I’ve always loved baking. Sometimes I joke that one of the reasons I became a mom was to have an excuse to bake more often. Of all the treats I bake throughout the year, I find the most joy in making homemade birthday cakes for my kids. My son and daughter love watching their birthday cakes come together step by step, and few things compare to the look on their faces when I show them the final product.
While making a homemade birthday cake may seem labor intensive, I’ve learned a few short cuts over the years. Here are my hacks that make cake baking and decorating so easy anyone can do it. Follow these tips, and you’ll transform into a baking queen!
Tip 1: Use a boxed cake mix – with a few tweaks
While I sometimes make the cake entirely from scratch, often I take the short cut of using a boxed cake mix. The trick to making a boxed mix taste homemade is adding a few extra ingredients. Follow the instructions on the box and then make these slight tweaks I found online:
- Add one additional egg
Replace the water with milk, same amount as instructed on the box
Replace the oil with melted butter, DOUBLE the amount
Tip 2: Adjust your oven temperature
One of the challenges of making a homemade cake is the dome that inevitably forms in the middle of the cake. This isn’t ideal for decorating or aesthetics. There are two ways to prevent this middle bulge.
The first method is to lower your baking temperature so that the cake bakes slower. Adjust your oven temperature to 300 degrees and bake for 25 minutes. Then increase the temperature to 325 degrees and bake for an additional 20-25 minutes. The cake is done when a toothpick stuck in the middle comes out clean.
The second method is to wrap cake strips around the outside of the pan. By soaking these strips in cool water, you keep the outsides of the cake from baking too fast, which leads to a more even top. You can buy cake strips online or at a local craft store.
Tip 3: Make homemade frosting
Even if you don’t have time to make the cake from scratch, your frosting should be homemade. I’m a bit of a frosting snob, and in my opinion, canned frosting just can’t compete with the homemade variety. The good news is that frosting is easy to make. Here’s my basic recipe for white frosting.
1/3 cup + 1 tablespoon shortening
1/3 cup + 1 tablespoon butter
3 3/4 cup powdered sugar
1 teaspoons almond or vanilla extract
3-5 tablespoons milk
- Use a stand or handheld mixer to beat the shortening and butter together.
- Add in powdered sugar one cup at a time beating at medium speed between each addition of powdered sugar. Once all the powdered sugar is added, continue mixing until it is fully combined.
- Add vanilla or almond extract and mix. Add in the milk one tablespoon at a time, mixing after each addition.
The key to frosting is making sure you have the right consistency. After each tablespoon of milk you add, check the consistency of the frosting with this test:
Put a rubber spatula in the middle of the frosting and then jiggle the bowl a little bit. If the spatula doesn’t move, your frosting is too thick. Add another tablespoon of milk and test again. If the spatula easily falls over when you jiggle the bowl, your frosting is too thin. Add a 1/2 cup of powdered sugar and test again. When the spatula moves slightly or starts to lean when you jiggle the cup, the consistency is just right.
Trust me, the time you spend making homemade frosting will be worth it. It will transform your cake from decent to amazing.
Tip 4: Smooth frosting with parchment paper
The easiest way to frost a cake is to put big dollops of frosting all around the top of the cake. You can then use a spatula to spread the frosting between each dollop. With this technique, you’ll keep crumbs out of your frosting since they’ll always be a layer of frosting between the cake and your spatula.
Evenly distribute the frosting the best you can, but don’t worry about making it perfectly smooth. Once the frosting is dry to touch, place a piece of parchment paper on the surface. Gently slide your hand, spatula or a food turner over the parchment paper to smooth out imperfections.
Short cut: Removing a cake from the pan and frosting the sides can be challenging. Save time – and frustration – by keeping your cake in the pan and just decorating the top.
Tip 5: Take advantage of decorating tools
Piping bag: Used for holding the frosting, these bags come in both cloth and disposable varieties. The disposable ones make for very easy clean up.
Decorating coupler: This is a plastic piece that goes into the piping bag and holds the decorating tip.
Decorating tips: My go-to decorating tips are the star #21 nozzle and the writing #3 nozzle. With these two tips, you can easily create amazing cake designs.
Tip 6: Create your designs using a pattern
My biggest cake decorating secret is that I always use a pattern. Most of the time I get my design inspiration from Pinterest. I look for designs that are simplistic and have elements I can easily copy or trace. Laying cutout patterns on the cake, I trace them using a toothpick. I then use the writing #3 nozzle to outline the design and the star #21 nozzle to fill it in. Another decorating short cut is to use a cookie cutter and then fill the inside of the stencil with sprinkles.
If I want to add writing to the cake, I write the letters first with a toothpick before using the writing #3 nozzle to do the lettering with frosting. However, most of the timing I skip writing on the cake since I’m not great at it. Cake decorating should be fun. If a technique is too hard, I just skip it!
Short cut: To simplify the decorating process, make cupcakes instead of a full-sized cake. They’re a bit easier to decorate since they’re smaller, and there are lots of fun ways to make them look stunning.