So you're thinking about decorating a cake. Maybe you've done it before, maybe you haven't. But either way, you're no expert. Sound about right? Great! You've come to the right place. We've put together this simple guide that focuses on six specific tips to decorating a cake for the beginning home baker.
Since this is a beginner's guide, we won't even bother discussing fondant icing, as it is beyond the scope of a beginner cake decorator, and instead, focus on buttercream.
Note: These general techniques are the same for other whipped frostings as well.
Tools you'll need:
- Rotating cake turntable: Not absolutely essential, but will make your task significantly easier.
- Serrated cake or bread knife: For leveling and splitting layers.
- Offset palette knife: For applying frosting without dragging your fingers through it.
- Pastry bag with tips: You can use ziploc bags, but this doesn't work as well.
- Cake smoother/scraper: For smoothing frosting and making decorative markings and patterns.
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First thing's first, since making and decorating a cake can be quite a bit of work, it's not a bad idea to split the job into stages. For example, bake it on a Monday and freeze it, then take it out and decorate it on Friday.
Baking cakes in advance and freezing them also makes frosting them easier. Frozen cakes don't crumble as much when you frost them, and it makes it much easier to apply your crumb coat (see below).
Likewise, leveling your cakes is easier with frozen cakes. Cakes will stay fresh in the freezer for up to a week. Indeed, you can also make buttercream in advance and store it in the fridge, in an airtight container, for up to a week.
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A cake turntable is literally a rotating platter that you use to turn the cake while leveling and frosting it. Turning the cake rather than having to walk all around the cake makes the whole process much easier.
Splitting (also called torting) your cakes is more of an intermediate task, which you'd do if you're applying filling inside the layers. But when you're ready for that, you'll use your turntable for that as well.
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Leveling your cakes is important because the tops of the layers need to be completely flat, otherwise, they can lean or wobble when you stack them. This is where your serrated knife comes in. There are serrated cake knives, which work well, but any serrated bread knife will work. Just make sure that the blade of your knife is longer than the diameter of your cake.
The goal is to saw off any dome-like top on the cake so that it's perfectly flat. Start the blade at the edge and keep it level while rotating the cake on the turntable, using a sawing motion rather than trying to push the blade through the cake. Don't worry about the bottoms—these should already be flat from the bottoms of the cake pans.
In fact, you can flip your cakes so that the bottoms face upward. But do still level them so that the bottoms don't wobble. And don't forget to eat those trimmings.
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Apply a Crumb Coat
The next step is to frost the cake, which starts with applying a crumb coat. A crumb coat is an initial, light coat of frosting that seals and suspends any crumbs, so that when you go to apply the final coat, you won't see any crumbs in the frosting.
If you're making a layer cake, position the bottom layer on your turntable, spread a layer of frosting to the bottom layer, then place the top layer on top (bottom side up).
Now apply the crumb coat to the whole cake, then chill the cake for 15 to 30 minutes. This allows the crumb coat to fully set before you apply the final coat of frosting.Continue to 5 of 6 below.
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Place the assembled layers on the turntable and apply a mound of frosting to the top, spreading it around with your palette knife while you rotate the cake. Do the sides next. It's best to work quickly so that everything stays cool. But when you're still learning, this may not be possible. So it might help to take a break between doing the top and the sides, return the cake to the fridge in the meantime.
A cake smoother (or cake scraper or decorating comb) is a flat piece of metal with one flat edge and one serrated edge. It will produce a sharper finish than a palette knife (although a palette knife will do a fine job). To use a smoother, run the edge along the sides of the cake while rotating it in the opposite direction.
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Making decorative flowers and other shapes using a piping bag with various tips is something that takes practice. And the same goes for writing with royal icing. Of course, there's no substitute for actual cake-decorating experience, but a great way to practice is on a sheet of wax paper instead of the cake itself.
Small individual flowers can sometimes be transferred from the wax paper onto the cake, although this won't work with edging or writing. Still, it's a good way to practice until you get the hang of it.