How-To & Diy

How to Decorate an Ombre Cake, No Fancy Equipment Needed

February 28, 2014

Every other week, Anna Hezel talks about the innovations, decorations, and other quiet touches that make a party memorable.

Today: Give your layer cake an ombre makeover without any fancy equipment.

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Every few months, for no reason at all, I find myself compulsively making a layer cake. Sometimes it happens on birthdays or holidays, and sometimes it just happens because I can feel springtime getting nearer, and I want to coax it out with something sunny. Sometimes these cakes only taste okay, and sometimes they taste really wonderful, but that’s not necessarily the point. The point is often simply to build something -- a little monument forged from simple chemistry and engineering.

I once heard of a tower in Azerbaijan that was built from stone and held together with egg white cement. I’ve never since been able to erase from my mind the vision of medieval workmen shoveling white buttercream between dusty slabs of rock in pursuit of a truly impenetrable fortress.

More: 7 Fabulous Layer Cake Recipes

It is astounding, though, how useful and structurally sound a batch of buttercream can be. It wends to your will but holds its integrity. It doubles as the mortar that holds the cake layers together and the alluring facade. With a few drops of food coloring, a Ziploc bag, and a knife, you can turn your batch of buttercream into an impressive exterior of ombre.

This would work with any layer cake recipe with a frosting that is light in color, smooth, and spreadable. I used Smitten Kitchen's Chocolate Peanut Butter Cake, but I would also recommend trying janeofmanytrade's Cream Cheese Buttercream or Tessa_StyleSweetCA's Pink Peppercorn Buttercream.

- four sandwich-sized Ziploc bags
- scissors
- an ordinary table knife
- food coloring
- several small bowls and spoons for mixing

Assemble your layer cake according to the recipe's instructions. Frost the top of the cake with a flat layer of white frosting. Add a little bit of frosting to the sides of the cake, and spread with the back of a knife to create a smooth surface. It's okay if some of the crumbs poke through on the sides of the cake because you'll be covering the sides with the colored frosting. Refrigerate for about 10 minutes.

In the meantime, divide the remaining frosting among 5 small bowls (you may want to keep a little extra aside just in case). Add 2 to 3 drops of food coloring to one of the bowls. I used 2 drops of red and one drop of yellow to achieve a peachy color. Mix thoroughly.

Now you're going to distribute the colored frosting among the other bowls to create a gradient of colors. Add 1 spoonful, 2 spoonfuls, and 3 spoonfuls, respectively, to each of the next three bowls of frosting, leaving one bowl completely white. Mix each color well, and adjust the coloring to your liking.

Scoop the darkest shade of frosting into one of your sandwich bags, and seal the bag. Cut a hole in one of the corners of the bag, about a centimeter in diameter. Pipe a dot (about the size of a penny) along the base of the cake. Use the tip of a knife to smear the dot towards the right, creating a sort of sideways teardrop shape. In the middle of this teardrop, add another dot, and repeat. Repeat until the pattern wraps all the way around the bottom of the cake. Refrigerate for 10 minutes.

Now, scoop the second-darkest shade of frosting into another sandwich bag and repeat. Continue adding rings of color until you reach the top of the cake, refrigerating for a few minutes between each layer.

Photos by Anna Hezel

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Hilary Friedrich
    Hilary Friedrich
  • Debbi smirnoff
    Debbi smirnoff
  • amymm
  • C.P.
  • EmFraiche
Anna Hezel

Written by: Anna Hezel


Hilary F. March 2, 2014
The Smitten Kitten cake recipe has become my go to chocolate cake recipe. Best cake ever.
Debbi S. March 1, 2014
Oh, Anna, I want that green cake plate!! You are kill in' me! LOL
amymm March 1, 2014
Ain't never seen nothing more pretty. Let me eat the cake, please?
Anna H. March 1, 2014
The cake is long gone. That Smitten Kitchen recipe is REALLY good.
C.P. February 28, 2014
Buffalo, NY in the house!! Can't wait to try this trick :)
Anna H. March 1, 2014
Better make sure you use the Bills color scheme!
EmFraiche February 28, 2014
Beautiful cake! What is "ombre"?
Anna H. March 1, 2014
Ombre just refers to something that has a gradient from a lighter shade to a darker shade -- hair, clothes, cakes -- you name it!
Cynthia C. February 28, 2014
I love this! So beautiful.
Anna H. March 1, 2014
rizzle February 28, 2014
This is gorgeous. There are many spring birthdays in my family and this would be perfect. What size cake is this? Did you use a half-recipe of a usual layer cake?
Anna H. February 28, 2014
This cake was very small -- only about 6" in diameter, so I made a half batch of cake and still had some batter left over for some mini loaf cakes.
carswell February 28, 2014
May I have that plate?
Anna H. February 28, 2014
Alas, it's an heirloom from my great-grandmother, but I'm always admiring the jadeite goods on Provisions.
jeanmarieok February 28, 2014
Nice - I can't wait to try this. I grew up in Buffalo, too - great food town!
Anna H. February 28, 2014
Agreed -- nothing like a good beef on 'weck!