A Simple Birthday Cake Idea

Starting balloon

Starting balloon

If you need to make a birthday cake for a friend or family member in a pinch, some writing, simple balloons, and streamers take no time at all and can make it look special!  I shared in the last blog how to write on the cake, so next up are the balloons.  Use a larger round tip; the one I used is a #10… I’ll have to research if those numbers are universal across brands.

Finishing Balloon

Lessen pressure as you pull away

As you begin to squeeze the frosting onto the cake to form the balloon, apply a decent amount of pressure and don’t hold the tip too close to the cake, otherwise the tip itself will distort the balloon.  Simultaneously lessen your pressure and pull down to create the balloon’s tip.  It takes a bit of practice to get the timing right, as well as the distance to hold the tip from the cake.  I recommend practicing on another surface before actually trying it on the cake.

Balloon Strings

Start with a dot for the knot, then wave and curl the string as you wish

The balloon strings and streamers are easy, and you use pretty much the same technique for both.  For the balloon strings, using a fine pointed tip that you would use for writing, at the tip of the balloon and make a small dot for the knot in the string before pulling down and making waves and curls in the string as you please.  Streamers are made with the same waving, curling motion, just without the dot at the beginning.  I choose my placement of the streamers to kind of fill in the gaps and cover any imperfections in the frosting.

Border

Similar motion to making balloons

For the borders, I used a star tip, and the motion is actually a very similar to the balloons in that you start with greater pressure, and simultaneously lessen the pressure and pull at the same time.  With the borders though, you do a slight backwards motion in the beginning back over the tail of the last one you’ve done so there is not evident separation between each.

And there you have your finished cake!  You can put the same border on the top edge too, if you’d like, but I was happy with mine as it was.

Finished Cake

Finished Cake!

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Writing on a Cake

Writing is an essential part of most special occasion cakes in order to remind everyone what they are celebrating and make the guest or guests of honor feel special!  Once you’ve iced your cake, choose the location where you want the writing to go – typically you’d find the writing centered on the cake, but that depends on what other decorations will go where on it.  Hold your icing bag in your writing hand, and use your other hand to support your writing hand or wrist; I actually use it to help me guide the bag itself.  Move both arms together, rather than just your wrist, as you would when writing with a pen or pencil.

Holding the icing bag

Holding the icing bag

For every stroke you start, you should gently touch the frosting to the cake to make sure that it will stay where you want it, but then while you are drawing the letter, you should lift your tip away from the cake just slightly to avoid dragging the base frosting along with your tip.  You should touch your tip back down to the cake at the end of each stroke to make sure that stays where you want it as well.

Mid-writing

Don't drag the tip in the frosting

You can choose whatever style of writing you would like to use – a fancier cursive or a more fun font, for example – that part is up to you!  For birthday cakes I like to use a more fun style, so I tend to use slightly exaggerated, bubbly letters, and dots on the end of my lines.

Happy Birthday Writing

Frosting a Cake

After the cake has cooled and, if you have done a crumb coat, you have let it chill in the refrigerator for at least an hour or two, it is time to frost!  This process is much easier if you have a big, flat piping tip to apply the frosting to the cake, because then you can cover the whole cake with frosting and all you have to do is smooth it, but this made me realize that I do not have one and need to put it on my shopping list!

Frosting Top

Keep the frosting in front of the spatula

So I applied my frosting the old fashioned way – by putting a blob of frosting on the cake and pushing it around the cake with a metal spatula until my cake was covered.  Angle your spatula slightly as you spread the frosting, with the front edge higher than the trailing edge.  Make sure that you keep frosting in front of the spatula as you spread it over the cake – don’t drag the spatula past where the frosting is – otherwise you are more likely to pick up crumbs.

Scraping Side with Comb

Angle your comb in the direction you're dragging

Once you have frosting covering the top and sides of the cake, you need to smooth it out.  For the sides, you can use a flat edge, or the serrated comb that I chose, to smooth them. Hold your tool slightly angled towards the direction that your are dragging it in, and in one smooth motion, drag it, without too much pressure, along the entire side.

Turn the cake and repeat the process for the remaining sides, trying to pick up at the same place you left off on the corners so that it looks as cohesive as possible.  If you are decorating a round cake, you should try to smooth the sides without stopping, using the cake turner to turn the cake so you can keep your tool’s edge steadily on the cake the whole time.

Smoothing Top of Cake

Keep front edge up and drag back edge with very light pressure

To smooth the top of the cake, you need a large metal spatula, and you’re going to hold the spatula the same way you did earlier, with the front end angled slightly up so that the back end is the only part that touches the cake. Try to use very light pressure and drag the spatula across the entire cake in one motion, without picking it up or stopping along the way.

To perfect the cake, you may need to go around the sides again to smooth frosting that has been pushed over the sides when you smoothed the top.  You can go back and forth a few times between smoothing both the top and the sides again until the cake is acceptable to you, just make sure that you don’t use too much pressure, or you will take off too much frosting and will hit cake!

Frosted CakeWhen I made this cake, I think I made the mistake of not having the kitchen cool enough, and therefore my icing was melting too fast and the cake was very difficult to work with.  If I wasn’t having such a hard time, I would have gone over both the sides and top more times to smooth it more.  Often times though, you can cover up some frosting errors by putting borders and decorations over them.  And with everything except for wedding cakes, most people are not quite as picky and don’t look for absolute perfection anyway, so don’t sweat it too much!

The Crumb Coat

If you have cut your cake before frosting it, either just to level it or to shape it, you are typically left with a cake that sheds crumbs like crazy!  This makes it much more difficult to frost the cake without getting crumbs mixed in icing; so to help, you can first do a crumb coat on the cake before spreading the actual layer of frosting.

You want to spread the thinnest layer possible and technique is not as important here since, much unlike the actual layer of frosting, you do not care if crumbs get mixed in with it; in fact they WILL get mixed in with it.  Just make sure not to scrape the spatula on the bowl of any icing that you plan to use in the future for anything but the crumb coat, as you will get crumbs in that too!

Your end result after the crumb coat will usually be somewhat of a speckled look because of the crumbs that have been mixed into the frosting.  Let it chill for at least an hour or two in the refrigerator so that it will be easier to frost over.  If you don’t chill it enough, it may even turn out to be more difficult to frost over since the crumb coat layer can begin to mix with the decorative frosting layer.

Cutting a Cake Level

Cake before cutting

Growing up, all of our homemade birthday cakes were slightly dome-shaped on top, and I never realized until I started working at Jen’s Cakes that professional cake decorators actually cut the top of the cake off to make it level!  This is a relatively easy way to make your cake look more professional though by leveling it off on the top and sides, although you might want to plan for slightly fewer servings as it does reduce the mass of the cake, obviously.

You should use a serrated knife that is long enough to reach through the entire cake; you want to make one sweep through and not have to worry about meeting your cut on one side at the same level when you make the pass through on the other side.  Hold the knife as horizontally level as possible, at the lowest level that the cake rose to, and slice through, trying to stay as even as possible the entire time.

This process is even easier with a round cake, as long as you have a cake turner.  If so, you can just hold the knife still as you turn the cake turner and gradually move the knife toward the center of the cake.  This helps you hold the knife much more level.

The sides should be leveled as well, if necessary.  In my case I need to get a new pan because mine went out quite a bit towards the top!

Once you’ve made your cut through the entire cake, carefully remove the top layer to remove from the cake without disturbing the cake underneath; I use the knife to help fold it over to remove.  You can do whatever you want with the cake scraps!  They make a very yummy snack if you have nothing else to use them for!

You’re left with an even cake that looks that much more professional!  Having cut all the sides may lead to more crumbs when you are trying to frost the cake, but a crumb coat is a blog for another time.

Repairing a Broken Cake

Have you ever taken a cake out of the oven and turned it over on the cooling rack only to find that part of it got stuck in the pan?  I am not proud to admit that I have several times found myself saying “I should have taken the time to grease and flour the pan!” instead of using a nonstick spray.  Don’t worry though!  You can still salvage the cake by “gluing” the pieces back together with frosting.

While making a cake this past weekend, I did just that and left a good chunk of cake in the pan – you can see above my cake turned over and the remaining pieces left in the pan.  I carefully loosened the remains from the pan, trying to keep them in as few pieces as possible.  Then on the cake itself, in the hole where the remains were going to fit back in, I dotted blobs of frosting to act as the glue to hold the piece back on.  Next, I carefully, with freshly washed hands, turned the piece over into its place.  Once you invert the cake onto its serving plate, the top side is intact to cut level and frost, and no one will be the wiser of your blunder!

Now I don’t necessarily recommend this if you are making a wedding cake or are a professional with customers who will be expecting the best when they slice into their cake, because the broken parts may crumble some when cut into.  However, for friends or family or more informal occasions, most of the time no one will even notice, nor care if they do, and I’m sure they would not expect you to spend more time and money making another cake if your initial attempt is salvageable, as mine was!

Cake Tool Essentials

Since I’m just getting started decorating outside of the comfort of the Jen’s Cakes kitchen, I thought I should assess what tools and equipment are essential for one to make and decorate a cool cake, and therefore what I (and others) might still need!

Tips and Bags

Tips and Decorating Bags

In gathering together what I already have, I realized how lucky I am to have a grandmother who used to decorate a bit herself and passed down to me lots of useful things like tips and decorating bags!  So I probably have more of those than I even need to start off with.

She also, for some reason (the story of which I’ll have to ask about again), ended up with a very nice, brand new KitchenAid mixer that she didn’t want, so she gave it to my Mom, who, upon hearing that I needed one, gave it to me!  So I am very excited to try it out!

Mixer, Cake Turner, and other tools

Mixer, Cake Turner, and other tools

Also, as you see in the picture, I have one large metal spatula, a few rubber spatulas, and a couple different side scrapers, as well as measuring cups and spoons.  The cake turner I highly recommend – it makes decorating any cake SO much easier!

This is all I’ve used for anything I’ve made at home, but now that I want to start expanding my designs and skills, what other tools can I not be without??  I think next on my list would be at least one smaller metal spatula, and when I start using fondant, a fondant roller, smoother, and cutter.  What else???

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