Baking SOS: How to fix decoration problems by Kimberley Wilson

As part of our new series of troubleshooting articles, we called upon some of our famous baking friends to solve your common kitchen disasters. From marzipan, buttercream and fondant icing to achieving the ultimate pastry glaze, we have all the answers you need to give your bake a picture perfect finish. Read on to discover Kimberley Wilson's decoration fixes...

Baking SOS: How to fix decoration problems by Kimberley Wilson

Problem one: I can never get my buttercream nice and smooth.

Kimberley's solution: This happens to me when I try to rush, so the first thing is to make sure you give yourself time. To get really smooth buttercream you need to start with soft butter. Cut the chilled butter into 1cm cubes and leave it on a plate or in a shallow bowl at room temperature until quite soft but not melted – don’t be tempted to heat it. Whip the butter in a stand mixer or with an electric whisk for three minutes before adding the icing sugar. This will help to aerate it and create a light and smooth texture. Sift the icing sugar into the butter and whisk again until well incorporated, light and fluffy. Use straight away or chill in the fridge for a firmer texture.

Try our foolproof frosting recipe


Problem two: I can never work out how much icing to roll out when I’m decorating a cake. 

Kimberley's solution: The easiest way to solve this is to consult a measurement table like this one.


Problem three: I don't like marzipan but need to ice a fruit cake.

buttercreamKimberley's solution: Marzipan helps to create a smooth finish on the final cake, prevents the colour of the cake from tainting the icing and was traditionally used to help preserve the cake, but if you don’t like it or can’t eat it there are a few things you can try. If it’s specifically the taste of almonds that you don’t like, you can make marzipan out of other ground nuts, such as hazelnuts, which are particularly good with chocolate. I’ve also had good results with pistachios with the bonus of a great colour too. If it’s nuts you are trying to avoid, you can make nut-free alternatives using soy flour or semolina. Another idea is to use buttercream. Apply a layer of buttercream all over the cake, smooth and place in the freezer for 30 minutes to harden then cover with fondant icing. You’ll have to work quickly though as the buttercream will start to warm and soften and you may not achieve a perfectly smooth finish. Alternatively you could do a double layer of icing. Glaze the cake with apricot spread and cover with a layer of roll-out/fondant icing. Allow to dry overnight and then cover with another layer of fondant or royal icing the next day. 


Problem four: I’m out of eggs and milk but need a glaze for pastry.

Kimberley's solution: If you have some cream knocking about you can use that. Cream will provide a golden, matte finish on the baked pastry. You can also use melted butter, margarine, or a flavourless oil such as corn, sunflower or rapeseed. Again this will create a golden matte finish.


Problem five: I can never get my pies to look pretty as I don't know how to crimp.

Crimped pieKimberley's solution: The simplest way to crimp is to use the back of a fork to press the edges of the pastry together. Another simple method is to press your thumb around the pie edge to create uniform dimples. If you really don’t like the look of your crimping, it’s very easy to hide under a patterned edge. Roll out the pastry trimmings and use a very small cutter 1.5-3cm to cut out lots of the same shape (stars or hearts work well). Brush the edge of your pie with beaten egg and arrange the cut out pastry all around the edge. Et voila!

Watch our how to crimp a pie video


Problem six: I’m terrible at piping buttercream frosting.

Kimberley's solution: There are a few things to check. The first is the temperature of the buttercream. Too warm and it can flow too quickly and too cold and it may be crumbly and difficult to pipe. It should feel cool to the touch but pliable. Fill the bag about ¾ full and twist or roll down the top to remove the air. Grip firmly around the top of the bag. The easiest design is to create lots of individual peaks. Use an open star nozzle and hold the nozzle directly above the cake. Squeeze gently but firmly, lifting the nozzle upwards to create a peak. Repeat this all over the surface of the cake. To make a rose, sweep the nozzle in a smooth circular motion, starting outside and finishing in the centre. Build up your confidence by practicing first on a sheet of greaseproof paper. The icing can be scooped up and reused until you get the hang of it.

Watch our video on how to master simple piping
Read Kimberley's piping bag review


Problem seven: My drizzle cake is always covered in blotches of icing. 

Drizzle cakeKimberley's solution: The trick here is to be confident. You don’t need to have a steady hand – the smoothness of the line is created by the speed of the movement. Starting a couple of inches away from the edge of the cake (in case the icing drips) hold the icing bag 4-6 inches above the height of the cake. Gently squeeze the icing bag and, using a quick horizontal sweeping motion, drizzle the icing across the surface of the cake. Repeat for a more pronounced finish. 


Problem eight: I can never manage to cover a cake with fondant icing neatly – it always bunches up and looks rough.

Kimberley's solution: This does take a little bit of practice and a little bit of kit can be useful here. Using a cake turntable will allow you to work all around the cake without having to lift or move. Once you’ve placed your layer of fondant over your cake, trim off any excess but leave yourself about an inch all around. Too much excess can cause the icing to tear, but you don’t want to cut off too much and end up with gaps. Smooth your hand over the surface of the cake to release any air bubbles. Then, starting from the top edge, gently smooth the side of your hand down the sides of the cake, straightening out any folds as you go. Use a cake smoother to smooth the tops and side of the cake. If you don’t have a smoother, using a ball of the excess pastry is a good alternative, just make sure there aren’t any stray crumbs. Trim the icing to the bottom of the cake for a neat finish.

Watch our how to ice a cake video


Problem nine: My cream cheese frosting has turned runny.

Rainbow cakeKimberley's solution: Cream cheese frosting does tend to have a softer texture than buttercream for example, but if it's really runny the first thing is to make sure that it isn’t too warm. If that’s not the problem it may be the ingredients or recipe. Be sure to use full fat cream cheese, as low or reduced fat cream cheese is bulked out with extra water, which can make the icing runny. For a similar reason, recipes that include butter tend to be more stable, but be sure to whip the butter first. Again, this should be proper butter and not a low-fat spread. The safest method is to whip the icing sugar into the butter first, so you start out with a buttercream that you then add the cream cheese to. This helps to prevent overwhipping the cream cheese. Overbeating the cream cheese can cause it to separate and leach water into the mix. When you add the cream cheese, it should be cool but not fridge cold. Finally, always make sure the cake is completely cooled before frosting.


Problem ten: My cake has cracked on the top and I need to disguise it.

Kimberley's solution: You could trim the cake to make it level on top and flip it over so that the smooth bottom is now the top. Alternatively, a liberal covering of whipped cream or frosting hides a multitude of sins. But for some cakes, such as Madeira cake, a crack is a traditional feature so you might not need to worry at all. 


More from Kimberley Wilson... 

Kimberley's baking reviews and Great British Bake Off episode commentary
Kimberley's brioche wreath with Camembert


More decoration advice and baking know-how... 

How to ice cupcakes video
How to make ganache video
How to marzipan a cake video
How to make a piping bag video
All our top baking recipes
Visit our cakes & baking hub

Are you prone to decoration disasters? Post your common complaints below... 

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