Cake Decorating 101: Piping & Frosting

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Photos by Molly Dunn
Simple lines of cream cheese frosting (and a few flowers) make a plain carrot bundt cake so much prettier.
Now that you know how to bake a cake worthy of decorating, the next step is to decorate it. I remember my first time decorating a two-layered cake. It was for my mother's birthday, I was 12 years old, and I thought I could do it all by myself; I had seen her decorate cakes hundreds of times, and she truly made it look like a piece of cake (sorry).

Needless to say, my cake wasn't as beautiful or clean as my mom's cakes always turned out. This was the day that I learned the acronym, KISS: Keep It Simple Stupid. There's no need to go crazy with frosting, icing, sprinkles, or whatever else you're using to decorate your cake. Trust me, it will look like a little kid decorated it.

A little extra touch of color, a simple design, or a nice message written on the top of the cake sends it from plain and boring to "oh, how lovely."

In the second installment of the Cake Decorating: 101 series, we are going to look at the basics with piping frosting, as well as the different types of frosting you can use to decorate a cake.

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Mix together butter, powdered sugar and vanilla extract to make a simple buttercream frosting.
One of the most basic types of frosting is a buttercream frosting, made with unsalted butter, powdered sugar and vanilla extract. It doesn't get much better than that. Buttercream frosting is easy to spread and pipe. You can also dye the frosting bright colors to create pretty decorations on the cake. Spectrum gel dye and Wilton's gel dyes are excellent food coloring choices because they maintain the consistency of the frosting; if you use a liquid dye found at the grocery store, then the frosting will be too runny and you'll have a difficult time spreading and piping the frosting.

Buttercream works well on just about any cake: chocolate, yellow, white, strawberry, orange or any other fruity cake. You can also make chocolate buttercream, browned butter frosting, peanut butter frosting and maple buttercream.

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A little bit of gel dye goes a long way.

Cream cheese frosting is another frosting you can use to easily pipe and spread on a cake. It has the same consistency as a buttercream, but the only difference is that you use one half cream cheese and one half butter along with the powdered sugar and vanilla extract. Cream cheese frosting works well with carrot cake, red velvet, apple, pumpkin and strawberry.

This frosting can also be flavored cinnamon, strawberry, chocolate, maple or ginger.

These are two of the easiest types of frosting to make because of the amount of ingredients and time it takes to create them. As the series progresses, we will look at more complicated frosting recipes.

Once you have selected your frosting, you must select the type of design you want to make.

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A round tip is perfect for writing on a cake.

There are several different piping tips you can use when decorating a cake. The most popular tips are the round tips, drop flower tips, ruffle tips and star tips, mainly for their simple and easy-to-use designs. Many of the other tips are more difficult to use, so we will get to those designs later. For now, we will focus on the easier designs.

The easiest way to decorate a cake is to frost it completely; cleanly frost the tops and the sides of the cake, leaving you with a smooth finish. But, if you want to add a little pizzazz without too much effort, then make small swirls in the frosting. No, you don't need a piping bag, or a certain tool to do so. All you need is a teaspoon and a flexible wrist.

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Everyone will think it took you a long time to decorate this cake, but it's not that difficult to do.

Working in rows, make quarter-sized swirls with the back of the teaspoon; you will be left with a series of swirled circles on the sides and the top of your cake, giving it texture, without having to whip out the piping bag.

But, to really make your cakes stand out, the piping bag is a necessary tool. Don't worry, it's not as complicated as it may seem. It just takes some practice.

Fill your piping bag by folding the sides of the bag down and filling with a slanted spatula to push the frosting to the bottom of the bag. The goal is to not have any air pockets in the piping bag. Tightly close the bag and twist the end to seal the frosting inside. Hold the top of the bag with your dominant hand and guide the tip with your other hand. You want to apply pressure from the top, not the bottom.

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The star tip is great for making shapes with texture.

Before you start decorating your cake with the piping bag, practice on a paper plate. Whenever you are done practicing, you can simply put the frosting bag into the main bowl, whip it all together and use to frost the cake.

The round tip is one of the easiest and most versatile piping tips to use when decorating a cake. I mainly use it to write letters on the cake because the frosting flows smoothly. You can easily make simple, clean designs, write celebratory phrases, or decorate with dots.

Drop flower tips also make pretty and simple designs on a cake. If you want to decorate your cake with flowers, this is the easiest way to do it. As you squeeze the piping bag, keep it vertical and twist your wrist as the frosting comes out of the tip. The grooves in the tip determine how many petals the flower will have, so that is up to your artistic discretion.

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Make a beautiful cake by piping a border around the edges of the cake.

Ruffle tips will make ribbons, streamers or anything with a ruffle. This tip is perfect for decorating the rims of a cake, giving it a nice finish. You most certainly can use it to create bows or other special effects.

Finally, the star tip is great for making shapes and lines with a little bit of texture. Depending on the size of the tip's opening, you can make thick or thin lines with grooves, or simple star-studded circles.

Next week we will focus on the fundamentals of using fondant to decorate cakes.

Check out the previous installments of the Cake Decorating 101 series:

Baking the Perfect Cake

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