The centerpiece of any successful birthday party is, of course, the cake! What would a birthday be without a cake to top the whole event off, right after food and right before presents? You want to make sure your cake is special to match the special day!
Maybe you want to try to make your own cake this year – but have no experience. Have no fear! Cake decorating isn’t actually all that difficult – the basics are pretty easy to pick up, and you can let your imagination run wild from there! Here’s our tips on how to easily decorate a cake – for beginners.
Most equipment you’ll already have around the house. Professional bakers use a turn table to put their cake on – it allows them to easily access all sides of the cake and spin it for even decoration. You probably don’t have one of those – but you probably have a microwave. If it has a rotating plate, you can take that out, and it works just as well for a cake decorating surface. You’ll need a flat spatula to spread icing on the cake, as well.
The two tools you may not have immediately are a scraper – to help make the icing smooth – and a piping bag. If you don’t want to go out and buy those, you can replace the bench scraper with a flat metal implement – a chef’s knife is OK, but a putty knife or palette knife work even better; you don’t want a knife with teeth and serrated edges to get in your way. As for the piping bag, you can make your own from parchment paper or freezer bag. Ones you buy from the store will have a tip that makes applying frosting easier, but it’s not strictly necessary. If you’re planning on writing (“Happy Birthday!”), you’ll want a small opening. For other decorations, you’ll want a large opening – if you’re making one of your own at home, you can make two different-sized openings in each bottom corner, and you’ve got a dual-purpose piper.
These remaining steps are for generic sponge cake, though they’ll work, with minor modifications, for any sort of cake you’d like.
The first thing you’ll need to do is prepare your cake for frosting. Attempting to frost a warm cake is a recipe for disaster! You’ll want to chill your cake for at least 2 hours – or better yet, overnight.
Then, you’ll want to flatten your cake – a bumpy cake makes for uneven frosting! The best way to do this is to take a serrated knife and trim off the peaks from the top. You’ll also want to remove any loose crumbs, as they’ll get stuck in your frosting. You can brush those off with a specialized pastry brush – or a clean paint brush, which works just as well. Be gentle – you don’t want to damage the cake!
With your cake on the turn table, take a big dollop of frosting (1 to 1 ½ cups) and plop it on your cake. Using your spatula, start in the middle and spread that frosting evenly over the top and just past the sides of the cake. Be generous here – you can always remove more frosting later! Once the top is frosted, work on the side in sections – turn the turn table around as you go, giving you better access to all sides. The goal here is to get the thing covered in frosting; don’t worry about it being too neat at this point. If crumbs get in the mix, you can scrape that off your spatula and continue.
Now is where the scraper comes into the mix. Hold it at a 45 degree angle, pressing gently but firmly against the side of the cake. Hold the scraper still, and rotate the turn table. This will allow you to make sure the sides are smooth and even.
Now it’s time for the piping bag. First, load the bag with the icing – place it in a glass, with the tip edge down and the openings folded over the sides. Take a spoon and fill the bag about half-full of frosting, pressing it down into the bag as far as possible to avoid air bubbles and things of that nature. Twist the top shut, and then take the bag. Use your dominant hand to hold the bag near the tip; that will be your control hand while your other hand pushes the frosting out of the bag from the top.
If you’re writing, we suggest practicing on a flat surface first – while it’s not too tricky to learn how to use, you’ll probably want to get used to it before trying to spell someone’s name! We also suggest writing in the center first – it’s easy to re-frost the top of a cake if you mess up the writing, but if you start doing other decorations elsewhere, it’s very difficult to re-frost only a portion of a cake.
A great way to make sure your letters look like, well, letters, is to take a toothpick to trace out the letters in the frosting. That gives you a guideline for writing, and lets you make sure that everything is evenly spaced out, as opposed to trying to go at it without a plan.
For other decorations and shapes, have fun! If you’re using a store-bought piping bag, experiment with some of the different tips to make fun shapes. If you’re stuck with just one opening, do wavy lines and fancy borders. Again, it’s great to practice this on a flat surface before trying it on your cake – it might take you two or three attempts at making a fun-shaped blob of a border before you can do it consistently.