From birthdays to weddings, cakes are a must-have for celebrating any special occasion. Whether you’re practising for an event or just want to brush up on your skills in your spare time, we spoke with Peter Sidwell for his top tips and tools for how to decorate a cake.
Tools you need for cake decoration
1. A turntable
“This cake stand’s 360-degree rotation allows you to access all angles from any position. It’s great if you’re working on detailed decoration as you won’t damage the cake when you’re trying to manoeuvre around it,” says Peter.
2. A palette knife
“This tool is great to have as part of your everyday baking set,” Peter recommends. “It’s a handy all-round palette for levelling icing on the top or in the middle of a cake.”
Scrape mixing bowls, smother cake layers, and smooth out icing to your heart’s content – the nylon head is sturdy enough to create clean lines, is stain and odour resistant, and won’t scratch your non-stick baking tins and trays.
Along with a standard palette knife, Peter loves to have a stepped variation on hand too. “It helps me to smooth out icing, ganache, and glazes both horizontally and vertically.”
3. A piping set
“This is the perfect tool for a beginner,” Peter advises. “You can have lots of fun trying out designs with all the different nozzles. The best thing about this is that it’s a full set with the piping bag too!”
The piping bag is durable so you can wash and reuse it as often as you need. There’s even an icing comb included for etching textured patterns into the sides of your frosting.
How to decorate a cake
1. Freeze the cake
Freezing a cake sounds like baking blasphemy – but hear us out.
The entire process of mixing up batter, baking, and decorating can take a long time. For large creations with lots of different components, it can be worth tackling each part on a different day. Baking and cooling the cake on one day, then freezing it and decorating it later in the week not only means you can start to prep well in advance, but it can make the frosting process much smoother. Literally!
“If a cake is frozen, the buttercream won’t come away from the cake as easily and makes it a bit easier to handle,” Peter explains. Frozen cakes don’t crumble as much when you’re layering on the frosting.
To freeze, let your cake cool completely before wrapping it in cling film and then a layer of tin foil to prevent any air getting to it. Frozen cakes will last up to three months in the freezer.
When you’re ready to decorate, take your cakes out of the freezer and leave them to chill at room temperature for one hour. If you try to decorate a cake that’s fresh from the freezer and still frozen, it’ll start to chill the frosting, so let it thaw slightly first.
2. Level your cake
Cakes must be flat on top to prevent the layers from leaning. And the level surface also means you’ll have an even surface to work with when decorating. But since most cakes tend to dome in the oven as they bake, you’ll have to cut off the dome to level them out.
“Use a cake layer guide and a good, sharp, serrated knife,” Peter advises. “A cake layer guide will guarantee that your cut will be super even.” It’s a lot easier to cut into cakes for layering and splitting when they’re frozen.
- Place the cake on a flat surface with the dome side facing upwards.
- Put the layer guide around the cake and adjust it to fit the circumference of your cake.
- Gently rest your palm on the dome of the cake to stop it from sliding about.
- Using your serrated knife, slice into the top slot of the guide that’s just below the dome of your cake. Use soft sawing motions for a cleaner cut.
- Lift off the dome from the cake.
3. Split or tort your cake
Splitting, or torting, your cake is when you cut the cake horizontally to divide it into separate layers. This is usually done when you want to add filling between the layers and stack them on top of each other. Having even layers of cake gives your finished bake more stability and height.
To split a cake using a cake guide, the process is similar to levelling off the top.
- Place the cake guide around your levelled cake.
- Select a slot that’s halfway down the height of your cake.
- Rest your palm on the top and cut into your cake using a sawing motion.
- Cut all the way through until you have two even layers of cake.
- Use a cake lifter to separate the layers before adding your filling.
If you don’t have a cake layer guide, you can also achieve two even layers of cake by baking your batter in separate cake pans.
“Weigh out each portion of cake batter to make sure each tier is equal in volume,” Peter says. “Bake them on the same shelf in the oven, if you can.” If your cake domes in the oven, use a cutting wire or serrated knife to evenly level the top of each layer.
A precise and honed knife is crucial for cutting into any cake, as even a slightly bent blade will give you a wonky result. Read our guide on how to sharpen a knife to learn how to keep your blades in pristine condition.
4. Apply a crumb coat
A crumb coat is the first layer of frosting that you apply to the outside of your cake. It’s a light coating that seals in any crumbs to stop them from peeking out and prevents the cake itself from drying out.
“It also gives you a clean surface to apply the final layer of icing,” Peter explains: “the crumb coat helps to bond that final layer to the surface of your cake, resulting in a smoother finish.”
- Fill the layers of your cake with a frosting of your choice.
- Place your cake on a turntable.
- Use a palette knife to spread a thin layer of the crumb coat frosting around the sides and top of your cake.
- Smooth the frosting out so that it’s even. It’s okay if you can still see crumbs, as long as the cake is covered in a thin layer, it will be fine.
- Let the crumb coat dry before applying your main frosting.
5. Ice your cake
With icing, there are two main types that you can choose from: buttercream or fondant.
Buttercream has a silky, fluffy texture that’s made by beating icing sugar with butter until it reaches a creamy consistency.
“Buttercream is great for beginners and is really versatile,” Peter tells us. “You can also add colour and flavour easily.” Its foolproof and universal nature makes it a great choice for most layer cakes and cupcakes.
The benefits of buttercream icing are:
- It’s smooth and creamy, perfect for frosting a cake with
- It’s easy to make from scratch
- It doesn’t dry out as fast as fondant so it’s more forgiving to work with
To ice with buttercream:
- Use a palette knife to spread the buttercream on top of your dried crumb coat.
- With your free hand, rotate the turntable for a precise and even layer.
- Next, apply icing to the sides.
- Swap to a bench scraper or dough cutter and use the flat edge to smooth the icing around the sides. Hold your scraper at a 90-degree angle on the side and use the turntable to rotate the cake.
Fondant is a mixture of fondant sugar and water, which gives it a solid, putty-like texture that’s rolled and placed on cakes in one single layer. It’s much easier to achieve a professional finish, so it’s perfect for wedding, birthday, character, and other occasion cakes.
“Fondant icing is better for more advanced designs,” Peter agrees. “It also preserves the cakes for longer as it makes the cake airtight. But, don’t forget that you’ll still need to use a base layer of buttercream to set the fondant on for a clean, smooth finish.”
The benefits of fondant icing are:
- It’s much easier to create a smooth, professional finish
- It’s better for making detailed, intricate details
- It preserves the cake better than buttercream frosting
To apply fondant icing:
- On a clean countertop lightly dusted with icing sugar, knead your fondant until it’s soft and pliable.
- Form it into a ball and use your hands to flatten it down into a circle.
- Roll the circle out using a rolling pin. Take care to keep the piece of fondant roughly in a circle shape. This will ensure that it’ll evenly cover your cake.
- As you roll the fondant, you might notice air bubbles appear on the surface. Pop them with the sharp tip of a knife. Smooth over the popped bubble using your finger.
- Keep rolling out the fondant until it’s half a centimetre thick and large enough to cover the entire surface of your cake.
- Gently lift the fondant and lower it over your cake taking care not to pull or stretch it. If there are areas around the base that the icing doesn’t cover, leave the fondant loosely draped over the sides. Gravity and the weight of the fondant will stretch it down.
- Use your hands and icing smoother to smooth out the top and sides of the cake. This will also help to adhere the fondant to the crumb coat.
- Run a sharp knife around the base of the cake to trim away any excess fondant.
6. Add any decorations
There are lots of different decorations that will put the finishing touches to your cake. From piping to sprinkles, here are a few popular decorations to try:
- Piping – Fill up your piping bag and practice your flourishes with piped decorations. From stars to flowers to petals and swirls, you can create plenty of intricate designs with a quality icing set.
- Flowers – As well as piped flowers, you can experiment with fondant, edible, and even real flowers to add an elegant finish to your bake. Just don’t forget to remove real flowers before tucking in!
- Lettering – The round nozzle tip for your piping bag is perfect for writing out letters. You can also use letter stamps for a more uniform finish.
- Sprinkles – Funfetti cakes have sprinkles baked into the batter to create a pretty rainbow interior, but that’s not to stop you from adding them to the outside of your cakes too!
- Cardboard toppers – Popular for occasion cakes, cardboard toppers come in a range of different phrases and shapes. They’re often attached to a long wooden skewer that’s inserted into the top of your cake.
Cake decorating ideas
Now you know the basics to decorating a cake, let’s delve into some specifics.
Speciality cakes often call for a certain type of decoration, so let’s talk through how to create some of the most popular designs.
How to make a drip cake
Impress with little effort with a drip cake. Easy to make but with a professional-looking finish, these cakes are a must-try, no matter your level of experience.
Drip cakes often use a ganache icing that’s poured over the top surface of the cake and left to run down the sides, creating individual ‘drips’.
- Ice your cake with a buttercream frosting. Make sure that the surface is as smooth as possible and that you have it resting on a turntable.
- Fill an icing bottle with your ganache icing.
- Line up the nozzle around the outer edge of the surface of your cake.
- Gently squeeze to release the ganache so that it runs onto the top surface of the cake and flows over the corner, dripping down on the side.
- Release your grip on the bottle as the ganache drips down and use your free hand to rotate the cake.
- Continue to squeeze out ganache as you move around the circumference of the cake. The drips don’t have to be uniform, varying the length and size of your drips actually looks better for this kind of cake.
- Once you’ve created drips around the entire cake, fill in the centre with more icing.
- Use a palette knife to evenly smooth out the ganache on the top of the cake.
How to ice a naked cake
Naked cakes have minimal icing on the outside; some parts are only slightly frosted to give a transparent look where the layers and filling inside are exposed. Naked cakes are essentially cakes with a very thin crumb coating.
These rustic-style cakes have become increasingly popular for weddings and baby and bridal showers thanks to their elegant appearance.
- Start with your layer cake fully assembled on a turntable. Plain sponges work really well with a thick layer of frosting in between the layers. Try dotting fresh fruit in the layers so that they peek out the sides for a subtle pop of colour.
- Make up a simple buttercream. A pale vanilla buttercream is often used to complement a standard sponge cake.
- Apply a thin layer of buttercream frosting all around the top and sides of your cake using a palette knife.
- Use a bench scraper to smooth the icing out. Don’t worry about it not being even, you want it to look slightly patchy where the cake layers can be seen underneath.
How to make an ombré cake
Ombré cakes look technically impressive but are actually really simple to create. They showcase a gradient of colour along their sides; from pastel hues to bright rainbows, you can choose whatever colour combination you like.
To achieve a striking ombré pattern, use a buttercream frosting. It’s easy to blend the colours seamlessly into each other and creates a cake that’s almost too pretty to eat.
Here’s how to make an ombré cake with two different shades of the same colour.
- Your constructed layer cake should be crumb coated and ready to frost on a turntable.
- Beat up a big batch of buttercream frosting. Or, use what’s leftover from your crumb coat icing, if you have enough.
- Divide your buttercream into three mixing bowls. You’ll need one for each shade that makes up your ombré – set one of these aside to make up the white top layer of your cake.
- Add a few drops of food colouring to the first of the two bowls that you have left. Mix until it reaches the shade that you want.
- Add a few more drops of the same food colouring to your second bowl to give the icing a stronger, darker hue. Mix until the frosting turns uniform. You should now have one bowl of white icing, one bowl of coloured icing, and a final bowl of icing that’s slightly more intense in colour.
- Start with the darkest shade of icing and use a palette knife to apply it to the bottom third of your cake. Don’t worry about it being in an even layer, you’ll smooth it out later.
- Apply the lighter shade of icing to the middle third of your cake. Clean your spatula between frosting layers so the colours don’t mix.
- Finally, add the white icing to the final third and top surface of your cake.
- Using your clean spatula, smooth over all the layers of icing. The colours should blend together seamlessly to create the ombré effect.
How to make a mirror glaze cake
Unlike buttercream and fondant, mirror glazes are poured over a cake to create an ultra-shiny finish.
Mirror glazes come from a traditional French technique called ‘glaçage miroir’, which is used to encase a range of baked goods in a glossy coating. To do as the French (patisseries) do, you’ll need to melt gelatin leaves with water to achieve that signature sheen.
These cakes can take a few attempts to perfect, so save them for occasions when you want to pull out all the stops. Mirror glazes also don’t fare well over time, so these are best enjoyed on the day.
- To make your mirror glaze, soak seven gelatine leaves in cold water to soften. After five minutes, drain the water.
- Whisk 200g sugar, 200ml water, and 200g of condensed milk in a pan over a low heat and bring to a boil.
- Add in your softened gelatine leaves and whisk to combine.
- Break up 350g of quality white chocolate in a large bowl.
- Pour your sugar and gelatine mixture over the white chocolate. Leave it to sit for a few minutes until the chocolate melts. Mix to combine.
- At this stage, your mirror glaze will be pale in colour. If you want to make a single-colour glaze, add your food colouring to the bowl. If you want to create a marbled effect with different colours, split your glaze into separate bowls and add your colouring to each one.
- Stir your glaze often until it cools to 32 degrees.
- As your glaze is cooling, move your cake onto a cooling rack that’s placed over a deep baking tray. This will catch any run-off glaze.
- Pour your glaze over your cake. If you’ve made multiple colours, alternate colours as you pour to evenly distribute them over your cake.
- Set it in the fridge for an hour before serving.
Decorate a cake that’s sure to impress
No matter how delicious your cake is, the decoration is the first thing that’s going to impress your guests.
Make a memorable first impression and serve up a slice of perfection by making sure you have all the tools you need to refine your cake decorating skills.