FOOD WISE: Decorate your own specialty cake



Chef Renee’s cowboy birthday cake was the hit of a recent family birthday party. (Photo by Chef Renee Morgan)

Chef Renee’s cowboy birthday cake was the hit of a recent family birthday party. (Photo by Chef Renee Morgan)


Here’s the problem with being a chef…you never get to just be a guest at any party where food will be served. Family, friends, people who pretend to be your friends, they all need some free help when it’s time to party. It’s both a compliment and a curse.

A couple of weeks ago, two of my grandchildren had birthdays in the same week. I’m pretty sure they’re gonna hate their birthdays being so close together as they get older. After all, they always have to have their birthday parties together as one party on the same day. Nobody wants to always share the one day of the year that focuses solely on them. It makes me happy, though, because that means I only have to make one birthday cake, albeit a really large one. God help you if anyone ever finds out you know how to decorate cakes. The boys were having a cowboy themed party (as if there were any other kind in Texas) so my job was to make a rootin’ tootin’ cowboy cake to feed about 25 kids plus parents and family. I’ve made smaller wedding cakes!

I started decorating cakes about eight years ago. See, we were planning three weddings all at the same time. Both of my daughters, as well as John and I were getting married within the same 12-month period of one another. Admittedly, a stupid thing to do. Anyhow, by the time you consider wedding cakes, grooms cakes, shower cakes, and so on, I figured I’d be spending approximately $3 million on cake alone. Yes that’s a slight exaggeration, but it was definitely gonna be expensive. I started thinking, which is generally the start of trouble for me, that I could save some bucks by making the cakes myself. I theorized that cake decorating classes, supplies and equipment combined would cost less than even one cake. Boy, was I wrong. And that’s not even taking into consideration the stress and aggravation of making a wedding cake when I’m supposed to be doing mother-of-the-bride stuff. As if that wasn’t bad enough, try being the bride and making your own cake. Yikes!

Oh, it wasn’t all bad. I learned some really neat tricks, developed some valuable skills that I use with my business to this day, and earned bragging rights. Those really were some awesome cakes! The one I made for John and I was a three tiered Italian Cream Cake topped with Sugared Fruit. The bottom layer was placed on a beautiful round mirror on the cake table. The second layer was on an antique crystal cake stand arranged partially over the first layer. The top layer was displayed on a crystal platter, which was suspended over the other two layers, hanging from the rafters of the open beam ceiling where our reception was. People still talk about that cake. Doing some things oneself certainly can make things more unique and special, as long as you don’t mind the extra work.

While you might not want to try tackling something as big and complicated as a wedding cake, knowing enough of the basics to take on a simple little birthday cake might prove useful.

I’m not talking about crazy, complex, 3-D, multi-layered, sculpted, Cake Boss-like designs. Any cake that requires an infrastructure also requires the services of a pastry chef. I mean, really! That kind of stress will drive a normal person to drink….a lot.

Here are some tips and answers to the most common questions to get you started:


1. How do they get the cake so even? Once your cake is baked, removed from the pan and thoroughly cooled, take a long, serrated knife and holding it vertical and parallel to the cake, evenly slice through the top rounded edge of the cake, separating it from the rest of the cake. The remainder should be level and you can save the top rounded part to make cake balls at a later time.


2. When I frost my cake, I end up with cake crumbs all over the place, including in the bowl of frosting. How do I avoid this? There are several things you can do. First, in pastry world, it’s icing, not frosting. (What’s the difference, anyway?) Place the cake on some kind of turn table or lazy susan to ice it. Next, place strips of parchment or wax paper under the edges of the cake all the way around. When you are ready to ice the cake, scoop a generous amount of icing onto the cake and begin pushing the icing back and forth, and down the sides with an offset spatula (you can buy one of these at any kitchen or cake decorating store) until the entire cake is covered in a very thin layer of icing. Each time you stroke through the icing, notice your spatula. If you see cake crumbs on it, wipe it off on a paper towel. This should be a very thin coat of icing. You will be able to see the cake through it. It is called a crumb coat and used to seal the cake. Allow this coat to set slightly before proceeding to icing the cake, as they say, “for real”. This will keep the crumbs sealed in. When you are finished icing the cake, gently pull the strips of parchment/wax paper out from under the cake, revealing a mess free edge. Ta-Da!


3. How do they get the icing to look so smooth? If the cake is highly sculpted and detailed, the icing is probably made of fondant. This is a good medium for those realistic dimensional cakes you see on food competition shows. It is best used on a show cake. Folks frequently complain that it doesn’t taste very good and it dries to a hard finish. If it’s a smooth look on your normal, everyday birthday cake you’re looking for, buttercream is the way to go. Buttercream icing is that yummy, creamy, smooth, sweet icing that we all love but are afraid of due to the calorie/fat content. Oh, relax! You deserve to enjoy full-fat delicious buttercream once a year. To smoothly ice a cake with buttercream, follow the steps above for the crumb coat and the final coat. Allow it to dry slightly. Then take a Viva paper towel (must be Viva), lay it flat on an area of the cake, and smooth over the paper towel with your fingers. The heat of your hand will heat the icing just enough to smooth it out. Continue and change out paper towels as needed until you achieve the desired result.


4. How can I make some simple designs on my cake? The best thing to do is get a kit of a few decorating tips from a kitchen or cake decorating store, particularly a small circle one for piping letters and a star tip for design work and simple flowers. You can use these tips in a piping bag or even a zip type bag with a corner cut out. After filling the bag with icing, twist the top of the bag and force the icing down into the tip to eliminate any air bubbles. I recommend you practice your design on a piece of plastic or cardboard first. As you pipe, periodically push the icing down in the bag and twist the top of the bag again. Lay the piping bag close to the surface to be piped and squeeze the bag. If you are lettering, lay the bag at a 45 degree angle to the cake and move the bag in the shape of the letter. If you are piping a design such as a star or flower, hold the bag at a 90 degree angle to the cake. Push the icing straight down. When the icing has made the design in the size and shape you want, stop squeezing the bag and at the same time, push down slightly, then lift up. And above all, practice, practice, practice!

With these simple techniques you can easily impress your friends and enemies alike. They will think you paid the big bucks to a fancy pastry chef. Maybe you should just keep it your little secret. Otherwise, you too will find yourself making cakes for every family member and friend. Welcome to my world!


White Cake

1 3/4 C sugar

1/2 C butter

1/2 C vegetable oil 5 egg whites

1 tsp baking soda1 C buttermilk

2 1/4 C cake flour

2 tsp vanilla

1 tsp almond extract 1/2 tsp coconut extract

Cream sugar, butter and oil. Sift flour and soda together. Add buttermilk alternately with flour mixture to batter. Beat egg whites to soft peaks and fold into mixture. Add flavorings. Pour into 2 greased 8” round pans. Bake in 350° oven for 25 minutes.


Wilton Buttercream

Icing Recipe

1/2 cup solid vegetable shortening

1/2 cup butter or margarine *

1 teaspoon Clear Vanilla Extract

4 cups sifted confectioner’s sugar (about 1 lb.)

2 tablespoons milk **

Cream butter and shortening with electric mixer.  Add vanilla. Gradually add sugar, one cup at a time, beating well on medium speed. Scrape sides and bottom of bowl often. When all sugar has been mixed in, icing will appear dry. Add milk and beat at medium speed until light and fluffy. keep bowl covered with a damp cloth until ready to use. For best results, keep icing bowl in refrigerator when not in use. Refrigerated in an airtight container, this icing can be stored 2 weeks. Rewhip before using. Makes 3 cups.


* Substitute all-vegetable shortening and 1/2 teaspoon Wilton No-Color Butter Flavor for pure white icing and stiffer consistency.

** Add 2 tablespoons light corn syrup, water or milk per recipe to thin for icing cake.