I’m not good at cake decorating. I’m pretty good at hiding this fact. I can’t roll out a decent fondant, I can’t make sugar roses, and forget me piping “happy birthday” onto a cake. It’s not just my poor penmanship that gets in my way, I struggle with almost all things hand-eye coordination related. This has made cakes especially intimidating to me, and I feel most people too. For years I’d stick to simple tricks, like covering cakes in chopped nuts, flaked coconut, or even just using the back of a spoon to create little wisps. All of these ideas work beautifully, and there’s nothing wrong with them, but I wanted to get at least a few simple techniques under my belt so I could create cakes with a little more oomph.
These four techniques are super simple, and if I can do them, you certainly can too. But first, some tips:
1. No matter what the recipe, make 1 1/2 times the amount. I feel like every frosting recipe comes up short (or maybe I just have a terrible frosting habit), and I’d rather have too much than too little.
2. Temperature matters. The ideal temperature for frosting is chilled but not cold. It should be a few degrees cooler than the room. If you’re piping your frosting, the heat from your hands will cause it to warm and loosen, creating a messy effect. If the frosting warms in the room, it might separate and curdle a bit. The easiest fix for too warm frosting is to pop it in the fridge for an hour, then beat in the mixer again to regain its texture.
3. Crumb Coat. If you don’t want crumbs in your frosting, do a crumb coat. Just put a thin layer of frosting over the entire cake, wiping down your spatula as you go.This will keep the crumbs from traveling into the main layers of frosting as you decorate.
4. Buy an off-set spatula. They’re cheap and they make cake decorating much easier (though a spoon or butter knife work in a pinch).
5. Work off of a cake plate or an elevated position. It’s just much easier than a flat plate on a counter, giving your hands space to travel.
Frost a cake as cleanly as possible, with at least a 1/2 inch thick layer surrounding the cake. Take your off set spatula (or butterknife) and gently press it into bottom of the side of the cake at a slight angle. Move the spatula smoothly up, then as it reaches the top lip of the cake, have it smoothly swoop down. Rotate the cake as you go. Finish by doing the top of the cake, starting the save movement on the far edge of the top, working towards your body. The movement should be rhythmic and fun to do. There you have it, a lovely swoop!
This is one of the easiest techniques by far. Frost a cake as cleanly as possible, with at least a 1/2 inch thick layer surrounding the cake. Take a fork, and gently move it across the top of the frosting, making stripes. Wipe the fork between passes and be careful not to go too deep.
Pick a pastry tip of your choosing (I personally like star tips best), and place into the bottom of the pastry bag. Place the bag in a large drinking glass, flipping the edge of the bag over the side of the glass. Scoop the frosting into the bag until 2/3 full, then twist the bag shut, removing excess air.
Gently press stars onto the cake in any pattern of your choosing. Refill the pastry bag as you need, and make sure to keep the frosting cool, as the warmth of your hands from the pastry bag will loosen it.
This is the fussiest of these simple tricks, but super pretty if you can get the hang of it. Frost a cake as cleanly as possible, with at least a 1/4 inch thick layer surrounding the cake. You should have plenty of frosting left over.
Using your off set spatula (or butter knife), fill the tip of it with frosting, and gently swipe on the bottom of the cake. Fill up the spatula again, and swipe about 1 inch away from the start of you first swoop, so the swoops overlap slightly. Continue in this pattern for as long as you like, until you’re happy with the aesthetic.
My favorite type of frosting is Italian Buttercream. It’s light and silky, with a delicate butter flavor, making it the perfect canvas for any flavor you like. Find the recipe below.
1 1/4 cups sugar
5 large egg whites
pinch of cream of tartar
1 pound (4 sticks) unsalted butter, chilled (doesn’t need to be rock hard)
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1/4 teaspoon salt
In a small saucepan over medium heat, bring sugar and 2/3 cup water to a boil. Continue boiling until syrup reaches 238 degrees on a candy thermometer (soft-ball stage).
Meanwhile, place egg whites in the bowl of a standing mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, and beat on low speed until foamy. Add cream of tartar, and beat on medium-high speed until stiff but not dry; do not over beat.
With mixer running, add syrup to whites in a stream, beating on high speed until no longer steaming, about 3 minutes. Add butter bit by bit, beating until spreadable, 3 to 5 minutes; beat in vanilla and salt. If frosting curdles, keep beating until smooth.