It’s Baking Season! Try These Frugal Cake-Decorating Tips

In this video, Deann Coop, who makes beautiful cakes for family and friends, shares top tips for DIY cake decorating. Chris Zuppa/The Penny Hoarder
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The holidays are here. And after the year we’ve had, we want to celebrate with a special touch.

But again, after the year we’ve had, who wants to blow a bunch of money and exhaust ourselves making everything merry and bright?

Yeah, us either.

Professional cake decorator Deann Coop of St. Petersburg, Florida, has opened her bag tricks and tips for those of us who don’t have the steady hands and patience for intricate decorating. These frugal decorating methods will make your homemade cookies, cupcakes or cakes look expensive and exceptional.

A woman smiles in this portrait by three cakes she made. Two of them have fondant. One of those two is decorated with fresh fruit and the other is decorated with a plastic toy Minnie Mouse tea set. The third cake is decorated with candy and the top of a pineapple.
Coop is a self-taught baker. She caught the baking bug from her grandmother, who baked Coop doll cakes for her birthday as a child. Chris Zuppa/The Penny Hoarder

Prep That Cake

Use these techniques to take your cakes from “Pinterest fail” status to “That looks professional!”

Prepare Your Cake Pan 

To limit cracks and breaks, before you pour batter in the cake pan coat it with a non-stick agent. Some bakers use sprays with flour in them, which are better than the typical vegetable or olive oil sprays.

But the old-fashioned way works just as well and saves money. Rub the wrapper from the butter or margarine used in your cake batter all over the pan, then throw in a couple tablespoons of flour. Shake the pan all around and bang on the sides so the flour is distributed evenly.

Make Your Own Tube of Icing

Instead of buying tubes of icing, make your own that will taste better and cost less.

Buy a metal or plastic tip, then snip a very small hole in the corner of a strong plastic freezer bag and place it through the hole.

Buttercream icing is easy to make, using butter, powdered sugar, milk, vanilla flavoring and food coloring. Spoon it into your bag and squeeze out through the tip, moving slowly until you get a feel for it.

Creat a Crumb Coating 

This may be the best trick of the trade that Coop revealed. Once your cake is baked and cooled, chill it in the refrigerator for 30 minutes. This helps it hold together. Then put a layer of icing all over the cake, almost like a primer coat on a wall. If a few cake crumbs end up showing in this coat of icing, it’s fine because this is just the first layer. Chill for another 30 minutes.

Your second coat of icing on top of the crumb coat is the layer that shows. It covers any imperfections in the cake and is very smooth.

Chill Out 

Speaking of chilling, “You want to chill your cake for at least 30 minutes between every step in the decorating process,” Coop advised. “It makes everything stick together better and definitely cuts down on frustration.”

Use Cardboard Rounds 

You can buy these at craft stores, but better yet, make them yourself by tracing and cutting a circle the size of your cake pan from a pizza box or other cardboard box. You’ll set your cake here as you as ice it.

Decorating your masterpiece on a piece of cardboard that can be completely covered with icing allows a more finished look than decorating on a plate that will surely end up with icing globs and drips. When the cake is all done, set the cake with the cardboard round onto the plate, platter or cake stand of your choice.

Spring for Fresh Stuff

You may need to go no further than your own yard — or produce section.

Fresh Flowers for the Win

Blooms from your yard, a grocery store, florist, wooded forest or clandestinely picked from a public park can make any cake look stellar. “People can pipe and make these amazing butter-cream flowers, but nothing is as amazing as fresh flowers,” Coop said.

To style them:

  • Use only the buds in the center of a cake.
  • Cover a whole cake in big, pretty sunflowers.
  • Drape a vine of flowers from the top of a cake down one side.
  • Make a small one-tier cake and fill the top with pink roses surrounded by white baby’s breath.

Fresh Fruit Works Almost as Well

A woman shows off a homemade cake she made. She decorated it with fresh fruit.
One of Coop’s favorite ways to decorate a cake is to use fresh flowers from her garden and fresh fruit. Chris Zuppa/The Penny Hoarder

“I love to make a round cake and cover the top in strawberries, even chocolate covered strawberries or a combination,” Coop said. “You can use other berries, grapes, but not bananas, because they would get brown.”

And if You’re Feeling Brave …

Those decorating techniques you think only trained pastry chefs can master? They aren’t so impossible.

Don’t Be Scared of Fondant

“If you can play with Play-Doh, you can decorate with fondant,” Coop said. “People are scared of it but it’s the simplest thing ever.”

Here’s your step-by-step guide:

  • Order fondant in an array of colors online or buy it from local craft stores. It comes in a semi-soft boxed rectangle or in a tub. A 4-ounce box, available in 24 different colors, costs $4 at Michaels. A 5-pound container costs $16 on Amazon, and is available in 23 colors.
  • Roll it out flat with a rolling pin on top of parchment or wax paper. Use a tad of shortening to keep it from sticking.
  • Use cookie cutters to cut out any shape you want. (Look for cookie cutters at garage sales and thrift stores to keep your collection full of options.) These can be placed in the center of an iced cookie or cupcake as well as all on a cake.

Three-Dimensional Fondant Decorations

You can do this. Really

Coop makes “squiggles” out of strips of fondant by curling one long strip into a row of curves, making for an elegant birthday, shower or wedding cake. She covers the cakes with the squiggles, and they always solicit many “aaahhhhs.”

She’s also molded fondant into lipstick tubes, high-heeled shoes, fish, baseball bat and ball, video game characters, sports team mascots and more give a personal touch to a cake.

Use a pizza cutter to cut fondant into shapes if you don’t have a cookie cutter.

Ready to make a little dough on your holiday goodies? Here's how to earn money selling baked goods from home.

More Frugal Cake Decorating Tips

Here are more easy, inexpensive ways to up your cake-decorating game.

A cake is decorated with fondant bows, a Minnie Mouse tea set and roses
Coop recommends using found objects at home to make themed cakes. This cake also includes fondant bows. Chris Zuppa/The Penny Hoarder

Add Toys or Other Objects to Your Cake

To make things simple, Coop sometimes likes using actual objects themselves instead of recreating them in icing or fondant. She recently made a cake to replicate a book cover with a broken teacup — and broke a teacup she found at a thrift store.

“One of the easiest birthday cakes is to make is a round cake, then you add lines to create a racetrack and add actual Matchbox cars on top of it,” she said.

“Make a cake for a little girl’s tea party and put two miniature teacups and saucers on top of it and fancy cookies on a little china plate,” she added.

Decorate With Cookies and Candy

Try these three sweet ideas:

  • A simple white cake with $3 worth of candy canes stuck vertically in the top looks like candy cane forest in the snow. You can also crush the candies and sprinkle them on the side or between the other candy canes.
  • A chocolate cake with Oreos stuck in on their side’s is a chocolate lover’s dream.
  • M&M’s stuck sideways into a cake, cookie or cupcake with a simple string of icing between them look like Christmas lights.

Katherine Snow Smith is a freelance editor and reporter in St. Petersburg, Fla., and author of Rules for the Southern Rulebreaker: Missteps & Lessons Learned.