Cake Decorating - Getting Started with Shaped Cakes

The best way to get started making shaped cakes is with the Wilton pans. You can find Wilton shaped pans at craft shops with cake supplies (Michael’s, Joann’s etc.) for $10-15/pan. You can also find pans at garage sales, e-Bay or order online from Wilton.  Here is a link to the Wilton website showing all the shaped pans.  The pan will come with instructions for how to decorate the cake shown and (usually) a few variations.   (Instructions are also online, if you have an older or used pan.)

Use your imagination to branch out.  I have a Teletubbies pan that my mom picked up off a clearance rack when the kids were tots. I was in the attic for a few years, but then I used to make a cake for a laser tag party… Dipsy and LaLa became boys in laser tag vests.  They could easily be Luke and Chewbacca!

The Sports Ball cake is shown as a soccer ball, baseball, etc.  It makes a good Death Star.  It also made the Geode cake below, which is one of the easiest cakes to make.

Spend a few minutes at a shop with cake supplies to get an idea of what’s available. I also recommend that you spend some time looking at the Wilton website – it’s got tons of information on how to decorate cakes, cupcakes, etc. I am totally self-taught from this website, other cake decorating sites and trial/error. The stuff is actually not that hard, it just takes a bit of practice to make it smooth. Assume you can, and you will.  (Or to paraphrase Yoda: If you believe, you will not fail!)  or  

The shaped cake pans are very easy to use – they hold one standard box cake mix. Spray the pan liberally with cooking spray. Then just mix the recipe on the box, pour into the pan and bake as directed for a sheet cake on the box. Do check the cake a bit early in case it cooks faster in the pan. When done, flip the cake out of the pan onto a wire rack and let cool completely on a wire rack. Completely cool – you cannot decorate a warm cake!

To decorate, follow the instructions on the cake pan, but feel free to improvise. Here are the basics:

1.       Start with Good Basic Buttercream Icing

Box cake mixes are wonderful, but canned icing is not!  Start with homemade Buttercream Icing.  It tastes wonderful, has no trans fat, and is easy to make and use. 

                Buttercream Icing  Recipe
                2 sticks (1 cup) unsalted butter – room temp if possible.
                1 stick (1 cup) Crisco – not butter, just the plain ones
                2 teaspoons real vanilla extract
                2 lb powdered sugar (1 large bag) – sifted if it is at all clumpy
                6 Tablespoon milk

Cream the butter and Crisco thoroughly. Mix in the vanilla. Slowly work in the powdered sugar, a bit at a time, alternating with TSPs of milk. This is the base frosting. You can tint with food coloring as you like. I use the Wilton pastes – there will be a rack of these little pots in the cake aisle. Note that the color will get a bit darker as the frosting dries.

Note: this recipe does not produce a true white icing, since both the butter and the vanilla have color. If you are going to color the icing, it doesn’t matter at all. If you want to work with whiter icing, buy a bottle of “clear vanilla” – right next to the real vanilla at the grocery store.

If you want truly white, you have to swap the butter for Crisco, so no butter and 2 cups Crisco. This seriously affects flavor, so compensate by adding ¼ tsp of butter flavoring. (Available at grocery store or craft shop cake isle.)  But my theory is that the “butter white” is fine for everything except wedding cakes. And it tastes the best.

To color the buttercream, use any food coloring. I personally use the Wilton pastes from the cake aisle as they have a wide assortment of colors, work with all frostings and fondant, and last for a very long time. You can also find liquid food coloring and powdered food coloring.  Note that it is virtually impossible to tint the buttercream true red or black. Start with a cake with easier colors, using tubes of red/black icing to provide details.

2.       Supplement your homemade icing with Wilton tubes of colored icing as you like.

I always use the tubes to accent in black and red, colors that are hard to make at home.  The reindeer shown is made with homemade buttercream for the white and tan, but I used tubes for the red, green and black.  I also use tubes if I need a bunch of colors – such as the “sail into summer” cakes. You can find the tubes in the cake aisle at Michael’s Joann’s, etc.

Tip: you can get icing tubes at the grocery store too. These are usually Cake Mate brand. They are fine, but the Wilton tips discussed below don’t fit these tubs. So be sure to pick up a pack of Cake Mate tips at the grocery store too. (Or else be prepared to squeeze the Cake Mate icing into a disposable decorating bag.) I use the Cake Mate tips, but they are larger and less nuanced than the Wilton Tips. You won’t be able to do as much with them, but they’re OK in a pinch.

3.       Decorating Tips and Tip Accessories

To decorate your first cake you’ll likely need some Wilton decorating tips.  Most cakes call for an “open star” tip – e.g. Wilton No. 16 or 18.  The first thing to do is to make an open star. You will cover most of the cake with nestled stars. They are SUPER EASY. To make the star, just hold the bag straight up, squeeze out a star, LET GO, then (after you have stopped squeezing) pull the tip up and away. Voila! Repeat. Snuggle the stars close together to cover.   See: and  

You’ll probably also want a round tip, e.g., No. 2 or 3 – for outlining and writing.  Some pans require other tips as well, – but many only require open star and round tips.

The Wilton website has detailed instructions for how use each tip, and how to create designs, such as ribbons, flowers, etc. Start with the open star, then work your way through.

Tip: It’s a pain to try to use the same tip for different colors – if you want to use 3 colors on the cake (e.g., using the stars), buy 3 tips so you have for each color.  It’s a huge pain to wash the tips between colors, and you will invariably want to swap back to touch up. The aggravation will put you off. It’s not that expensive to have several of the most popular tips, and a much better approach!  Trust me.

You use the tips with a decorating bag.  Buy a box of disposable decorating bags at the craft store.  Do NOT buy the reusable bags – they are impossible to wash.  Disposable is the way to go. The bags are perforated, separate into clear plastic triangle bags. You’ll snip off a little bit at the end of the bag and drop in your decorating tip.  Make sure the hole isn’t too big, otherwise the tip can pop out.

Tip:  get a big box of bags.  They are useful for many things.  For example, I like to melt chocolate in the microwave, fill a bag, snip the bottom & drizzle on cookies, strawberries, etc.  Looks really fancy, takes just moments… You can also let the kids decorate cookies, ice cream, etc. with them. Very fun!

The tips also work with the Wilton tubes of colored icing.  To use them, purchase a plastic coupler ring.  These will be available near the tips.  Using the ring, you can attach the tip right to the Wilton icing tubes.

If you like, you can also purchase a full coupler set for your tips.  These work with the decorating bags, so the coupler goes inside the bag and the tip is held on from the outside with a ring.  The advantage of this is that you can swap different tips on the same bag.  The alternative is to just put your icing into different bags, one for each tip you want to use.   I find the couplers convenient, but they are not necessary.

4.       Decorating the Cake

To decorate, place your cake on a board or plate. A word about boards…

·         Cakes are heavy, and there is nothing worse than trying to move a cake that isn’t on a sturdy surface.   Big cakes weigh a TON.

·         Make life easy, go to Home Depot and buy a large square of plywood or particle board. Then go to party city and buy a plastic table cloth (or a roll of plastic) to cover the board. Just cut a piece and tape to the bottom of the baord. (You can also use generic aluminum foil – don’t waste your money on Wilton “cake foil” – you don’t need this!) Cover the board with the plastic/foil, then position the cake as you like. If you look at my cakes, almost all are on a piece of wood that my better half cut for me, covered with blue plastic from a big roll I got years ago. The nice things are (1) I know the cake will fit, and (2) I can decorate on the plastic, and if I make a mistake, it wipes off cleanly. I usually write on the plastic – it’s totally forgiving.

·         If you put the cake on a cardboard cake plate (a “round”), be careful because the cardboard gets “stained” by the fat in the buttercream. If you use these rounds, cover with foil or plastic – or else by pre-covered rounds.  Thick rounds (called cake drums) are very nice to use, but expensive.

Once the cake is set on the board, ice the sides of the cake, just using a spatula or a knife. If the cake has a lot of crumbs (e.g., if you have cut it or leveled it), use 2 coats. Allow 15 mins for the first “crumb coat” to set. Make sure you ice all the way up to the pattern on the top of the cake!

To decorate the main part of the cake, put about a cup of frosting in a decorating bag with the tip, and pipe the stars onto the top of the cake, following the pattern and the instructions. (Improvise as you like!)

If you are doing a character cake, the hardest part is always the eyes. You can follow the Wilton instructions for decorating the eyes with buttercream, but I’m often dissatisfied by the result. The instructions will tell you to dip a finger in cornstarch and pat the buttercream smooth. First, you need a really dry finger, not one covered in cornstarch. So just wash/dry your hand well, and rub a bit of cornstarch or powdered sugar on your hands for extra dryness. Use a clean towel to remove excess powder - it will make your cake look dusty (esp the black part of the eye). Then just gently pat the frosting to make it flat and smooth. This works best with the icing from tubes, rather than the homemade icing.

The alternative... if you want super cute (and super easy) “cartoon” eyes, splurge on a box of fondant.  See my post on Fondant for info on this.

5.       Final Thoughts

·         Don’t be afraid to use other things for decorations, esp candy.  Kids love to see candy on the cake!

·         To finish the cake, do a row of stars around the base.  You can also finish with candy.  For Christmas cakes, I finish with white frosting stars, then stick a red or green M&M in each one. So easy, but very festive, and it also covers up any imperfect stars perfectly!   (And the kids love it!)

·         If you screw up, just scrap off the frosting and start again. No one will ever know. (But don’t worry about little mistakes – people truly do not see flaws, they only see the coolest cake ever, because you made it for them!  

·         When you’re done, toss the tips and couplers in the dishwasher silverware basket and toss the bags in the trash. Extra icing will keep in an airtight container – and do keep the extra icing until the cake is served, just in case it gets bumped! Wrap leftover fondant tightly in plastic wrap and store in a tightly sealed zip top bag.

·         Once you get the hang of decorating the shaped cakes, per the instructions, branch out. I have a great “football” pan – have never made a football cake, but this pan created the bodies for both the gator and the manatee… I have a sports ball pan. Have made various balls, but this pan also made the geode cake and the death star…

·         Play with the techniques too. If you do open stars with green icing on a sugar ice cream code, viola! You have Christmas trees… I once topped a plain white sheet cake with 3 Christmas trees and a package of little plastic animals I picked up on the clearance at the Disney store – Bambi, Thumper and the skunk – and had a cake for a Christmas party that the kids are still talking about. The hardest part was having the idea!

·         If you need more cake, you can bake 2 cakes using the same shaped pan and stack them (like any layered cake) – decorating the top.  If you stack the cakes, try to level the layers by slicing off the hump on the top (when baking) side. This takes a bit of practice, but it’s important to keep the cakes from cracking. You can use a serrated knife, or else buy a leveler – they haven then on the cake aisle. (If you buy, get the biggest one.)  See:   

Or else do 1 cake and a set of cupcakes. If you do cupcakes, you can usually find some cool decorations to complement the cake – e.g., to complement a dinosaur cake, get a set of small plastic dinos at Party City or Toys R Us, and put one on top of each cupcake.   I extended the geode cake with several batches of cupcakes – frosted them white with a piece of rock candy on top.  Super easy!

·         Next time you make cupcakes, use a big star tip to decorate.  They will look so pretty!

Example:  Reindeer Cake, made with Wilton Rudy Reindeer Pan 

        1 box cake mix, decorated with 1 batch of buttercream for the white/tan/brown, used tubes for back, red and green, plus gumdrops and a sour candy for the red nose!  Iced using open start and writing tip.

Example:  Easter bunny cake, made with Wilton Blues Clues Pan - white buttercream open stars