Eating your mistakes: The art of cake decorating

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Decorating cakes can go beyond following a recipe and stretch into hours of designing and crafting a masterpiece. Professional cakes can cost hundreds of dollars. According to Toba Garrett, dean of Professional Cake Decorating at the Institute of Culinary Education, expensive cakes are a symbol of status and success.

“Cakes from a well-known designer are just as a couture as top-of-the-line, designed wedding dresses,” Garrett said.

People from the United States aren’t the only people impressed by expensive cakes. “In the Caribbean Islands, the wedding cake and not the dress is the most important symbol as the wedding, and it is extremely revered and honored,” Garrett said.

People order professionally decorated cakes for events other than weddings. Beth Somers, director of content development at Wilton Industries, said there was a trend for divorce cakes several years ago. Other events popular for a professional cake include birthdays, anniversaries and retirement parties. Somers explained that people will even buy a cake if they are having a dinner party.

Cake decorating may be easier to start due to online resources, according to Somers. “You can get instruction at the drop of a hat,” she said. “Craft stores carry so many cake-decorating products so people can get the tools that they need.”

Somers is a former winner on Food Network’s “Cupcake Wars” and attributes the growing popularity of cake decorating to the vast number of cake shows on television. “Before all the cake shows it was really a specialized thing,” Somers said.

The talent to create masterpieces comes with time. Somers said she learned the skills at a pastry school but developed them on the job through repetition and muscle memory.

According to Garrett, a decorator needs to develop a critical eye and have great coordination skills as well as the ability to sketch and mix colors. “These additional skills require independent courses in color theory, floral design and a basic class in drawing,” Garrett said.

Other skills important for decorators to develop include patience and a desire to learn. The success of a cake also depends on what is underneath the frosting. Somers explained that baking is really a science.

Somers said bakers can spend as little or as much time as they want decorating. For example, a store-bought cake can save time on baking by allowing more for decorating. An exhibition cake can take months of preparation with a team of decorators working diligently.

“A three-to five-tiered wedding cake with all of the trimmings can be designed within a few days, but can take weeks of preparations to fully execute,” Garrett said.

With all of that effort going into the cake, the reward for decorators is status and recognition. Business is bound to flow once a baker is recognized as a skilled practitioner of icing.

Cake decorator and BYU student Cindy Call said the reward comes when she sees how happy people are with the result. “You get to look at it and say, ‘I made a beautiful thing that can be eaten,'” Call said.

Inspiration doesn’t just come out of thin air. For Call inspiration comes from looking at other cakes and changing the way they look. It can also come from looking at objects such as a camera or a toy and then attempting to recreate them as cakes. “Depending on your skill level, pick more simple things to start out with,” Call said.

Somers finds inspiration from textiles, patterns and stationery. She emphasized the importance of color trends and the usefulness of browsing Pinterest. She said it’s more like “stimulation overload.”

The best thing aspiring cake decorators can do is practice. One way to get started is by using cake dummies, or styrofoam cake tiers. There is no timetable to determine readiness, but when it hits, customers will seek the decorator.

“Just try it, because it’s not scary; the mistakes are delicious,” Somers said. “So when you mess up, just eat it.”

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