Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Decorating a birthday cake: Step By Step Tutorial

After I posted my cake pictures here, I had quite a few mails with questions on decorating cakes. So, this is my attempt at answering all your questions - by outlining the things I do when I decorate birthday cakes. I am no expert and though I have tried my best to explain the process, do take the time to take a look at the links - those are phenomenal sources of information! Please bear with me if some steps appear too basic and do feel free to ask me for clarifications, if any.

There is great pleasure and satisfaction in being able to decorate your child's birthday cake. Every single year, when I am decorating my daughter's birthday cake, I tell everyone willing to listen to remind me never to do it again - it is quite tiring and very messy. But when the cake is all done, I have this stupid grin on my face and I make several trips to the fridge to stare at the decorated cake and vow to do it all over again!

So where do you begin?

1. Decide on the theme: believe me, once the theme is is decided, everything else falls into place quite easily. I always refer to these sites for inspiration. Depending on my daughter's preference, we zero-in on the theme.

2. Get an estimate of the number of children. I don't understand cake estimates in terms of "how many kilos". It never works for me. So what I do is eye-ball the no. of cake slices based on the size of the cake pan. For eg: an 10" square cake pan is good to feed about 18-20 kids. Do remember, we are talking of kids here who never hesitate to ask for second helpings, so you want to be generous in your estimate.

3. Now, based on the theme and the size of the cake, decide on the final design of the cake. If you want to cut the cake into any particular shape (as in this particular cake), then based on the size of your pan(s), cut the shape out on a newspaper a couple of times - till the time you are satisfied with the look of the design.

4. Pre-preparation: Before you've even baked the cake, get the basic material ready. To be able to comfortably decorate a cake, you need a good cake board. Most of the times, I buy my cake board from some bake store, but it is very easy to make your own as well. Just get a sturdy cardboard, cut it to the requisite size and cover it with foil. Ideally, your cake board should be an inch wider than the cake on all sides (mine wasn't, in this case)

Also buy all the supplies you would need to ice the cake. To me, an undecorated cake is like a canvas - before I have even baked the cake, I have a pretty good idea of what design elements I am going to have on the cake (like flowers or boulders or trees in this case), based on which I make sure that I have all the requisite things like piping tips, piping bags, icing colours and other cake toppers before I start decorating the cake. There is nothing more irritating than realising at the last minute that you don't have something ready at hand.

A word on piping tips: I think the following tips should be more than sufficient for starters: round tips in at least 2 sizes, the star tip, the basketweave tip and a drop flower tip. You can find further details here; my first ever set of piping tips came not from any speciality store but from a supermarket - and it did the job very well.

Piping bags: I prefer to use the plastic disposable ones - there is less washing up to do once you've finished decorating the cake; you can make your own with parchment paper. My friend saves the plastic milk bags to make hers. Watch this video to know more.

5. Prepare the Frosting: I normally use buttercream for my cakes and I use butter, not shortening, for making my icing. True, butter is a lot difficult to work with, especially in humid/hot places but somehow, I prefer the taste of butter over shortening and I cannot bring myself to use eggs in preparing the frosting. Take a peek here and find which one suits you the most.

6. Preparing your cake:
a. Leveling: Cakes tend to dome or crack during the baking process and before you start icing your cake, you need to level your cake. First, take your cake off the pan and allow it to cool completely - I allow the cake to cool for at least 3 hours. Then, level the cake by slicing the dome with a knife or with a cake leveler. Though I have never tried it, dental floss apparently is excellent for this.

The easiest way? First, slice the dome with a knife - don't fret if it is not perfect. Just like a coin, a cake too has two sides - just flip the cake over - now, you have that perfect straight surface to work on!

b. Filling: Take the height and the taste of your cake up a few notches by sandwiching two layers of cake with some jam or mousse or fruit or some buttercream. Again, slice your cake with a serrated knife or a cake leveler or dental floss, add the filling of your choice and then sandwich with the leveled side on top. Leave the cake in the fridge for an hour before proceeding to the next step.

c. Patterning: Secure the desired pattern with toothpicks or quilting pins (do remember how many you've used!) and cut along the edges. Then arrange the patterns on the cake board for the desired shape. I used an 8" square cake for the straight lines of the cake and an 9" round cake for the curved part. (I used my butter cake recipe for the cake, it is perfect for an 8" cake, for the 9" one, I increased the quantities a bit).

7. Crumb coat your cake: Think painting the walls of a house: you need to level the surface, fill in any holes and then apply a base coat. That is exactly what a crumb coat does - fills in any gaps, especially when you sandwich the cake layers and most importantly, keeps those loose crumbs together. And it comes in particularly handy to "glue" the cake blocks in a a patterned cake like this one.

To crumb coat your cake, apply a thin layer of icing all over the cake and put it in the fridge for about an hour.

You will not believe me, but you are now 70% done. The back breaking part is now nearly done, what follows now is the fun part!

8. Decorate your cake: Apply a generous layer of the frosting all over your cake and smooth it with your spatula. If you are using butter, getting a smooth flawless surface is going to be a little challenging.

Here are 3 things you could do: cool the cake in the fridge for about 15 mins, then place some parchment paper on top and quickly smooth over with the back of a flat plate. Or dip your spatula in hot water and quickly run over the cake.

Or ignore it. I do. Ignore it, that is. For, as you unleash your creativity, the uneveness that you see at this stage will disappear. Trust me on this!

Here's what I did to decorate the cake (sorry no step by step pictures here as I was really engrossed in putting everything together!):

Actually dragged a Thomas engine along the cake to give me the track lines.

Then, I piped the train tracks using tip#4 and tip#47. Put honey stars (crushed) to complete the look of the train track.

Piped grass on the edges (obviously, to hide the imperfections there!) using tip#233. Added flowers using a flower press to add colour to the cake.

Added boulders here n there. To get the marbled effect, take a piece of white fondant, and add some dots of brown colour. Then knead it for a few minutes, you will see the marbling as you knead.

Cut the tunnel out using the remaining bit of the round cake and secured it on the cake using toothpicks.

This is the final look:

Yes, I know that this is a rather long post. And thank you for reading through, I do hope this helps you in decorating your cakes!!


  1. Very it.Great effort

  2. Great post! I have icing bag and tons of tips, but never used any!

  3. Wow Aqua! That is a lovely cake and I can appreciate all the effort you put into it. Can you believe it, I just came from the supermarket after ordering a 1/2 sheet cake for my son, who is going to turn 4 next week.
    Now, I am tempted to cancel my order and make my own. Do you have any idea/ pics of a b'day cake for a four year old? Preferably an easy one. :)

  4. Very Usefull Tutorial!! Keep sharing the wonders u know..

  5. Wooowwww..thats worth an effort..looks very good..never thought of making a birthday cake with theme like gave a lot of inspiration..Thanks for sharing..

  6. You have a lot of patience, Looks very good and worth the effort. Birthday wishes to your daughter!

  7. Wat a wonderful post, just love it..thanks for sharing Aqua, definitely gonna be useful for many of us...beautiful cake..

  8. Nice post. Did you make the bridge with rice crispies? Are flowers buttercream icing or royal icing?

  9. Gosh I can never have this much of patience. I will go round- square but not any other shape! U re a pro baker!

  10. Thanks you Sailaja!

    Simran, you must use them ASAP!

    Jaya, go ahead and make one. BTW, the kids take great pride in everyone that my mom made this cake - and that is so rewarding!If he likes sport, you could make a baseball/soccer field cake. Sending you a mail with more details.

    Lavi, stay tuned, my next post is on fondant cakes.

    Cilantro, thanks for the wishes, but this cake was for a friend's son. We put Thomas and some wagons on the cake when he cut it.

    Sadhana/Muskaan, this is my passion and believe me, it is really rewarding and worth every minute you spend on making one :)

    Priya, I'll be really happy if these tips work for everyone.

    Bangalore Baker, the flowers are made from fondant, I used the flower press like a cookie cutter.

    Cham, blush blush, thank you very much!

  11. P, thanks!

    Oh and B'lore Baker, for the tunnel I used the leftover piece of the round cake and cut that piece in a horse-shoe shape and secured it with toothpicks.

  12. Very useful tips...Looks beautiful.

  13. What a wonderful post... Great effort.. both in the cake and making this post. You are indeed a Pro..

    I am indeed speechless seeing your step-by-step pics.

  14. very useful post..appreciate your efforts and thanks for sharing..

  15. I'm never going to be able to do anything like this, but I'm full of admiration for your effort and talent - both in making the cake and doing this post! Amazing!

  16. Unbelievable!! You made it look super easy. But I know it is not. I have to struggle with this. This is just amazing work of art.

  17. Wow what an amazing cake! I love it!

  18. OMG thats gorgeous cake it. You are incredible talented my dear :-)

  19. Lovely..You have a lovely blog out here with some awesome step by step to making cake...I am going to come here very often


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