When one thinks ‘artist’, generally, thoughts run to painting, singing, dancing, writing...
So, it logically follows that most people, when asked about their artistic and creative abilities, will assert that they are not in the least the creative sort. That can’t be true.
Creativity is a concept that covers a wide scope of the human experience: we find creative solutions to business problems, personal relationships and even to arrange our lives so that they are most pleasing, productive and peaceful.
Taking that last thought a step further: we coordinate our clothing, match our jewellery and arrange our dinner table and our food so that it is most appealing.
Decorating cakes is a natural extension of that very common, very human impulse.
You might have sauntered past a cake shop and, enticed by the sweet smell emanating from within, lingered over the display in the shop window. Or maybe your best mate recently got married and the cake was the highlight of the reception party.
Perhaps you are a fan of The Great British Bake-Off...
Wherever you came by the idea that you’d like to try your hand at cake decorating, your Superprof would like to help you get on your way to becoming the sugar artist you never thought you could be.
Introduction to the Sugar Arts
The sugar arts are a real thing and those who create luscious confections are called sugar artists.
They range from chocolatiers at Godiva and Richart to the cupcakes at the Hummingbird Bakery chain in London.
Wedding cake makers have long been in the spotlight; their sugar flowers adorning or cascading down the tiered cake is a highlight of any wedding celebration. Just think of all of the press dedicated to Harry and Meghan’s cake, and the one at his brother’s wedding a few years before.
Today, the discerning party host/ess will ensure their event finishes with a lavishly decorated dessert suited to the occasion.
Birthday cakes are a big deal but so are cakes for retirement parties, seasonal events – we are coming up on All Hallow’s Eve. Cakes for baby showers, graduation, fancy dress and themed parties... the list goes on and the market for designer cakes is huge!
You’ll note that we said ‘decorated dessert’ rather than ‘cake’; there is a good reason for that.
Our country’s current focus on healthy eating and portion control has driven miniature cakes to the forefront of cake decorating ideas.
Lately, the craze has centred around cupcakes – the American name for fairy cakes. The most famous cake shops in London tout cupcakes as though they were always a British thing but it is their American name that gives them such cachet.
For those rigidly monitoring their sugar intake, cake pops are just the thing. They amount to a two-bite portion of cake, wildly decorated and mounted on a stick. Often, you can find a display of cake pops by a restaurant’s or coffee shop’s cash register. Their resemblance to a lolly makes kids, especially, clamour for them.
The sum total of this exposé is that there are plenty of ways to express yourself as a sugar artist; as many ways as there are types of cake and reasons for them.
You don’t have to decide just yet what types of cake you will work with – tiered cakes, layer cakes, cupcakes or cake lollies; the best place to start is to see what you can do with the tools and supplies at your disposal.
Buy Tools and Play With Them
For those who are now actively considering a career as a sugar artist, investment in cake decorating tools is no longer idle speculation but the next logical step on the way to their goal.
The trick is, what should you buy? And how does one learn how to use their new toys?
The second question is easy: you can take a cake decorating course that will feature the most common tools and how to use them. If you’re of a hardy type, one who enjoys discovering things on your own, you can experiment without the benefit of any instruction.
The question of what tools to buy is a bit more complex because there are so many tools and accessories designed for decorating cakes!
At the very least, you should have:
- Spatulas: straight, offset and several rubber spatulas (for stirring and for scraping)
- A cake stand: it functions as a turntable so that you can pipe icing on with one hand while turning with the other
- Piping bags: reusable or disposable; you should have more than one
- Decorating tips in various sizes; also include at least one rose nail
As you get more advanced – or more adventurous, you may consider adding an airbrush set to your arsenal, along with some silicone molds to practise making different decorations. You may also consider adding a few stencils to your toolkit so that you don’t have to make the same design over and over again.
Now that you have a well-equipped toolkit, it is time to start working with different icings.
You can start with videos and tutorials online or invest in a few books about cake decorating. If you don’t care to invest in such books, you may find them on loan at your local library.
Work With Various Types of Icing
While the taste may remain the same – or, at least, have the same ‘sugar rush’ effect, icing composition varies from type to type.
To complicate matters, some types of icing are relatively easy to work with while others can be supremely messy and uncooperative.
Buttercream takes top marks in that category but it is a very versatile icing: it can be tinted with food coloring, generously slathered on and it is most easy to squeeze out of piping bags, even through the narrowest tips.
Ganache can also be messy and a satisfying meringue can be hard to achieve consistently.
The opposite end of the ‘messy and hard to work with’ spectrum includes royal icing, which can be very thick – so thick it might need thinning, and rolled fondant, which has a texture similar to modelling clay.
Finally, you should try your hand at gum paste – a sugar dough with gum tragacanth added to make it especially malleable. Wilton’s online store has a supply of brands favoured by bakers but, if you prefer, you can make your own gum paste.
All of those exquisite flowers on wedding cakes are most likely gumpaste flowers rather than piped butter cream.
Finally, consider the use of sprinkles, confetti, dragees, and edible glitter, particularly on children’s cakes. They are especially useful in cookie decorating – adorning biscuits is the next big wave among decorating ideas.
Oh, and don’t forget to learn how to work with molding chocolate; bonbons make for spectacular decorations against an ivory-coloured buttercream icing!
Working in a Cake Shop or Supermarket Bakery
Once you’ve built up a sizable portfolio – you should always take pictures of your creations, even if you’ve copied other cake designers (be sure to give them credit for the design!), you will be ready to apply for a position as a cake decorator.
Your work there will entail dealing with customers – helping them select the cake design best suited to their occasion. If no such model is available for them to see, you may have to sketch your idea out on paper.
Besides dealing with customers and decorating pre-baked cakes, you may be tasked with helping to maintain inventory and ordering the ingredients, decorating supplies and tools you need. You may also be charged with generating new business; that may involve handing out samples or coupons in the store’s aisles, if you work in a supermarket.
Please note that, if you intend to work in such a commercial enterprise, you will have to have a Level 2 food hygiene certificate.
Flying Solo: Starting Your Cake Decorating Business
Pragmatic matters like earning one’s living aside, the reason you became a sugar artist is to express yourself in your preferred medium. As such, many such artists feel that decorating cakes on demand, in a supermarket or bakery, is too confining.
If you echo that sentiment, it may be time to consider starting your own business.
Here again, you have to heed certain rules and laws: you will need a food hygiene certificate and you will need to register your business with HMRC.
Besides those two non-negotiable mandates, you will have plenty of leeway. You can work out of your home or open a shop (beware of overhead costs!).
You may consider building a website and, as many other fabulous cake decorators do, post video tutorials online. You could also partner with a catering firm or two; that’s a great way for your work to gain exposure!
Finally, you could host cake decorating classes – not quite as self-defeating a proposition as it sounds. Just because you show others how to tap into their artistic potential using buttercream frosting as a medium, doesn’t mean they won’t come to you for their future cake decoration needs.
The key is to launching a successful business is getting your name out there; any way you can think of to do that is a step in the right direction. Some sugar artists trade on their online presence - social media, especially Instagram.
Thinking back on the keen child that you were, scribbling and colouring on every available scrap of paper you came across, would you dare to say that you don’t have an artistic bone in your body?
It’s not possible. More likely is the fact that you simply haven’t found your medium of expression yet. Could sugar be it?
Now delve deeper into the art of making cakes...