer.
"I'm replying again because in rereading your question, it dawned on me that it may be the actual "icing the cake smooth" part that you're having problems with, not the "keeping it smooth while you assemble it" part.
That being said, here's how I frost a cake with any crusting icing.
What I do is frost my cake with one of two items. Depending on my mood, I either use a plastic spackling spatula (from Lowe's, a hardware store here--I use a 4" and 6" for the sides of my cakes) or a plastic dough scraper (I've also heard this called a bowl scraper). Using these tools, you can get your icing almost perfectly smooth with very little effort. (And I can wash them in the dishwasher). I think the dough scraper is my favorite, but I go back and forth. The 6" spatula is definitely better for the sides of tall cakes, though. I like the plastic better than metal because it molds to the cake.
I do the top of the cake first when I ice the tiers separately. I use the cake icer tip to apply icing to the top of the cake or I just dump a bunch of icing on the top of the cake. Then I spread it out and smooth it with a few strokes of the spatula or scraper. Don't worry about fine lines from the sides of the scrapers, those will disappear later. If I have extra icing on the top, I either remove it from the cake or (what I usually do) smooth it down the sides of the cake.
Then, I apply frosting to the side (or sides, if it has corners) of the cake. For round cakes, I then wrap my arm around the cake and take the spatula or scraper at a 90 degree angle and run it around the cake to get a uniform side. You don't have to be able to run it around the whole cake in one swipe. I use several overlapping strokes to do this. For cakes with side edges, I try to smooth each side with one stroke. If I have applied too much icing at points, I may have to do this several times, removing blobs of icing in places, to get the look I want. Then, I go back and gently smooth the corners with light, short strokes. Once again, don't worry about fine lines. The extra icing at the top edge simply gets gently smoothed onto the top of the cake (sometimes I gently press the rim with my finger to achieve a gently rounded edge), while the excess icing at the bottom edge gets wiped away with a paper towel or q-tip.
I then let the icing sit until it is touch-dry. Then, I place either computer paper or a Viva paper towel (smooth side on the cake) on the top of the cake and gently smooth with the palm of my hand or a fondant smoother. Next, I do the same on the sides of the cake. I don't try to do all of the sides at the same time. I smooth section by secti
I set aside my "decorating frosting" from my icing frosting, it is the same but i take my "icing frosting" and thin it. Kinda a halfway between crumbcoat and decorating consistincy. I have found this to be the easiest way. The frosting goes on nice and smooth. Then i always put my cakes in the frig to get a quick crust then smooth with wax paper and my warm hands. I have put a wet spatula when crusted and this has worked well for me. Good luck.
Thanks for all your suggestions. I will give them a try the next time I have the courage to attempt this again. I am new to this and loosing confidence FAST
OH! Don't give up. Everyone has trouble smoothing icing. It takes a bit of practice and time. Everything that was suggested has been tried and works, well. You can also heat, under hot water, a spatula, and smooth the frosting. Start small and enjoy the process. Take a look at the forum, "Cake Disasters", and you'll see everyone has his, or her bad moments.
Don't get discouraged! This isn't worth doing if you can't have fun with it! Try a few of these methods and see what works for you. Experiment. You WILL get it. In the meantime, don't worry about having a perfectly smooth cake. If you look at the "professional" cakes in magazines, many of them do not have smooth frosting unless they are fondant covered.