A few years ago, I had the opportunity to take a cake decorating class through the local community college. While I knew how to bake, I actually wanted my cakes to look pretty, with the little stars and such. We learned a variety of techniques that I still use quite a bit when I bake both cakes and cupcakes. I thought I would share the top ten tips I learned for baking/decorating, for any other aspiring bakers out there.
1. There is nothing wrong with using cake mix. In fact, our instructor (who happens to be one of the main wedding cake decorators at a popular St. Louis bakery), encouraged it. She said that it is more important to make your icing from scratch, but that generally the cake mixes are pretty good. One of her favorite baking books is The Cake Mix Doctor by Anne Byrn. It shares a bunch of mix ins that you can add to liven up the box mixes. Our instructor also shared that typically a boxed mix will make two 8-inch rounds. For a bigger cake, you can use the Jiffy mix to add to your batter.
2. If you make your buttercream with shortening, it is easier for decorating. My mom disagrees with me on this one, because she likes the taste of buttercream made with real butter. However, I did find the shortening-based buttercreams to hold up better over time. Plus, you can use butter flavoring to improve the taste.
3. Use a cake leveler to make sure your layers are even and sit flat. The cake leveler is another handy tool that I had never used prior to taking the class. Since cakes, square or round, tend to come out with a rounded and uneven top, this helps to make sure that the top layer sits nicely on the bottom layer. My favorite thing about taking the tops off of the layers is eating the tops while I decorate the rest of the cake, of course!
4. Stack your cakes with the tops on the inside. This is harder to explain without a picture. Basically, for a two layer cake, your bottom cake will be top up/bottom down, you'll add a layer of icing in the middle, and then your top layer will be bottom up/top down. This will give you the most flat surface to work with for the top of your cake. Plus you'll get less crumbs since you've take the top off and don't have much of a crust left on the top of the cake.
5. Always crumb coat your cake. This was probably the most important tip that I learned. I had never heard of a crumb coat before, but it is a thin, more watery layer of icing that you put down on the cake first, to hold in all the crumbs so that your top layer of icing doesn't look all messy. Here is a quick video from the Betty Crocker Kitchen, which will help explain the technique. You also want to let your crumb coat firm up before you add your icing on top.
|The first cake that I ever decorated for our class. Look how smooth that the white icing is!|
7. To keep vanilla from discoloring your cake or icing, use clear vanilla. Yes, it may not be real vanilla extract, but if you are going for white icing, you do not want it to have a brown tinge.
8. When adding color to your icing, always use gel or paste colors - not liquid. We probably all grew up with food coloring being those little plastic tubes that come in a box of four. However, I learned that those do not mix as evenly and give the same vibrant colors that you can get with gel or paste coloring. Plus, there are so many more colors to choose from with the gel colors. One thing that is good to know - it is very hard to make a true red icing. No matter how much color you add, it will tend to look dark pink. Black is also hard to get beyond dark grey, so if you can, use a canned chocolate icing in place of black.
|My second cake. The closest I could get to red icing - still looks pretty pink.|
10. Practice your different piping techniques, and learn the shapes that the different tips will make. We actually spent most of our first class learning how to properly use a piping bag with the different tips, tracing lines and shapes over waxed paper. I could still use a lot of practice.
The biggest tip I would give is to actually take a class. They are really fun, and fairly inexpensive. I took one at the community college, but you can also learn the Wilton method through classes at different craft stores.
Take a class, and you will never have to buy a cake at the grocery store again!