I had already made and tried to decorate a couple of cakes before I really got the hang of the best ways to fill, frost, and decorate. Here are some things that the pros do (or that I do) that I think make a huge difference.
Fill and Frost
- Freeze your cake layers. A cake is a delicate thing. But a frozen cake is quite a bit more solid and a lot harder to make a sudden, horrible mess of. If the layers are frozen solid, you are very likely to be happier.
- Use a cake board. This is a piece of cardboard in the approximate shape of your cake (usually 1 or 2 inches bigger on all sides) that you put the cake on. Then, when you want to move the cake around? Just pick up the cardboard! Bliss! They sell pre-cut cake boards at your local craft store, or you can cut your own and then make sure they’re covered with something clean.
- Attach the (first layer of) cake to the board using some of your frosting. This will further secure you against horrible mishaps of various sorts. Just do it.
- Once the first layer of cake is firmly on the board, you want to slide strips of parchment paper under the edges. This will help keep you from making a gross-looking mess all over your cake board, which is a serious problem.
- Now you can start stacking layers. Depending on your filling, you may find it useful to have a “rim” of frosting around the edge of each layer to hold it in. I like to pipe this rim using an oversized piping tip and a bag, but this is a case where squeezing it out a hole cut in the corner of a regular plastic bag ought to work just as well. If you’re filling with frosting, I like to pipe out the amount I want, more or less spread out, and then hit it with a spatula to make it more even.
- After all your layers are stacked, you want to make sure that your cake is actually the intended shape. Grab a big ol’ knife and threaten the cake. Er, that is, use it to cut the top level (I freehand, and get close enough for my own satisfaction, but your local craft store probably sells devices that are more precise). Once the top is fairly level, you also want to cut off the sides where the layers aren’t quite even with each other (due to browning or what have you). Just shave off thin bits until you have a nice smooth edge. You are now allowed to eat all the bits of cake you just cut off.
- Now you want to apply a thing called a “crumb coat.” To do this, you’re going to take some of your frosting, and apply it to the cake in absolutely the thinnest layer you can manage, being super firm and abusive and stuff. The idea here is to tack down all the crumbs with frosting and give you a somewhat more frosting-friendly layer to work with.
- Let the crumb coat sit for a few minutes (I have no idea if this actually has any effect, but I’ve always done it, if only because this is the point where I want to sit down for a while myself). Then, add your main frosting in a layer of whatever thickness (go for 2-3 times as thick as you want the final frosting to be) to the top of the cake. Use a frosting spatula (craft store!) to smooth this out; as you do it will slump onto the sides. Use the side-slumped frosting to cover those sides, just gradually smoothing until you’re happy with what you have on all the sides of the cake. If you’re having a lot of trouble, it may help to stick the cake in the fridge for a few minutes to let the frosting cool off, and to clean your spatula.
A Frosting Interlude
Now you have a filled and frosted cake. As far as decorating goes, I’ve found that the essential components are good tools and some practice. For tools, I use 10″ disposable frosting bags (because cleaning frosting bags really sucks) and a variety of frosting tips. The other thing that matters is your coloring; I use primarily the “Duff” brand food coloring since it is good gel color that comes in a squeeze bottle. If I want a color not sold in that line, I’ll use the standard Wilton gel colors, which come in approximately every color ever.
Color frosting the way they tell you to on the package: make more than you think you need, because it’s impossible to match colors. Add a little bit at a time, since you can’t really go back to a lighter version. And buttercream frosting in particular will dry darker than the color in the bowl. Here’s my standard buttercream decorating recipe (definitely use this for at least your first time, it’s a lot easier to work with for decorating than just about anything else). It works just fine to frost a cake in one frosting type, for flavor, and then decorate in this guy for pretties.
- 1 stick butter, allowed to come up to room temperature. Just use salted, it’s totally fine.
- 1-2 tsp. vanilla
- 4-5 cups powdered sugar
- 3-4 Tbsp. milk
Stick the butter in an electric (stand) mixer and cream it up. You can use slightly cold butter, as long as it’s warm enough for the mixer to work on okay. Add the vanilla and about half the powdered sugar and mix slowly until everything is blended. Then alternate about a tablespoon of milk with around half a cup of powdered sugar until you’ve used all the sugar. Use extra milk to thin, or more powdered sugar to thicken the frosting. The consistency you want for decorating (or anyway that I want) is soft enough to stir easily by hand, but firm enough to hold any shape you put it in easily.
Now you can color the frosting (all or divide and then color), put it into a piping bag, and get squeezing. This recipe makes just enough for most decorating jobs, which is quite a bit less than you’d want to actually frost a whole cake.
- The first step in decorating your cake is to color your frosting. Add food coloring (as above, I like to use gel colors) to enough frosting for whatever bit of decorating you plan.
- Now, you want to prep and fill a piping bag. I strongly prefer disposable piping bags, as they are a huge pain to clean. For these, you’ll want to cut the tip off with a pair of scissors. Then, take a tip coupler (that’s the white plastic thing that comes with a tip set) and unscrew the two pieces. Take the larger piece (the one that looks like a big cone with the tip cut off) and put it inside the bag. Make sure the hole you cut is large enough that the whole opening is slightly exposed. Put your actual tip (the metal thing) on the end of the coupler, on the outside of the bag. Finally, cover the tip with the other piece of the coupler and screw it back together (so half the coupler is inside the bag, and the other half is outside). To fill the bag, I like to put the tip of it in the bottom of a glass, and use the glass to hold open the bag. Then it’s easy to scoop frosting in.
- To get frosting out of the bag, you first want to squeeze all the frosting down to near the end (much like a tube of toothpaste). Then, twist the open end of the bag several times so that nothing can possibly come out. Hold that end with your dominant hand so that the twist stays closed.
- Get a little practice. Using a piece of paper, plate, or whatever to pipe onto, try to pipe whatever you’re looking to make before you try it on the cake. Use your non-dominant hand to guide the location of the tip, and your dominant hand to squeeze the frosting out.
- Make pretty shapes on the cake. One great fact about cake is that people are hugely impressed that you decorated one at all, so if your first effort is a little imperfect, no-one is likely to object :)
- Don’t forget to take the parchment paper out from under the cake before you decorate right at the bottom (I leave it on right up until then, so even if I drip a little frosting it won’t make a mess). If your frosting is getting really awful to work with, you can try adding more sugar, but I usually find the best thing to do is put it in the fridge for about half an hour, and take yourself a break.
Here’s a short list of instructions for how I decorated the minecraft cake.
Very first thing, you want to make the wood slats. Do this by taking a knife or spatula and carving lines (I used 2, giving 3 slats) horizontally into the side of the cake.
Now for real frosting. Use a ribbon tip: and black frosting to draw a border around the top of the cake. Then, use the same tip to draw straight lines right against the corners on all four sides. Finally, draw the line up the center of all four sides.
You could keep using the ribbon tip, or switch to a star tip: at this point. Draw the diagonal lines on the top and sides of the cube.
Now you’ll want to change to a dark brown frosting and another star tip and draw the grid on the top and the tool handles on the sides. For the top, I used a standard border technique, which involves making texture in the frosting by going one direction, gradually easing off pressure, and then moving the tip back to about halfway along that chuck, then taking the pressure back up and repeating (so you draw a series of smears, really). This is one of those things that is actually pretty easy once you get the hang of it, but certainly not required in this case. The tools are just drawn as lines: two circles for the sheers/pliers, a random curved line for whatever that thing is, a thick straight line for the hammer, and an open square for the saw (repeat the same thing on the opposite sides for accuracy).
We’ll leave the border at the bottom for last, to cover up any mistakes.
Next up is white. I used a leaf tip and the same border-pattern to make the tools. Just draw multiple vertical lines to make the saw blade.
Now you can switch the leaf tip out for one of these: (sometimes found as a “grass tip”). Hold it vertically and use short squeezes to make the piles of sugar.
Now mix up some grey frosting and draw the buckets; you can use another ribbon tip to draw the shape and then use a spatula to smooth the result out. Draw the whole bucket, including the part that will be under the “milk,” to make it easier. To add milk, I just rolled little bits of frosting between my fingers and stuck them on top of the buckets, plus even tinier bits for the drips. Don’t forget to add highlighting on the tools while you have the grey out.
For the egg, I used a mix of light yellow and cream colors until I had the shade I wanted, and then just put a big lump on the cake. Smooth it out until it’s the right shape.
Finally, for the wheat, use a writing tip (just a small round hole) and yellow frosting to draw lines in the shape of a wheat sheaf. Since there’s just a tiny bit of green on top, I just added it with my fingers again.
Now take the parchment out from under the cake and pipe a bottom border. I used brown just because that’s what I still had plenty of; you can see in the pictures that it was becoming a real problem and breaking (not the same buttercream recipe as above, which is less prone to that issue) and how it looks when the frosting tries to melt.
For a final neat touch, you can add some luster dust to the top of the sugar piles and coating the buckets to make them sparkle.