I love cake decorating but it is, without a doubt, a skill that can require the meditative-like patience of a school teacher. Depending on what you’re trying to do, it can take hours or days to make a cake look as perfect as the image in your head. Not all of us have that kind of time. Being a skilled cake decorator means I know plenty of ways to mask horrible mistakes and improvise decorations when in a rush. Besides yielding beautiful results, the following hacks are speedy and require no tools or fine motor skills. After trying these out, you might forgo the piping bag and royal icing more often.
Candy and broken chocolate
Despite my best efforts to keep sweets out of my home, I’m always surprised by the low- and high-quality chocolate bars that consistently appear in my cupboard. Honestly, most chocolate and large quantities of candy will work well as a lovely decoration. Guests also get a kick out of it, too—suddenly people think you’re Willy Wonka. Press in some candy cane pieces, chunks of candy bars, or a neat pile of marshmallows. I like to break big, pointy pieces of Ghirardelli chocolate bars and make a jagged city-scape along the edges of the cake–the vertical spires are attention-grabbing and each slice gets bonus chocolate.
Nuts are crunchy, irregular, and add delicious flavor. This decoration is more akin to sprinkles in that it doesn’t have the height that candy bars can bring, but nuts can add some low-key pizzazz to your cake. They also work better than candy in humid environments, since sugar can become sticky, and chocolate can melt if it’s out in the sun. If you’re looking for lots of coverage—let’s say you’re still exploring your frosting skills—grind or chop the nuts and press them along the sides. For a sophisticated decoration, leave walnuts in whole halves for a simple ring around the top.
Edible flowers and herbs
We’re trying to save time here, so I don’t expect you to go hit the florist in a pinch. But there are actually a lot of edible flower varieties, and you may very well have some nearby. I have a small balcony in Brooklyn, with assorted potted plants and, until a few days ago, I didn’t realize that begonias were edible. I walked right out there and ate two (I had to try each color). They’re colorful and lemony, perfect for decorating a summery cake. You don’t need a whole bouquet to decorate a cake; a few thoughtfully placed blooms will do the trick.
Herbs are also a fantastic decoration—they add a punch of color and fragrance to a cake. To achieve a nature-inspired cake worthy of an outdoor wedding, combine edible flowers with a few sprigs of green. Try to stick with hearty ones like thyme or rosemary, because more fragile herbs will wilt after a couple hours. If you don’t want the herbs to impart any flavor, lay the sprigs along the cake as opposed to sticking them in.