Dressing a cake up can be a ton of fun… or it can be a super-stress nightmare! I’m all about finding beautiful ways to decorate cakes that are easy, fun, and even delicious. Here are my five favorite décor techniques (and tips for pulling them off)—but first, a quick tiered cake primer!
Tiered Cakes 101
Make enough filling and frosting.
My biggest pet peeve when making a cake (and frankly, one of my biggest kitchen pet peeves of all time) is running out of icing midway through cake assembly or decoration. Ugh! It’s the worst! Do yourself a favor and make a little more than you think you’ll need. No one was ever sorry they had extra frosting leftover (especially if there are also cake scraps lying around, am I right?).
Part of what makes wedding cake tiers so impressive is height. But that height doesn’t necessarily have to come from five tiers stacked tall. Even a cake with only two tiers can look super impressive (and it’s so much easier to handle!) if they’re tall enough. I usually opt for 6 layers of cake, which gives each individual tier a really nice height. To do this, I usually bake three cakes in each size I want, level off the tops, then cut each into two layers.
The taller the cake, the more you need supports. This is true of tall tiers as well as tall stacks of tiers! I love Rose Levy Beranbaum’s tip of using drinking straws as supports in cakes. Not only do they work great, but they're also easy to cut to the right size, plus you probably already have them at home!
Insert one straw into the center of the cake, then press additional straws in a circle around it. You want to have as many supports as you can without them being visible once the next tier is on top. You don’t have to add supports to the top tier, but you can! Press the straws in as deep as you can, then lift it up a bit and snip the excess off with scissors, then nudge it back down.
Use cake circles.
Buy the same size as the cake pans you’ll use. Not only do the circles support the cake, but they also make it much easier to stack the tiers when the time comes. You’ll be glad you did!
Skip the fondant, but know your frosting.
I’m pretty anti-fondant (gasp!?!) and I say skip it all together. For one, the stuff you can buy in cake supply stores isn’t as easy to work with as the stuff professionals use (it can be kind of dry, I find), plus it takes a skilled hand and some practice to nail it. But my main issues are: It’s expensive and it doesn’t taste good! I would much rather spend that money on high-quality chocolate to make a really delicious buttercream instead of something that most people are just going to peel off anyway.
All this said, it’s important to know your frosting. Chocolate frosting and/or whipped ganache are great for cake decorating, because they’re pretty easy to get smooth—and you can use a kitchen torch or hot water to warm the spatula you're using to frost, making the icing easier to smooth it out. But if you’re not into chocolate, any frosting will work. Just follow the brilliant advice a pastry chef friend once told me, and make sure the frosting is the consistency of mayonnaise when you go to frost. If it’s firmer than that, give it a few 10-second blasts in the microwave or hold it briefly over a water bath and stir until you get there. Soft frosting is much easier to make smooth, and it will set up once you’re done, so no worries about it being messy come slicing time.
More: You can even use a frosting you made without a recipe.
Embrace the messy.
Who says a wedding cake has to have smooth frosting? I think swirly frosting looks luscious and inviting—and it still holds up well to decorations. So rather than killing yourself trying to make a perfectly smooth cake, opt to embrace the messiness and go full-on swirly. If you look at the cake and want to stick your finger in and grab a swoop of frosting, you’re on the right track.
When you go to put your tiers together, be confident. Go boldly into the cake stackery like you’ve done it a million times. This is no time for hesitation, and it’s also easier than you’d think. Since you thought ahead and used cake circles on the base of the cake (right?!), it’s easy to move the cake around with your hands.
When you’re ready to stack, grab an offset spatula; my favorite is an 8-inch. Use the offset spatula to lift the cake off of your turntable/work surface/what-have-you. Once you’ve lifted it up a bit, you can support it with your hands. Place the bottom tier on the cake stand or platter, and use the offset spatula to keep it suspended a bit while you center it. When you’ve got it in the right spot, pull the offset spatula out; it should come out nice and clean.
Do the same with any subsequent tier: Hold it over the cake where you think it’s centered, then place the cake down. If you want, have a friend watch while you work and help you get proper placement. But even if it’s off a little, just nudge the offset spatula back under the cake circle and move it around as needed. Remember, the top of each tier is going to be covered with stuff—another tier and/or decorations—so you don’t need to worry much about what the top looks like. It’s okay if it isn’t perfectly smooth!
5 Easier-Than-It-Looks Ways to Decorate
You’ve built your cake and you’re looking for fancy (but easy) ways to decorate it. Here are my 5 favorite techniques. Each can be adapted to suit your style and tastes, but the guidelines will stay the same!
Fresh flowers are a classic choice for decorating a cake, and the final result always looks sharp. Most of the time, if you're decorating a wedding cake, the wedding florist will provide flowers along with the others that are delivered—a selection of blooms that appear in the other arrangements and bouquets. But if not (or if the flowers are being DIY'd, too), ask whoever's getting married for their choices and colors.
When it doubt, pick a monochromatic look. White on white always looks good at a wedding, but even clusters of flowers in similar color schemes (pinks, greens, etc.) will have a clean, elegant look. It’s generally advisable to avoid huge flowers, unless you’re going for a very full look (say, a cascade of hydrangeas sprouting off the top of the cake); small to medium flowers will allow you to make nice clusters and still give room for variety. You can use floral tape to make little bundles of flowers, or you can just stick the stems into the frosting a little bit. A few of my favorite looks:
- Use flowers to cover the whole top of the cake and fall a bit down the sides, then keep the bottom half of the cake clean and smooth.
- Make clusters of flowers all over the cake, alternating sides on each tier or keeping the same side and cluster size all the way down.
- Use flowers to cover the base of each tier like a border or edge. This is very classic and gives a full, rounded-out look to a cake.
I’m a big fan of piling other delicious stuff on a cake—and pretty delicious stuff is even better! The best part of this technique is you can use homemade stuff or, if you’re too overwhelmed with the building of the cake, you can bring in the aid of your favorite bakery or other products. Some of my favorites:
- Decorate with clusters of small cookies, like macarons and meringues, that are tinted to match the wedding colors. I also like to throw some sprinkles around the bottom of each cake, right above the base.
- Press Pirouette-style cookies into the sides of each tier. You can use different heights for a messier look or trim them all to stop at the same place. Bonus points for tying a ribbon around the base of each cake—it looks extra pretty!
- Scatter cookie crumbs around the base and top of each tier OR fully around the sides of each cake. You can do this with sprinkles, chopped nuts, coconut, etc., too—and it’s a great way to cover up a messy frosting job!
Fresh fruit always looks good—so appetizing and inviting. Berries are classic, but don’t be afraid to think outside the box. Halves of peaches, plums, and apricots can look great too, especially with some smaller varieties of fruit thrown in. I decorated this cake with two different kinds of cherries and mint leaves! Like I mentioned with flowers, a monochromatic look can be amazing: all reds (strawberries, raspberries, currants!) or all blacks and blues (blackberries, plums, blueberries, currants) can be a snazzy and easy way to pull it all together.
Whatever you choose, be plentiful (i.e. purchase more fruit than you think you’ll need). These cakes look best with plenty of fruit piled high! This technique is easy but it needs to be done somewhat last-minute, especially if the fruit is cut in any way.
Chocolate is a great way to decorate a cake: It looks fancy and tastes great to boot. The trickiest part of working with chocolate is that it needs to be tempered, so you get a nice, shiny look. You can also use thin ganache or DIY magic shell for a similar look, though both are sensitive to heat, so be careful if the cake has to stand a long time.
One of my favorite (and easiest!) ways to decorate a cake with chocolate is to make big shards of thin chocolate to put around the whole outside of the cake (yet another way to cover up frosting if you’re iffy about your skills!). Line a baking sheet with parchment paper and pour the melted, tempered chocolate over it, and spread into an even layer. No need to be crazy precise about smoothness, because the part touching the pan will be the visible surface. Let the chocolate set (you can throw it in the fridge, but it will also set at room temperature unless your kitchen is especially hot!), then use a knife to cut score marks and break it into shards.
You can go precise by cutting the plaques to the exact height (or slightly taller) than your cake, or you can embrace the randomness and break them all into different sizes and just build it until you like it. I prefer to wear gloves when I handle the chocolate, because your hands can make smears and fingerprints that are pretty visible. Finish the cake by arranging something on the cake inside the chocolate “walls”—fresh fruit, flowers, more chocolate, whatever you like! Or you can swirl or pipe more frosting onto the exposed surfaces for a more finished look.
Piping is a great way to finish a “fancier” cake, even if you don’t have great piping skills. Seriously—I know piping can seem a little intimidating, but it’s actually a really useful tool, especially for those who aren’t sure how to decorate. The piping tip does a ton of the work for you, and the results can be really lovely.
One way to use a piping tip is to pipe borders around the base and/or tops of each tier. The best way to do this is to hold your pastry bag at a 45-degree angle with the tip almost touching the surface of the cake. Squeeze the bag by applying gentle pressure and let the icing flow from the tip. When you’ve made the shape you like, stop applying pressure, and move the bag over to the next spot. Begin to apply gentle pressure again, and repeat the process. Continue until you’ve covered the whole border of the cake. I like to use star tips to make a “shell” or “rosette” border, or a plain open tip to make little dots or pearls.
But my favorite way to pipe on a cake is, no surprise, to embrace randomness and just go crazy. I fit several bags with different sizes of tips; it looks great with star tips, open circle tips, or even a combination of the two! Tint your frosting in a few different colors—whites and creams, pale blues to deeper sea colors, dusty pinks to rosy reds, whatever matches the theme of the event. Use at least 3 tints of color, and up to 7 (the cake above uses three: white, pale blue, and darker blue), and at least 3 sizes of tip, and up to 7 (this cake uses 5 different tips, with some colors used twice in two different tips).
Begin piping shapes wherever you like. I chose round the base and top of each tier, cascading down. You can do just a little bit, in clusters all around, or have the shapes totally cascade from the top down (or bottom up), leaving part of the cake untouched. However you do it, start by going around the cake with one color and type of tip, randomly making shapes and leaving space around. Then grab the next color and tip and start filling it in. It might look a little strange at the beginning, but don’t fret. Just keep building until there’s no space between the piped shapes, and I promise it will look cool! Mix up the size and formations of the shapes you pipe. If you’re trying to get it perfect, it may be easy to notice a mistake—but if you plan on being crazy and random from the beginning, errors will be harder to spot.
Do you have any simple ways you like to decorate cakes for special occasions? Add them to our list by leaving them in the comments below!