Shag cakes, ruffle layers, string-art lattice work — these aren’t couture trends, they’re (almost) too-beautiful-to-eat cakes and pies that you can find on Instagram. Designing #baking art looks difficult, but bakers we talked to said their designs don’t require fancy equipment.
To find out what other tools Instagram bakers use to achieve flawless edges, vibrant colors and eye-catching designs, we sat down with Alana Jones-Mann, a designer and baker based in Los Angeles, Lauren Ko, a Seattle-based self-taught pie baker who makes “modern geometric pie art,” and Tampa-based vegan baker Dawn Konofaos.
“Some people might look at my cakes and think they look very complex, but I only use very basic cake decorating tools,” Ms. Jones-Mann said.
Ms. Ko uses pie dough and firm fruits to create freehand designs. Despite the precise look of her work, she doesn’t rely on X-acto knives or stencils. “I started with a sharp paring knife and a sharp chef’s knife. I’ve moved to a rolling pastry wheel and I have a basic ruler that I mainly use as a straight edge,” she said.
Ms. Jones-Mann re-creates Mexican embroidery and cactus gardens in frosting but is probably most well-known for her “shag cakes,” which she pipes by hand to create richly colored water-topography shapes with a carpetlike texture. She makes her intricate designs by using a piping tip that’s available in the most basic sets (Wirecutter, the product review site owned by The New York Times, recommends the Ateco 14-Piece Cake Decorating Set.) She prefers to use a simple No. 2 round piping tip to create individual strands, instead of a “grass tip” with multiple holes.
She also likes using a coupler, a two-piece plastic insert that can secure the selected piping tip onto the piping bag. The coupler lets you easily remove and replace a piping tip. “If you want to switch tips, or if a piece of sugar in your frosting gets lodged in the end of the tip, it makes it really easy to clean out,” she said. The Ateco set we recommend includes a single plastic coupler, but you may need extra if you want to use one for each bag of colored icing.
If you’re going through a lot of plastic disposable bags with multiple colors of buttercream frosting, consider switching to silicone piping bags, as Ms. Jones-Mann has — you can wash them out with hot water and reuse them, and they offer the added benefit of insulating the buttercream a bit more from the melting heat of your hands.
Customize your colors
Ms. Jones-Mann creates a vibrant palette for every cake by mixing custom colors each time. She prefers AmeriColor food coloring gels, which Wirecutter also preferred after testing them against the competition. To get her signature ’60s and ’70s colors, she sometimes adds a touch of cocoa powder to produce an ivory-based palette for true avocado green.
For pie doughs, Ms. Ko prefers natural colors, which she achieves by using natural dyes from the pulps and powders of beets, spirulina and spinach. They tend to look more subtle once the pie is baked. “I’ve seen pie doughs colored with artificial food coloring and I find that everything winds up looking like Play-Doh and largely unappetizing,” she said.
Ms. Ko pairs ingredients and colors that play well off each other, such as pink grapefruit curd with yellow mango. “I think about color combinations that will contrast really well but will complement each other in flavor,” she said.
Prep your cakes and frosting
For cakes, start with a clean canvas. Ms. Jones-Mann recommends refrigerating a cake to help it set before decorating. Rather than using a fancy cake leveler, she uses a simple serrated knife to even the cake. She smooths the icing on the sides with a flat-edged bench scraper or the pro baker’s secret weapon, a small offset spatula. “This is my most essential tool,” Ms. Jones-Mann said. “If I had to bring one cake tool with me somewhere, I would bring my tiny little offset spatula.”
As for Ms. Konofaos, to achieve an impressionistic look in her signature cool colors, she goes to the art aisle of the craft store for a set of tiny palette knives. “You use different-color buttercream and different strokes to make an oil-painted look,” she said.
To create delicate decorations, Ms. Konofaos uses the pasta attachment for her stand mixer. “You can roll your fondant through there, or your gum paste if you’re making sugar flowers, and that’s how you get it nice and thin.” Ms. Konofaos also uses rolling pins in both marble and wood in different sizes for everything, from laminating dough to shaping modeling chocolate. If you need a good rolling pin, we have suggestions here.
Ms. Jones-Mann works exclusively with a simple buttercream and recommends resting and refrigerating the icing for five minutes if your hand starts to warm and soften it.
Ms. Konofaos, who creates vegan cakes, uses shortening, which remains solid at warmer temperatures, so that’s another option. She also recommends a cast-iron Ateco cake turntable, which has a heavy, sturdy base for easy piping. “It’s beautiful, so if you want to do a nice video of icing a cake but you don’t want to use your plastic one, you can spend a little bit more money,” she explained.
The Ateco turntable comes with a single nonslip pad, but you can cut additional pads from a roll of nonslip shelf liner. Use these rounds to line the bottom of the disposable cardboard cake board; doing so will make it easy to transport a cake when it’s done. For a full list of additional gear to perfect your next bake, including the Ateco turntable, check out our full list.
Look for inspiration outside of the kitchen
What makes Ms. Ko’s work interesting is the contrast between her chosen medium of pie, a food generally presented as rustic and homey, and her unexpected mathematical patterns. Her mood board includes inspiration from outside the kitchen. “Lately I’ve been saving a lot of tile patterns — lots of pictures of showers and bathrooms and floors,” she said.
Ms. Konofaos eschews symmetry for designs that include stunningly realistic, hand-molded flowers and painted icings. A former fashion designer, she takes inspiration from the flower arrangements and the prints and flow of fabric she sees on her Instagram feed. “My inspiration lies somewhere between flowers and fashion,” she said.
If you feel intimidated, don’t be. Remember, these bakers managed to turn a hobby into a living by learning from other people who posted and shared their own creations on the internet, too. “I’m 100 percent self-taught. I always tell people I went to the university of YouTube,” Ms. Jones-Mann said.
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A version of this article appears at Wirecutter.com.