Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Icing On The Cake - Secrets To Decorating A Cake

We eat with our eyes – that how the common saying goes. Once you have baked a cake at home and if it is a special occasion like you child’s birthday or even your birthday, it would be fun to decorate it.

Decorating need not always be elaborate. If you double the recipe in the last post and bake it in a Bundt Pan and dust it lightly with cocoa or confectioner’s sugar, topping with fresh berries or a berry coulis, it will make a pretty cake indeed. This is how I decorate most of my cakes. Or with dollops of light whipped cream.

But if you must do an elaborate decoration, you will need some tools and well, some frosting recipes. Again, homemade frosting tastes way better than what you can buy ready made off store shelves. There are two ways to decorate a cake. With Buttercream frosting and with Fondant.

When you buy cakes at a bakery (no matter how upscale the bakery) they always use shortening to make their butter cream. Not only is it full of trans fats and leave that greasy film in your mouth, if often does not taste good. A better alternative is the Seven Minute Frosting. This uses no butter and is incredibly light. It is suitable for piping decorations too. And I will also give out the Classic Buttercream Recipe – the one made with confectioners (icing) sugar which is super-easy to make.

Classic Buttercream
1 cup butter
6-8 cups confectioners (icing) sugar
½ cup milk
2 tsp vanilla extract

Beat the butter, milk, vanilla and 4 cups of icing sugar using a hand mixer. Add the remaining sugar in small batches until the frosting has reached spreading consistency. For piping decorations, add more sugar to make a stiff butter cream. Tint it with color if desired. To make chocolate butter cream, replace sugar with ¼-½ cup of cocoa powder.

Seven Minute Frosting
This is slightly more involved but tastes a 100 times better than classic buttercream. This can be frozen up to six months.
2 egg whites
1 pinch salt
1.5 cups castor sugar
1/3 cup water
1 tsp vanilla (or any other extract you like)
¼ tsp cream of tartar (don’t skip this – you will get scrambled eggs otherwise. This stabilizes the egg white foam. You can substitute with ¼ tsp of lemon juice or white vinegar)

Heat an inch of water in a skillet. Place another sauce pan over the simmering skillet (to make a double boiler) and combine all ingredients except vanilla and color in it and beat or whisk for a minute. Cook over the boiling water while constantly beating it until the frosting makes stiff peaks. Remove from heat and mix in vanilla and color.

How to fill and frost a cake
I generally bake cakes and freeze them beforehand. If you use 3” tall pans, you will need to slice the cake horizontally with a long serrated knife. (Trick: make a small notch in the side of the cake before cutting it. One can never uniformly slice the cake, so when the times comes to put the two halves together, the notch will be a good guide.) To fill the layers, you can pipe a round of frosting at the periphery of the layers – I am lazy and generally don’t do this. Put 1/3 of a cup of frosting and spread it over a layer taking care not to spread too close to the edge. Because you don’t want the frosting to squeeze out when you cover with the second layer.

While spreading butter cream over a cake, it is useful to invest in an offset spatula. And remember this rule. Always start with at least 2 cups of frosting to frost a 2 layer 8 or 9 inch cake. Dump all frosting on the top of the cake. It is a lot of frosting and I never said this was healthyJ. Using semi-circular motion spread the frosting on the top then over to the sides. You always frost by subtracting the excess frosting. Never by adding more. You will get catch crumbs in your icing that way. And that looks very unappetizing. Smoothing out frosting needs a bit of practice, but it’s not rocket science. If you have a turntable or a lazy susan, your job will be made easier. I use a painters scraper ($0.99 at home depot to smooth sides)

At this point, you can either pipe decorations with the frosting itself or use fondant.

You can by fondant off the shelf, but it tastes like toothpaste. Better make it at home. This takes minutes.

Marshmallow Fondant
1 lb mini marshmallows
2 lb confectioner’s sugar
2 tbsp water
½ cup oil for greasing your palms

Microwave marshmallows and water in a bowl in 30- sec increments until the mixture turns soupy. Generously grease your food processor with oil and fix the dough attachment and dump the soupy mixture and ½ the sugar in it. Slowly add more sugar until the mixture resembles a soft dough. Shrink wrap it until you are ready to use. If it goes hard, just microwave it again. If you want to tint it with a color, soften it using the microwave and add color with a toothpick (the colors are potent). The chocolate covering from the Enchanted Tree Cake is fondant tinted brown. Using cocoa is not a good idea because it will dry out the fondant.

To cover a cake, frost with butter cream first. Roll out the fondant in a large circle. The circle must be large enough to completely drape the cake and two or more inches left over which can be trimmed. This is essential otherwise you will get folds in your fondant covering. Once the cake is covered, your imagination is the limit. You can buy fondant cutters with which you can fashion leaves and flowers. You can make 3-d animals just like you will from play-do. This site will give you pictures of simple animals to make.

How to make the Enchanted Tree Cake
For the enchanted tree cake, I made two 6 inch cakes and cut them into 4 layers. Filled and frosted with buttercream. I rolled out a small circle enough to just cover the top of the cake. Then I rolled out two large rectangles and covered the side leaving frayed edge at the top and at the bottom. I attached the seams using water. This was the basic tree stump.

Then I made snakes out of brown fondant and made the eyebrows and other features. I scored the tree using a sharp paring knife to give it a bark-like look. I fashioned a nose by hand. I made the 3-d animals and added those. Made leaves and the fruit and arranged those on top. I had made the cake layers ahead of time and had made chocolate and white fondant. I decorated the cake on a Friday evening after coming home from work. Took me about 3 hours. Longest time took to color the fondant to the exact shades I wanted.

So there. This is 101 of frosting and fondant. I hope this inspires you to create beautiful cakes at home. And don’t worry if they seem a bit rough. That’s what makes them special and homemade. And remember, this is not rocket science. Believe me when I say it’s harder to type about decorating cakes than to actually decorate them. And if you all are not bored yet, I’ll do another post on baking and decorating equipment.


rayshma said...

u have no idea how wide-eyed i am rite now. seriously. it does seem like rocket science to me. but let me read it again.
the sour cream pound cake was absolutely delightful!!!! let me finish patting myself on the back... shall try one of these next time i venture to bake!
but as u said, u've knocked us both off cake mixes for the rest of this life! :)

Vinita said...

You have done such an excellent job on this post and the previous one . It must have taken you so long to write out everything but you have not forgotton even the most minute details. Thank you so much. I am not a baker at all. Have never baked anything but this has been really inspiring.


ddmom said...

Can I copy paste the first para from rayshma's comment :)
Thanks for writing this, I am tempted to bake one this weekend. And yes, we do need a post on decoration tools and tips.

Girl Next Door (gnd) said...

Can I copy/paste your fondant instructions when baking????
yumm frosting recipes!!!
I've used plain old butter=icing sugar (equal proportions)...
wow! that seems so long ago!!
Can't remember the last time I baked a cake! Used to *love* doing that...(nostalgic zambia days)

Mona said...

thank you for this post and the last. you're awesome!
and boring?! what are you talking about!

noon said...

Rayshma has said it! Yes dottie please do a post on the tools of the trade! Novices like me need it!

Anonymous said...


Dottie, thank you thank you...
They do sound like rocket science to me and though your detailed instructions are wonderful, i am so nervous to even try it out :)
But i am taking a print out of these posts to save them..
and like someone mentioned, yes please a post on the tools of the trade along with ingredient brands would be awesome...
** i know i know, give us and inch and we take a mile and all that jazz ****

utbtkids said...

Give me a minute to fix my jaw, hanging down in amazement.

Of course the cake you baked was MUCHO artistic and imaginative than the bakery cake.

Will do fondant one day. I don't know when, but will do.

How abt whipped cream icing? WC icing and fondant, they don't go together huh?

Preethi said...

oh my you are a pro!! And now Raysh has been tempting me to try it!! I will soon enough.. By the way you are tagged!!!

DotThoughts said...

raysh: I am soo glad you are not going back to the mixes. Making cakes from scratch is not that hard (or time consuming)

Vinita: Bake on. Find that inner baker in you :)

ddmom: please do and let me know how the cake turned out. Just make cupcakes.

gnd: fondant is super easy. Let's having a baking party this holiday season!

mona: please bake thn :)

noon: you are only humoring me. But I just did the post.

SilentOne: Its very easy, trust me. Its hard to ruin a cake. how can anything with butter and sugar and chocolate taste bad?

utbt: WC icing is very light. It doesnot withstand heat very well or even humidity for that matter. Whipped cream under fondant will just melt away. you need something sturdier. the 7-minute frosting is a good alternative. It's very light - almost like a cloud, but has structure to withstand the fondant.

preethi: heading over.

Loga said...

Referred by a friend..Now I am book marking all your recipes...Thanks for detailed descriptions...I joined Wilton class few months back and learnt the basics..was always wondering if I will get shortening/meringue powder in India...but ur recipe for cream seems to be much more easier...Thank u for good tips

DotThoughts said...

Loga: Hi! They have Wilton classes in India?? HOW COOL!. I have tried joining them before but the timing never works for me since they are always held week day mornings at the location near my home. Meringue powser is nothing but powdered eg whites with cream of tartar added to it. Just use fresh egg whites instead. shortening is nothing but dalda (see hy I don;t like it?? :)) Do you have a blog with your creations? Would love to get tips from you.

Loga said...


no,no..Wilton class in USA is what I meant..I am a beginner...I am trying to learn from u all experienced bakers :-)

DotThoughts said...

Loga: Ah, then you can buy meringue powder at Michels or AC Moore. Shortening is crisco. oyou can buy it in grocery stores.

Girl Next Door (gnd) said...

i like that idea!! Let's go crazy...T2's bday is around the corner...I'm not going back to that baker for more reasons now (he told off my friend who's been a loyal customer - will let u in on the details later)...
so, get ready for some diabetic, eggless, no-nuts cakes (and maybe some dairy-free ones too)...!

DotThoughts said...

gnd: you are on!

Munchkin said...

Awesome cake! And since you made it all yourself it must have tasted great too..
I l-o-v-e baking too! And not just cakes or cookies but breads and puff pastries too(made from scratch ,mind you)
Frankly, I look forward to cooking/baking, it totally relaxes me and the compliments in the end don't hurt either :)
I am planning to make a train cake for my son's first birthday and was searching for ideas to decorate it. Imagine my surprise when the search for fondant threw up your blog-(classic case of bagal mein bachcha aur sheher mein dhindhora..hehe..)

your ideas for the fondant seems simple and looks really good too. I had a question about the brand of food colors you use. Someone suggested americolor, what do you think?

also, if you have any fav sites you refer to for ideas or decorations, can you pass those on to me please?

you should write more about your baking ventures- i know i'd love to read more of them :)

thanks a ton!


Anonymous said...

Oh, just WOW. im actually a 10 year old girl- but that will not slow me down from baking. i've loved baking since years ago! i ALWAYS go to your website whenever i need some baking facts. Thanks for inspiring me!