Beginner bakers might be content with just getting the texture and taste of a cake right. Those are the very first and, arguably, the most important steps – cakes are meant to be eaten after all. But people eat with their eyes first, and once the foundations are in place, you can start thinking about catering for the eyes. Cake decorating is an art and a profession. That’s right – in the professional, and especially commercial, world of baking, it is not uncommon that the baker and the decorator are two different people. The types of decorations are also countless – dusting, fondant cutouts, marzipan figurines, frosting, piping, modeling chocolate, even the innovative ink printing… You can, of course, start with the top-notch decor, but we strongly recommend you begin with the basics of decoration. Before you start to express yourself, you want to bake a cake, prep a level base, assemble your layers, and build some sound frosting in several layers. If you feel like you’d want to try your hand at cake art, whether it’s for surprising your family or wowing a crowd, check out these cake decorating tips we’ve compiled for you!
Tip 1: Level it out
Before you begin decorating, frosting, or stacking a cake, you’ll need to even it out – otherwise you might end up with the tower of Pisa or a complete trainwreck. You may use a special tool but probably your best bet is an ordinary serrated bread knife.
First, cool it down to room temperature. Don’t try to rush it! As the cake cools, it will sink a little, and if you level it out while still warm, it’ll slump. Some pro bakers suggest chilling or even freezing it, but room temperature will do just fine.
Ready? Begin not at the very side of the cake, but at the little elevated dome. This way you’ll save cake material and height. Keep the blade perfectly horizontal and slice partway in the cake dome. Rotate the cake in quarter turns until you have cut a circle around the dome. Then you can cut it off completely. Don’t throw away the cutoff scraps – eat them or use in cake pops.
Tip 2: Don’t forget your crumb coat
A crumb coat is a term you won’t hear in any other baking techniques apart from cakes. What does it mean, and why is a crumb coat necessary?
If you want to frost your cake properly, it will need a bottom layer in order to keep crumbs intact. Think of it as the base layer for paint or nail polish. With an offset spatula or a bread knife, spread the frosting in a thin coat. Try to get the entire surface and leave it for 15 minutes before you apply the top, final coat.
You can, however, stop at the crumb coat. This is a trendy look sometimes called a ‘naked’ cake which you may use if you want a rustic look or dislike heaps of frosting.
Tip 3: Smoothen those sides
No matter whether you prefer a meringue, buttercream, whipped cream or any other frosting, you want the outcome to be smooth and spotless. You will need an angled spatula and a bench scraper (no benches involved whatsoever. Please do not scrape a bench with the same tool you use on your food.) If you want to make your life easier, you can also use a cake turntable, but if you don’t have it, you can still achieve best results with some extra effort.
It is easier if you begin with a crumb-coated cake that has been chilled in the fridge for around a half an hour. Scoop the frosting on top of your cake and flatten it (the frosting) with your angled spatula. Hold it parallel to the cake and keep flattening out the frosting until it hangs a little over the edge. When you have achieved a smooth top layer (don’t worry if it’s not perfect – you will come back to it) with an overhang, move over to the sides.
With the angled spatula, plop the frosting all around the sides, starting from the bottom, and work your way up until it reaches the top overhang. This is the moment when a turntable will come in particularly handy, because now you will take your bench scraper, hold it at a right angle to the surface and parallel to the cake, and rotate the turntable as you hold the scraper tightly along the sides. If you don’t have a turntable, carefully rotate the plate and move your hand with the scraper in steady motions.
In case you end up with holes in the frosting, just apply more of the good thing and continue until it’s smooth. The spinning should have left you with a “crown” of frosting around the rim. With your spatula, smooth it out from the edges toward the centre so that the edge is sharp and your topping is perfect.
If you still feel like the cake could be smoother, we recommend that you chill it in the fridge before repeating the process to allow the first layer to set.
Tip 4: Piping practice
Roses, stars, dots, zigzags… the possibilities of piping are almost endless. The good news is that the piping tip does most of the work for you – the trick is to get the one you want. Luckily, it is quite simple, as tips for piping, for example, a star are called – you guessed it – star tips. If you are looking for small piping patterns, simply squeeze and release. If you are looking for that cupcake topper, move the piping tip in an inward swirl. If roses are what you want – take a star tip and swirl it outward. Always hold the piping bag perpendicular to the cake and do a few practice rounds on paper. The trick to all these piping patterns is practice, practice, and practice. Don’t worry if you mess up – while still fresh, icing can easily be scraped off or covered in even more squiggles and decorations, and nobody will ever know.
Tip 5: Cake writings
A popular type of cake decoration is writing in piping, be it a congratulatory message, a name or a joke. However, nobody wants to mess up that message by a misprint or shake of the hand. Or miscalculating the size of your letters and letting them go over the edge – literally.
To practice writing on a cake, first try it out with a marker and hold it tightly in your fist, like you probably did when you were a kid – that is how writing with a piping bag feels like. Practice a few rounds on paper.
You can use any piping tip you like, but it is best to use a simple round one, as star tips might be a bit too much of a ruffle to read. You may be tempted to use a very thin tip to get that dainty font, but be careful – sometimes it is hard to squeeze the icing through it and you might end up with an explosion from gripping it too tight. Too thick, on the other hand, will look clumsy and will not be easy to read. Use a medium-sized round tip for best results.
When you feel ready to start, first write your message on parchment paper. Put it on top of your cake and with a toothpick dot the message in the cake, making a stencil. Fill the piping bag halfway and do a few practice rounds on parchment paper.
Once you feel the flow, trace the stencil you have formed on your cake. We recommend that beginners use cursive, because it is easier to write in one stroke with smooth flow. Hold the piping bag perfectly perpendicular to the cake. When you are done writing, gently touch your cake with the tip of the bag and lift straight upward to prevent smudging.
Tip 6: Alternative cake writings
In case you don’t feel comfortable with writing or drawing in piping, you can always form the message in other ways. For example, for simple patterns which are not too intricate, you can use candy like Smarties or M&Ms, or mini marshmallows to spell them out.
Another creative approach is to make a stencil out of parchment paper: simply cut out hollow figures or letters, put them on the cake, and fill the stencil with sprinkles, powdered sugar or sugar pearls. If you use powdered sugar, wait until it is almost time to serve and then dust the cake. If it remains on the cake for a long time it will eventually dissolve and form clumps or disappear.