- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 1, 2006

Pastry chef Norman Davis rotates a tool that looks like a thin round disc soldered to a nail, making roses for one of seven wedding and specialty cakes he has on order for the week.

Called a rose nail, the tool is used as a platform on which to create a rose by starting with a base of icing on the disc and adding petals as the tool is rotated. Once completed, the rose is transferred to the cake.

Mr. Davis takes three days to make a batch of cakes, baking on the first day and adding a thin coat of icing later that day to seal in the crumbs. On the second day, he decorates the cake. On the third day, he does the last-minute touches, such as adding real flowers or handmade sugar flowers that cannot be refrigerated. On average, Mr. Davis makes 20 cakes a week.

“We can take these soft items and create a beautiful masterpiece,” says Mr. Davis, owner of the Sweet Life Cakery in Annandale, which sells cakes and offers beginning and advanced classes in cake decorating.

Practice is key, Mr. Davis says.

“It’s something, even when you take a class, you have to continue to practice,” says Joan Hailstalk, owner of Simply Sweet Inc., a cake shop in Fredericksburg, Va., that, like Sweet Life Cakery, offers cake-decorating courses.

“If you take that cake you frosted and implement flower-making, different borders and textures on the icing, then you take something that was a nice cake to something that is a ‘Wow,’ that really pops. … It’s almost like a work of art.”

Cake-decorating courses are offered through bakeries, cake and candy shops, craft stores, parks and recreation departments, and continuing education programs. More extensive training is provided through culinary arts programs at community colleges, trade schools and academies, including L’Academie de Cuisine in Gaithersburg and the Art Institute of Washington in Arlington.

Metro-area cake-decorating instructors and pastry chefs suggest that the beginning cake decorator start with the basics in icing and decorating techniques and decorating tools.

The first step in cake decorating is baking the cake, says Suzy Cravens, manager of in-store events for Dallas-based Michaels Arts & Crafts. Michaels offers a series of cake-decorating courses based on the Wilton cake-decorating method, which uses Wilton starter kits. Jo-Ann Stores, a craft-and-fabrics chain based in Hudson, Ohio, offers the same method at its superstores.

“The Wilton method of cake decorating is a perfect starting point. A lot of renowned cake decorators started with the Wilton method,” Ms. Cravens says.

The first course focuses on icing techniques and making simple borders and roses. The second and third courses teach more complex techniques for flowers, borders and icing. Each course meets two hours a week for four weeks.

“If you take it one step at a time, it’s easier. You don’t get overwhelmed,” says Gretchen Homan, test-kitchen supervisor for Wilton Industries.

The tools used in icing are found in any starter kit and include spatulas, pastry bags and decorating tips. The icing is scooped into a pastry bag and piped or squeezed out onto the cake with a tip, which creates round, star, leaf, rose and drop flower shapes.

“A lot of it is teaching people how to deal with a decorating bag. Holding the bag is a skill to learn,” says Beryl Loveland, pastry chef and owner of Beryl’s Cake Decorating & Pastry Supplies, a mail-order company in Springfield. “Different pressures will produce different results.”

A crumb coat can be done first, providing a thin coating of icing that seals in the crumbs and prevents them from rolling onto the cake’s surface, says Ray Lippert, a member of the International Dairy-Deli-Bakery Association, a trade association in Madison, Wis.

After the icing hardens, the main coating of icing is piped onto the cake with a pastry bag or scooped on with a spatula, starting with the sides or top, as Mr. Lippert recommends.

A 16-inch pastry bag with a 2-inch-wide flat cake-icer tip can be used to skip the crumb coat and create a coating of icing that covers the entire cake, Ms. Cravens says. The icing comes out flat and is pressed onto the cake, she says, adding that a spatula can be used to smooth out the icing.

“The beauty of the cake-icer tip is you don’t have to use a crumb coat,” Ms. Cravens says. “Suddenly, you will have a smooth cake with no crumbs in it. It’s better than Martha [Stewart] can do.”

Two other tools essential for icing, Ms. Cravens says, are a turntable to spin the cake as the icing is piped out and the cake is decorated and an angled spatula, designed at an angle for control and ease of use.

Ms. Homan recommends that the beginner start with 12-inch and 8-inch angled spatulas, the larger for frosting and the smaller for decorating.

“When you do the actual decorating, you want to make sure you do your message on top first so you have enough space,” Ms. Homan says. “Then add your flowers, shells or whatever else you’re using to decorate.”

A star tip can be used to make a shell or star border. The shape varies according to the angle at which the frosting is piped out of the pastry bag and the amount of pressure applied.

“The last thing you want to do is put your borders on, because the borders go around the edges and it’s hard to decorate inside the border,” Ms. Cravens says.

The rose is probably the most difficult decoration to make on a cake, says Marida Binsted, licensed cake decorator and owner of Cakes by Marida, a home-based business in Herndon that primarily sells wedding cakes. The rose nail and the hand holding it have to move at the same time in opposite directions, she says.

Other flowers are simpler, Mrs. Binsted says.

“Almost any flower you see in the garden, a cake decorator can make with the right amount of practice,” she says.

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