Food & Drink

Cake Decorating: Everything You’ve Ever Wanted to Know

Last Updated on November 14, 2022 | 0 Comments
Chocolate mocha cake

We are obsessed with cakes—especially how they look. Crazy, extravagant cakes are overtaking the simple styles of yesteryear. Googling “Why the cake craze?” doesn’t turn up a thinkpiece but rather a bakery in Louisiana. There isn’t a critical understanding of cake decorating so much as a burgeoning mania. Why? We at Cozymeal set out to understand everything about the art. We’ve interviewed chefs, watched videos, baked cakes and delved into its history to know how we got here.

What to Expect:
I. How crazy are we for cakes?
II. What the bakers have to say
III. Six quick tips for beginners from our chefs
IV. Home videos and YouTube tutorials
V. The history
VI. Ideas and lists for cake decorators of all skill levels
VII. What we’ve got for you

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I. How crazy are we for cakes?

A. With as much frenzy and gusto as a kid on his birthday, the nut jobs of Cake Boss and Ace of Cakes show us what can happen when the obsession with elaborate cakes becomes an entire business. Such luxuriant and ludicrous desserts inspire analogous personalities like the bridezillas and menacing baker bosses we’ve all come to love to hate. They’re the living versions of their cakes: magnificent in an exaggerated way, and very easy to topple.

B. We also love a good dose of schadenfreude. Cake Wrecks is a hardcover published book that was once a wildly popular website. A search for “cake fail” returns several Pinterest boards and listicles from viral media outlets: 17 Valentine’s Day Cake Fails That Will Make Your Heart Burst, 21 Horrifying And Terrifying Disney Cake Fails, etc. It’s fun to think that we are better than these clowns that pass for bakers, though these posts may discourage us from trying cake decoration for fear that we will likewise sit in an online pillory.

C. Watching professionals fail, though? Incredible.

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II. What the bakers have to say:
In honor of these videos that make us gasp, we talked to San Francisco bakers about their craziest cake stories:

A. Chef Jean Yves at Cozymeal:
What was your most challenging experience when decorating a cake?
“I have made many challenging decorations throughout my career as a pastry chef owner. I remember making a masterpiece for the celebration for US/French Navy Allies Cooperation where San Francisco dignitaries were invited with the ambassador and both American and French navy Admirals. All the decorations were made with pull sugar and chocolate because I wanted to give a feel of strength, power, and elegance.
“Lines, anchor, countries’ boat flags and banners were made with pull sugar, and crests and blazon were made with chocolate. When putting the all cakes together, I researched Navy boat history, design crest, and blazon from each boat and made chocolate molds accordingly for representing each boat blazon. By the time of service we had 150 different boat chocolate blazons served with each slice of cake.”

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When have you had the most difficulties in making a cake?
“The difficulties were, at first, in making masterpieces; but the most arduous part is delivering the masterpieces 60 to 100 miles to Napa Valley or anywhere else.
“Basically you are stressed and anxious during the the whole trip. A bad turn, pot hole , or any emergency brake could break that structure into many pieces.
“One day I made a cake with the Pisa tower topping the cake and rose another three feet. The Pisa tower with the cake was a seven feet high structure. A bad needle turn with a last minute brake took the Pisa tower into 1000 pieces and crushed the cake. I ended up gluing it back together the best I could, spending four more hours on site for trying to save my reputation. The spectacular three feet tall Pisa tower end up being one foot tall and only the tilting of that tower was from Pisa.”

What evolution have you noticed in cake decorating in the past few years?
“In today’s decoration process, décor are premade in advance for a better cost efficiency. A lot of stencils for cakes and chocolate are used to duplicate designs and shapes. From one store to the other you will find the same style of décor with premade stencils. Decorations are kept simple and slick but enhanced with more colorful patterns compared with 30 to 20 years ago. Unfortunately, we can see the same style all over the place using stencils and other premade décor that have nothing to do with craftsmanship.”

B. Sugar Pie Baking Company
Have you had any crazy clients recently?
“I haven’t had too many crazy requests or clients; I’ve been pretty lucky with that. The crazy stuff is when I’m up all night working on the project. Right now it’s not cakes; it’s cookies. It’s 1200 sugar cookies. This is the craziest thing I’ve agreed to. As we speak, I’m trimming the extra icing off 1200 cookies. They’re for a makeup company in SF, and they have to have the logo on them. I’m very sleep deprived."

Have you had any spectacular successes while making cakes?
“Somehow I end up doing a lot of vehicles. I did a locomotive once—dark green train, pretty realistic, spectacular. I did Mater from cars. The cartoon characters I do are always fun and turn out pretty well."

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What’s your favorite kind of cake to make?
“I’m always really excited to do those. 3D cakes are basically sculptures. 90% of the time they come out exactly like I want. I haven’t been doing this for long. For me, it’s changed a great deal. When I started, I had seen the [cake decorating] shows, but I thought that there was no way I could do that. I’ve gone from that to making multiple towering cakes a day. My own personal evolution is something I’m really happy with.

“My first 3D cake that I made was a car. A Porsche, though I can’t remember the model. It was a convertible. I had never done one on my own. My boss was on vacay, so it was just me. I did a ton of research online, did some drawings, then did some scale drawings. I was trying to figure out what my process needs to be. It came out awesome. I was so proud. There were a few things I did wrong. All in all, I looked at it and thought, ‘Wow!'
“My background is in art, and then I was teaching, and then I got away from that, then I got back to art in cakes. I love doing cakes. I want to do more.”

C. Chef Eloise at Cozymeal:
“Cake decorating is very labor intensive while at the same time ideal for people who are very creative. It’s a lot of work but the finished product is always fulfilling. I always freak out the day before I finish the cake. I’m so nervous: what if something goes wrong? What if it breaks?
“Thankfully, all the experiences in my career have been successful. It usually turns out better than I thought it would be. Like when other people see the finished product and say, ‘Oh, wow,’ that’s my measurement of success.”

III. Six quick tips for beginners from our chefs:
A. For beginners: bake a cake with a flat top. This will allow you to spread the icing evenly. When baking the cake, take care that the oven temperature does not go too high because that will warp the cake. Make use of an oven thermometer.

B. If your cake does become warped, place a plate on it while it cools. Push the plate down for ten seconds and leave it as the cake cools.

C. Line your pan with parchment paper.

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D. Line the edge of your cake stand with three-inch strips of waxed paper. A clean cake stand looks very professional. Remove the strips one by one when you’re finished frosting.

E. Before icing lettering onto a cake, outline the words by tracing a toothpick over the top. That way you’ll avoid this.

F. Frosting patterns and their making:
Peaks: push the outside of a spoon into the icing and pull straight up
Zigzags: run the tines of a fork through the icing like you’re making waves
Stripes: run one side of a knife from the edge of the cake to the center. Flatten the knife for broader stripes.

IV. Home videos and YouTube tutorials
Both Chef Eloise and Sugar Pie Bakery suggested that beginners check YouTube and try what they see. Searching “cake decorating” on YouTube unearths 135,000 videos. On the first page of search results sorted by view count, no video has fewer than three million views. The highest ranked has 31 million. We’ve gathered four videos that exemplify the types you’ll see online.

A. Kids’ Cakes

purple barbie cake

image via

“Remember that we’re just creating layers of pretty stuff, and you can stop at any point.” —Liz Larson, our Cheshire Cat guide into the mad world of cake decorating. She’s telling you that if you feel this has become a fruitless process, that if you feel your 5-year old won’t know the difference between a single garland and a double garland, you can stop. The end product is, either way, impressive.

Part of this video’s appeal is the appearance of a fellow mom creating such a masterpiece. She seems to be saying that if she can do it, anyone can. You just have to have a Barbie doll, an oven, and willpower. With the advent of widespread access to video distribution and social media, anyone can document and share their forays into cake decorating.

B. Cupcakes

cupcake video screenshot

image via

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Cupcakes! Cardio! Skittles! The rainbow! Insanity!
The sheer number of different kinds of sugar in this cake will send any five-year-old or diabetic into a tailspin.

C. Involved Cakes
icing a cake
image via

Check the timestamp. This cake takes an hour to watch, so it will take six hours in real time.

D. Viral Cakes

Instagram cake video
image via

This Instagram cake video is the shortest one of the three and provides an entry-level, low stakes window into the world of elaborate cake baking and decorating. There are many ways to knock a cake like this, but the final product, colorful and fun and lacking any sense of I-take-myself-too-seriously, speaks for itself. No biting insult can take that away.

V. The history
Cake decorating videos abound nowadays, but magazines came first. There are entire shelves of magazines dedicated to decoration: American Cake Decorating, Cake Craft and Decoration, My Cake Decorating, Central Cake, Cakes and Sugarcraft, and more. Many of these magazines don’t aim at professional bakers but rather at lay bakers looking to impress at the next birthday party. They do, however, promise to teach skills that professional bakers use, but you don’t have to go to culinary school. Like Liz in the Barbie video above, who gained 31 million views just making a cake for her kids.
The sheer volume of popular cake literature begs the questions: Are these insane homemade cakes to prove we are the best parents? The best hosts and hostesses? The most well-liked? Or is this just another hobby that people dive into with so much gusto that outsiders will never understand?
I digress. It might be nostalgia. I harken back to the days when a pumpkin cake thrilled me because I was dressed as a pumpkin. Why shouldn’t people have cakes taller than themselves? Indulgence and excess are not always harmful.

So what?
It’s hard to comprehend how bonkers we go for cakes without knowing their history. To understand our contemporary cake decorating moment, we can look back into the history of the art:

Contemporary cake decoration springs into its elaborate form with the French, as most extravagant things do. But first we’ll throw it back a while: the word “cake” itself arises from the Norse word “kaka.” Though this is a 13th-century word, archaeologists have found cakes, recipes, other ancillary evidence at sites in Egypt that date back to before the common era.

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For centuries, cake and bread were all but indistinguishable. Keep in mind that sugar did not become readily available until the discovery and colonization of the Americas. Sugarcane revolutionized the baking industry as nothing has since yeast itself. Take one example: the common image of a baker today is that of a jolly purveyor of sweets more so than a daily bread vendor. This was not true for most of our sugar-free history.

The precursors to modern cakes appeared in mid-17th-century France alongside the advent of more reliable ovens. These innovations could sustain a specific temperature. Unlike cooking, during which the temperature can vary without great loss, baking depends on a steady temperature for a thorough and even texture. Food molds also became more available during this time. Bakers typically made icing from a boiled combination of sugar, egg whites, and flavorings that they applied to the cake while it cooked and allowed it to cool rapidly afterwards, forming a hard and shiny shell.

Baking took another turn during the 19th century. More refined flour became more available, baking powder replaced the yeast of yore, and buttercream icing appeared as if out of skim milk. The French chef Antonin Careme is to thank for many of these advances.

In America, cake became widely known during the Great Depression with the advent of cake in a box as a way to pack calories into a small space. Nutritionally needy Americans devoured it. This became a much more widely known product in the 1950s when companies like General Mills marketed cake in a box as a paragon of modern convenience.

Betty Crocker 60s ad
Image via

General Mills and Betty Crocker, however, found that housewives were dissatisfied with the ease of such cakes, which allowed for very few personal touches. So marketing psychologist Ernest Dichter introduced frosting into the mix: easy cake, elaborate frosting. Cue the magazine spreads of intricate cakes we know today. Like the YouTube tutorials above, magazines about baking at home focused on the everyday cake decorator. Our current DIY video kick is an extension of what 50s housewives wanted to see. And so frosting and decoration rather than the cake itself became the American standard by which we we judge cakes.

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VI. Ideas and lists for cake decorators of all skill levels
There you have it. I’ve expressed skepticism throughout this post, but it really is a beautiful and impressive art. It takes patience, artisanship, talent and to creativity. To inspire you, here are five essential cake decorating resources:

A. 35 Amazing Birthday Cake Ideas
Buzzfeed brings together the internet's vast knowledge to make a list about just about everything. Their cake decoration post is no exception.

B. Design Me A Cake’s Tutorials
Just looking at the pictures on Design Me A Cake’s gallery is enough to make you drool with delight. They also specialize in cakes that look like other things. Clearly an authority on the subject that has deigned to share its knowledge with the rest of us.

C. Cake Journal
Come for the Ninja Turtles Pizza Cupcake Toppers, stay for the variety. This blog publishes a new cake decorating post every week, so you’ll run out of viable birthday parties before you run out cakes.

D. Cake Central
A social network for cake baking and decorating professionals, so you know they won’t include any filler material. Browse their impressive selection of tutorials that range from cupcakes for beginners to hand-painted Victorian florals.

E. Pinterest’s Cake Decorating Technique Boards, Tutorials, and Blog

It may be obvious to quote Pinterest, but it’s by far the best place to go for gratuitous cake decorating. It’s a multilayered experience, much like a good wedding cake. Pinterest has tutorials, its own curated cake decoration blog, and the cake decorating techniques board for customizing your theme and dessert.

VII. What we’ve got for you
Interested in learning more about cake decoration, but you’d rather do it in person? Try one of Cozymeal’s dessert making classes with Chef Eloise or basic layer cakes with Chef Jean Yves. Our chefs will teach you the underlying principles of baking and the refined techniques of making chocolate desserts.
If those two don’t appeal to you, we also offer classes on making a Yule Log for festive occasions, cookie decorating for those who prefer smaller sweets, and vegan chocolate desserts for those starting a new diet. Try a class today! You’ll love learning how to create your own professional-quality desserts.

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