First you have to ice the cake. The basic icing creates a backdrop, the blank canvas for decorating. Some people call it frosting. In fact there is quite a debate raging on various websites with enthusiastic arguments and disagreements on the differences between frosting and icing. Use whatever term you like. I use icing. And I mostly mean buttercream, but we also use cream cheese icing. And ganache. And fondant (rolled, not poured). And royal icing, but only for piping on top of fondant. We rarely make cooked icings, and never put glaze on a cake. You will find recipes for the various gooey or creamy concoctions we use to cover and fill cakes in our cookbook.
When it comes to piping a design on a cake, we almost always take our cues from the customer. Ususally there is something to go by since most cakes we make are for AN OCCASION. We often have an invitation or theme to guide us but sometimes we are given carte blanche. Make it look pretty.
No matter what we decide to pipe onto a cake, there is "well done" and "sloppy."
A well done cake should look like...
- You were capable of executing your design. Don't try to create something that is beyond your skill level. Some people can draw intricate designs in buttercream and some cannot. Swirls, dots and cornelli lace look great on cake, and require minimal artistic abilities. If you cannot make pretty icing roses, stick with daisies, vines and leaves.
- You took your time. I am not saying you should spend three hours (or more) icing a cake, though many of the cakes featured in cake decorating books look like they took at least that long. There have been decorators employed in our shop who took that long. We do not have enough customers willing to pay us to spend several hours on a cake, but the cake should not look like you were in a hurry and took short cuts either. Be patient enough to embellish your swirls. Add an extra loop on your letters, and flatten your tails.
- You had the right tools. Using a too-large or too-small pastry tip looks sloppy. If you are not sure, practice on a piece of wax paper or the back of a pan before you start on the cake. I've seen more than one decorator use the wrong tip just because he or she was too lazy to walk over to the tray of tips, or the sink, and get the right one. The same goes for changing colors. Take the time to make ALL of the colors you need.
- You took some care in choosing the designs. It is often an extra detail that makes the cake look really special. Research your designs and keep a scrapbook or photo album of designs you like. You never know when they will come in handy.
In other words, a well-done cake should look like you have some skills and care about your work. Remember the mantra You Eat First With Your Eyes.
A sloppy cake is the opposite of a well-done cake. Avoid...
- Wobbly lines
- Tails on polka dots
- Uneven borders
- Blobs, bulges or muffin tops
- Unrecognizable designs
There is also "underdone" and "overdone." Roses are the best example... A few roses look nice. One is not enough, and forty look like someone threw up on the cake. When you put too many of something on a cake, you cannot fix it by adding something else -- like leaves... The same goes for polka dots. And borders. You can take a beautifully decorated cake and add an extra border at the top. Suddenly it's overdone.
There are times (and most of the decorators in our shop have experienced this at least once) when you cannot put a finger on the problem. The cake just doesn't look RIGHT. That's when you scrape off the icing and start over.
Illustration by Suzanne Gray (featured in our cookbook).