Cake Decorating – 6 Tips I Learned the Hard Way

This weekend I made a cake for a baby shower, and while it wasn’t exactly what I had envisioned (pipe down, Perfectionist Side!) people seemed to think it was nice.  The baby’s decor is pink and lavender with butterflies and flowers, so I made a pink cake with vanilla buttercream and lavender marshmallow fondant.  I used the fantastic Wilton UltraGold cake pan I won from Life as Mom a few weeks ago.

I sort of stumbled into this whole cake making thing, but I do enjoy it and might consider making more cakes to order in the future.  If you’re new to cake baking, or if you feel you might not have made all the same mistakes I have, here are 6 cake baking tips I learned the hard way:

1. Slice your cake top off!This is what a cake layer looks like when it comes out of the oven.  See that hump in the middle?  Do not try to decorate over that hump, especially if you’re planning on setting another layer on top.  You need to slice the bump off so the cake is flat.See how much nicer the layer looks when it’s flat?  It’s SO much easier to layer up this way, and makes for a much more professional result when you’re decorating.

2. Anchor your cake with frosting before attempting to decorate it.

Before you start decorating, put a dollop of frosting on your cake plate or platter to anchor it.  If you skip this step, you will find your cake sliding all over the place, and quite possibly falling entirely off the plate.  Ask me how I know.  Really, it doesn’t take long to toss a spoonful of buttercream down before you center your cake.  You’ll be glad you did!

3. Don’t refrigerate marshmallow fondant.

When the recipe says “allow fondant to cool” that means leave it on the counter wrapped tightly in plastic wrap.  Do NOT refrigerate your fondant unless you are endowed with exceptionally prodigious arm strength.  Again, ask me how I know!  Believe me, rolling out fondant is already as hard as one of Jillian Michael’s last chance workouts, you don’t want to complicate matters more than is strictly necessary.

4. Don’t roll the fondant out on powdered sugar or other dry material.

I never have cornstarch on hand so I have rolled fondant on powdered sugar on several occasions.  Finally with the cake I made this weekend I learned my lesson and rolled it on a clean counter greased lightly with Crisco.  The thing about fondant is that it’s extremely sticky, and if you roll it on a dry surface bits of the fondant will stick and this causes rips and pulls when you lift it.  Rolling it on a greased surface was MUCH easier and gave a better result.

5. Do not overwhip your Royal Icing.

Royal Icing is excellent for decorating because it dries hard and doesn’t slip slide around in a bothersome fashion like buttercream is wont to do.  I make Royal Icing with meringue powder rather than egg white (easier, less prone to spoilage) but whether you use meringue or egg white, do NOT overmix the frosting!  In an effort to achieve the perfect shade of blue to match Pat the Bunny for Sarah’s birthday cake, I made the mistake of overwhipping the icing.  The result was like whipped cream and left lots of distressing bubbles in the result.  When it comes to mixing icing, less is more and you might want to do it by hand.

6. Don’t make your Royal Icing too thick.

When I made Royal Icing for the Kind of Lame Palm Tree Cookies I made it too liquid, so the icing spilled and pooled appallingly.  Thinking to remedy that siutation, this weekend I over-corrected and made the icing far too thick.  The downside to thick icing is that it’s terribly difficult to squeeze out of the icing bag, and it takes MUCH longer to get your design outlined, plus you might pull muscles in your hand unless you’ve been working out with one of those gadgets baseball pitchers use (you know the ones, they resemble tiny Thighmasters?)  To achieve the right consistency, you want icing that stretches when you dip a knife in it, but that doesn’t pour off the knife.  If you dip a knife in and it comes right out leaving stiff peaks, that’s too thick.  You might need to experiment a little, but it’s worth it to get it right before you go drawing butterflies on a 12 inch diameter cake at 11pm.

Having dispensed with my admittedly small reservoir of tips, what is your biggest lesson learned about cakes?

12 thoughts on “Cake Decorating – 6 Tips I Learned the Hard Way

  1. Makes lots of icing! When I start coloring the icing, I always end up with too much of one color and not enough of another, so I make some extra uncolored for just such an occasion. Also, use food coloring gels (I buy at Michaels and Walmart in the cake decorating section), instead of food coloring. You get vibrant colors and it does not water down the icing. Finally, give yourself plenty of time and put some extra patience in your pocket.

    1. Stephanie, I completely agree about the coloring gels. I got a 10 color set from JoAnn fabrics using one of their 50% off coupons and it was worth it. Great tip on making extra icing too. You can always put leftover or extra icing in the freezer for next time.

  2. I have a genetic predisposition to baking disasters. My own sweet mom once took something out of the oven, looked at it, said “Oh, dear,” and placed the entire thing, pan and all, in the trash.

    That said, I do okay, but I will contribute the following: if you can’t draw it on paper, you most certainly won’t be able to draw it on a cake.

    1. I’ve also heard that you can draw your design on paper, then lay it on the cake (if you’re using fondant anyway, probably not with frosting!) and use a pin to poke holes along your design, so you’ll have an outline to follow with the icing. I’ve not been patient enough to try that, but it sounds reasonable.

  3. Wilton paste food coloring also works well for dark colors. I make shape cakes…trucks, thomas the train, combine, hello kitty, etc and it is much easier to cut and ice if you freeze the cakes. I “splootch” mine with a star tip and buttercream
    frosting usually to avoid the frustration of getting it perfectly smooth. Also, it does not hurt the cake, if as soon as it comes out of oven, you push down the mound in the middle and hold for a bit to flatten it out.

  4. I have no good tips, as I am a VERY VERY VERY new newbie at this, but thanks to everyone for giving me a lot to think about and change!! I just rolled out fondant this weekend on powdered sugar and almost cried at the result. I don’t need another cake failure!! 😉 Pressing on, though…

  5. If you’re using anything other than the size AND shape pan called for in the recipe, make sure it holds the same volume as the recipe intends. My friend loaned me an adorable teddy bear-shaped silicon pan in which I attempted to bake Stephen’s first birthday cake…it spilled over the pan and all over the oven. I may have thrown the cake forcefully into a large bowl, splattering it all over the floor.

    If you’re using a silicon pan, put it on a rimmed baking sheet. Those buggers are impossible to get into and out of the oven without them bending and spilling batter.

    If you live at altitude, READ AND FOLLOW HIGH ALTITUDE COOKING DIRECTIONS. Otherwise your cake will look like a mountain while it bakes, and once removed from the oven will resemble a volcano, complete with gaping crater of molten undercooked batter lava.

    I’m pretty sure all of those lessons were learned at the same time…see above reference to Stephen’s ill-fated first birthday cake!

  6. I, too, have so much fun making cakes (especially for my kids because then, it really doesn’t matter if things don’t turn out as well as I’d hoped). I especially agree with the comment about making more frosting than needed because amount judgements for various colors always seem to stump me.

    I learned how to use coloring book pages for frosting designs onto cakes from blogger Amber, at Soggy Cheerios. It was amazingly simple and, at the time, my middle guy was begging for Spiderman. If you are interested and can’t find it, let me know and I’ll look up the actual link for you.

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