I am just a regular mom who isn’t great at drawing or painting (but really wishes she were) and hasn’t taken a real cake decorating class – my cakes aren’t high-class bakery worthy, but they are legit cakes for the average child’s birthday party. 🙂 But I’ve made just a few and have maybe even set the standard a little too high in my house – being able to request a specific cake is part of the birthday package.
If you’ve checked out the custom cake prices at bakeries lately, you might be tempted to try your hand at a homemade Thomas the Tank Engine cake rather than shelling out $50+ for one. If I can do it, you can too! I really do not possess any unique talent in this area; I just do it. Here are my best tips and tricks to make pretty good, pretty tasty cakes:
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1. Use Wilton food coloring gel. Do yourself a favor and don’t use liquid (it changes the consistency of the frosting, you have to use a lot more, and sometimes you can even taste it. The gels are tasteless.) You can buy them at Walmart for about $1.75/each, or from craft stores for more, but the best bang for your buck is to buy a multi-pack to get started and then add colors as needed. You can make almost any shade with the original 8 colors. (Here is a great link with color mixing instructions for any shade.)
2. The star tip is your friend! Spreading the frosting smooth takes a lot of practice. I usually spread it on smoothly and let the frosting sit for half an hour or so after I’ve put it on the cake, preferably in the fridge, and then take a paper towel and very carefully pat the frosting to smooth it out even more. (I use Viva paper towels because they are flat with no designs/patterns – I’ve tried it with others and it doesn’t have the same effect!)
But the smooth-cake thing is a lot of work and every imperfection shows. The other option is to cover the whole cake with Wilton star tip #16. You can do some serious cake decorating with only these 2 decorating tips – the star tip for the overall decorating and the dot tip for the writing/details. It’s really easy to go back after you’re done and fill in any gaps with a little squirt of star.
3. Find a good cake recipe. Focusing on aesthetics is fine, but if your cake tastes awful, no one will want to eat it. I usually use a boxed mix (Pillsbury). It’s not gourmet but I can guarantee it will turn out edible 100% of the time. For frosting, Wilton’s buttercream recipe has never failed me! If I’m going to spend a lot of time on the decorating part, the baking part needs to be simple.
4. Cake boards are nice. They aren’t necessary, and you can use a baking sheet, a plate, or a piece of cardboard – but cake boards are pretty inexpensive, look nicer, and are GREASEPROOF, which means that once you start icing, you won’t get a giant wet-looking stain that slowly spreads out from the base of your cake. (it just looks gross!) Wilton ones are great. And always go bigger than you think you’ll need. If you’re making a round cake using an 8″ pan, use a 11″-12″ board. The cake doesn’t look as crowded on the board and is less likely to get messed up when it’s being moved. 😉
5. Give yourself plenty of time. Once a cake is baked and cooled (and cut into the correct shape, if necessary), I can usually get it done in about 1-1.5 hours if I’m not too much of a perfectionist about it. I’ve had some take longer, though, and there is nothing more stressful than trying to make cake art 3 hours before a party when you haven’t cleaned your house yet and have other food to prepare. I always make my cakes the evening before. I used to wait until my kids were in bed to get started at all, but now I usually try to have the cake ready to frost and the frosting made so I can start as soon as they’re asleep. I’m a tired mom and don’t stay up til midnight for cakes anymore. 😉
6. If you can make stunning Play-doh sculptures, you should try using fondant. It seems really intimidating at first, but there is actually a super simple recipe for marshmallow fondant that is done in the microwave! And it tastes like circus peanuts. Color it with a couple smudges of your gel and then use it like clay. I recommend spraying a 9×13 glass pan with cooking spray to hold your fondant creations until you are ready to put them onto the cake (cover the pan with plastic wrap after you’ve put them in.) The fondant will last several days, so you can do them earlier in the week, then make the cake the night before the party and decorate it.
7. You don’t have to buy fancy cake pans. But you may want to invest in one or two if you plan to make a lot of cakes. A regular 8″ circle pan works totally fine for circle cakes, and that’s usually what I use. When we’re having a bigger party and need more cake, I use a larger pan (or make cupcakes on the side). My sister and I invested in this set of 4 many years ago, and pass them back and forth between us.
Tip: Use a coupon at Joann Fabric or Hobby Lobby for cake pans – they regularly have 40%, 50%, or even 60% off one item coupons and it makes the cake pans way more affordable! That goes for any cake decorating accessory; both stores tend to have a good selection.
Rather than buy a butterfly cake pan, I used this Betty Crocker butterfly cake template and put the pieces together myself for a butterfly garden birthday party.
As far as character cake pans – I don’t personally have any, but they aren’t super expensive and they make decorating even easier with the template. Some of them are no longer being made, like this Thomas the Tank Engine pan, and it’s outrageously priced now! (I have a friend who owns this pan and has loaned it out many times!) So maybe that Darth Vader cake pan will be worth money someday if you invest in it. 😉 It’s a personal choice. I often cut a rectangular cake into the shape I want it to be (but that comes with its own difficulties.)
8. Don’t compare your cakes to others. Other people who make fabulous cakes may have a lot more practice or training than you. Pinterest cakes are repinned for a reason – they are gorgeous and often professional. Once you start pinning professional cakes to your boards, you will become more critical of the amateur cakes on Pinterest and start setting your standards too high (that is, unless you are a professional decorator!)
Use theirs for inspiration, but don’t compare. Stay focused on your reason for doing it – your child. If he/she loves the cake, that’s what really matters! Not a single one of my cakes has come out exactly the way I envisioned it, and that’s okay. You get better with practice, too.
9. Don’t be afraid to fail. I’ve had cakes flop. My 1yo’s birthday cake this past year literally fell over as I was making it (90 degree weather and buttercream frosting aren’t BFFs!) I’ve had cakes turn out totally wrong. But guess what? The birthday kid didn’t notice or care. They were thrilled that I made the cake they requested, even if the eyes looked weird. 😛 And in the words of Daniel Tiger after his birthday cake is smushed, “It still tastes yummy.”
10. There’s always cupcakes. If you’re nervous about doing a whole cake, try cupcakes. I love using Wilton tip 2D and swirling the frosting around the top of the cupcake – it’s SO easy and makes fabulous-looking cupcakes with minimal effort. Buy toothpick decorations for added pizzazz – stick in the top of the cupcakes, and done!
I will sometimes try to steer my kids towards a certain direction/party theme, but I usually let them make the ultimate decision based on what they’re interested in.
As you can see, my cakes are totally amateur – I can’t compete with someone like my sister and her coworkers who worked in a bakery and spent all day decorating. 😉 I only do this a few times a year, but for me, it’s fun and rewarding, and a cheaper way to enhance a party theme.
Made or blogged any cakes lately? Share in the comments!