How To Decorate Cakes: Anyone Can Do It

I know that we have all marveled at some of the incredible geeky cakes out there, and I bet some of you thought that perhaps you would like to make a geeky cake. Well, it turns out that my mother is quite the cake decorator and has offered a beginner’s article to help you all out in learning how to do it yourself to save money and the strange looks when you ask the bakery to make your cake look like a dead tauntaun. Although, I prefer this pretty Stargate cake instead.

Without further ado: Cake Decorating by The Mothership

Cake decorating is actually a very simple process and once you learn it, you will look with a critical eye at bakery displays that used to impress you. I learned the how-to’s of cake decorating from my mother, who finally took a course at the local high school just so she could learn to make roses. I learned the basic skills from mom, and once took a Wilton decorating course held at the local JC Penney’s.  I have even baked mini cupcakes and done a cake decorating program for the kids’ birthdays at school, even as young as kindergarten!  It is all in the tools and a few simple rules.

Basic tools include pastry bags, tips and couplers (that go inside a bag before the icing and stick out the pointed end to allow easy attachment and changing of tips); icing; and something to decorate (cupcakes, cakes, cookies). Icing colors are also nice to have but you can practice with basic white icing on a piece of waxed paper. Beginners should start w/ vinyl reusable/washable bags; parchment triangles are cheaper, but it does take a little practice to learn to roll a triangle into a cone. You can graduate to using those later. You can even start with the little kits sold in the supermarket aisle where you find canned icing and sprinkles, etc. Some come with a hard tube that you push to eject the icing – these are a little harder to maneuver than pastry bags, but are less messy. Most craft stores or craft aisles at stores like Walmart should carry basic cake decorating supplies.


1. NEVER lick anything, not even fingers, no matter how tempting! Always keep a wet washcloth near at hand to wipe off fingers, tips, etc. If you MUST eat your mistakes, be sure to use a clean spoon each time you need to clean up the icing.

2. Always hold the open (top or wide) end of the bag closed so that the icing does not go back out the wrong end, making a huge mess. Beginners can fill bags 1/2 way and secure w/ rubber bands (this is how I did it for the little kids). Practice folding and holding the folded end of the bag, squeezing downward.

3. Remember to put a coupler inside the bag BEFORE filling with icing. The coupler sticks out from the narrow/pointed end of the bag, with ridges that allow tips to screw on and off. This allows for changing tips if you need different designs of the same color. Fill bags 1/2-2/3 full (less until you get better at holding a bag closed).

4. Be sure to have the proper icing consistency – thicker than what you want to use for spreading icing on a cake, but not so thick that it is hard to squeeze out from the bag. Canned icing is usually too thin for decorating. A basic buttercream recipe using white shortening instead of butter will work well (1pound confectioners 10X sugar + 1/2 cup shortening + scant 1/2 cup milk added a tablespoon at a time while beating until icing is desired consistency).

4. Prepare everything ahead of time before you start to decorate an actual cake. Decide on a design (my kids always wanted the cake to match the paper party plate) and colors. Then make and tint more icing than you think you will need (I usually use 2 pounds of confectioners sugar to ice and decorate one 9″ round or 9×12″ flat cake). Thinly ice the cake with your base color – you can get a smoother surface by dipping a flat knife in hot water and running it over the icing. Tint and fill bags with various tips you want to use. Once they are all made up, then you can start. You can even lightly “draw” your design on your cake with a toothpick first. If your kids want an ice cream cake, you will only have 15-20 minutes to keep the cake out of the freezer to do your decorating, so plan it all out before you start.

5. Icing tints come in paste, powder or liquid colorings. Paste work best (leave foil top intact and poke a hole w/ a toothpick; use a clean toothpick each time to withdraw a small amount of color). Caution if using liquid food colors that you do not water down your icing too much (add more powdered sugar if this happens). Have a light hand with colors – a little goes a long way; you can always add more to get a darker shade but you cannot take it out if too dark. Shades will also intensify after sitting for a few minutes, so wait before adding more color.

5. There are two ways to hold your pastry bag: straight up and down, or at an angle to the surface (about 45 degrees). You will need to practice squeezing smoothly, then easing off, and lifting up. These techniques and angles are what make the same tips give you different designs.

6. Basic tips:

round – comes in many different diameters

– good for writing words; hold bag at angle and write like you do w/ a pen

–  if hold bag straight down, you can make dots (begin squeezing without lifting, then stop squeezing and lift, then smooth top w/ clean/gloved finger). If you lift up while squeezing you will get an effect like a Dairy Queen ice cream cone with the ripple and curl.

star –  this tip looks round with a jagged edge like it was cut w/ pinking shears; they come in different diameters and different numbers of points and some are more open while others are closed up a bit.

–  if hold straight down, you can make little drop flowers (same technique as making dots, above). This is a good, easy way to fill in a large area that you want all in one color.

– if hold at angle, you can make ridged bands like for edging; keep pressure even all the way across or around

– if hold at angle and apply pressure, then ease off pressure and lift slightly, makes a “shell” design

– if hold at angle, apply lift first w/ pressure then ease off and draw downward, makes a different shell shape.

leaf tip – tip looks like a leaf, split across and pinched

–  hold at angle, apply slight pressure as draw out and down to make perfect little leaves; sometimes they end with 2 points which you can press together.

There are lots of other tip sizes and shapes, including special shapes to make rose petals, grass, basket weave, etc that you can purchase along with books that tell you exactly what tip to use for what design. These are much more advanced techniques that you can think about once you get hooked! (they make great birthday or holiday gifts).
Most of all, don’t be afraid to experiment – fantasy flowers are just that! No one says that they have to “look real” to be pretty! And they always taste yummy!
Hints for making a classroom activity: (I once had to convince an elementary school principle that this would be a learning experience for the class so he would allow me to come in for the birthday!!)

1. Use hand washing and “no licking” as a basic health/hygiene lesson: everyone washes their hands before starting to decorate, and no licking is allowed (see rule 1 above)

2. Use coloring icing as a basic art lesson: start with white icing; put some into a bowl, and tint a primary color (red, yellow or blue). Then add a second primary color and see what happens!

Red + blue = purple
Blue + yellow = green
Yellow + red = orange
Red + white icing = pink
You can also show how to vary shades by adding more or less color to a bowl of icing.

3. Only use vinyl bags; paper tends to tear with the pressure kids apply; fill only 1/2 way with icing; secure tightly w/ rubberbands so no matter how a kid squeezes, the icing only comes out the tip end.

4. Prepare all bags ahead of time; having one per child or 2 or 3 children to share one works best since no one wants to wait a long time for their turn. Use first color, then pass around to share colors and tip shapes.

5. Make green bags w/ leaf tips attached. Make pastel colors w/ shell tips of various thicknesses. Be sure to have a few made with writing tips (round opening).

6. Do the demonstration part of the program first: hygiene, art, and showing some basic things you can make such as drop flowers, shell borders, writing, making roses and piping figurines. Then let the kids make (and eat) their own. Other than showing kids the difference between holding the bag straight or at an angle, they won’t need to know much to have fun and make beautiful works of edible art.

7. Mini cupcakes are sufficient for kids as they have little hands and are not really focused on design as much as fun and eating the results. You can have two minis each for a light snack. If you really want to be “healthy”, you can even make the cupcakes out of carrot, banana or zucchini breads or give the kids slices of these types of breads to decorate instead of cupcakes.

8. Take pictures of their creations if you can get some before they are eaten. Some children will be very artistic while some will gob lots of icing all over.

Try it yourself. Amaze your family and friends with fabulous cake and cupcake designs (only you will know how easy it was!).
Note from Rosalind: Our Mothership (as she is also Dawn and Gardella’s mom) is a woman who never stopped loving Captain James T. Kirk (and was so mad when he died in Generations), read Fantastic Four comics, and would have married Bon Jovi is she had met him first. Fortunately, she married the much more geeky man who became the father of the three sisters who run this site. We hope you enjoyed this article from The Mothership and expect to see more in the future.

1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. Amy
    Jul 05, 2010 @ 15:05:48

    Yay the Mothership! This is incredibly helpful. I really appreciate all the details. I’m bookmarking this to come back and read again and again. 🙂


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