With large gatherings off the table for the foreseeable future, we’re celebrating everything from graduations and birthdays to anniversaries and even weddings at home. Where we might have purchased a beautifully decorated cake in the past, we might need to make our own now. Whether you bake a cake from scratch or use a store-bought mix (no one needs to know), a celebration cake needs to be zhuzhed up—those extra pops that spark joy and make the person or people being celebrated feel extra loved.
Cake decorating is a skill that can take lots of practice, but there are some tools and hacks that can help even the most novice bakers make a cake look stunning. The key? Keep it simple! A few well-placed accessories can take your cake to the next level. Read on for more tips to transform your homemade cakes.
Wait Until Your Cake Is Completely Cooled
Yeah, yeah, you’ve heard it before. But we mean it! Don’t try to decorate your cake 30 minutes after it’s out of the oven. “I always bake my cakes the night before I decorate and chill them in the fridge overnight,” says Rose Atwater, who offers cake decorating tutorials on her site Rose Bakes and is the author of “Cake Decorating for Beginners.” “If you put frosting on even a slightly warm cake, it will melt and look stripey.” Plan ahead and give yourself plenty of time so you aren’t rushing to get the decorating done.
Get the Right Tools
A rotating cake stand, offset spatula, and bench scrapers make creating a professional-looking cake much easier. If you’ve tried frosting a cake without these tools, you know how difficult it is. It’s hard to get frosting on the bottom edge of the cake and no matter how much you try to smooth it out, the frosting always looks a little lumpy. A rotating cake stand will help you get frosting on every nook, and the offset spatula and scrapers will give you that smooth, polished look professionally made cakes have—free from excess, gloppy frosting on the top and sides. “I cannot stress enough how much a $5 bench scraper is number one thing in the world that will save your life when trying to smooth the cake,” Atwater attests. You can find affordable kits on Amazon that have everything you need.
There’s no substitute for practice when it comes to piping, but there are a few things that will help as you hone your technique. First, use the same frosting to pipe decor as you used to frost that cake. That way, if it doesn’t look right, you can always smooth it out, scrape off the excess frosting, and start over with no one being the wiser. Atwater suggests using a larger piping tip when you're first learning as it’s versatile and easier to handle (she swears by the Wilton 1M open star tip). Also, pay attention to the texture of the frosting, which can be controlled by temperature and the amount of liquid that’s it in. “If it's too stiff or too loose, it can be difficult to pipe. You want to get that perfect peanut butter kind of texture to the frosting,” Atwater says.
“Don’t Strive for Perfection”
These were Atwater’s strongest words of advice. If you try to be perfect right off the bat, you’ll stress yourself out. “I get questions on the blog all the time, about how to get that perfect glass-like finish. And I like to say, you know, if you're just starting out, don't make that your goal, start out doing rustic finishes because those are really popular right now. It's a great time to do that. And it takes some pressure off when you're first starting.” She suggests using the back of a spoon, a fork, or a textured cake scraper to get that rustic look, which is visually beautiful without demanding perfection.
Now that you’ve got these foundational tips, it’s time to accessorize your cake. But where do you start? Here are a few easy ideas.
Borders Bring It to Life
“When you put a border on a cake, at least the bottom border, if not a top border, it just instantly looks more finished,” says Atwater. You can use the 1M piping tip to do this.
Balance Out Your Decor
You can put as much or as little decor as you want. But if you’re not sure what you want to do, Atwater says focus on balance. “If I'm looking at a cake from what I would consider the front, I tend to put decorations on the back left side, on the corner or curve (depending on what shape it is), and then on the bottom right, down on the border. It’s visually appealing to do that. It creates some balance versus having decorations all over the place. And there's certainly a time and a place for that, but if you just want a few strawberries or candies, either put them right in the center or put some around back left and then a couple on the border at the bottom right.”
Fruit is the minimal-effort, high-impact way to decorate a cake. Berries are the go-to here. You can decorate the top of the cake with concentric circles of berries, sticking with one type or alternating between strawberries, raspberries and blueberries. You can also just do a single ring of berries on the outer edge of the cake, berries solely in the center, or even a few off-center berries. There’s no wrong way. Jamie Schler, author of the free “Isolation Baking” e-cookbook and self-proclaimed “lazy decorator,” uses whole strawberries in her mascarpone tart with the greens left on for a pretty pop of color. Schler also suggests using cooked fruit as another tasty decorative option.
“You can use fresh-sliced or frozen fruit like peaches, pears, apples or berries. Saute them in a pan with a little brown sugar or maple syrup, a little whiskey or rum until the liquid thickens and the fruit is caramelized,” she suggests. Once cooled, you can top your cake with the caramelized fruit. “It's really simple, but it’s really beautiful,” she says. Not to mention, delicious!
You want some immediate excitement? Go for some colorful candy. M&Ms, Skittles, or even lollipops are great for adding around the periphery of the cake, on one side of the cake, or even randomly like polka dots all over the cake. Atwater suggests melting chocolate on a sheet pan with sprinkles to make your own colorful chocolate bark. Break them up and add them on top of the cake, on one side. “It just adds some dimension,” she says. “Then I'll add the sprinkles on top of the piped border and it just springs to life.”
Stencils + Sugar = Easy and Flawless
Schler suggests sifting colored sugar or cocoa powder to create designs on your cake. Use stencils like these, which can help you write “Happy Birthday” flawlessly or give you the look of a lace top. Super easy, but gorgeous!
Don’t be afraid of just buying some decor. You can use beautiful royal icing flowers, gumpaste sugar flowers, or even use real flowers. There are grown-up, fancy sprinkles that you can customize for weddings, anniversaries or graduations. You can even use toys (such as toy trucks) for kids birthday cakes. They look great and don’t require you to learn how to make these visuals out of fondant.
The possibilities are endless in terms of how you can decorate your cake. “Be willing to experiment and try new things,” says Atwater. “The more you do it, the easier it gets for sure.”
Sounds like a really good reason to bake a bunch of cakes, and we’re guessing the people you’re celebrating will be way too busy stuffing their faces to worry about whether your piping was perfect.