My experience in amateur cake decorating: aka How to make easy birthday cakes

January 27 | Guest post by SonyaG
The easiest birthday cake!
The easiest birthday cake!

My kid is allergic to eggs, so she can NEVER have cake at parties unless I make it. And while I love to cook, I am no baker. (Sorry to any pros who might be reading this!) I have, however, become the go-to birthday cake-bringer in my friends and family circle. It started out as a necessity, but I've gotten pretty good at it!

With a few hacks like these, you can learn to make awesome birthday cakes too…

Step 1: Bake a rectangular 9×13 inch cake

Your choice of flavor — boxed or not — whatever. (This recipe has no allergens, except gluten, and OMG is it ever good. And impossible to mess up.)

Or if you want to be fancy schmancy and do a stacking cake… Bake the same recipe in two cookie sheets so it is really thin and flat. Do check it because this will make cooking time shorter though.

Step 2: Allow to cool completely

Do not cheat, or your icing will run.

Step 3: Optional stacked cake

Blend one small container of softened cream cheese and one tin of fruit pie filling of your choice.

If you cooked it in two cookie sheets, just spread the filling over one and layer the second cake on top.

If you decide to do this after you have baked a thicker cake, you can still do it. You will need to carefully slice it in half, separate it in two, spread the filling and replace the top half. Like an Oreo cookie. A bit more finicky but do-able.

Step 4: Frost your cake

Be lazy and used jarred stuff. Blend in some food coloring until it looks nice. Then just slather it on. I've gotten handier with practice and now have a special offset spatula for icing, but it's really not necessary.

If not having the top perfectly flat bugs you (although your guests won't notice, I swear!) swirl that baby around. Move your icing into swirly shapes with a knife point. It's a design choice, right?

Do the sides as best you can. And do them last. Honestly, I can't get the sides perfect, ever. There are always stray crumbs and what not, mostly because of the stacking thing. Using extra thick icing helps a bit. It always bugs me. But then I always get gasps and compliments when I bring out a birthday cake. No-one ever commented on the ugly sides.

Step 5: Add a big decoration

Add a toy or something. Not a tiny cheap plastic cake topper. A real toy. Or medium-sized action figures. I actually buy the toy first, and plan the cake around it. Figure out a general theme and find a toy to match. This is the genius bit. Everyone focuses on the wow-factor and no-one cares if the cake base is a bit (or a lot!) lopsided.

Fiddle around on your upside-down cake pan (not your cake) to decide where you want it to sit.

Create a fight with the figurines. Have a princess tea-party. Create a whole Game of Thrones scene with dragons. Go all out! I've done cakes where a giant Hulk had smashed his way partly into the cake. A mermaid one. A My Little Pony cake that had a mini train with the ponies inside that actually ran in a circle on the tracks laid down on the top.

The only cake pic I have left (RIP computer) is this Loader one, but I have had fun with many…

IMG_2729

For adults, I have done a giant pile of fresh fruit. Or fresh flowers. Or a Video-game character swords fight. Or a sail-boat. (Most adults have a passion for something and they are still giant kids inside… just saying.)

Step 6: Add candy

I like smarties. Or sprinkles. Or fancy crystal colored bits. Or all of the above.

I have used licorice and jellies to make sea-weed. And a red Fruit Roll-Up to make a Hello Kitty bow. The web has tons of inspiration.

Step 7: Add candles and an inscription

They sell little tubes of gel for writing on cakes. My advice is to go really slow. The stuff is thick, you have to sorta let it fall or settle to get it right, man this is hard to explain. Practice on an empty plate a bit.

Or don't write anything. Everyone should know whose birthday party this is!

Step 8: Wow everybody

Gobble it all down.

My point is, cakes are fun and they don't need to be perfect. There is a fad of paying hundreds for cakes that are truly works of art. (And I really admire the artists who create them.) I think Pinterest makes us afraid to attempt to make stuff ourselves, because we can never hope to attain such heights. My experience in amateur cake decorating has been really positive. People don't ever appear mad at my cakes — even if they are sometimes crooked. They just seem really grateful for the uniqueness and effort that went into them.

Best of all, we can have our cake, and my daughter can eat it too!

Fess up: Who else is not a perfect cake maker, who pulls off easy birthday cakes? How do you do it?

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  1. This is really good advice!

    An alternative option for the icing is to buy ready-made fondant icing. It feels and moves a bit like soft Plasticine or Sculpey so you can roll it out into sheets, mold it around the cake and then smooth the edges down, if necessary using a little bit of water to soften it.

    You can also mold it into shapes if you're feeling ambitious. A lot of the time when you see cakes with patterns or sculpted figures on it's made with fondant icing. (The other option is royal icing, which is better for find detail – like tiny elaborate flowers – but that's harder to work with and in my opinion doesn't taste as nice.)

    2 agree
    • It's also incredibly easy to make your own marshmallow fondant. It takes maybe 5 minutes and is really hard to mess up, plus it's really tasty!

      There are a bunch of recipes online, but it basically comes down to: Mix one package of mini marshmallows with 2-5 Tbsp of water in a microwavable bowl. Microwave for about 30 seconds at a time, stirring in between, until melted. Mix in a little bit of Crisco and as much sifted powdered sugar as you can, turn it out onto a surface and knead in more powdered sugar until it's smooth and the consistency of soft clay.

      3 agree
  2. This is great! We are all about adding candy in my kitchen (and I love the Loader cake, it's adorable). Confession: I am generally too lazy even to put icing on my 'fancy' cakes. Here's how I do it when I'm short on time:
    1. Get recipe for plain, fool-proof pound cake.
    2. Bake mix in 2 tins.
    3. Whip a bunch of cream & sandwich the 2 thin cakes together.
    4. Get a paper doily, place it on the top of the cake, and sprinkle icing sugar over everything.
    5. Remove doily carefully, to avoid dislodging too much sugar.
    Voila, you have a layer cake with a fancy design on the top!

    5 agree
  3. For the crumbly sides, use a crumb coat! Smooth a really thin layer of frosting over the sides before you frost the top, don't worry about how this layer looks. By the time you've got the top done, the crumb coat on the sides will have set and you can go over it again with a thicker layer. The crumb coat will lock all of those pesky crumbs in place.

    If you want your crumb coat to be extra awesome, pop the cake in the freezer or fridge for a few minutes before going back for the final coat of frosting. But this is generally unnecessary.

    6 agree
    • That's weirdly pedantic, completely contrary to the point of the article, and not even true in this case. The author is using a frosting – light, fluffy, and cream/butter based – to frost her cakes. Icing is a thin, glossy and egg white + sugar based glaze. In general however, the two terms are interchangeable, especially at this level of baking.

      – Also a cake decorator, retired.

      25 agree
  4. Excellent tips!!! Here's a few more cake hacks for any who are interested.
    If you want to bake one cake, and then cut it so you can ice the middle part, you can "cut" the cake using dental floss. Just loop around your fingers like you're going to floss your teeth, and then pull through. They also sell cake cutters that are adjustable, it's the same concept except it's a wire line that can be moved up or down for thicker or thinner slices.

    Also, I always freeze my cakes because no matter how much I practice I'm terrible at getting the sides or top right, just be sure to let the frosted cake come down to room temperature and let the frosting set before decorating as the cake may sweat as it's temperature rises.

    Another fun thing to do to hide any uneven frosty and look fancy as hell is to melt some chocolate and pour over the top of your cake (once frosted). Make sure the chocolate isn't too hot or it'll melt everything, but keep it about body temp, poor over, and let it drip off the sides. it will self level (well it will settle into however level your cake and icing are) and have a nice shine. If it look wobbly because of what's underneath, you can take a spoon, or a cone of parchment paper, and some more chocolate and drizzle it back and forth, add's a 3D layer, and if you use other colours of chocolate can be super colourful (most stores that sell cake supplies will also sell coloured white chocolate wafers you can melt, OR have food colouring suitable for tinting your own chocolate. Be sure not to use normal food colouring as it's water based and water + chocolate are a big no no)

    Another thing you can do to the sides is smoosh cookie crumbs or toasted almonds, coconut etc, onto the sides of the cake. This works especially well if the cake is frozen and you've just iced it. Hold the frozen cake on your one hand, while your other hand presses the crumbs into the sides. Hides any unevenness and adds a whole other level of awesome and pro-ness to your cake game.

    Fondant is magic, it tastes terrible (at least to me), but it's basically play-dough you can put on a cake. Stores also sell mats that you can press the fondant in to make designs, or you can use cookie cutters too, and then just pop those bad boys on the cake for. You can go as simple, or as big as you want, sculpt it like play-dough to make little figures, or just punch out a bunch of star shapes with a cookie cutter and plop them on. Also you can cut a rectangle, square, circle, whatever, and use food colouring markers to hand-write whatever message you want or add details to cut out designs, for those who want to add a bit more but aren't comfy using a piping bag and icing.

    Candy and Pinterest is your friend. If you have a theme (for example turtles), hop on that Pinterest and see what other's have done. I have a cake coming up for my nephew, which is turtle themed, and there are a bunch of tutorials on how to use candies on top of cupcakes to make it look like there's a little turtle without needing to be a crazy talented cake decorator to make it happen (cut a spearmint gummy in 4's to make feet, pop a two bite brownie upside down for the shell, use a gum drop for the head, and two blobs of icing for eyes or candy eyes)

    Also, a lot of bakeries (more and more I'm finding) are willing to sell you an edible version of any photo you provide them with. They have a printed that uses food colouring and marshmallow paper to print whatever design… So you can buy that and pop that bad boy on the top and surround it by a mountain of candy and icing. Have fun with the pic, go crazy in Photoshop, and it will now be an edible masterpiece.

    4 agree
      • Double P.S Sorry for the gazillion typos, for some reason the editor won't let me edit.. and I'm trying to type with nail polish drying, which was an epic fail on my part lol.

        4 agree
  5. I have twins. Who each "need" their own birthday cake. The first few years I would plan out super fancy (well not pinteresty fancy) for each of them but run out of steam by cake #2. So one kiddo would get some elaborate cake and the other kid would get a cake with what ever leftover frosting and sprinkles I had on hand. By birthday #5 I figured out that cupcakes were so much less time consuming. One double batch of a basic cupcake. Then buttercream frosting. Once thence they are frosted I'd roll the top in sprinkles (color coordinated for each kid). Then add a figurine based on each kids chosen them to the top of each cupcake. Last year I bough bulk Mario Bros figurines and bulk Frozen figurines. This year it is Pokemon and Shopkins.

    The kids love it because its a treat and a toy. I love it because instead of it taking all night I am done in an hour.

    2 agree
    • My little brothers are twins! My mom used to bake a 9"x13" cake, cut it in half, and decorate each smaller cake for them! They're harder to find these days, but they used to sell sheets of sugar candy letters with some balloons and such to stick on the frosted cake. Buy two, spell out names and 'Happy Birthday' on each, add sprinkles, put a number shaped candle on top (to save on space), and done! They loved it, each one had their own cake, and we didn't have a bunch of leftovers either.

      Never thought about bulk figs to top a cupcake, that's such a fun idea and can be a easy favor for any guests! It's a great idea.

      1 agrees
  6. Thank you for inspiration! In case OP is still reading comments – how do you put the toys on cake? Just plop them on? Or you use some kind of removable base, or something else?

    • Hi!

      Yup, just plop it on top of the icing!

      If your cake is reasonably flat, it doesn't topple. Real toys are heavier with a more stable base than those plastic cake thingies. I think once or twice, I might have used a toothpick to lean it against.

      Have fun!

      Sonya

    • Just wash them first, make sure they're dry, and plop them on 🙂 Generally, as long as they'll stand on a table, they'll stand on your cake.

      2 agree
  7. It is so true that cakes don't need to Pinterest perfect to be memorable. I made my son an alien autopsy birthday cake complete with a light up blinking heart and it wasn't perfect at all but it was a huge hit!

    1 agrees
  8. I love cake decorating, even though I must confess I'm not too good at it. I love making birthday cakes for my young children. It will be a sad day when they are too old to appreciate them

    1 agrees
    • Just going to say as a child of a mom who made birthday cakes, you never stop appreciating them, even if they are boxed cakes. Sure store bought is pretty and professionally done but mom made cakes are filled with love.

      2 agree
  9. This reminds me of the cakes my mom would make for our birthdays growing up. Always a boxed cake, always store-bought frosting! We had a Barbie, My Little Ponies, Army Men, a soccer field, etc. She always put the toys on top right before so they weren't sitting in the icing for too long.

    One thing not mentioned above: cupcakes! Make a couple extra in case you mess up your decorations. Also, making shapes out of the cupcakes on a platter was always a hit. One year my mom arranged cupcakes to look like a caterpillar, using Twizzlers for legs and other candy for decorations.

    I also stumbled across this recipe a couple of years ago and was impressed by how easy the chocolate glaze topping was:
    http://www.kraftrecipes.com/recipes/chocolate-covered-oreo-cookie-cake-90307.aspx

    Amateur cake decorating is fun! Thank you for this post.

    1 agrees

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