Cake Decorating 101

I like to start with a really good cake recipe.

For this particular cake, I used a favorite Devil’s Food Cake from Cooks’ Illustrated. A cake mix would be fine, too, and easy.

Take care to make sure you don’t over-bake your cakes. Use parchment to line the bottoms of the cake pans so the cakes don’t stick. Use caution when splitting cake layers, if you want more than two or three layers. (I use 3 pans for three, thin layers and adjust the baking time.) You can buy special splitting devices or just eyeball it and use a good, serrated knife. Start by cutting around just the perimeter of the cake first and then going around a second time, cutting deeper into the center of the cake.

I’ve also learned over the past little while that working with a good frosting makes all the difference. Repeat it with me: ALL THE DIFFERENCE.

I now use an Italian (or Swiss Meringue) Buttercream. Any classic buttercream would do nicely.

Start by beating 5 egg whites until foamy.
Then add a pinch of cream of tartar.

Beat until stiff, by not dry, peaks form.

To make the cooked sugar syrup:

Place 1 1/4 cups white sugar and 1/3 cup water in a heavy bottomed saucepan.

Bring to a boil, washing down sides of pan with a brush dipped in water to prevent crystallization.

Cook until syrup reaches 240 degrees F, Soft Ball Stage.

(almost there…..)

No pictures of this–sorry.

Turn mixer on and slowly pour the hot syrup in a steady stream–it helps to do it along the inside of the bowl.

Continue beating on high for 3 minutes or more until steam stops rising from the bowl.

Add 1 lb. unsalted butter one piece at a time.
(Use unsalted or the buttercream will be too salty. You can add a pinch of salt at the end if it needs it.)

Beat continuously after each addition.

The buttercream will begin looking curdled. Don’t worry. Keep beating.

Add 1 tsp. pure vanilla extract. Beat well.
Soon the icing will be creamy and incorporated again.

Like this….

If you are using it immediately, then you can tint it the color** you want and place plastic wrap over it until you are ready to use it. Make sure it stays in a rather cool place so it doesn’t melt.

Otherwise, place in an airtight container in the refrigerator.
(It can last for several weeks to several months in the freezer.)

**For this cake, I used the remaining Royal Icing (see below) to tint the buttercream so it would match my Royal Icing Decorations. I also reserved some plain, white buttercream to pipe onto the finished cake in a decorative way.

Now for the Royal Icing Decorations.…..

This is Wilton Meringue Powder.

Use the meringue powder to prepare the Royal Icing according to this recipe.

Use gel colors to tint the icing to the shade you desire.

These are my decorator tips. You can buy them in any store that carries cake decorating supplies–like Michaels, JoAnn’s, or most party supply stores. Or on the Wilton website.

I print out a font in the appropriate size to use as a template for my royal icing decorations.

I place parchment paper over the template.

Tip: Use a freezer, zipper lock bag in lieu of a more expensive piping bag.

Choose the decorator tip you want to use and fill the bag with the tinted icing. I used a very thin, plain round tip for this.

Pipe a border with the Royal Icing over the template and fill in with more icing.

Tip: Make more decorations than you need. Sometimes they break or you can choose the nicest one of several to use.

I let my decorations dry over night. It’s important to make them on a dry day so they don’t disintegrate. Also–an oily surface will cause the Royal Icing to break down and become brittle.

Tip: Save the remaining icing. You will use it to “glue” the decorations onto the finished cake.

Ready for assembly:

Tip: I freeze my cake layers so they will hold up better when I’m assembling the cake. It also helps prevent excess crumbs. For this cake I also used a chocolate cream cheese mousse as the filling.

I cut a cardboard round of the appropriate size and cover it with foil. Or I buy one from the party store. Spread a small amount of icing on the round to keep the cake from slipping.

Spread the filling (or icing) on the bottom layer, leaving about 1/4″ to 1/2″ border to allow for overflow when the next layer is placed on top.

Second layer…..

Place the final layer on top.

Spread a small amount of icing on the final layer to create a crumb coat.

A crumb coat is a thin layer of icing that “seals” in the crumbs to ensure that the remaining icing goes on nicely and creates a smoother finish. It can also be done in advance and keeps the cake from drying out if you won’t be decorating the cake until the next day.

Tip: Using a very thing metal spatula or an off-set spatula will not only create a smoother finish to the cake, but will also be easier to use than a regular butter knife or spatula. You will have better control.

If your cake is at room temperature, it should be chilled for about 30 minutes before applying the final layer of icing.

Frozen cakes won’t need this step because the icing will set just fine on the cold cake.

Spread the remaining icing over the crumb coating and make it as smooth as possible. You may have to dip your spatula in hot water (dry it off….) and it will briefly melt the top most layer of the icing and become a bit smoother.

Ready to apply the Royal Icing Decorations……

Carefully peel the Royal Icing Decorations from the parchment.
Use that remaining icing and pipe a small amount of “glue” on the backside of the decorations.

Place it where you want to on the cake. It should stick nicely, but you may have to hold it for a second until the royal icing sets.

Arrange the pieces the way you want them.

Use remaining buttercream to pipe a decorative border along the top and bottom perimeter of the cake. (I used a larger, plain, round tip to pipe a “rope” for this cake.)

Tip: Let the cake come to room temperature before serving. The cake will slice into nicer, prettier pieces. Use a serrated bread knife or a large chef’s knife for the best control and cleaner cut slices. Dip knife in warm water between slices.

Mmm…doesn’t that chocolate mouse look yummy?

Serve with ice cream because that’s what you are supposed to do when it’s your birthday.

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  1. you are so the next cupcakes blog, only cakes. er ice cream. I mean both.

    this is so rad- I love it. I can’t decide if I want to make a cake today or lick your pictures of the icing more.

  2. ok so lindsey, you are totally inspiring me. i want to run off and get some pastry tips and go to town. you are so talented! i’m bookmarking this site for future reference

  3. That is the cutest cake! I just love your decorations!!! You are making me feel like a loser in the food department!

  4. Beautiful cake! Thanks for the fabulous directions and pictures! Happy Birthday! Mine was the 19th, was that your birthday as well? or today?

  5. Lindsey, I love it! Happy Birthday! My 40th is coming up in August, so I’d like to reserve you now if that’s ok. I want that cake, and the homemade ice cream!

  6. Every time you suggested or hinted at something my spoken (as in out loud) reaction was “That is such a great idea! THAT was a such a great idea!! THAT was such a GREAT idea!!!!”

    Needless to say I’m wanting to start baking right away, as in tonight right now, before I go to bed or anything.

    Thank you for sharing your secrets, I’m going to try every single one of them the next time I need (or want) to bake a cake!

  7. Linds, I can’t believe this. These pictures look like they came out of Martha Stewart and the directions and content are better. What a gorgeous cake! I wish you lived around here, I’d order a cake and then find an occasion to celebrate, like … that I had a pretty cake!

  8. Again let me say “Thank You!” for all of your sweet, nice, wonderful comments. I appreciate them so much.

    Liz #1–I can only hope to be the next cupcake blog.

    Little Kritters–
    The recipe is coming soon!

    Natalie and Angel–
    Start doing it! It is so much fun. Then you’ll have to post on your blogs the wonderful creations you’ve come up with.

    Liz#2–It’s on the 20th. Happy Birthday to you, too!

    From all I know, you are totally NOT a loser in the food department. I’ve heard about the things you are cooking up. And I want your recipes!

    You got it! Anything for you, but you already know that!

  9. YOu are amazing. I am seriously in awe. I can’t believe you. You better start a cooking show someday. Can I be the one to do your hair and makeup? I’ve always wanted to do hair and make up for stars on TV and in movies and stuff. PLEASE???

  10. Wow. Thank you for sharing your talents! I’ve been wanting to explore the wonderful world of cake making and decorating and your blog and been so inspiring! Love it!

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