• From pinata piping to tips for drips, here's how to ace your cake (Alan Benson / Helen Cathcart)Source: Alan Benson / Helen Cathcart
From drip cakes to frilly piñatas full of sweets, here’s how to decorate a beautiful bake.
4 Aug 2020 - 11:28 PM  UPDATED 5 Aug 2020 - 11:45 AM

--- See more stunning cakes in Beautiful Baking with Juliet Sear, Mondays 7.30 pm on SBS Food and then on SBS On Demand ---


“It’s often the thought of attempting a special cake that is scary, but once you get started, you realise it’s not as tricky, as long as you give yourself plenty of time,” says Juliet Sear, creator of many stunning cakes, reassuringly.

The host of Beautiful Baking with Juliet Sear has also written four books on making and decorating cakes, including Cakeology and Botanical Baking. She creates cakes that that range from gloriously fun to downright unbelievable, and she loves helping others learn how, so when we asked her for her top tips, she showered us with good advice.

We’ve gathered her tips, and more from some of SBS Food’s other favourite bakers, to help you tackle a special cake project - anything from Sear’s vivid piñata cake, covered in bright frills, to Anneka Manning’s confetti layer cake or wickedly handsome ombre mocha layer cake, or Helen Goh’s lemon and blackberry cake with intriguing vertical layers.

Confetti layer cake

Take your time

“Give yourself plenty of time. That’s one of the most important things when it comes to making a more elaborate showstopper, so your cakes can cool and chill, and allow yourself setting time between the stages,” says Sear.

“Surprisingly, there’s not as much ‘hands-on’ time as you might think, but it’s important to remember that it might take a period of two days, ideally, to allow time for the filling and crumb-coating.”

A few tools that help a lot

“A few crank handle palette knives are really worthwhile; they will help you to get a great finish. Also use professional/cake decorating strong gel food colours so that your icings and frostings will stay at the perfect consistency for paletteing and piping,” Sear tells us. A good example is her piñata cake, filled with sweets and lollies and decorated with rows of riotously bright ruffles. The cake decorating colours are thicker than standard food colourings, which is important; if you add runnier colours, Sears explains when she makes the cake in episode 2 of Beautiful Baking, “you lose the thickness in the buttercream, so you won’t be able to pipe shapes, and my ruffles’ll be all floppy. And no one wants a floppy ruffle!”

Juliet Sear's piñata cake

A decorating turntable will help a lot with decorating, but it’s not essential. “If you don’t have a turntable, you can pop it on a piece of greaseproof paper, so you can kind of spin it 'round,” says Sear in Beautiful Bakes when showing how to make her ultimate chocolate fudge cake, a three-layer cake covered in an ombre buttercream-ganache frosting.

A ‘busy’ tip for beginners

“Another good tip, especially for people who are new to cake decorating, is to choose something with quite a busy design rather than a minimal/sleek one with lots of additional decoration - because that way, if you do have any minor ‘caketastrophes’, you can always cover up any imperfections by throwing loads of decoration on the cake,” says Sear. You could take it a step further and go for one where the icing is completely covered, so it doesn’t matter at all how smooth it is, as Sear’s idea for a cake is one completely covered in sprinkles:

Plan ahead

One way to take the time pressure off is to do the baking and prep in stages. The cakes can often be made several days ahead and frostings too – for example, the chocolate buttercream Sear uses on her ultimate chocolate fudge cake will store in the fridge for up to a month or can be frozen. Bring chilled icings to room temperature before using.

The basic techniques

An important step in many stunningly decorated cakes is the crumb coat – a thin layer of icing or buttercream that ‘locks in’ the crumbs. Chilled after application, it forms a barrier so that when you add the actual layer of decoration, it won’t pick up any crumbs from the cake. (Sears’ YouTube video on How to Crumb Coat a Layer Cake also includes an excellent tip for avoiding ‘wonky’ layers when cutting and stacking cake layers).

In her #bakingbasics series on YouTube, Sears also has a video on how to stack and build a tiered cake.


Piped flowers take a little practice (try Juliet Sears ‘how to make buttercream flowers’ demo). Chocolate flowers and leaves are easier than they look – try Kirsten Tibballs’ method to create simple chocolate leaves or roses. Or op to for fresh flowers, as used in Lyndey Milan’s ‘naked’ celebration cake (her tip for the icing: “Dip your spatula in a glass of hot water and then wipe with a paper towel before spreading icing for a smooth even finish.”)

Sometimes it’s more about the inside

One of the great bakers who joins Sear in Beautiful Baking is expat Australian Helen Goh, who works in recipe development with Yotam Ottolenghi and co-authored Sweet with the London restauranteur. Goh shows Sear how to make a lemon and blackcurrant vertical stripe cake. “It’s just a really nifty trick,” says Goh, of how the layers are achieved (and it really is – strips of buttercream-coated cake are rolled up, and the roll turned on its side). A coating of buttercream and a drizzle of berries finishes it off.

Drip tips

“Make sure the iced cake has been chilled for at least 30 minutes before decorating with the glaze as this will help the drips down the side of the cake set before reaching the base,” says Anneka Manning, who shares more tips for stunning drip decorations in her recipe for her ombre mocha layer cake. “Gradually spoon the slightly warm (it should be slightly warmer than room temperature) glaze onto the centre of the cake, allowing it to flow naturally towards the edge.” The key, she says, is to take it slowly, to avoid adding too much glaze.

Ombre mocha layer cake

Sprinkles on the side

“There are various ways to get sprinkles to stick to the side of a cake to decorate it, but I find the easiest, and often the one that gives you the best results when you are after a slightly sparse, ‘confetti’ look, is to almost gently ‘toss’ them on,” says Manning. The buttercream coating on your cake should still be ‘wet’, so the sprinkles will stick. Give it a go in her confetti layer cake – the recipe includes more tips for sprinkle application, too.

Gently toss your sprinkles onto the wet buttercream.

Practice your piping

Try your technique on another surface before you begin on the cake. “Have a practice of applying frosting, or drip with a little of your material on an upturned cake tin, or on the work surface first, so you can get a feel for the medium, whether it be a runny drip or a squeezable icing,” Sear suggests. “Once you have a little play with it first, on something else, not the cake so there isn’t any jeopardy, you can then feel more confident when you actually do your cake.

“Lastly, there’s always a better side, so choose the best profile to be the front of your cake/cakes, and always start on the back first, so that you can get a bit of practice and make the front as neat as you can. Go for it and have fun!!!

Quick and easy versions

If you don’t have the time or desire to make something involving piping, drips or the like, never fear. Cakes with colour maximise the impact. Try Katherine Sabbath's fairy bread cake (a very good vanilla cake topped with cream cheese frosting and multi-coloured sprinkles); a matcha and almond layer cake (yes, green cake layers!); or another Sabbath special, the glamington (pink lamington layer cake).

The Glamington

Bakes with wow
Rainbow cake

This spectacular cake is coloured with homemade natural food colouring. Its innocent exterior belies the excitement when it is cut open!

Chocolate layer cake with peanut butter frosting

This show-stopper chocolate cake can be prepared a day in advance although you may need to remove a shelf from your refrigerator to make enough room! 

Zebra cake with chocolate fudge glaze

Cocoa and vanilla cake batters "spooned" into a tube tin create this fun zebra pattern.

Swiss berry quilt cake

A showstopping cake that makes any festive table shine. Always a popular light dessert during long Indian Summer days, this is a low-gluten dessert and if you exclude the sabayon, it's dairy-free as well.

Pistachio cake with vanilla syrup and raspberry mascarpone

As scrumptious as it is colourful, this indulgent cake recipe is inspired by Heston Blumenthal’s delectable TV series, Heston’s Fantastical Food. Don’t be fooled by the pretty pink, raspberry mascarpone icing and sweet white chocolate-dipped raspberries on top, its vibrant green, pistachio inside will be a delicious surprise!

Red velvet whoopie pie slab

We've taken the popular scarlet-hued cake to the next level, adding meringue icing and sandwiching the slice whoopie-style.