Cake Decorating Made Simple

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Cake Decorating Made Simple

Decorating a nice cake for a wedding shower, baby shower, or birthday doesn’t have to take all day. Nor do you have to be a ‘pro’. For certain, the more cakes you make, the better you will get at it. But still, there are some shortcuts you can take that will help insure that your cakes turn out well.

Since I’ve made and decorated so many cakes over the last twenty years and happened to be making one last week, I thought I’d share some tips and shortcuts that I've picked up along the way. In particular, if you aren’t a very experienced cake decorator but would like to be able to make a really nice cake rather than buy one, my  first tip is the most important one and should help you immensely.

I have to say that I did have a few mishaps…like the second layer that I decided to add literally fell apart! It was just too warm and soft. So, this turned out to be a single layer cake…but a very fat one! It had plenty of servings for my purposes. :O)  (Thanks Millicent, for asking me to make this, or I wouldn't have thought to do this post!)


Before you start, you will need boxes of cake mix, ingredients for icing or pre-made Wilton icing, a few plastic icing bags and a small set of basic tips, corn syrup, and a couple of icing colors.  I use parchment paper to make my own tubes because they are cheaper per bag but pre-made plastic bags are great too.  (How much batter you need is discussed further down in this tutorial.)


I used the first decorating kit (pictured on the left) but later I bought a better set of tips because I wanted to do more types of designs and features. However this kit (pictured on the right) is much simpler and would work for a basic cake.

How to Decorate a Basic Cake

Step 1: Decide on a theme for decorating the cake. Then buy fresh flowers, greenery, or theme related decorations to decorate with INSTEAD of making all of the fancy decorations with icing using special tips and extra colors. The wedding couple’s theme was ‘campy’ and the colors were olive green and brown. That certainly is a VERY challenging color scheme to come up with, but Wilton sells the right no problem there!

Tip: Don’t use food coloring to color your icing--only Wilton colors that are ‘gel’ based.

Painting cardboard lettersCake with Stone Cross

Also, buy a topper, frilly edging and other decorations. Much of this could have been drawn on the cake or made of rolled fondant..but again—I was in a hurry here. Buying these things is much quicker!  The stone topper made a great gift for the couple from me, but I had to break off part of an old VHS case to make a base to stand the cake topper on. It was clear thank goodness. The smart thing to do if I had been thinking of it, would be to lay a small heavy piece of cardboard on the base of the cake before icing it the base color. But it was too late for that by the time I thought of it.

Step 2: Bake your cake in an appropriate size pan for the amount of servings you need. You can click here to see how much batter you need for the pan and how much icing to make. I use an 11 x 15” pan that is pretty deep for most of my cakes. It can be filled to with two boxes of cake batter which is a lot of servings. 

cut top off of cake to level

TIP: Bake the cake SLOWLY in a 325 degree oven…NOT 350 degrees! If you bake it slower, the cake won’t cook the edges first causing the middle to cook slower and eventually make the big giant hump in the middle. You can buy or even make bake even strips, but that costs more. It’s simpler just to bake the cake at a lower temperature. Even when I baked it slower, I still used a ‘cake slicer’ to even up the top surface. It had a slight bump on the top.

Step 3: Cover a board ( I use a permanent piece of 1/2” thick plywood) with foil then add 2-inch strips on top of the board's edges to keep them clean. You can also buy pretty cake boards if you are planning on making lots of cakes.  

flip on to cake board

Then flip your cake out of the pan onto it. You should wait ten minutes before trying to do this.  I usually cover all four edges with a thin extra strip of foil that can be removed just before I pipe the shells. It’s easier to keep the foil clean that way while icing and decorating most of the cake.If you want the cake ruffle around the edge, buy that at your local hobby store and tuck it under the edge of the cake before piping the border.

sift powdered sugar

Step 4: Make the icing using the Wilton recipe or buy Wilton brand pre-made icing and be sure to sift the powdered sugar. This is one time when it pays to follow the directions very carefully.

TIP: Different techniques require different additives to the icing. Adding milk or corn syrup makes it easier to ice the cake, to write cursive, and to pipe leaves.   For shells and other details, keep the icing stiff. 


TIP: Don’t overwhip the icing. You will ‘aerate’ it. Some of the girls that I taught to decorate cakes several years ago did this and couldn’t figure out why their shells didn’t have any ‘definition’. The icing was too mushy. You will really be disappointed with all the air bubbles and the poor texture if you do. Just whip it very slowly until it is smooth.

shower cake extracts

TIP: Use clear vanilla and real butter (which isn’t as yellow as margarine) or just shortening and clear butter flavoring if you want your colors to be ‘true’. Everything will look a little off  if you add margarine or brown vanilla.

NOTE: Why not use Betty Crocker icing or some other brand? Because it isn’t stiff enough to make shells. You can use it to ice the base of the cake. But the advantage of buttercream icing is that it actually stiffens in room temperature which makes it better for traveling. It doesn’t have to be refrigerated if you serve the cake within a couple of days.

TIP: Keep in mind that the colors darken as the icing sets into it’s normal crunchy state and reaches room temperature. If you want pre-made icing, I suggest buying Wilton’s at least for piping shells and borders.

cake with crumbs sealed

Step 5: Before you try to ice the cake, cover it with a thin layer of icing, just barely scraping the surface to ‘seal’ the crumbs in. This will keep most of them from showing up on the surface of your icing. I usually make space in my fridge to put the cake to chill a little after sealing it. This helps a lot!

Step 6: Ice the main base of the cake (the top and sides). Your piping, borders, and decorations go on top of this. Click here for Wilton's method for properly icing a cake.

TIP: It makes sense to seal the cake with the same color as your main color. I just totally blanked out and forgot! Talk about a headache! It’s been three years since I did a cake like this so I wasn’t surprised that I ‘forgot’ to do that.

      Piping shells 2       

Step 7: Pipe your shells on the bottom and do your writing, if you are going to do that BEFORE piping any shells on the upper edge. Otherwise you will inevitably damage some of your work.

TIP: Practice shells on wax paper or a cutting board BEFORE putting them on your cake edge.  
TIP: Save your tubes of icing until the event is over! Something will inevitably go wrong…even on the road. I had to repair a couple of shells when I got to church with the cake.When my children were little, I saved every single color because though no one ever admitted it, someone always managed to get a ‘little taste’.

Cake view two 
Step 8: Now, add your greenery and pretty things, but save the heavy stuff to put on the cake after you arrive at your destination.

All I really had to do to make a great cake was bake the cake, make the icing, ice the base, and add a border and then decorate it with the pretty things I bought.  Even though I didn’t do a lot of detailed decorating with icing, I still ended up with a lovely cake.  I love doing all the fancy Wilton stuff, but sometimes there just isn’t time.  You can read how to appropriately cut the cake here. It's such helpful information!

The next time you need to make a cake, perhaps you can cut a few corners too. Making it yourself saves so much money and means a lot to those who are being honored.  If you have any cake making difficulties, just drop me an email. I’d be glad to help you if I can. :o)




Millie Green said...

Oh, Thanks, Donna! I love to bake but stay away from cakes because everytime I have tried to decorate one, I have made an ugly mess. I'm embarrassed to have store bought cakes at my kids birthday parties! With your help, I am going to try again and make a pretty cake for my christmas party as practice...and hopefully decorate my son's cake for his bday in Jan. Thanks so much for your help!

Maria Killam said...

I think you have the best tutorials on being a homemaker!! That cake looks so great I love the way you decorated it!

“There's nothing half so pleasant as coming home again.” ~ Margaret Sangster

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