Cake Decorating Basics

The popularity of cake decorating has been growing in recent years thanks to a number of popular television shows. People order professionally decorated cakes for a variety of events, from birthdays to weddings.


To get started, you’ll need a few basic tools. Large and small offset spatulas help you achieve smooth finishes. A bench scraper is helpful for removing crumbs from the outside of your cake. A piping bag and various pastry tips are also useful.


To make the perfect buttercream icing you will need:

A block of real butter (salted or unsalted, it’s down to personal preference).

You will also need:

Sugar – you can use icing sugar but it is best to use powdered, rather than granulated sugar for this as it will dissolve better in the butter.

Milk or cream – this is optional but will help to achieve a lighter, more mousse-like texture.

Shortening – optional but recommended as it will help your frosting to hold its shape and be less prone to melting, especially if the weather is warm or you’re working in a warm room.

If you’re not using it straight away you can keep the buttercream in an airtight container at room temperature for up to three days. After that it will need to be stored in the fridge. Before using it you should always give the buttercream a quick stir, this will push out any air bubbles that may have formed. It will need to be slightly softened for frosting your cake.


Fondant is the playdough-like substance that can be rolled over simple or sculpted cakes to lend them a gorgeously smooth, almost glazed finish. It can also be tinted to any color and shaped with molds or special cake tools into an amazing assortment of decorations, figures, flowers, ruffles, and other decorative elements.

The secret to working with fondant is patience and practice. Allow the fondant to come to room temperature before you start and knead it until it is soft, pliable, and easy to work with. You can also knead in tylose powder to help the fondant dry and harden more quickly.

When you are ready to begin rolling the fondant make sure your hands and working surface are clean. Coat your hands with a thin layer of solid vegetable shortening or use food-safe gloves if you prefer. Keep the fondant a few inches from the edge of your counter to prevent it from sticking to your counter and pulling up or stretching as you roll it. Once the fondant is rolled it should be smoothed gently with a fondant or gum paste smoother or your hands.

Gum Paste

Gum Paste is a soft sugar dough that can be kneaded and is commonly used to create 3D cake decorations, such as flowers. It also adds a lovely finishing touch to your cake.

It differs from fondant in that it dries much harder, making it more durable and suitable for creating more lifelike cake decorations. It’s often used to make rose petals and leaves, as well as other intricate and detailed decoration items that need a strong material.

Gumpaste is a little more expensive than fondant, but it adds an element of luxury to your creations. It’s not suitable for covering entire cakes, however, so it’s best used to embellish and adorn the decorations you make.

If your gum paste starts to dry and wrinkle while you’re working with it, rub in a bit of solid vegetable shortening to help restore its professional-looking appearance. This can also prevent your gumpaste from cracking if the weather is hot and humid. The same technique can be used with fondant if it becomes too dry and stiff to work with.

Fruit Jellies

A layer of jelly can be a pretty addition to the top of a cake. It looks particularly nice when used to decorate a fruit layer cake. These cakes are easy to make and are sure to impress your guests.

Prepare the jelly by following the recipe on the package. If a recipe does not include added pectin, make a trial batch using 1 cup of juice at a time. Measure juice and sugar. Pour into a clean glass container to test for doneness (the mixture should drop quickly and form a sheet when dropped from the spoon).

If the jelly does not pass the test, boil the liquid to a high temperature, adding more sugar as needed until it passes the test. Add lemon juice or citric acid if needed for proper gelling.

Identify the center of the molded jelly by placing a blueberry at that point in the tray. Arrange the strawberries that were cut into quarters in a flower shape and place them around the center of the jelly. When the fruit is arranged, pour the remaining jelly solution over the fruits and refrigerate until set.

Chocolate Shavings

Chocolate shavings are a great way to add texture and visual interest to your cake. They’re also super easy to make, and a fun activity to do with kids. All you need is a good quality chocolate bar and a vegetable peeler.

To make chocolate shavings, prepare a plate or other surface that will catch the chocolate shavings. Then, hold a chocolate bar at a slight angle with one hand and a vegetable peeler in the other. Use long, even strokes to run the peeler along the side of the chocolate bar.

The result is a flurry of little curlicues and chocolate snow, perfect for adorning cakes or stirring into whipped creams to create the effect of stracciatella. This is one of Valrhona’s new recipes featured in their Ground Chocolate range for baristas, makers and restaurateurs.

Alternatively, you can temper a block of dark chocolate in a bain-marie and then pour it onto a sheet of parchment paper that has been anchored to the table with an elastic band around each end. Use the same method but spread it evenly and then, after cooling, scrape with a pastry cutter or similar tool to produce fine, even chocolate sheets that can be used as decorative garnishes or in hot or cold drinks and ice creams.