Look what's just around the corner: Mother's Day, Father's Day, graduations, wedding showers, anniversaries. Nothing turns those occasions into celebrations like a beautifully decorated cake. And nothing says "extra special" like a cake you baked and decorated yourself. Too difficult for all but professionally trained bakers, you say? Not at all! Our cake-decorating consultants are here to show you how you can create gorgeously decorated cakes for any occasion with some simple equipment, ingredients, and techniques.
Tools of the Trade
Tempting as it is to go wild with cake-decorating gear, when you're starting out all you really need are a few good-quality pieces of equipment. You can make many simple decorated cakes with only a sheet-cake pan (9" x 13" is the most versatile), 8" and 9" round pans, and an icing spatula (preferably offset). A set of pastry tips is useful, but you need only one—a small round tip—to create our gorgeous Dotted Swiss and Rose Garden Glamour Bonnet. (You use your hands to form the roses out of "candy clay"!) Or you can skip the tips altogether, says Lisa Basini, a consultant and baking instructor who owns The Baking Coach in Long Island, NY: "Just use zipper-seal plastic bags and snip a tiny piece—the smallest you possibly can—off one corner of each bag."
You don't have to bake your cake in a conventional cake pan, says Krystina Castella, whose new book, Crazy About Cakes, is filled with inventive ideas for shaped and decorated cakes. Krystina likes to use her grandmother's hundred-year-old baking pans, but she also points out that "you can bake cakes in ovenproof glasses, coffee mugs, earthenware bowls, or baking dishes." Case in point: Our charming Easter Bunny Cake is baked in a 2½-quart ovenproof bowl and decorated with just one star-shaped pastry tip.
Speaking of tips, here's a professional one you may not have thought of: cookie cutters can be a cake decorator's best friend. "I use them to create shapes I want to outline," says Lisa. "Tap the cookie cutter lightly onto the frosted surface, then trace the shape with your pastry bag." Try this technique to create the Olympic rings on our Olympic Champion Cake—the perfect centerpiece for a party celebrating this summer's Olympic Games in London!
A turntable or lazy Susan is handy for rotating the cake as you work, but if you don't have one Lisa has a cheap alternative: simply place the cake plate on top of an inverted cereal bowl.
Patience and Practice
"Especially when you're starting out, make sure you allow enough time for your cake-decorating project," advises Lisa Basini. Take a cake-decorating class at a local adult school, community college, or craft store. Or turn your own kitchen into a classroom: Clear a two- to three-hour block of time for practice and make a batch of buttercream frosting. (Substitute vegetable shortening for butter to save money—you won't be eating this batch, so the flavor doesn't matter.) Then, says Lisa, cover a round cake pan with plastic wrap, flip it over, and practice your technique on the smooth, plastic-covered surface. "When you're finished, just scrape off the frosting and store it in a shortening can. Cleanup is easy!"
When you're ready to test your skills on a real cake, use a serrated knife to remove the domed top of each layer. "Keep your knife level as you gently saw back and forth," says Krystina Castella. Save the dome for snacking, or do what Lisa Basini does: toast it and crumble it over ice cream. Keep in mind that the surface to be frosted must be absolutely free of crumbs. Gently brush away any stray crumbs, and cover the cake with a "crumb coat"—a thin layer of smooth, spreadable frosting ("not right out of the refrigerator," says Lisa). Place the crumb-coated layers in the refrigerator for 15 to 30 minutes to harden, then proceed with frosting and decorating.
To simplify clean-up, place strips of waxed paper—not a full sheet—on the plate underneath the cake. When you're finished decorating, simply pull the strips out one at a time.
Frosting Types: Buttercream, Royal Icing, Fondant
For all-over frosting and most decorations—flowers, leaves, stars, and so on—you'll need a classic buttercream frosting, either plain or flavored. (For recipes and tips, see our Beyond the Basics tutorial.) Hard-drying royal icing can also be useful for lettering, stripes, and other special adornments.
Some decorated cakes also call for fondant, a pliable confection that can be rolled into sheets or cut or sculpted into shapes. Krystina Castella uses fondant for lettering, hearts, and flowers on her charming Wish Cakes. She likes to make several smaller cakes rather than one large one, "because then I have more opportunities for flavor combinations and decorating, and it gives guests more opportunities for enjoying their favorites." Try Krystina's technique on the Happy Everything Cake, and pick up a copy of Crazy About Cakes to learn how to make the other cakes in the photo.
You can also use a pastry bag filled with royal icing to pipe letters onto a frosted cake surface. Again, allow plenty of time for practice. "You'll need to learn to write again!" says Lisa Basini. When she herself was learning, she printed out cursive and block-letter alphabets from her computer and placed parchment paper over the letters. (Waxed paper works, too.) Then she half-filled a pastry bag—"you have better control when the bag isn't full," Lisa says—and practiced making the shapes. One additional piece of advice from Lisa: "Don't hold the bag too close to the surface. Hover just slightly above it."
You can create a gorgeously decorated cake without a lot of fancy equipment or technique. The secret: store-bought candies, ribbons, and other embellishments. For a child's birthday, try our Chocolate Teddy Bear Cake, frosted with an easy-to-handle cream-cheese frosting and "dressed" with licorice, marshmallows, and a fabric ribbon. Our T-Rex Cake—perfect for a young dinosaur enthusiast—gets its charm from its shape, frosted with cooked green frosting and studded with brightly colored candies.
Celebrate a grown-up birthday with another easier-than-it-looks creation: our Lemon Gift-Wrapped Birthday Cake. Both cake and frosting are deliciously citrus-y, and the "ribbon" and "bow" are made from purchased fruit rolls.
For a June graduation, take advantage of a recent innovation: edible photo transfers. "If you want to decorate a cake with an image that contains tons of writing, like a diploma, an edible icing photo transfer is easier than decorating freehand," says Krystina Castella. Order the transfers online or at a cake-decorating shop. "If you get hooked, you may even want to invest in an edible-icing printer," Krystina adds. Her Diploma Cake is an elegant tribute that's both personal and polished. Krystina's tip: "Be sure to bake the cake in a pan that's 1½ to 2 inches larger on all sides than the dimensions of the photo transfer."
Another impressive (yet easy) decorating trick: use sprayable food color to produce soft-focus airbrushed effects on your cake. The product is sold online and at craft stores, and comes in a spectrum of colors. Lisa Basini likes to create "graffiti" decorations by spraying through stencils she makes herself.
On the Fancy Side
Sometimes fast-and-easy won't do: the occasion is too important, or you simply want a new challenge. In that case, brush up on your technique by reading our cake-decorating tutorial and get inspired by these ideas.
• For Mother's Day or Father's Day, make Krystina Castella's gorgeously decorated Mom (or Dad) Cake. You'll need three 10" x 10" square pans, paper templates for the letter shapes, and a sharp, steady knife. The cakes are frosted with buttercream, slathered with coconut on the sides, and piped with colored buttercream along the edges. Rolled, cut, and hand-shaped fondant adds the finishing touches.
• You'll need five round cake pans of different diameters—plus a block of dry ice for a special effect—to make our dramatic, chocolate-frosted Volcano Cake. Imagine the wide eyes and delighted gasps of your guests (especially the youngest ones)!