Meantime, I'm trying to get into the zone. I lie in bed at night, imagining a pastry bag in my hand; I squeeze the pillow, half expecting frosting to come oozing out of the corner. I dream about star tips and meringue powder and icing roses. I run through frosting recipes and their variations in my head: lemon buttercream, sour cream chocolate ganache, Italian meringue. I'm excited yet overwhelmed. I've read a lot but have had very little hands-on cake decorating experience. Where do I start?
Wilton School of Cake Decorating and Confectionery Art in Darien, Illinois. Wilton, if you're not familiar, is one of the biggest and best known manufacturers and distributors of cake decorating supplies and instructional materials in the U.S. If you've ever decorated a cake, chances are you have some of their equipment in your drawers. The school has been around since 1929. Sandy has been teaching cake decorating for more than 30 years, and many of her students have been just as inexperienced as I am. Here are her tips for beginning cake decorators - and let me tell you, you'll want to bookmark this post.
Wilton's basic buttercream recipe, which calls for half butter (for flavor) and half vegetable shortening (for texture). Yes, you really need the shortening. You can use the trans-fat-free shortening, but it tends to dry out, so add a little extra moisture to the frosting to compensate.
2. Learn how to hold the pastry bag. Don't use those heavy professional canvas ones - you want the light "featherweight" bags, or disposable plastic decorating bags are fine too. Sandy doesn't recommend the guns or pumps novices sometimes gravitate toward - they give you less control.
3. Never overfill your pastry bag. Only put in as much frosting as you can hold in your palm. Otherwise you risk having it squirt out the top. (I can vouch for this.)
4. Make sure your frosting has the right consistency. For icing a cake - that is, putting frosting all over it in one smooth layer - thin your frosting with milk or water (most pros use water because it's more shelf-stable than milk, but it's up to you). All-over-the-cake frosting should have the consistency of soft-serve ice cream, i.e. soft peaks. For piping decorations, make the frosting stiffer, maybe the consistency of pudding. When it comes to making icing roses or other decorations that need to stand up on their own, you want a very stiff frosting, as stiff as you can make it and still squeeze it out of the pastry bag.
5. If you have warm hands - as I do - your frosting will soften in the bag as you work with it. The best way to compensate for this, says Sandy, is to use all shortening instead of butter in your buttercream. Don't just put the icing bag in the refrigerator, because the consistency won't be right. You can also try soaking your hands in ice water for a few minutes before starting to work, if you can stand it (that's my suggestion, not Sandy's).
6. To avoid getting cake crumbs in your frosting, use a "crumb coat." Take very thin buttercream and spread a thin layer of that all over the cake, then refrigerate the cake to set that first layer. Then apply a second coat - generously, says Sandy, "Don't try to stretch your frosting, don't skimp" - over the first. It's better to put on too much and have to take it off at the end, she says, than to start with too little. And let the frosting set before starting to decorate, because it's easier to work on a firm, chilled cake.
7. The easiest decorating technique, and the one Sandy thinks everyone should start with, is the Star Fill-In (pictured above). To make a star, use a medium-sized star tip (#18 - did you know decorating tips all have number codes on them? I didn't). Hold the tip perpendicular to and slightly above the surface, maybe 1/8 inch. Squeeze, and release the pressure completely before lifting the bag. Fill in the given area with stars, and voila - it's art.
8. Scared of writing freehand with frosting? Use a toothpick to imprint your words lightly, then trace them with icing. If the cake has been chilled and you make a mistake, you should be able to lift the writing right off with a toothpick. (Now that, in my opinion, is genius.) You can also use a cookie cutter to outline shapes, then fill them in with icing using the Star Fill-In technique described above.
9. A border, top and bottom, "frames the cake like a picture frame," says Sandy. Piped shells or beads make beautiful borders and are relatively easy to make.
10. If you're going to use a prefab frosting, says Sandy, you'll get great results with Wilton's canned icings, available from Wilton's online store and at retailers like Michaels, Walmart and Jo-Ann . These products are made with cake decorators specifically in mind and have the right consistency for piped decorating - grocery store canned frosting isn't stiff enough.