I am, by all accounts, a cake novice. I often have no idea where to get started after my cake base is out of the oven. It crumbles whenever I try to frost it, parts of it collapse under the weight of heavy toppings and for the love of all that’s good I’ve never quite figured out how to level the top. My ambitious baking projects, more often than not, devolve into me frantically scouring the internet for tips before resigning myself to my mediocre, no-one-should-see-this-but-me creation.
Enter Lyndsay Sung, a self-taught baker, writer and self-described “one-woman-cakesplosion” from Vancouver. Her website and Instagram (@cococakeland), where she posts colourful photos of her cakes, are feasts for the eyes. From a literal Potterhead cake to this hand-painted tie-dye-inspired confection, Sung is a veritable cake pro. Before all that, however, Sung had to start somewhere: she learned by watching YouTube tutorials and reading cookbooks. We asked her for some of her go-to cake decorating tips and techniques that even a novice like me can follow.
Get the right tools
Sung says that the right tools are essential not only for a professional-looking finish, but to make the job easier on yourself, too. Her two must-haves? A bench scraper (to distribute frosting evenly) and an offset spatula (to spread the frosting around your cake). “The key to using an offset spatula is that you’re spreading the frosting around without having the spatula touch the cake itself. A cake bench scraper will give your cake a smooth finish,” she explains. “These two tools will change your life when it comes to home cake decorating, and neither are very expensive.”
If you’re looking to get a little fancier, Sung suggests piping bags and tips to take your cake to the next level. “Like everything, piping takes practice but once you get the hang of it, you can add cute things like drop stars or shell borders to your cakes.”
And if you’re really serious about cake decoration, you can invest in a cake turntable so you don’t climb all over your counter trying to cover every inch of cake. Simple plastic ones, like the ones from Wilton, will do the trick.
Don’t forget the crumb coat
It turns out that crumb-flecked first layer of icing I’ve been putting on my cakes is not so novice, after all! Also known as the crumb coat, that first messy layer of frosting is how bakeries get their cakes so smooth.
“Once you’ve finished frosting the cake and smoothing with a cake bench scraper to the best of your ability, place the cake in the fridge or freezer to set the crumbs, basically hardening up the frosting so it won’t move when you frost the second layer,” says Sung, who points out that this method works best with a butter-based frosting. Once the frosting’s firmed up, after about 15 minutes or so, add a second layer using the cake bench scraper to smooth it out.
Levelling a cake takes a delicate hand
Sung has a somewhat risky tip for levelling a cake, and it requires a steady hand. If there’s a slight dome to the cake when you take it out of the oven, use a piece of parchment paper to gently press it down until it’s level. Be sure to wear an oven mitt! This may not work for all cakes, as some, especially ones that are lighter and more airy, might be too delicate to press down on.
For the less adventurous, carefully trimming off the domed top of your cake with a serrated bread knife once it’s completely cooled is just as effective. “If you happen to carve too deeply, you can always use the domed part you cut off to patchwork your cake back together,” she says.
Start with buttercream
Though it may be tempting to use store-bought frosting, “canned frosting tends to be very sticky and can pull at a cake’s tender exterior, causing an inordinate amount of crumbs in the frosting,” says Sung. She recommends making a simple vanilla buttercream instead (we’ve got a great recipe). According to Sung, it’s “sturdy enough to frost a cake but not sturdy enough to cause frustration.”
Practice piping makes perfect
For piping, Sung suggests beginners start with a classic open-star tip like the Wilton 1M. She pipes with disposable plastic bags, but reuses them by washing them with hot, soapy water. “Snip off the end tip of the bag, insert the piping tip and fill the piping bag with buttercream,” she says. Then, twist the bag and practice piping little swirls of icing onto a plate by gently squeezing the piping bag and carefully placing a star-shaped droplet of buttercream. Practice on a plate a few times before going ahead on your cake.
Experiment with different toppings
While it’s great to have a piping technique, a cake’s look isn’t just about the icing, says Sung. “I love using freeze-dried fruit—freeze dried raspberries or strawberries, as a crispy, tangy, colourful ‘sprinkle’-like element on my cakes,” she says. “You can also use things like crispy candy chocolate eggs or colourful candies to decorate and make simple patterns.” She’s also used fresh ingredients, like mint or rosemary, to add pops of colour.
Sung is also known for her animal cakes with piped “fur.” To get the fur effect, Sung suggests carefully piping, and then using “store bought candy for eyes and store-bought fondant for ears, whiskers, cheeks.”
Cake decorating is an art and takes a lot of practice to perfect. “When you come across a barrier in your cake decorating, try not to panic. Simply problem solve to the best of your abilities,” says Sung. “And when all else fails, cover it in sprinkles.”
Hopefully the next time I bake a cake, I won’t need *too* many sprinkles.