This is a guest post from an expert on all things art and crafts Melanie Falick*
About 20 years ago I took a cake-decorating course at a craft store in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. A group of about 10 of us met once a week for four weeks and at each meeting we practiced a different skill, mostly squeezing a vegetable shortening mixture through a decorating bag fitted with different tips onto waxed paper or a cardboard circle. Although it was sensible not to work on real cake and frosting, it was also a little sad not to finish with a sweet treat. I recall making a few pretty rosettes but, overall, my work was wobbly and inconsistent. Once the class was over, I packed away my tools and didn’t think much more about them for a long time.
Then, about a month ago, while perusing the Creativebug offerings, a class on decorating cupcakes with buttercream swirls caught my attention. It was Part 2 in a four-part series called The Wilton Method of Cake Decorating, and it seemed manageable. A cupcake is much smaller than a cake, I thought to myself. And this time I’ll use real batter and frosting. My husband and son will probably be happy to eat the results no matter what they look like. And my husband can take leftovers to work.
Here’s what happened:
I decided to bake the cupcakes in advance. To make it easy, I bought a mix for chocolate cake from the health food store. I don’t usually bake from mixes but I figured I would need all of my energy and patience for the frosting.
This ended up being about 10 days later since I got busy after the cupcakes were made. I kept them in the freezer so they wouldn’t get stale. The buttercream frosting was easy to make following the recipe in the pdf that comes with the class. I just had to remember to bring my butter to room temperature in advance and to put on an apron since the confectioners’ sugar has a tendency to fly around even with the beaters set on low. I tend to get overwhelmed in a messy kitchen so I made a point of cleaning up as I worked.
Next I moved to the dining room table, where I could spread out, to decorate. I placed my laptop on the far end of the table so I could watch instructor Emily without worrying about messing up the computer with buttercream. Once the frosting was in the bag, my mind started to flash back to my class in North Carolina—globs of shortening and very sticky fingers filled my head. I was nervous but hopeful that this time my results would be better.
About 30 minutes later, I had decorated about half of my cupcakes. Following along with Emily’s demonstrations, I used Wilton’s 1M tip to make small clustered rosettes and a classic swirl (sort of a towering rosette): I also made some little stars (just a matter of squeezing some frosting straight out of the bag, not part of the class but easy and gratifying). Then I used a Wilton #12 tip to make a smooth swirl. I was supposed to use a 2A tip but I couldn’t find one at the store where I bought my supplies so I used a tip leftover from my class in North Carolina that looked similar). The results were mixed, the table was a mess, and I’d eaten one of the really funky samples (which tasted delicious). I needed a break so I put the remaining frosting in a plastic container in the refrigerator and cleaned up.
The next morning I brought my frosting from the day before to room temperature and I was good to go. I decided to work only on the 1M Swirl. I realized that if I squeezed harder, so more frosting would come out of the bag, and rotated the bag more slowly around the cupcake, I would get better-looking results. Then I tried adding a pink stripe by painting pink food coloring along the seam of the decorating bag before filling it with frosting. I was supposed to end up with a distinct stripe but achieved more of a variegated look because my food coloring and frosting got more mushed together than it was supposed to. My hand got tired and my swirls started to look like messy knots.
A few days later, I whipped up another batch of cupcakes and frosting and began again, feeling more confident and cautiously optimistic. Although in the class Emily teaches how to make clustered small rosettes with leaves, a classic swirl with three different techniques for striping, and the smooth swirl, I decided that I wasn’t going to try all of the striping techniques or the leaves. It’s great that the class offers so many lessons in such a short time (less than 30 minutes), but I wanted to focus.
This time my friend Tiffany joined me, which was great. Together we watched Emily’s demos and talked through the process. Feeling more comfortable, I was able to adjust my technique to improve my results. I daresay I started getting the hang of it and I was having fun.
A Few Tips If You Want to Give This Class a Try
- Watch the class all the way through once and decide what you want to focus on to start. Emily teaches a lot of skills, but I can’t imagine learning them all at the same time.
- Make the cupcakes at least a day in advance.
- Decorate the cupcakes when your household is calm and you feel energetic and clear-headed.
- Clear your workspace so you have plenty of room to spread out.
- Wear an apron and keep a dishtowel nearby so you can wipe buttercream from your hands and wherever else it errantly lands. If you’re watching the video while you work, you’ll probably want to stop and start it to review what Emily is demonstrating and you’ll definitely want clean hands for that.
- Experiment with how hard you squeeze the decorating bag and the speed at which you rotate it to figure out what works best for you.
- Be careful when you are removing the decorating tip from the decorating bag. I cut my finger pretty badly when I was cleaning/removing the 1M tip. After that I started cutting the plastic away from the tip to get it out. I searched for a better method online but couldn’t find anything. Let me know if you figure out a better way to do it.
- If you’re a perfectionist, use your first few decorating attempts as an exercise in letting go.
*Melanie Falick is a creative consultant and freelance editor and writer. She is the former publishing director of STC Craft, an imprint of Abrams. She also teaches several Creativebug classes, including Leather Wrap Bracelets. Connect with her on social media, as follows:
Instagram, Pinterest, Instagram, and Facebook: melaniefalick