Cake decorating for beginners is easier than you think

The cake I made for my wedding in October of 2019. Photos: Sam Read
The cake I made for my wedding in October of 2019. Photos: Sam Read

I started my cake-making journey at about four years of age, sitting on the counter while my dad made cupcakes, and I got to lick the spoon.

As years went by, I was at the helm, standing on a dining chair next to the stove. I made pavlova and custard by six and started decorating cakes in my teens.

While my passion for baking started young, I had only really been decorating celebration cakes for a few years before entering competitions. So with a little bit of knowledge and a lot of creativity, I know you can too.

If you are a beginner, I suggest starting with an easy base. Make a dense round mud cake and decorate it with chocolate ganache.

One of my Christmas-themed competition cakes.

One of my Christmas-themed competition cakes.

Chocolate ganache recipe

  • 250 grams chocolate
  • 1 cup of cream

Method

  • Chop chocolate and place it in a heatproof bowl.
  • Add cream and melt over a double boiler.
  • Once completely melted, take off heat and set aside.
  • Stir occasionally until it reaches desired consistency.

A dense cake can be carved easily without big chunks falling off. A round cake tin is perfect for beginners because there are no corners to burn, and the chocolate ganache will go on smooth and harden to make handling the cake easier.

Once you have perfected this technique, move on to buttercream cakes. Buttercream seems like it should be easy, but the consistency of the icing can make or break a cake. A pipeable buttercream shouldn't drip off your cake, providing an excellent canvas for flowers, sprinkles, gold leaf or whatever your heart desires.

Buttercream recipe

  • 850 grams icing sugar
  • 250 grams unsalted butter
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • Optional milk

Method

  • Blend room-temperature butter with an electric mixer until light and fluffy, approximately five minutes.
  • Add vanilla extract.
  • Slowly add icing sugar until incorporated, occasionally wiping down the bowl's sides with a spatula.
  • If the mixture is too thick, you can add a little milk until you get the desired consistency, but be careful not to add too much.

And finally, what you have all been waiting for; decorating with fondant. Fondant is the least forgiving of all of the icing styles. It can crack, stretch and melt in the fridge.

Fondant is essentially edible marshmallow playdough. It is great fun to experiment with, but it can dry out if it is left out of its container. Prep your cake ahead of time. I would suggest a ganache-covered cake when first starting.

Measure the sides and the top and then roll out your fondant to the diameter of your cake; cornflour will help keep fondant from sticking.

One of Sam's beautiful cakes.

One of Sam's beautiful cakes.

Roll it onto the rolling pin and gently drape over the side of the cake using your hands (or fondant smoother) to adhere it to the cake. Gently smooth down ruffles and air bubbles.

The great thing about fondant is that it can be used to cover mistakes. Hole in your fondant? Use a cookie cutter to cut some shapes out of fondant and stick them onto the cake using edible glue, which you can buy at most cake decorating stores.

Fondant is also great for making edible figures. If you want to play around with fondant before covering cakes, figures are a great way to get comfortable with the medium. You can then try out gumpaste flowers and even modelling chocolate figures.

Essentials for hobby bakers

  • A mud cake, buttercream and ganache recipe
  • Piping bags and tips
  • An offset spatula
  • Cake boards
  • A cake stand or turntable
  • Rolling pin
  • Fondant and fondant tools