Megan Palmer Dean has seen her share of creative cakes in the three-and-a-half years since she began her bakery at Palmer's Market on Heights Road. The rise of television shows like "Ace of Cakes" and "Cake Boss," which bring viewers into cake shops to watch the process of planning and executing a range of fun, funky and fancy cakes, has brought with it a slew of customers with more interesting and exciting orders.
Her bakery is a relatively small operation; she's located in the very market that her great-great-grandfather opened in 1921. She and her staff focus on about one big project per week, with a steady stream of smaller orders cycling through.
And while over-sized cakes made to look like Oreo cookies with massive mugs of milk and chocolate chips can be a fun outlet for her creative side, she also enjoys spicing up seemingly basic birthday cake. It's not hard, she said.
"I think a lot of people think they don't have the tools or the schools to make an interesting cake," she said. "But it's not hard ... you can add a personal touch, even if it's a boxed cake mix."
That said, there are a few utensils that will help any aspiring cake artist on his way toward a memorable culinary creation. A turntable and a serrated knife -- like a simple bread knife -- will help create level layers in your cake (see photos above). An offset spatula is her favorite tool, and will help the frosting process. If you plan on adding personal touches on the frosting, she recommends a basic set of three piping tips.
"A round, star and rose piping tip will get you pretty far," she said. "It's not like you need an arsenal."
Frosting a cake can seem like a daunting task, but it's a skill that will come over time, and there are several ways to exaggerate your abilities through decoration, she said. For example, if you have trouble creating smooth sides of the cake after you've finished frosting, she recommends covering them in edible decorations like coconut or chocolate shavings, sprinkles or some other texturized treat. This will serve the dual purpose of adding flavor while concealing imperfections.
Piping roses onto a piping nail and placing them on the cake is easier than one would think, she said. But if there's not enough time, a beginning baker can top his treat with fresh flowers to create a similar aesthetic. Piping polka dots can always be a simple way to bring color to a cake. And piping words like "Happy Birthday" or "Congratulations" doesn't have to be intimidating either, she said.
She recommends writing the letters on another surface, like a cutting board, a few times before piping the cake. This will help new hands learn to apply proper pressure to the bag and negotiate speed, she said. It's also important to remember that frosting is more like a pencil than a pen; it can be erased. If the writing veers off course, put the cake in the refrigerator for about 10 to 15 minutes; after it's chilled, the letters can be picked off without harming the rest of the frosting.
For more tips on how to decorate a cake at home, visit www.dariennewsonline.com and click on our slideshow.