Tips for Novice Cake Decorators

This cake is double height (baked two Kitties and stacked with whipped cream frosting for filling.  An example of the "butter" yellow color.
This cake is double height (baked two Kitties and stacked with whipped cream frosting for filling. An example of the "butter" yellow color.

Want to Make Good Looking Cake?

With all the cake shows on TV it looks fun to make a great looking cake and can get you geared up to make an impressive cake for a party. But if you've tried and failed it can be an overwhelming and intimidating task. It takes a lot of experience to make a professional looking cake but you don't need a lot of experience to make a nice looking cake. The easiest way to gain experience and to make a good looking cake is to start with a shaped pan, usually a kids favorite character. Every cake I make for a friend or relative is an experiment in something I've never tried before and I always learn something new. This article is for someone familiar with baking and offers some things to consider when decorating a cake and is geared toward making a character cake, focusing on the fun part, the decorating.

The Cake

The fun part is the decorating, not the baking so I often use a cake mix to make the process easier and quicker.

  • Consider how many the cake needs to serve. Estimate 8-12 pieces per cake mix or ~18 cupcakes.
  • One option is to make a character cake with one mix and cupcakes with another box to help increase the number of servings. Or, instead of cupcakes, a plain shaped (rectangle or round) cake as a place to write “Happy Birthday Sammie” or “Sammie is 3!”
  • Another option is to make two character cakes. Possibly a “friend” character, like Mickey and Minnie from the same cake pan or Mickey and Donald Duck with different cake pans.
  • Yet another option is to make two character shaped cakes and stack them with a filling in between. You may have to slice the top off the lower layer so the top lays flat, but a generous layer of filling can work just as well for leveling. But REMEMBER to cut the pieces smaller when serving the cake since there is twice the amount of cake below.
  • Use a cake mix. I often use equal amounts of butter in place of oil in box mixes, it helps provide a firmer cake that wouldn’t be too crumbly to work with. And if you’re at high altitude don’t forget to use the high-altitude directions.

  • If making a 3-D cake blend a regular mix with a pound cake mix. A regular mix doesn’t have the firmness to hold an upright shape as well but blending it with a pound cake helps provide that firmness. It will work to use a chocolate cake mix with a “yellow” pound cake mix, it will still turn out chocolate. Use the extra for cupcakes or a shaped cake to write a birthday message.
  • These pans are not non-stick so remember to use a generous amount of spray oil like Pam, or even better, use the Pam with flour on the cake pan surface, there are tiny dents for details that tell you where the shapes are and you don’t want to loose that part in the pan when flipping it out.
  • Make sure to let the cake cool, more than 10 minutes but not completely cool when taking it out of the pan.
  • 3-D cakes: cool at least 10 minutes and then flip-flop the cake in each side until totally cooled.

The Cake Board and Transport

It is the last thing you think of but it pays to think ahead.

Buy or make a cake-board that will fit your cake shape. You’ll want a grease-proof surface. The craft stores have them. Wal-Marts and most craft stores like Michael’s, JoAnns, Hobby Lobby etc. have a cake decorating aisle and have these items.

  • They come rectangular (1/4 or 1/2 sheet size; 10x14 or 13x19)
  • Round 12” or 14” diameter
  • Custom make your cake board. Trace the outline of the pan on cardboard, add another 1/2 inch to the outline. Cut out the design and then cover the board in grease proof wrap (also in the cake craft aisles, looks like silver wrapping paper) or if you’re in a pinch you can use aluminum foil or wax paper but it could get snagged during decorating and will get shredded when it gets cut for serving. If you need a stiffer board, glue two together.

Transport: find a box that will fit your cake board plus room to grab the board out. Make sure it is tall enough for the height of your cake.

  • Buy a cake box (also in the cake craft aisle). You may have to cut down a cake board to make it fit the box. Be aware that the cake boxes they sell right next to the cake boards may not have the same dimensions, A real pet peeve of mine.
  • Test out your cake board and transport box system before you get a cake on the board, you don’t want any surprises when the cake is all done but you’re in a rush to find a way to move it.
  • I occasionally use a cooler if the cake is a very odd or tall size, remember to test the cake board in it first.
  • An upturned bowl that fits over the cake can work too. Just make sure the top won’t slide around and bump the edges of your cake, it will remove the frosting off the sides. Use tape to secure it in place.
  • Use long wood skewers (like for making kabobs for the grill) or toothpicks to stick in the cake (in discrete spots like in dark colored spots) to help “tent” a cover (like saran wrap) over the cake.
  • For the most part, the cake will stay in place on the cake board and will not likely slip around, so don’t grease up or butter a cake board.
  • Don’t use plain cardboard, the oils and moisture in the cake will soak the cardboard and soften it, make sure you have a moisture/grease proof surface to put your cake on.

The Frosting

  • Chose your frosting, home made butter cream or store bought in a tub. Either works well. You’ll likely need about 3-4 tubs of frosting and a double (or triple) recipe of buttercream (1 recipe = 1 cup of fats). It sucks when you’re halfway done and you run out.
  • Store bought tubs.  You may have to add some powdered sugar to thicken the consistency, it tends to be a bit on the sticky side and can be a bit droopy.
  • Don’t buy whipped, you’re paying for more air and less frosting.  

Buttercream tips.

  • Home made buttercream. The best recipe is the Wilton recipe, although it calls for shortening and butter I don’t like shortening (it’s hydrogenated) and I replace it equally with butter so all the fat is all butter. UNLESS you want stark white, that’s where shortening come is use, also use colorless vanilla if you want stark white, otherwise you get a creamy yellowish (butter) color.
  • Make sure butter is at room temperature (left out from fridge for 1+ hours, separate the sticks from the box to aid in it reaching temperature faster).
  • You can make it ahead easily, a month if you want, and refrigerate it. You’ll likely store it in a container much larger than sticks of butter so it may take quite a few hours (overnight is just fine) to get it to room temperature, remember it’s like butter because it is mostly made of butter.

Do a crumb coat (or not). If there’s a lot of spreading required to cover the cake it helps to get a thin layer of frosting spread on, who cares if crumbs get mixed in because you’ll put another layer on later when decorating. It’s best to refrigerate between the crumb coat and final coat to keep those crumbs glued in place. A crumb coat is helpful if you want to wait a while (more than 24 hours and up to a week) between the making of the cake and the decorating it’s a protective layer from drying out (that’s the purpose of frosting). A cake can go 24 hours tightly wrapped (like saran wrap) in the refrigerator without frosting; any longer you’re risking it drying out.

The coloring. Wilton gel colors are usually required to get the right colors for the character, some Wal-Marts and most craft stores like Michael’s, JoAnns, Hobby Lobby etc. have a cake decorating aisle and have these items.

  • You only need a little on a toothpick to get your color, and give it some time, the colors will get darker over time.
  • Black: Start with chocolate it takes a lot of black coloring to get it black from white so if you start dark it won’t take much to get it black, besides you won’t have kids teeth and mouths turning black at your party. Buy a tub of chocolate if you have a lot of black in the design. For butter cream, just add powdered baking cocoa (unsweetened, there's enough sugar in it already) and maybe a little more milk to thin it back out if you added a lot of cocoa.
  • Brown: use chocolate!
  • Super White: use white shortening and colorless vanilla extract.
  • Thinking of trying fondant?
  • Fondant is rather tasteless, do not expect it to be as yummy as frosting. But flavorings can kneaded in with the color to make it better.
  • If covering an entire cake you’ll need to cover it with butter cream, or the like, first. It will add flavor and make a smoother surface for the fondant to lay on.
  • Use it as pieces on a frosted cake, like for flowers.

The Filling

Fillings can really fancify the flavor of your cake.

Flavors & Recipes

  • An easy one is to use fruit jam. I prefer to use one without seeds so I make sure I get seedless varieties.
  • Another easy one is to use pudding, regular, instant pudding. Have fun with the flavors.
  • I have a favorite website (see link below) where I found a bounty of fun flavors.
  • I posted my own recipe on food.com that is a great, less-sweet alternative titled Whipped Cream Frosting (see link below)

Filling the Cake

  • If you feel comfortable splitting your cake (horizontally through the cake) then try it. There are special wire cutters that can slice through a cake evenly. In lieu of a special cake splitter you can use toothpicks poked in around the sides of the cake at the same level (so you cut evenly) then use a bread knife to slice through, above the toothpicks. Lifting the layer off can be tricky, make sure you have a place to set the top layer down first as your hands will be full and you'll want to act quick. Warning: This can be one of those moments when your hard work can crumble into a mess, attempt if you're feeling confident or you have noting to loose (you still have some tasty cake, just not in the form you intended)
  • If you've baked several cakes to be stacked not splitting is required.
  • It's good to pipe a frosting dam around the outline of the cake atop the piece of cake that will receive the filling to keep the filling from leaking out and seeping into your outer frosting layer.
  • Filling cupcakes. Fill a decorator bag, coupled with a tip with a large opening. Poke the tip into the top of the cupcake and squeeze some filling in. There will be a dot of filling left where you entered the cupcake, no worries, the frosting will cover it.

Filling a Decorating Bag

Holding a Decorating Bag

This picture is actually showing a fun way to do lettering and other fun shapes with melting or candy chocolate. Check out my link to eHow if you're interested in this technique.
This picture is actually showing a fun way to do lettering and other fun shapes with melting or candy chocolate. Check out my link to eHow if you're interested in this technique.

Decorating

As in painting a house, most of the work is prep-work. So here is where it finally gets fun. I'll spare you the basics and focus on the things I've discovered help me to make it all work better.  You can find basics in a Wilton book or click here.

  • Decorating bags. I've come to love the disposable bags (I think they're recyclable now). You'll need a bag for every color you intend to use, and a coupler for each bag too.  The couplers allow you to switch tips without setting up a new bag for each tip.
  • Filling a bag (with the tip secured with a coupler) I like to use a tall drinking glass or cup (not too wide) to fold the edges of the bag over and fill. Don't overfill a bag, or you'll have it squeezing out the top and all over your hands.
  • Recovering the coupler after the cake is done and gone.  I do like to save the bags with left over frosting (in the fridge) until the very last moment in case I need to fix any mistakes.  But once I need to clean my equipment and get the couplers out I find the best way is to use a serrated knife and cut the bag (why I love disposable) just above the coupler and pull it out.  It beats reaching in the goopy bag to get it.  Now I rinse my bags clean of the frosting so I can put them in the recycle bin.
  • Holding the bag.  It can feel awkward at first.  I am right handed and I hold the bag in my right hand.  Twist the bag generously just above the level of the frosting, making sure to get air bubbles out.  My right thumb and pointer fingers jobs is to cinch tightly around the bags twist, as  if making a tight "OK" hand gesture, keep it tight or you'll have frosting oozing out the top of the bag.  The job of the other three fingers is to provide pressure on the frosting, they will squeeze the frosting out the tip.  It takes time to learn to squeeze gently and consistently.  The right hand's job is to "draw" or guide the tip to where you want to to go.  The left hands job is to provide stability and assist the right hand in steering the tip.  Hold the bag at a 45 degree angle to the surface of the cake for writing and 90 degrees for making stars (the majority of what is on a character shaped cake.
  • Practice making patterns on a piece of wax paper until you get the hang of it.  Scrape the practice frosting back into the bag and keep re-using.
  • Each character or shaped pan comes with a decorating guide and tells you how much frosting to make for each color, and in what order to do it in. 

Time Management

A decorated cake can be more time consuming than an average cake. It used to take me a full day to a day in a half from start to finish. Now, with kids around, it takes me a week or so. I've shifted to a "start early and chip away at it" method for completing a cake in time (or any project, for that matter).  I'll make the first step a week before the cake is due at a party.  This is when I love having an extra fridge in the garage.

  • My biggest time saver (no, it's nor really cheating) is to buy an un-decorated cake from a grocery store or Costco or wherever you can buy a cake. I order a plain (crumb-coated) cake. It really throws them off and I have to explain myself so they are clear in what I want.
  • Make frosting and filling ahead, you can do it up to a month ahead, but I usually do it a week before.
  • Bake the cake 2-3 days before party day. Get a crumb coat of frosting on it ASAP so get your frosting and filling ready before you bake the cake so it will be ready once the cake is cooled. Store the cake wrapped tight in saran wrap stored in the fridge if you run out of time or your frosting and filling isn't ready yet.
  • Start decorating the cake the day before the party. This allows enough time for mistakes and emergencies. This also leaves you with one less thing to stress about on the day of the party, especially if you're hosting the party and have a gazzilion other things to do that day.

Learn the Skills For a Fun and Delicious Creative Outlet

I find making and decorating cakes fun and I hope you give it a shot and try your best. I don't think my cakes are at the professional level or are worthy of starring on a TV show but friends and family are usually impressed. I am self taught and have been working on my cake skills for over 15 years now. I often design and decorate cakes in my head up to a month before creating it. I don't imagine every detail, I leave some up to inspiration in the act of creation.

Comments 4 comments

Simone Smith profile image

Simone Smith 5 years ago from San Francisco

What an awesome guide! Your cakes are so pretty!! And your tips are excellent, too. As someone who spent time working at a cupcake shop as a fondant artist, I certainly used a great number of these methods- they're tried and true, to be sure! Voted up, useful, and beautiful!


E. A. Wright profile image

E. A. Wright 5 years ago from New York City

Good advice here, including a really clever suggestion for filling a cake decorating bag over a glass. I'm using that one next time I work with frosting.


gordon the train 5 years ago

These are all very pretty cakes


kate 2 years ago

Hi,

There is some great information here for up coming bakers. A really useful tool that I used and still use is "baking it" http://www.bakingit.com. This website has loads of great calculators for both new and pro bakers.

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    Some Examples of My Work

    Most of my cakes are for kids birthdays.  I love to get inspiration browsing Google images.

    Butterfly Cake

    Started with a round cake (10" springform) split for a raspberry filling experiment (gone wrong!) Split the round in half to create two half rounds and put cut sides out and round sides in and cut out triangle notches to create top and bottom wings.
    Started with a round cake (10" springform) split for a raspberry filling experiment (gone wrong!) Split the round in half to create two half rounds and put cut sides out and round sides in and cut out triangle notches to create top and bottom wings.

    Train Cake

    The tracks are made with chocolate twizzlers and  Kit-Kat ties.  Candy comes in handy to make accessories and details.  I've seen stone/rock candy sprinkled around the tracks for a nice touch.
    The tracks are made with chocolate twizzlers and Kit-Kat ties. Candy comes in handy to make accessories and details. I've seen stone/rock candy sprinkled around the tracks for a nice touch.
    A Thomas themed train
    A Thomas themed train

    Ladybug Cake

    This was my first ice cream cake.  I used the Bake 'n Fill cake pan and whipped cream frosting (buttercream doesn't work well frozen).  Many trips to the freezer, working in short bursts to keep the ice cream inside solid.
    This was my first ice cream cake. I used the Bake 'n Fill cake pan and whipped cream frosting (buttercream doesn't work well frozen). Many trips to the freezer, working in short bursts to keep the ice cream inside solid.

    Buche de Noel Birthday Cake

    Lettering done in chocolate
    Lettering done in chocolate

    Experimental Grooms Cake

    Taught my cousin to make cakes so she could take the skills back home and create a grooms cake for her friends wedding.  Used marbled fondant.  Made two heart cakes, each a different flavor.
    Taught my cousin to make cakes so she could take the skills back home and create a grooms cake for her friends wedding. Used marbled fondant. Made two heart cakes, each a different flavor.

    Under Construction Cake

    The "heavy" equipment are real toys (curently lost in the sandbox).  The "logs" are stick pretzels.  The cones are actually the candles.
    The "heavy" equipment are real toys (curently lost in the sandbox). The "logs" are stick pretzels. The cones are actually the candles.

    Airplane Aerial Cake

    Complete with flying planes zooming around the cake.  The cake is on a table like platform that allows room for a modified spinner toy (the kind with spinning lights in a globe) to hide below the cake to power the planes.
    Complete with flying planes zooming around the cake. The cake is on a table like platform that allows room for a modified spinner toy (the kind with spinning lights in a globe) to hide below the cake to power the planes.

    Castle Cake

    Used cake and sugar cones (coated in corn syrup, rolled in pink sugar) with colored marshmallows (sliced in half) to create the "bricks" of the castle.  My first attempt at stacking cakes like a wedding cake, inspired by one I saw in a Parenting Mag.
    Used cake and sugar cones (coated in corn syrup, rolled in pink sugar) with colored marshmallows (sliced in half) to create the "bricks" of the castle. My first attempt at stacking cakes like a wedding cake, inspired by one I saw in a Parenting Mag.

    3D Bear Cakes

    A 3D bear cake pan decorated as a panda bear. Bears are popular for baby showers. Don't look too closely but the panda baby had a little accident on the ride to the party.
    A 3D bear cake pan decorated as a panda bear. Bears are popular for baby showers. Don't look too closely but the panda baby had a little accident on the ride to the party.
    A 3D bear cake pan decorated as a baby bear. I used a tip made for making hair, it also makes grass too.  Need a very stiff frosting if you want the hair to stand up and not droop.
    A 3D bear cake pan decorated as a baby bear. I used a tip made for making hair, it also makes grass too. Need a very stiff frosting if you want the hair to stand up and not droop.

    Underwater Ocean Cake

    The sea creatures bodies are M&M's (a design I found online). The whale is carved out of pound cake.  This is a plain Costco cake that I decorated.
    The sea creatures bodies are M&M's (a design I found online). The whale is carved out of pound cake. This is a plain Costco cake that I decorated.

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