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Cake Decorating and Sugarcraft

Toddler licking icing off of a beater

My Mum Makes Cakes!

Decorating cakes in artistic ways is rewarding both for the artist and the recipients. Not only do you get to enjoy doing the craft and its resulting aesthetics, but you can eat it too!

Sculptural sugarcraft frequently uses a type of icing called sugarpaste (or rolled fondant) made out of mostly powdered (confectioner's) sugar with a tiny bit of liquid added. I've used several recipes over the years but over time have adapted several and now make my own fondant as follows:

Kimberly Chapman's Fondant Recipe

Put the cold water in a microwave-safe dish and sprinkle the gelatin over the top evenly and quickly. Allow the gelatin to rest for a couple of minutes until it has absorbed all the water. Meanwhile, measure the corn syrup in a microwave-safe container (I just use my pyrex measuring cup) and warm it in the microwave for a few seconds. Do not overheat it, but get it above body temperature. If you are colouring the whole batch of fondant, add your gel-based colour to the corn syrup now and mix thoroughly.

Similarly warm up the gelatin mix until it turns into a mostly-clear liquid. Add it to the corn syrup and mix.

Place about a third of the sugar in a mixer with a sturdy paddle attachment (ours is metal, I have never tried with plastic and can't vouch for its strength for this application). Pour the liquid mixture into the bowl and mix at the lowest speed, gradually adding the rest of the sugar as each addition is incorporated. Toward the end, it will not mix fully and some dry clumps of sugar will remain at the bottom of the bowl.

Liberally dust a large work surface with powdered sugar and turn out the contents of the bowl. I like to use a bowl scraper to get it all out and off of the paddle quickly. Knead until smooth, adding more powdered sugar if necessary depending on ambient humidity, temperature, etc.

Store wrapped in plastic and then in a zipper-lock thick plastic bag for up to about a month or two, depending on climate, or stored in the freezer for several months. If it gets a little too dry, wet your hands lightly before kneading it thoroughly again.


As you mix/knead, or if you've had the sugarpaste in storage, warm it up in the microwave for a few seconds (and I really mean a few, like 5 at a time, or it'll melt and be awful!). That'll make it easier to work with.

Avoid using liquid food colouring, as it turns the sugarpaste to goo. If you cannot find colouring paste at a craft or cake shop near you and must use liquid food colouring, I have found that you can avoid the gooey problem by premixing the liquid colour with a bit of powdered sugar. Put the amount of colour you intend to use in a small mixing bowl, then add powdered sugar slowly and mix, continuing to add until the mixture is a thick paste. This does thin the colour somewhat, but you can always add more later.

I find that it's much easier to add colour to the wet mixture BEFORE putting that into the powdered sugar. This yields a much more uniform colour more easily than repeated kneading. If you're going for bold colours, add LOTS of your gel colour to the wet mixture so that it is a dark version of the colour you want. The sugar will lighten the colour, so don't be stingy or you'll just end up having to knead in more after anyway.

Constructing a Cake

These directions are generalized for all cakes. Some cakes will require more or fewer of these steps, or additional steps not mentioned.

  1. Mix your favourite buttercream recipe, and set aside. If you've stored it in the fridge from a previous time, remove and let stand at room temperature for a few hours to soften.
  2. Bake the cake in whatever pans will yield the best shape needed.
  3. While cakes are baking/cooling, prepare sugarpaste. Make more than you'll need, especially when it comes to colours. You don't want to have to try to match colours later because you ran out.
  4. Cool cakes completely, and transfer to a working surface (i.e. cutting board).
  5. Carve the cakes as necessary, using a sharp, serrated bread-carving knife. Avoid cutting your fingers because it hurts and very few people want a blood-flavoured cake. Save the offcuts in case you need them later, or in case you want to eat them as baker's tax while you work.
  6. Place the lowest cake level on whatever board you'll be serving on. If you're worried about it shifting on the board, put a dob of buttercream down first in the middle.
  7. Cover the cake in buttercream, and assemble any layers with buttercream between them.
  8. Cover with sugarpaste, royal icing, etc. as necessary for the design. If you need to take a break or go to bed, you can leave the cake sealed in sugarpaste and it will keep fine for a day, presuming you don't have any pets to come by and sample it. If this is a problem, put some kind of cover over the whole thing but be sure to leave air vents or your fondant will just absorb moisture from the buttercream and get all soft and limp.
  9. Model any figures for the cake. If the figures have many parts or aren't sitting directly on the cake's top, you may have to model some off to one side and let them harden before assembly. You may also need toothpicks or sugar sticks for stability. Some consider toothpicks to be "cheating" in that all of the cake should be edible. The rest of us have decided life is for living, not for drying sugarpaste bits for days and days. But if you do use toothpicks, be sure no one bites into one.
  10. Glue sugarpaste bits together with water, or powdered sugar mixed into water. Some pieces may require bits of foam or other temporary supports while drying.
  11. If the cake has multiple sections on top of one another, you may need to support these sections with dowels. You can purchase cake-appropriate dowels in the cake decorating section of large craft stores.

For a step-by-step example of how to build an advanced cake, see the Discworld cake page or the orc head cake page. For photos of how I've made some cake stands using PVC pipe, see the Alien Film Festival cake Wolverine cake pages.

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Page last updated April 28, 2011.

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