How to Decorate a Cake with Sheer Force of Will
Here’s a post on how to decorate a cake when what you’ve got is more will than skill. And you know it. And you’re cool with it. Think of this post as residing approximately two-thirds of the way up the scale from Pinterest fail to professional-caliber advice. Like my Easy Potted Herb Centerpieces, this is the type of project that makes me red-flag proud, meaning I’m so pleased with myself that it’s immediately clear, even to me, that I’m missing something. Again, I’m okay with it. And hey, I’d eat that cake. In fact I did.
Flaws call attention to beauty! If your cake were perfect, people would think you bought it, and where's the fun in that?
Check your ego at the kitchen door and grab your sense of humor. That’s a good call whether or not there’s cake involved, actually. And when there’s cake involved, hey, at least there’s cake involved.
Look at Molly Yeh’s Instagram for inspiration. Girl, your cake is not gonna look like that. But know that your mom (YOUR mom, I said) will like it anyway.
Bake a layer cake. I used our favorite carrot cake recipe here. I baked it in two 9-inch round layer pans, reduced the baking time by 5-10 minutes, and made a double batch of the cream cheese icing.
If you don’t already own a revolving cake stand, buy one like this (rated best by Cook’s Illustrated). Big-box craft stores with a baking section tend to have them too, though not always the best-quality ones. Don’t buy a cheap, lightweight cake stand unless you like the feeling of wanting to murder inanimate objects and the time you’ll waste wondering why that feeling can seem like such a real thing even though it’s definitely not a real thing. While you’re at it, grab an offset spatula and a package of basic cake boards. Also some lowbrow edible decorations like icing tubes and dragées. If you forget the word dragées, just search for “edible cake balls,” or so I’ve heard. When choosing decorations, just pick a color scheme and own it, I say. In retrospect ours may have been what my grandmother would have called a little bit “trampy” for a 70th birthday party, but I’m sticking to it.
Once your cake has cooled completely, just do what you’d think you’d do. Put a cake board on the cake stand. Place one cake layer on top (trim it if it’s very uneven, but otherwise don’t worry about it). Schlog a nice amount of icing on top — more than you might think — and schmear it around with your spatula. Place the second cake layer on top. Now you can do a crumb coat if you like — a thin layer of icing designed not to get cake crumbs in your outer, thicker layer of icing. I find it’s worth the time, especially if you pop the crumb-coated cake into the fridge for half an hour in between layers to firm it up.
Next, use your offset spatula to cover the whole cake with a nice, thickish layer of frosting. Start on the top, and then be brave with the sides. Do your best and don’t stress. Now comes the fun part.
Watch this video snippet for evidence of how seriously easy it is to produce the fancy-ish-looking icing texture we used for this cake. Ignore the part of the video where she says you should make a whole table of “five or seven” cakes with different icing textures. The one cake will be enough, don’t you think?
Then just use your edible decorations to schmutz up your cake with abandon. I do recommend coming up with some sort of vague or less-vague plan, especially if you’re not working alone. Use the rule of thirds. Or break all the rules. Whatever you like.
You’re done! Try to be just the right amount pleased. In rogue cake decorating, as in life, this is the hardest part.
Finally, always work with kids. Then if it turns out great, everyone is happy. And if it doesn’t, and you don’t say anything, people will assume they know who blew it. Or you can come clean that it’s your fault and be simultaneously hilarious and the Best Parent Ever. Not to overthink a cake or anything.