By Chef Julie Wilson
The events of the last year, I’m speaking to you COVID-19, have certainly ignited or reignited the passion for cooking and baking in so many of us! How many loaves of bread did you make during quarantine? Be honest! I know more than a handful of you made a sourdough starter! It’s ok, we need hobbies, something that bring us joy. It’s funny though, what starts off as a hobby can transition into something much more. What begins as “just” baking bread, can expand into making all kinds of sweets, then morphs into something even more specialized – like cakes, which in turn progresses into cake decorating. Baking is the – excuse the pun – gateway drug, folks. Welcome to your new obsession – decorating cakes. It’s a hard skill to master, but once you do, the sky’s the limit. But let’s start down here on the ground. Most likely you’re doing this from your home kitchen and need a few pointers.
You might wonder who am I to dole out tips? Well, I’m Chef Julie. I graduated from CSCA’s Professional Pastry Program in 2009, and basically found my way to cake decorating right after. I’ve decorated cakes professionally for most of my adult life, all over Massachusetts and in San Francisco. I’ve worked for big bakeries (that almost seem like factories), small batch boutique cake shops, and everything in between. Large scale cake production and highly detail oriented establishments both have their pros and cons, but no matter where I was, I learned something. I also teach Cake Decorating classes here at CSCA. I’d love to share a few things I’ve picked up on my journey with you. Here are a few helpful tips and tricks for the novice cake decorator.
GET THE RIGHT TOOLS (FOR YOU)
The equipment that you use may not work for someone else. That’s the thing about cake decorating, there are many different ways to do the same thing. You have to find out what you like. What’s always worked for me, are the following:
- Serrated Knife – for cutting the dark spots off the cake and cutting the cake into layers
- Kitchen Scissors – for cutting off the ring of cake that sometimes builds up around the top edge, as well as cutting any boards you put under the cake
- Offset Spatula – for both filling and frosting the cake
- Mini Offset Spatula – for those times when the normal sized one is just too much, i.e. patching buttercream holes
- Bench Scraper – for getting a straight and smooth side
I find these tools to be necessary. They are what I’ve become accustom to, and while I could make others work for me, using these is where I feel most comfortable. Do you already have tools that help you achieve your best work? Or are you messing around with a bunch of different spatulas? Stick with a set of tools for a while to see how you progress. You may be surprised by the result! I found myself hating the bench scraper at first – it was awkward and difficult – but after a while it became indispensable to my cake frosting process.
USE YOUR BODY
Ok, ok, hear me out. Cake decorating isn’t a full contact sport or anything like that, but you do need to use the rest of your body besides your hands to be successful. When you’re writing “Happy Birthday” or piping an elaborate design, let your body move with the writing – you’re going on a cursive journey. Give yourself some extra stability with your non dominant hand too. I like to use my index and middle fingers of my non dominant hand gently placed on the thumb of my dominant hand with my elbows tucked into my sides. This gives me the ability to really become one with my piping bag. I also ALWAYS use whatever table I’m working on as support. I lean against it with my hips (because I’m quite short), but legs will do. It gives you something to anchor off of so you’re not trying to do it all yourself.
These are great ideas, sure, but my best tip is to practice. Sometimes in my Cake Decorating 101 classes at CSCA people say to me “You make it look so easy!”. Well, first of all, I’ve been decorating cakes for over a decade so if I don’t make it look easy, we have a problem! Secondly, it’s because I have so much practice under my belt. These basic movements and motions are now infinitely easier to me than when I started. It seemed almost impossible in those days that I would actually know what I was doing in the future, but I stuck with it and figured it out.
HAVE CONFIDENCE IN YOURSELF
75% of cake decorating is having confidence in yourself when you’re piping the design, or placing fondant on the side of the cake. To be fair, numbers aren’t exactly my forte, but the percentage is definitely high. When you’re drawing a line across a cake, you have to do it with confidence and do it quickly so that you can maintain the pressure on your bag. Every time you hesitate you get a choppy mistake. The beauty of cake decorating is that you can always start over. Of course no one wants to, but it’s good to know that’s an option. You will never really ruin a cake irreparably; there’s always a way to come back from a mistake. Keep this in mind when you are charging forward. Confidently execute your design; I promise you it will make a huge difference.
Julie’s Tools of Choice
DON’T FORGET TO HAVE FUN
Whether you choose to follow this advice, or throw everything you just read out the window, just remember this one thing – this should be fun! Don’t kill yourself trying to make it perfect. There seems to be certain type of person that gravitates to cake decorating…a perfectionist. I understand because I am one. I used to really beat myself up about any tiny mistake. Take my advice and let it slide. Your worst critic is you! The only person who notices your flower is slightly off center is you; everyone else only sees how beautiful it is.
If this sounds like you, sign up for one of our Cake Decorating 101 classes for some in person tips and tricks. If you want to take your decorating to another level, we also offer Cake Decorating with Fondant! For those of you who’ve taken both those classes and want to dive deep into the world of pastry arts, check out our Professional and Certificate courses. Maybe group learning isn’t your thing and you just need some time to yourself with these skills; then don’t forget to practice, practice, practice. And hey, if you have any questions we’ll be here, ready to decorate with you!