Ask a Pastry Chef Week 3: How to Decorate a Cake Like a Pro
5 answers to make anyone a master cake decorator
To prove that you don’t need a ‘knack’ for baking—only a good dusting of knowledge—each week this month, we’re putting 5 of your most commonly asked baking questions to our very talented pastry chef Johanna.
So you’ve baked a cake. That’s great! If you’ve been following our Ask a Pastry Chef weekly stories closely, chances are your cake not only tastes good but also has the right consistency and texture. And how does it look?
We like to think of cake decorating as a way to make appearance reflect quality, or as an indication of the flavors you worked so hard to incorporate. Makes sense, right? Everyone has heard (or said!) that, if a cake tastes good, looks don’t matter. While we agree with that sentiment, we also know that a little effort can go a long way in making your cake’s first impression a good (even great!) one. So before we dive into your questions with Johanna, let’s go through a few basics that have a big impact on a cake’s appearance.
First of all, if you want to make a layer cake, beware that it might be hard to apply a smooth coating of frosting if your cake is too crumbly. If that’s the case, here’s our trick for better layer cakes:
How to crumb coat a cake
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This trick also solves another common problem: When fillings overflow and bulge out the sides of the cake. An icing barrier, otherwise known as a crumb coat, will keep the filling where it should be: inside the cake!
A golden tip for you: As a freshly baked cake is harder to work with, allowing it to settle and cool down completely before decorating will save you time and stress—and possibly also avoid the aforementioned bulging and crumbling issues.
When it comes to frosting or icing various cakes, there are several options. If you’re thinking buttercream, here's our guide to the 6 most common types, how to flavor it, and how to make it vegan. We highly recommend exploring the website for more frosting and icing options, there are just so many! A great example is this quick and versatile sugar icing:
And, of course, there’s always the unbeatable chocolate ganache:
Ultimately, there are no limits when it comes to cake decorating, and you’re free to get creative—from sprinkles and chopped nuts to real fresh flowers. For some simple yet elegant ideas, take a look at our article on various ways to decorate a cake. Even though it may seem like a lot of work, a beautiful, personalized cake has potential to be a real showstopper—and who wouldn’t want to be responsible for that?
This week our pastry chef Johanna will be answering some of the cake decorating questions asked by you, the community. Read on for her answers and, most importantly, don’t forget to have fun!
Like always, if you have any lingering questions, write them in the comment section. Below, you’ll hear straight from Johanna herself.
1. Which fresh flowers can be used to decorate cakes?
Not all flowers are safe to be used on a cake. Beauty is, in this case, not the most important factor. Some flowers can be toxic or contain pesticides. The best thing would be to use home-grown flowers from your garden, this way you can be sure they are pesticide free. Otherwise, I’d suggest going to your trusted local florist and have them recommend the right flowers for you to use. Feel free to use all the flowers that are considered edible, such as nasturtium or borage flowers, cornflower, artichoke flower, lavender, daylilies, mallow flowers (malva), oxeye daisies, chrysanthemums, marigolds, dahlias, edible roses, wild roses, zinnia, common daisies (in small quantities, otherwise toxic), sweet geranium, gerbera daisies, hibiscus, rose hip, wild strawberry blossoms, edible pansies, violets, carnation, chamomile, forget-me-nots, apple and cherry blossoms, and Eucalyptus globulus (considered to be slightly toxic).
To avoid getting flower sap in your cake, here’s a good tip: Don’t simply stick the flowers into it. Instead, wrap the stems in floral tape first. Another option is to insert the stems into small test tubes or straws and then insert those into the cake.
2. How to pipe buttercream flowers?
How to pipe buttercream flowers
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3. Do you have any tips for someone trying to make the perfect naked, layer cake?
The most important thing to keep in mind is the shape. You want to have straight layers, since you won’t be able to hide any flaws in a naked cake. Just as importantly, the edges should also be straight. A good trick is to bake the cake the day before and, after it’s cooled down, cover it with plastic wrap and freeze it overnight. This will avoid crumbles from forming and mixing with the frosting, which is a common problem when putting together a layer cake. Just make sure to allow your cake to defrost completely before serving.
How to level cakes
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4. What’s the best way to apply icing on a cake?
I usually begin with a big dollop of frosting in the center and then spread it toward the edges. The sides should also be fully covered. You’ll notice that, at first, it’ll seem like a lot of frosting at once, but with an offset spatula you can control that. Use the spatula to move the frosting over the edges and the sides until it’s completely even. This way you should be able to obtain a straight surface and sides and edges that are even. If it’s a bit hard in the beginning, remember: Practice makes you perfect!
5. How can I efficiently cover a cake with sprinkles or chopped nuts?
I always use my hands. Put some nuts, croquant, or sprinkles in one hand and then press it against the sides of the cake. If you can manage to hold the cake with only one hand, try and hold it in an angle that allows any excess nuts to fall under it.
Check back next week for Part IV, where our editors will recommend their favorite baking books!
Published on May 17, 2019