Cakes on a plane: A guide to flying with a large layered dessert

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It started innocently enough: My friend Mary was celebrating what we’ll call a “significant” birthday at her summer home. I booked my flights, then asked, “Would you like me to bring a cake?”

As a home baker, desserts are my love language, and a way to mark life’s special and not-so-special occasions. (To quote the famous credo, “A party without a cake is just a meeting.”) I’ve created chocolate cakes with feuilletine and salted caramel buttercream; red velvet with cream cheese frosting and candied walnuts; even a horse head cake for a “Godfather”-theme birthday.

There was just one teensy problem: I’ve shipped cookies and brownies and killer pecan bars, but in all my years of baking, I’d never attempted to carry a layer cake on a plane.

Thus began a journey that included extensive research, TSA agents, cake carriers, helpful strangers and buttercream carefully spooned into 3.4-ounce piping bags. For every baker with an uncontrollable urge to travel with a favorite cake, here is a survival guide.

The answer to your first question: Yes, you can fly with a cake. You can carry it on (the airlines will count it as a personal item) or even check it in your luggage.

But what kind of cake? A pound, Bundt or any other dense crumb will survive almost any trip and will last for days. But if you’re bringing a classic birthday or wedding cake — with two to four layers, fillings and frosting, piped flowers or other embellishments — then you have to consider the length of the trip and how long the cake can safely travel.

“I’ve shipped wedding cakes, so I treat carry-on much like a shipped cake,” says B. Keith Ryder, a retired cake designer from Virginia. “I freeze them. Cold cakes travel better.”

Traditional cake flavors (such as vanilla, chocolate and carrot) can be baked, assembled and frozen in advance. Ryder won’t fly with cakes filled with fresh fruit, pastry creams, mousses or whipped cream, which don’t freeze or thaw well. “It’s got to be a ganache or buttercream.”

But even just a refrigerated cake, unless exposed to extreme heat, can travel all day be safely served that night — or popped into a fridge on arrival. A cake can sit out at least 8 hours; those covered in fondant will last even longer.

For Mary, I decided to make a nine-inch, four-layer cake filled with lemon curd, raspberries, strawberries, blackberries and Swiss meringue buttercream. Most standard cake sizes fit under a seat; the next hurdle is figuring out how to carry it.

I have several cake containers (because of course I do), but I was flying on a small plane. Which meant that space for carry-ons would be limited. Which also meant I needed to research what kind of aircraft and its under-seat dimensions. (You can try calling the airline, but your best bet is sticking to the its under-seat luggage recommendations.) I probably had 12 inches in width but only 7 inches in height, which eliminated all those cake carriers that might have worked on a larger jet.

“You don’t want to use a cake box — you want to use a sturdy cardboard box,” says Barb Evans, who lives in Illinois and designed, baked and delivered professional wedding cakes for 42 years. Ideally, the cake sits on a larger cardboard round the same diameter of the box, and one side of the box is cut like a drawbridge so the cake can slide in. “Put the drawbridge back up, and tape the sides well with duct or packing tape. Make sure to bring extra tape with you in case you have to open it for the TSA.” She also recommends adding a window on top covered with plastic so security officers can see inside.

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Ryder wraps a frozen cake in plastic wrap, puts it a cake box, then fills the box with foam packing pellets so nothing can shift in transit. That box also gets wrapped in plastic and goes into larger box with more packing, and typically arrives still frozen.

I settled on a 12-by-12-by-6-inch cardboard box, which would hold the four-layer cake on a 12-inch round cake board. The box was too short to accommodate decorations — I’d have to add them right before the party. I packaged different colors of buttercream into small piping bags.

The day before the trip, I baked, filled and frosted the cake — the buttercream created a seal to keep it moist. I put a small dowel down the center to keep the layers from shifting. Then I refrigerated it overnight, taking it out just as the Uber driver pulled up.

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Pro tip: Layer cakes made from scratch are heavy. I knew this, but carrying a cake to your car and carrying it through an airport are very different experiences. With my roller bag in one hand, I stood in the security line with what felt like 20 pounds balanced on the other arm.

For once, I arrived at the airport with plenty of extra time. I already knew the TSA allowed cakes, but I didn’t know how long an inspection might take or if my little bags of buttercream might be tested.

Technically, the TSA classifies frosting as a liquid. “If you can spill it, spray it, spread it, pump it or pour it, then it’s not a solid and should be packed in a checked bag,” says spokesman Dan Velez. If you carry on frosting, it has to be in 3.4-ounce containers, which are then placed in a clear quart bag. Velez says it’s a good idea if the frosting bags can open in case the TSA wants to test a small sample for explosives.

I decided against ice or gel packs to keep the cake cool, but it turns out the TSA are okay with them as long as they are frozen solid when presented for screening. If they’re partially melted, slushy, or have any liquid at the bottom, they must meet 3.4-ounce requirement.

Evans knows bakers who have bought airline seats for tiered wedding cakes or gingerbread houses, but the box has to be short enough to fit into the TSA’s X-ray machine, which is about 12 to 15 inches high, he says — and then must wear a seat belt.

Although the TSA doesn’t track how many cakes fly the friendly skies, it sees plenty of food at the holidays. Lots of pies, which are fine. Gravy, cranberry sauce and jam all fall under the liquid restrictions.

Of course, there’s always the option of checking the cake layers and an unlimited container of frosting — but an assembled cake might not survive baggage handlers. “You can check the cake,” says Velez. “But you’re pushing it.”

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Ryder’s frozen cake is fine up there; I rejected the overhead because I couldn’t determine the exact dimensions, and I wasn’t willing to chance a slope, which would leave the cake leaning at an angle. Or it could slide, bounce or otherwise bang around, none of which seemed like a good idea.

Although I had researched the height, I forgot about the normal process of actually getting a bag under the seat: You tip it at an angle then slide it. A passenger across the aisle took pity on me, and we instead carefully inched the box from the aisle to under the seat.

That’s why Evans advises creating some kind of handle — even using duct tape around the box — to move it up and down without tipping.

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At the end of the 90-minute flight, the cake was still cool to the touch. The dinner was in two hours. I managed to get the cake off the plane and to the hotel, where I had 60 minutes to add piped buttercream flowers, edible glitter and gold accents. When I was done, the room looked like a murder-by-frosting crime scene.

So close and yet so far. After a short drive and one unnerving sharp curve, the cake arrived at its final destination, where it was safely tucked on a counter and served a couple hours later with singing, a birthday wish and glowing reviews.

But let’s say that curve had reduced it to a toppled mess. There would have been a tear or two, then I would have given Mary a hug and my cake wreck. We had survived the past two years, we were celebrating with friends, and that was more important than any cake.

Just warn everyone that it all could go off the rails. “Hey, I have no control over some parts of this process,” says Ryder. “It might be crumbs by the time I get there — but it will still taste delicious.”