Some Sweet Tips for Stress-Free Cake Decorating

DIY Featured
Using a store bought cake and making it your own is one of the many cake decorating hacks have learned over time. Images: Lisa Tate

Every summer begins and ends with family birthdays, and come fall I have over-exerted myself to come up with birthday cake or theme idea that will please and impress everyone.

A few of these of these sugary inspirations I have shared here on GeekMom, hoping readers can use them (and improve upon them) for their own party ideas.

Of all the cake ideas I have tried to execute, I noticed the same problems and solutions have come up again and again. Since I have had my share of failures as well as pretty good results, I thought I would pool my years of less-than-amateur cake-decorating skills, to help others build a better cake.

Here are the five main things I’ve learned from my defeats and (somewhat) triumphs:

Dream big, but keep your expectations real.

I know I’m not to only one who likes to get creative and concoct these grandiose design plans in my head, and even on paper. However, one thing I learned as a nonprofessional, it is more likely than not the final, fully-executed real-life cake creation is not going to look nearly as good as what you have in your head.

You can picture how Rapunzel’s Tower can be constructed or how cool an emerging Kaiju claw will look, but once you start actually making things, you are going to encounter a teensy little snag or two once you get started.

Sure, cupcakes could make a great tower, but what will stop if from tumbling? Chopsticks, I learned too late.

If I make that Kaiju claw out of fondant, will it begin to sag into the cake? Yes! Yes, it will.

How will I stop that cool figure I’m using for a cake topper from sinking into the cake? Use a small piece of cardboard, after you dig out the sunken figure.

Prepare for these things, and be ready to improvise, eliminate, or take a complete 180-turn from your original idea. Cake is a stubborn, and mushy, medium to work with.

My mom was a brilliant dress and costume maker, and my dad built everything in our garage. Both have told me the same thing: “Measure twice. Cut once.” I should have heeded this more. Look and think before you take icing to pastry. One hasty paint design for my husband announced he was “4-E” years old one year.

Mistakes will happen, but you can overcome them with patience and a realistic outlook on what your results will be.

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You don’t always have to writing anything on the cake. The guest of honor will know who it is for. Images: Lisa Tate

Simplicity is everything.

This cake is going to ultimately get ripped apart and eaten. No matter how many layers, sparkles, bells, and whistles you add to it, the cake is meant to be destroyed shortly after everyone has seen it.

I’ve tried adding little battery-operated lights, multi-layers, and elaborate stencils in the past All of these have not only been frustrating, but didn’t help me at all when I had a finite amount of time to work on it.

Less is more.

Often, one little figure or design indicating the theme is all you need. It can be fun and effective, without trying too many fancy icing tricks or unnecessary tiers.

Finally, you don’t have to write on the cake. If you want a name, you can print out letters on cardstock, or purchase pre-cut shapes, but since everyone knows whom the cake is for, it often looks cleaner without the letters.

Plus, there’s less chance of screwing something up when you don’t add frosting calligraphy to the mix, which I have tried.

Short on time? Start with a store-bought cake.

One thing that always seems to fight against me when I have lofty plans is limited time, and when you want to take time to make a special fandom cake, start with pre-done plain cake. Most supermarket bakeries have plain cakes ready to go. Yes, I am aware some also have decorated cakes, but they are not always what we’re looking for.

This eliminates the time spent baking and the clean up process that goes with it. Some people love to bake, but I’m terrible at it. I just want to get right down to the design, and having a cake already made helps me quite a bit.

I have also found, and mentioned several times in my past “cake posts,” getting small figures like Funko Pops, action figures, fandom buttons and badges, or other small items look so much better than those little plastic items intended to be cake toppers. Plus, the birthday kid gets an extra little gift.

There was a baker in the Houston area I remember in the mid-90s who made a name for himself decorating cakes with action figures like the big McFarlane Toys Spawn series, but I remember the first time I ever saw Star Wars action figures was in 1978 when my mom used them to decorate my brother’s cake. It was such a cool memory I wanted to make sure my daughters’ had similar ones, so when my daughter mentioned she wanted a “Porg” birthday, it was a perfect opportunity.

Even if you like doing your own designs, don’t feel guilty about not “starting from scratch.”

When you want to paint a picture, you might not always have time to make your own canvas. Same thing here: buy a “blank canvas” and make it your own.

Give it some atmosphere.

It is real easy to concentrate too much on that moment when the cake is brought out, but nothing makes a cake look more festive than making it part of a more “immersive” environment.

Even a simple cake can be dressed up with a colorful themed base. This year, we gave my husband a hockey themed birthday, and drew an ice rink on a piece of cardboard for the cake to sit.

Decorate the gifts and the tabletop in coordinating fandom colors or designs. My youngest had a very simple Spider-Gwen cake one year, so we enhanced it by making an easy web out of streamers for the table.

Hanging paper lanterns, wall displays and other enhancements also add to the theme. I’m a printables junkie, so I find all sorts of images and paper craft ideas that are different from what is available in party stores. My youngest and I have had fun doing this for my teenager in the past, with themes ranging from Manga, to 1940s, to Bendy and the Ink Machine.

Also, if you worry about people scrutinizing your cake flaws (which they won’t), giving them a bigger environment to absorb is a fun solution.

It is a party, after all.

Even a flawed cake looks better when it is part of a larger picture. Images: Lisa Tate

Remember who you’re baking it for in the first place.

Part of me keeps coming up with new ideas for birthday themes, even as my daughters continue to grow up, since I love the creative process. I also love to see how happy they get when I’ve remembered something that fits their personality or current interests.

It is a nice feeling when friends or family complement something you made, and those social media moment likes are fine, but none of that makes a difference in the long run. What’s important is you remembered something special about your kid (of whoever the cake is for), and you translated that interested onto the cake. It could be lopsided, it could be messy, or it could be all sorts of flawed were a culinary professional to judge it, but who cares?

To the person on the receiving end of the cake, if it is made with love it is perfect, and really, isn’t that really what matters?

Everything else is just icing on the cake.

When all is said and done, don’t forget who you’re baking a cake for in the first place. Image: Lisa Tate
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