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Fancy Cakes Come Easy

September 22, 2011
And Cuisine For All!

As I promised in the previous post, I’ll be sharing some tips, tricks and techniques on frosting and decorating cakes.  This time around I’ll only go into the details of spreadable and pipe-able frostings and icings – I plan to do a rolled fondant and marzipan entry in the future though.

Before anything, we need the frosting.  I posted a cream cheese frosting recipe here, and a chocolate creamy frosting here.  The latter one can be altered into a variety of other flavors, too: just skip the chocolate part, and add a different flavoring, like vanilla extract or rum flavoring.  You can also use ground nuts in it, like ground roasted almonds or coconut flakes.  I usually use some almond / coconut extract with these flavors to make the flavors “pop” a little more.  Also, for a firmer body and slightly grittier texture that compliments these nut flavors, you can substitute the flour in the cream body with farina cereal (“Cream of Wheat”); the amounts and the preparation are just the same.

Of course, you can also use store-bought, canned frostings, different recipes, or for a light summery cake, just plain Cool-Whip – just add some fresh fruit inbetween layers or on the top.

A few rules to successful cake decorating:

  • Make sure the cake is completely cold.  The steam and vapor escaping from a warm cake can make the frosting spoil.
  • Refrigerate the frosting before use.  This makes the creams less runny and easier to work with.
  • If you use canned frostings, whip them before use.  The extra air you beat into it makes spreading a breeze.
  • Patience.  This can take a long time, so make sure you allot yourself enough time!
  • Put the cake back in the fridge before serving; for at least a half hour.  This way the frosting has time to regain a stiffer consistency, so it won’t be running all over the cake.
A common question tends to come up here:  What exactly is the difference between frosting and icing?  Frosting has a softer, creamier consistency, and even after exposing it to air (spreading it onto the cake), it keeps this creamy texture.  Icing, on the other hand, is stickier and thicker in consistency, and dries hard when exposed to air.  Icing is what makes fun shaped sugar cookies so colorful; frosting is what crowns a buttercream cake.
So, let’s first frost the cake.  What you will need for it is something to put the cake on, and something to spread the frosting with.  Ideally, the best thing to put your cake on is a decorator’s turntable.  The cheapest ones run around the $10 range, and the upper end is the sky (the most expensive one I saw in a quick search was $80); however, if you don’t plan on making enough cakes to warrant the investment, there’s a cheaper solution.
Makeshift turntable

Makeshift Turntable

You can make do with two dinner plates inverted over each other.  Place the cake on top, and get ready to frost!  This way you can spare yourself the trouble of trying to get frosting off the counter, or frosting streaks all over your serving plate.

As for a spreading tool, the best are icing knives or spatulas.  If you opt for a straight one, the flexible ones tend to fare better with me, however, with the angled ones, stiff ones are the best.  (Links and images from Google.)  Again, if you don’t think you will ever use an icing spreader again, a simple silicone spatula will work just fine.

Once the cake is on the stand, start by putting a generous amount of frosting on the top.  If you’re making a multi-layer cake, just spread the frosting smoothly on the top, then add the next layer, repeating this process until the final layer is on.  In this case, you may also want to use a different frosting on the inside and the outside: for example, using lemon curd on the inside and cream cheese frosting on the outside; or almond frosting inside and chocolate on the outside.  Also, with multi-layer cakes it’s highly advisable to refrigerate the cake between building up the layers and frosting the outside.  This way the inside cream can get a little firmer, cementing the layers together so they won’t slide apart as you frost the sides.

Once your cake is full height and ready to go, put about 2/3 of your “outside” frosting on the top, and start spreading it not just on the top surface of the cake, but pushing off any excess frosting to the sides.

Push the excess off the sides

Push any excess frosting off the sides of the cake

For right now, don’t worry about getting the top smooth, just make sure it has enough icing – just a hair more than what you want as an end result.  Once the top is done, and the sides have some frosting on them, too, start adding the frosting to the side, little by little, smoothing it around the cake.  Your hand dominance makes a difference here: right-handed people should work from left to right, rotating the cake clockwise; whilst lefties do just the opposite, working right to left and rotating counter-clockwise.

Smooth frosting on the sides

Smooth the sides

Here, make sure the side is all smooth and nice before returning to straighten out the top, smoothing out all waves and excesses.  Keep a bowl around, so you can wipe off any excess frosting from your spatula often.
Once the cake is all smoothed out and ready, you will need to move it from the decorator stand to a serving plate or cake stand.  For this, use two long- and preferably wide-bladed knives – you can even use the angled frosting spatula as one, just be sure to rinse and dry it first.  Make sure the “receiving” plate is near: while this is a reasonably safe manner to transfer a cake, carrying it across the whole kitchen is just tempting gravity.
Slide the first knife under the entire cake roughly at the 4 o’clock mark of the imaginary clock face, then the second one around the 8 o’clock mark, forming a right angle:
Lifting the cake

Careful now…

Now lift the cake carefully, and place it on the serving plate.  Pull out the knives one by one only after the bottom of the cake has safely touched ground on the plate.  If some frosting still smeared on the platter, wipe it off with a damp paper towel.  Cake Frosting – achievement unlocked!

And now, on to the decorations.  If you used a smooth frosting on the outside, you can make some cool borders from the same frosting.  You can even add some color to lighter-colored frostings (like vanilla or plain buttercream) – either by using food colorings, or a natural alternative.  For shades of brown, try beating cocoa powder or instant coffee powder into the icing; for shades of red and pink, use beetroot juice – the juice from the cans work just perfect, just add some lemon juice or vinegar for a more red / less magenta shade.  Experiment, and let me know – I’m always looking for more natural ideas!

You can also make borders as well as other decorations from icing: this will dry firm, so your drawing or lettering on the cake will not  run down into a smudge.
A simple recipe for decorator icing:
In a small bowl, cream together 2 tablespoons and 2 teaspoons of softened butter, 1 cup of sifted powdered sugar, about a teaspoon of milk and your coloring of choice.  Add more sugar if needed: the mixture needs to be heavy, and if you lift out your beater or fork, it should not drip at all – a little drooping is acceptable.
Now, fill this into an icing bag.  I like using icing bags with couplers and tips: the couplers allow me to put the different tips outside the bag, so I can use different shaped tips with the same bag of icing.  For simple tasks like writing or drawing onto the cakes, the tips can be avoided altogether: just cut a small piece off the tip of the pastry bag.  In this case, you can also just forgo the pastry bag as-is, and use a large zipper bag, pressing all the icing into one corner that you cut that piece off of.
To pipe shapes without a problem, you need to make sure there are no air bubbles left in the bag.  To ensure this, hold the bag towards the bottom, and fold the top part over your hand like a cuff:
Cuffed top

Cuff the top of the bag over your hand

 Now start putting the icing in the bag, shoving it down with every spoonful, pressing out the air.  Use only about 1/2 cup of icing in one filling – that’s about how much this recipe yields.  Once the icing is in, twist the bag over the icing.  If you have some icing bag ties (they come with most decorator kits: they look like a rubber band version of a male symbol), twist one around the top so you won’t have to hold the end closed.  It should look like this:
Icing bag, tied


Also take note of my hand position and how my fingers are wrapped around the bag – your fingers point towards you and your thumb away from you as you decorate; you may use your “off” hand to help guide and stabilize your moves.  Again, for the most part, right-handed people decorate with their right hand, moving left to right, whilst lefties hold the bag in their left hand and move right to left, always pulling the string of icing.  The only exception – which may be quite difficult for lefties – is writing and lettering: then everyone moves left to right (unless you write Arabic or any other right-to-left script, of course).
For the shapes demonstrated here, I used the following tips:
  • Petal tip (Wilton #104) – for making the ruffles and the bow; also good for basic flower shapes
  • Round tip (Wilton #5) – for the dots, script and outline
  • Star tip (Wilton #22) – for the zigzaggy border; also used for stars and rosettes.
To cut to the chase, let’s see the first one: ruffles.  It’s a pretty easy border to make with the petal tip.  Just hold the bag at a 45 degree angle so the length of the tip opening barely touches the surface, and start to squeeze.  Squeeze out a line of icing,then lift the tip slightly, and start moving backwards, covering some of the icing ribbon, then moving in the right direction again:


Just rinse and repeat until finished – your ruffles are done!
The next one is the bow, still with the petal tip.  Holding the bag similar as in the ruffles, form a loop on the left hand side of what will be the ribbon, then do the same on the right hand side, forming a figure 8 (or infinity symbol, for Math-minded people).  Now all you need to add is two simple ribbons as streamers from the center:


To form dots or beads / pearls, use the round tip.  Hold the bag vertically, straight up above the surface, then squeeze out enough frosting for the desired size of the ball.  To avoid “peaks”, gently release the pressure of your fingers before the ball is fully formed, then shave off any excess with the tip.  Be sure to clean the tip after every ball formed.  This also makes for a decorative border:

Dotted border

Outlining and writing also uses the round tip.  Here, however, you hold the bag at a 45 degree angle, and let the lines glide as you write.  For a nice result, release pressure gently and let the string of icing drop down from the tip; do not “wipe” it into the cake as this will disrupt both the end of the line and mess up your frosting beneath.  If you use print letters, form each line separately, cleaning the tip between every line.  If you use cursive, write as long a line in one move as possible, returning to cross A’s, H’s and t’s and dot i’s at the end of the word or line.
In Progress

In progress…

From time to time, we all make mistakes; but these can be corrected easily with a firming icing.  If a letter didn’t quite shape the way you wanted it, or if you made a spelling error (uh-oh!), just wait a few minutes for the icing to start to harden.  Then you can pick up the mistaken line with a toothpick and move it to its proper place, or remove it from the cake.  In the latter case, wrap the back of your “off” hand in paper towels and hold it close to your working hand, so you can wipe off any removed icing quickly before it can drop back onto the cake.

Use a toothpick to correct any faulty lines

You may also need to refresh the icing at the connecting points with a fresh piping: use very light pressure on the bag here in order not to get too much icing in one spot.

And finally, the star tip!  This time around, I only made a zigzag / shell border around the cake, but it’s probably the most useful tip.  You can use it to pipe the frosting onto cupcakes, make princess potatoes, fill deviled eggs, or just to serve your mashed potatoes prettier.

For this shell / zigzag border, hold the bag at a 45 degree angle.  Start squeezing with a stronger pressure, filling the starting spot with icing.  You may even push the tip a few millimeters into the piped-out icing to make it really full; then gently loosening the pressure, start pulling away for a little bit, then do a “filling” again, and a pulled-away “tail”.

Shell / Zigzag border

Shell / Zigzag border

Mine turned out a little bit between a “clear” shell border and a zigzag border, which is formed by moving your hand side to side (perpendicular to the cake edge) as you squeeze…  shaky hands can make this whole thing so much more interesting!
I hope you enjoyed this little introduction to cake decorating…  I will soon write an article on making and using rolled fondant as well, and of course, more recipes, gadgetry and science to come – now twice a week!
Enjoy your meal!
Note 1:  All brand names, and the images in the links are copyright to their respective owners.  I am not affiliated with any of the brands mentioned above, I just found it easier to reference the tips like this.
Note 2: Thanks to my amazing husband for taking the pictures for this post!
2 Comments leave one →
  1. September 22, 2011 12:30

    Hi, CN. I really enjoy your blog, so I nominated you for a Versatile Blogger Award and linked to And Cuisine For All in my post today. Congratulations! Instructions for what to do are in the post too. I hope you get some traffic from my post and I hope you are game to participate. Can’t wait to see what blogs you nominate… Bon appetit!

    • September 22, 2011 12:41

      Thank you, Aimee! You gave me a tough one here, as I’m not usually too active in the blogosphere… Honestly, I don’t really think I *have* 5 blog-friends yet! Oh well… I guess I post the rest of it, and just add the nominations later, if the rules can stretch that far? 🙂

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