Want to make someone feel special? Bake them a cake. You don’t have to wait for a special occasion, either. Imagine surprising your work team with a “just because it’s Monday” cake or your kids with a “thanks for not arguing today” cake or yourself with a “BECAUSE REASONS” cake. Hallmark Designer Kelly C. and Union Hill Studio Business Director Bernard S. shared some serious cake decorating knowledge, and threw a workshop with some frosting tricks guaranteed to give you great results with just the teeniest bit of practice.
CAKE DECORATING SUPPLIES
TWO CAKE LAYERS (USE YOUR FAVORITE RECIPE OR MIX)
BUTTERCREAM FROSTING (WE LIKE THIS RECIPE)
ROTATING CAKE STAND (OR LAZY SUSAN)
CAKE BOARD CIRCLES (IF YOU WANT TO BE ABLE TO MOVE YOUR CAKE FROM STAND TO PLATTER)
SUPER-CLEAN 6″ PUTTY KNIFE (OR BENCH SCRAPER)
ROUND 1A PIPING TIP (OPTIONAL FOR PETAL CAKE)
Getting started: How to make a layer cake
For our workshop, we used six-inch layer cakes—we were making a bunch, and that’s an easy size. Follow your recipe to make two layers.
Pro-tip: Once they’ve cooled a little, pop them in the fridge or freezer for a bit. You want to start with a well-chilled cake—just shy of frozen, even—to keep the crumbs to a minimum.
We started by cutting the domed tops off (called “leveling” or “crowning”) and splitting each layer in half (“torting”) to get four flat, even layers. Here’s how that works
- Put a layer on a cake board on your rotating cake stand.
- Then use a long, serrated knife to slice the mound on the top of the cake off. Begin by cutting into the side of the cake, and rotate it slowly until you’ve sliced all the way through. This is bonus cake that you can “test” so it won’t go to waste.
- Using the same technique, split the cake in half horizontally
- Slide an extra cake board or big spatula underneath the top half to lift it off.
To assemble the cake, start with the first layer cut-side up. Then spoon on a pile of buttercream frosting and smooth it to the edges with an offset spatula. (Here’s where you can make the layers thicker if you love frosting.) Repeat with two more layers, then put the final layer on top.
Pro-tip: For the top, save one of the bottom layers, and place it cut-side down/pan-side up. That way, you have a completely flat surface for decorating.
How to make a naked cake
Editor’s note: Our first question was, “Um, why would you want a cake with almost no frosting?” Before he gave the answer below, Bernard raised his eyebrows and whispered, “I KNOW.”
You’ve seen this shift in wedding cakes away from decorating with fondant—many brides don’t want this pristine thing that looks like porcelain. (Plus there are polar opposite views on the taste of fondant.) A naked cake gives you a more natural, simplistic look—whenever you see one used for a wedding, it’s always decorated with fresh berries or wildflowers. It’s kind of a flower child thing. Or minimalist—here’s your cake and it’s unconstructed.
There are two approaches to naked cake decorating. The purist way is to just smooth the sides of the cake using the buttercream that smooshed out between the layers.
We added a thin coat of buttercream on the top and sides of our cake—when you’re fully frosting a cake, you call this the “crumb coat,” because it seals in the crumbs. Then we scraped the icing off to expose the sides. You just have to ask yourself, “How naked do I want my cake?”
Here’s how that works:
- Between building the layers and frosting the outside, chill the cake.
- Start by using an offset spatula to cover the sides of the cake with a thin layer of buttercream frosting.
- Then hold your putty knife vertically against the side of the cake, and rotate the stand around one time to remove a layer of frosting.
- Go slowly. Don’t gouge the side of the cake. When you get around once, scrape the frosting into a bowl.
- Keep going until you have the look you want.
Pro-tip: If you go too far and start to see a lot of crumbs coming off, just pop the cake in the freezer. Then add a little more buttercream, and start again.
For the top of the cake, you can do basically the same thing: Add a thin layer of buttercream and scrape it off. Or you can frost or pipe on more icing. This is your chance to get creative.
How to make a petal cake
Here’s the cake decorating method for people who love buttercream frosting.
Editor’s note: YAAAAAAASSSSSSS.
You start with a full-coverage crumb coat—a not-quite-bare version of the naked cake technique above. And add a smooth layer of buttercream to cover the top.
For this one, you’ll want a large pastry bag—14″ or bigger. You can either cut the tip of the bag to give you about a 1/2″ opening, or use a round 1A decorating tip. Load that bag up.
Now the fun part—making the petals:
- Make one column of big dots up the side of the cake—they should look like candy kisses, and barely touch.
- Using the tip of the offset spatula or the back of a spoon, gently smash the tip of each dollop and pull it against the cake to make a tail. Wipe or scrape the frosting off your spatula or spoon after every petal.
- Add another column of dots, placing each on the end of the tail. Try to keep the dots and the tails the same size as you go around the sides of the cake.
- When you get to the last column—you’ll know because there’s no room to make another tail—just make dots. They’ll look kind of like buttons.
To finish the top of your petal cake, you can either leave it as-is, pipe a shell border around the edge, or pipe concentric shells or dollops to cover the top.
Pro-tip: If you’re not feeling 100 percent confident in your technique, you can practice on a glass or bowl until you get it down.
How to make a watercolor cake
This cake decorating technique will give you a huge wow factor without a lot of effort or expertise. You just have to be fearless. And prepare yourself emotionally: You’re going to waste a lot of icing. (Maybe put it between some vanilla wafers or graham crackers. Or ice the dome you cut off the top of the cake. Or, you know, eat it with a spoon out of the bowl. )
Decorating a watercolor cake takes a little more prep:
- Choose three to five colors that look good together—including some that will blend nicely. You can find inspiration in your favorite art, watercolor paintings, even outfits: Our first watercolor cake was inspired by a peacock.
- Divvy up your buttercream frosting and tint it. If you want richer colors, use gel or paste coloring. Trying to get vibrant colors with liquid food coloring will water down your buttercream too much.
- One color be the base color you use to ice your whole cake. You’ll also fill 12-inch disposable piping bags with each color (including the base). Cut a 1/4″ to 1/2″ snip in the end of each bag—you don’t need a tip.
- Chill your cake, then crumb-coat the sides and top of your cake with the base layer, then add another layer of the base to cover the top. DO NOT chill the cake again this step.
OK. Now you’re ready for the fun part. It’s a good idea to practice this technique on a piece of parchment paper before you try it on the cake to make sure you like how all the colors come together.
- Start piping “worms” (long squiggly lines—what else would you call them?) randomly on the sides of the cake. Leave a little room between the worms, but not too much, because you want them to squish together. (This is why you practice.) Do all the main colors, then add the base last to fill in the gaps.
- Then hold your putty knife or bench scraper vertically against the side of the cake, push it into the frosting a little bit, and slowly rotate the cake stand. As you pull the putty knife through the frosting, the colors should begin to muddle together.
- Go around one full time, then scrape the frosting off the putty knife into a bowl.
- Keep going until you get a look you like. If you notice gaps, pipe more smallish worms—add more frosting sparingly.
When you finish, you’ll have a little ridge around the top of the cake. To remove it, pop the cake in the fridge for 10-15 minutes, then use the offset spatula to carve the ridge off. To finish the top, you can do more watercolor: don’t forget to let it come to room temperature first, and use a spatula to smear the worms. Or just add a simple border, or cover the top with flowers or shells or dollops
The most important pro-tip of all:
When cake decorating, your fridge is your friend. If the cake starts to crack, refrigerate and repair. If you mess up, scrape of the frosting, stick the cake in the fridge, have a glass of wine, and start over. Nothing is beyond repair. Swear.
Want more cake decorating ideas? Here’s an ombre-style take on the watercolor technique. And some super-cute cake topper ideas. And painted fondant.
In addition to being really, really, really hungry for buttercream frosting, we also want to see what you do with your new cake decorating skills. Share your gorgeous cakes (and the non-reasons you make them) with us on Instagram at @think.make.share, or in our Facebook group. Now please excuse us—we’ve got baking and eating to do.
Photography: Jane Kortright