A beginner’s guide to decorating cakes

A beginner’s guide to decorating cakes

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Have you ever found a cute cake on Pinterest and tried to duplicate it for your child’s birthday, only to have it end up looking like a ‘cake wreck’? I have multiple times, and it was immensely frustrating! Then I learned a few tricks from a friend, who is a professional cake decorator. These tricks aren’t difficult, and they hardly add any time to the process, but they do make a huge difference in the outcome of your project!

Now most of my cakes turn out pretty well, if I do say so myself. At least I get compliments instead of laughter, ha, ha!

 

 

How to make a cake1. First, bake the cake. I’m making a birthday cake for my husband here, and he likes spice cake, so I used my favorite spice cake recipe and frosted it with almond buttercream. I’ll include the recipes below. I used three 10″ round pans. They baked funny, with a raised edge and a slightly depressed middle. My cakes usually have a domed middle, go figure. Use a long, sharp, serrated knife to cut the top level. I like to use the top edge of the pan as my guide. (I let my kids crumble the cut-off pieces into a bowl, mix them with frosting, form them into balls and dip them in white chocolate.)

 

2. Spoon 4 Tbsp. cake syrup over each layer, then wrap completely in plastic and place on baking sheet in freezer. I make cake syrup by mixing equal amounts of granulated sugar and water, then heating until the sugar dissolves. The cake syrup will give your cake a fantastic, moist texture, without making it too sweet. Freeze at least four hours.

 

 

 

beginner's guide to cake decorating

 

3. Remove the cake layers from the freezer and unwrap. They are easiest to frost while frozen. Smear a large glop of frosting (isn’t that scientific?) on your cake plate to stabilize the base layer. Place your layers on it, ‘gluing’ them to each other with a layer of frosting.

You need a good, thick frosting to hold everything together. If it is too wet, more like a glaze, the layers will slide off one another. The Almond Buttercream recipe I will include below turns out perfectly in my arid part of the country. You may need to adjust it. They will also slide if you did not level them properly. Gravity applies to cakes, too, people! If you are making a particularly tall or heavy cake, you will want to a couple of sharpened bamboo skewers through all of the cake layers to help hold them together.

 

 

 

 

 

beginner's guide to cake decorating

 

4. Next, apply the crumb coat, which is just a thin layer of frosting that traps all of the crumbs. I know mine looks terrible. This is where I used to stop, wondering why my cakes always looked so awful and how professionals made their look so nice, ha, ha! The sole purpose of the crumb coat is to freeze all of the inevitable crumbs in this crumb coat. Keep it nice and thin and even, and don’t worry too much about how it looks. Tent some plastic wrap over it and place it back in the freezer for about an hour.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

beginner's guide to cake decorating

 

5. Now that your cake is perfectly shaped, with all of the crumbs frozen in the crumb coat, you will have no problem frosting your cake to perfection.  This frosting spreader/smoother is a life saver! I’m not even OCD and I would not dream of making cakes without it. But if you need all the tools, this cake decorating kit is a much better deal, and includes a couple of different smoothers (in addition to bags and a whole ton of tips) that will also do a great job. I used to try to smooth frosting with a knife, and, trust me, you need the right tools! A good smoother will also make fondant a breeze.

 

6. Now for the fun part — decorating! You will need a couple of reusable bags and tips. My absolute favorite tip is this jumbo star tip from Amazon. Most sets come with smaller tips, which are quite a bit harder to work with. I require a tip that is almost impossible to mess up! I made stars around the base of this cake by just squeezing while pressing the tip into the frosting and then letting up.

Practice a few on a plate before trying them on the cake. When you have the technique down all you have to do is scrape the practice stars back into the frosting bowl so you don’t have to waste the frosting. If you mess up on the cake, though, no big deal. Just swipe them off carefully with a butter knife and try again. If you mar the smooth surface, no big deal. You’ll just cover it up with a new star. Frosting is mercifully forgiving!

My husband loves almonds, and the frosting is buttercream almond, so I decided to press sliced almonds up the sides before covering the bottom and top edges with the piped buttercream. Actually, my kids did the almonds. They thought it was fun and I thought it was tedious, so I let them take it over and finish it. We then scattered almond crumbs over the top.

 

Cake decorating for beginners

 

Ta da! A cake I don’t have to be embarrassed about! And my family said it was delicious. I have an autoimmune thyroid illness called Hashimoto’s that flares up if I eat gluten, so I don’t eat cake. I don’t bother making myself a gluten-free version because I don’t particularly like cake. I just have a smidge of frosting, which I love. Okay, maybe more than a smidge, ha, ha!

 

 

 

 

 

Here are my spice cake and almond butter cream recipes.

Spice Cake 

Ingredients

  • 2 1/2 c. flour
  • 1 tsp. baking powder
  • 1 tsp. baking soda
  • 1/2 tsp. salt
  • 2 1/2 tsp. ground cinnamon
  • 1 tsp. nutmeg
  • 1 tsp. ginger
  • 1/2 tsp. allspice
  • 1/4 tsp. cloves
  • 1 3/4 c. brown sugar
  • c. melted coconut oil
  • 4 large eggs
  • 2 tsp. vanilla extract
  • 1 c. buttermilk

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease and flour bottoms and halfway up the sides of two 9″ round pans. Whisk dry ingredients together thoroughly. In a separate bowl, beat together brown sugar, melted coconut oil, eggs, vanilla and buttermilk. Add dry ingredients to wet ingredients and mix until combined, but do not overmix. The batter should be a little lumpy. Divide batter between the two pans, using your spatula to spread the batter evenly over the bottom of the pan and up the ungreased sides of the pans, so the cake has something to stick to and climb as it rises, helping to even out the top.

It also helps a lot to use baking strips around the cake pan.  You can buy them, or just tear an old towel into a couple strips that are about the height of your pan.  Before placing your cake in the oven, just get them damp and wrap them around the cake pan, tucking the ends in.

Bake at 350 about 30 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. If you live at a high altitude and your cakes usually come out too domed, decrease the baking temperature to 325 degrees and increase the cooking time by 15-20 minutes. Let the cakes cool about 5 minutes, then invert them onto a wire rack to finish cooling. This recipe makes two layers. I doubled it for the cake I made my husband.

Almond Buttercream Frosting

  • oz cream cheese at room temperature ( it will incorporate fully at room temp. but will leave lumps if cold)
  • 1 cube butter, also at room temperature
  • c. powdered sugar
  • 1 Tbsp. vanilla extract
  • 1 Tbsp. milk

Beat until thoroughly combined and fluffy.

 

 

 

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