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Cake Basics – The Absolute Essentials

sugar flowers gum paste

My Top-Ten Tips

I’m in the business of encouraging people to have a go at decorating their own cakes, and there is nothing that inspires people more than seeing how far someone has come. (AKA – How rubbish they used to be!)

I often bring out my ‘before’ and ‘after’ photos just to prove my point. Trust me… they illustrate my lame beginnings really well. 

Not that I’m ashamed of my initial cake-attempts – my kids LOVED them as you can see from their faces, and we all start somewhere. We just didn’t know any better! But my standard and ability leapt pretty markedly (OK – out of all recognition!) and quite quickly and it was all because of just a few major things that I learned.

Before and After! Feel better now?

Before and After!
Feel better now?

 

I often look back to when I was starting out and I’m usually bursting to share with budding decorators those crucial bits of knowledge that made all the difference to me.

So here goes – my whistle-stop tour through the absolute essentials. If you are just starting out, trust me, this is your turning point. 

 

1. Terminology

This may seem a little elementary, but in a world where we increasingly rely on the internet it is easy to pick up a recipe or tutorial from a different continent and totally mis-interpret the terminology.

Here are some of the obvious ones:

Sugar Paste – The roll-out icing paste that we cover cakes in. In the US they call it Fondant. (In the UK and elsewhere ‘Fondant’ is the runny icing that we pour over cakes).

Modelling Paste – A paste with a stronger consistency and resistance than sugar paste/fondant. Used for making little characters and details as it holds its shape better than sugar paste. There are variants such as Mexican Paste and Sugar Dough which have different recipes and different consistencies.

 

sugar flowers gum paste

Roses – Before and After! (Stop laughing!)
What a difference flower paste makes!

 

Flower Paste –   A paste with a more elastic quality than sugar paste. You can roll it very thin to make petals and it should almost become transparent without tearing. It holds its shape and dries really hard. In the US they call this Gum Paste

Icing Sugar the very fine powdered sugar that we use to make buttercream. Also known as Confectioner’s Sugar or Powdered Sugar.

Royal Icing Sugar – Supermarkets throw this one in just to confuse you! Some stores sell a pre-prepared mix that makes Royal Icing when you mix with water. Royal Icing is essentially Icing Sugar and egg white. Don’t confuse Royal Icing Sugar with Icing Sugar.

 

2. Tylo Powder

I have never found a Cake Decorator who disagrees with this. Tylo Powder is a must, and yet it confused the heck out of me when I started! So what is it?

Well essentially it is just a strengthener. When you add a little of the powder to sugar paste/fondant it changes the consistency to be more elastic and have better resistance. Added to water it also makes a great sugar-glue.

Tylo Powder Tylose CMC Gum Tragacanth

Tylo Powder

So why was I confused? Because it has a few names. You may hear Tylo Powder, Tylose, CMC…they are all the same thing. And you may also hear Gum Tragacanth. This is the naturally occurring substance which is more expensive but does the same thing. It’s also worth noting that it takes longer to become effective.

Cake decorators wouldn’t be without a strengthener. It helps enormously whilst using moulds, cutters and shapes. Buy a tub and keep in in your kitchen cupboard. Trust me!

 

3. Tools

Even monkeys know that it’s smart to use tools. And there is nothing cheaper than a basic set of sugar-crafting tools. Something to poke and prod. Something to shape and smooth.

There are loads of objects that you will find around the kitchen that will help such as cocktail sticks, knives, chopsticks…you name it. But for the sake of a few pennies you can get a set of proper cake decorating tools that will sharpen up your act and save you having to search for something to improvise with. Just be a little careful of super-cheap sets. A ball tool with a seam along the centre makes me cross! (Don’t get me started). Just beware of cheap cheap quality!

 

4. Consistency

Understanding that the consistency of your ingredients changes EVERYTHING is a major turning point in your cake decorating journey.

Not all ingredients were created equal. A nice sugar paste/fondant will cover your cake easily and smooth out nicely without cracks, tears or elephant skin. It’s very easy to blame yourself when you don’t realise that it might the brand you have chosen that’s at fault.

 

Cake Decorating basics Piping

The key to EVERYTHING is getting the right consistency.

 

 

Understand that food colouring and climate can change the performance too so you have to alter your ingredients accordingly. Add strengthener if your sugar paste is too soft. Add shortening or glycerine if it is too hard. Don’t struggle on!

Likewise, don’t expect to pipe like an expert with all store-bought frosting. That stuff may taste good but it ain’t buttercream and can slop out of your piping tip like diarrhoea. And no…you are not being an idiot if you haven’t worked that out. I see it all the time! Why should you know any different? The stores won’t tell you that it isn’t suitable. And whilst we are at it, don’t expect margarine to always be a substitute for butter. Some margarine brands can make a decent frosting…but not all!

 

5. Colour

Don’t EVER invest in those supermarket liquid colours. Useless stuff! But again, why would a beginner decorator know that? You will just go ahead and spend all weekend making that rainbow cake only to end up with a mess of muted colours and sloppy buttercream. 

 

Colours? Don't expect to find these in the supermarket basics range.

Colours?
Don’t expect to find these in the supermarket basics range.

 

Firstly those poor liquid colours don’t give the vibrancy you are after and secondly they change the consistency of your ingredients. So look for good pastes or gel colours and go online if you have to. It’s worth it.

6. Smoothers. 

Again, you are hardly going to break the bank by buying a smoother but it does make a difference to your finish if you are covering your cake with sugar paste/fondant. You simply can’t achieve the same results with the palm of your hand. My favourite is my transparent acrylic one but I also love my right angled one for working on the sides. I’m showing off now but I also have my inverted curved and right-angled smoothers for getting those cake edges perfect. I know it’s a little sad but I do think they are pretty sexy!

7. Timing

When I started out I always used to surprise myself with how long a cake took. I would often end up with late nights (VERY late nights – OK… all nighters!) just trying to get a cake finished the way I wanted. I know I’m not alone. And part of the problem is that you believe you have to make and decorate the cake in a couple of days otherwise it won’t be fresh.

If that sounds like you, have a little read of my mini-rant here: Taking the heat out of cake decorating!

Give yourself a break and plan the cake to suit your life. Essentially I work on the principle ‘A week to bake and decorate – a week to eat it’. I haven’t poisoned anyone yet! 😉

 

8. Turn-Table and Set-up board

Oh I’m getting fancy now! We are onto the ‘Advanced’ Absolute Essentials – but this is all about making life easier and achieving better results and by stabilising the cake you are working on you will be surprised by how you simplify the process.

I attach my cakes to a perspex set-up board either with buttercream (set-up in the fridge) or even with a little tape. It doesn’t matter if your set up board is like mine or if it’s a cake drum or a flat plate. Whatever! Just something that means you can work on your cake without it shifting and spoiling what you’ve done.

Of course the ability to use a turntable really helps when you are scraping buttercream and piping detail.

 

9. Presentation

Seriously, some little things make a very big difference! It’s all about the presentation. Check out my early attempts at presentation. Hmmmm? Could do better? Hec yeah!

But the thing that is absolutely SCREAMING at me is the tin foil background. 

I know… if you aren’t a bone fide cake maker you won’t see it – but trust me! 95% of the cake decorating community is DYING inside. 

A lovely base board can transform your presentation. Cover a cake board with fondant – or even with suitable wrapping paper. But a foil base? Nah! That can drag your work down and it just doesn’t finish your cake off nicely.

There are exceptions, but not many! 

Purple butterflies before and after! I know, I know! It's SHOCKING! And check out that tin foil! NICE!

Purple butterflies before and after!
I know, I know! It’s SHOCKING! I actually painted the purple onto that monstrosity. Seriously…why would I know differently?

 

And whilst we’re at it, just give a little consideration to how you photograph your cakes. If you don’t have a nice background, how about using a roll of wallpaper? You can even get off-cut samples at most DIY stores. When you have thrown your heart and soul into something that people are going to eat, just consider getting one lovely photo before it gets demolished.

 

AND FINALLY

 

10. Google it!

I’ve had some odd questions asked of me… 

‘I need to make a fairy cake – any ideas?’ 

Well –  Seriously? Where do I start?

There is SO much information out there that it’s inconceivable that you wouldn’t start with Google. Don’t get me wrong – I don’t mind answering questions. But I think sometimes people forget what an amazing resource we have out there. Hey –  I myself have ‘How to’ videos ALL OVER YouTube! Certainly, when I was making my early ‘masterpieces’ (I’m clearly being sarcastic in case that needed pointing out!) I didn’t have such a fabulous resource. The emergence of the internet was one of the most defining factors in the advancement of cake-decorating skills. It is all there at your finger tips. Use it!

 

So that’s it – the top ten tips that I wish someone had pointed out when I started.

And I give them to you in one neat little bundle. You’re welcome!

I’m actually kinda jealous of you, because you are now going onwards and upwards WAY WAY quicker than me. Although sadly…you won’t have as many ‘before’ monstrosities to giggle at. Sorry ’bout that!

And if you have any top-tips that proved useful to you…please feel free to share. As ever, your own experiences are just as relevant.

 

You’ll find loads of video tutorials on my YouTube Channel here: Rosie Cake-Diva on YouTube

 

There are some affiliate links to my favourite tools below and in my tool shop. These are genuinely the tools I use all the time. I do get some pennies if you use these links (very very few pennies!) but there is no additional cost to you, so please feel free to use or just use as a reference.

 

 

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  • SJPros

    Your site is awesome! Thank you for the great tips!

    • Awww thank you!
      Stick around…I’m just getting started! 😉

  • Alex

    I bet the butterfly cake still tasted delicious and made the birthday kid smile

    • I think the sweets made her smile even more! Kids huh? 😉

  • Elaine

    Thanks for a great post! I can concur with every point that you made (although I am still only an amateur baker that makes cakes only for family). I love your point about the foil backing on your earlier cakes – I was exactly the same! It’s very interesting to look back at what we did and compare it to now (my earlier cakes are the top ones in the photo with more recent cakes on the bottom) 🙂

  • Jenna

    Hi Rosie,

    I found this site really helpful when I asked for advice before so I’m really hoping someone can help me again!! I’m desperately in need of a tried and tested company within the UK who can print some edible images on rice paper for me. the only company that I can find who do these particular Alice in wonderland ones are based abroad and I’m therefore looking at significant shipping time which I don’t have. It’s for a wedding cake in August.

    Many thanks in advance for any recommendations!

    Jenna

  • ANITA

    hi rosie,just abt to start learning hw to bake cake,like am a beginner,downloded hw to make a white creaming fosting which was done by u,it was very easy to understand,i had to log into ur website nd am inspired by wrk nd post,i will need more help frm u from time to time,thanks aunty rosie.

  • Nelly

    Hi, I’m looking for advice on brands of sugarpaste. Whatever I use seems to tear when transferring it to the cake or get horrendous elephant skin.
    Help!!!
    Nelly

    • Hi Nelly,
      Whereabouts are you in the world? It does make a difference.
      I think I will ask this question on my FB page as there are so many variables with brands and climate that you need to know what people locally have success with.
      I’m in the UK and like Renshaw and also Carma Massa is very popular. Although I tend to add modelling chocolate for some applications. Those who have taken my Craftsy Classes know all about my sugarpaste/modelling chocolate preferences. I do get quite obsessive! xx

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