Fancy Cakes {for dummies!} 🎂

You guys know that I’m pretty frugal. I do not like to spend a lot of money on big birthday parties with the full-on Pinterest-worthy theme. I think they are awesome, don’t get me wrong — it’s just not how I choose to spend my hard-earned cash.

I do, however, want my kids to feel ✨special✨ on their big day. The way that I do this is by baking themed cakes.

I started doing this when Connor turned one. With a few exceptions here and there (like the year the movers were actually packing up our house on Sophie’s birthday), each kid has gotten a themed cake on every birthday. I love seeing their faces when they first set eyes on the cake, and it’s a fun & frugal way to make the celebration spectacular!

But what if you’re not a baker?

Believe me, I am NOT!

My cakes are definitely not professional quality. But they look pretty good (good enough to impress the kids, which is what matters!) — and they taste good too (no icky fondant here!) Best of all — they are inexpensive to make!

Here are my tips for making a spectacular cake — even if you have no experience with it!

1. Do a google image search for ideas.

Google something your kid loves + the word ‘cake’. You should pull up dozens, if not hundreds, of ideas. Choose one that doesn’t look too complicated, and put your own spin on it — add or subtract elements to fit your budget/supplies.

Fancy Cakes {for dummies!} 🎂

2. Start with a boxed mix.

Building and decorating the cake is enough work for me, thanks. And boxed mixes are so cheap! Depending on the cake, it’s normal for me to buy 2 boxes of cake + 3 tubs of icing. These are usually a buck each at Walmart, so I’m spending $5 (+ whatever I spend on garnishes, see below).

3. Think outside the box cake pan.

There’s no rule that says you have to bake your cake in a cake pan!! Look at the shape you are trying to create, and then look around your kitchen at what you have available. I have baked cakes in pyrex glass bowls, soup cans, my crockpot, bread pans, my Thanksgiving turkey roasting pan, mason jars, cookie sheets, and many other abnormal receptacles. You can even make a small wall of aluminum foil to change the size/shape of a pan (though I tend to do my shape-changing after baking).

Fancy Cakes {for dummies!} 🎂

4. Line the bottom of the pan with parchment paper.

This step is something I learned after many failed attempts at getting cakes out of a pan in one piece. It’s a lifesaver. Simply cut the paper to fit (it doesn’t have to be perfect, just getting the middle of the pan is the part that matters). Then pour in the batter and bake.

Fancy Cakes {for dummies!} 🎂

5. Let cool. REALLY cool.

After baking, take the cake out of the pan and let it cool completely. Peel the parchment paper off. Then pop the cake on a cookie sheet and stick it in the freezer for at least an hour. What this does is change the texture of the cake from spongy to rock hard — which is much easier to cut & carve!

6. Carve it up!

Now this is where you really get creative. Have your inspiration photo pulled up, and use a toothpick to score the cake where you think you want to cut it. Use a big, long, serrated knife (like a bread knife) to start cutting away pieces. The good thing about cake decorating (as opposed to carving, say, a statue) is that it’s SO easy to add chunks back in if you mess up, or just cover mistakes with frosting!

{My husband is making me add that this is the part where you let him eat the scraps.}

7. Stack it up!

Once you have your pieces, assemble the cake, using frosting to “glue” the pieces together. The way this all goes down will depend on the kind of cake you are making, but usually I don’t need any additional support. Once or twice I have made a cake that needed some support, and I would stick bamboo skewers through it.

8. Ice on a crumb coat.

A crumb coat is what bakers call the first layer of icing over a cake. Basically, it coats the whole cake and glues down all the crumbs, so the pretty top layer doesn’t look all crumby. I spread on a thin crumb coat, then refrigerate the whole cake for about an hour.

Fancy Cakes {for dummies!} 🎂
Cake with a crumb coat.

9. Ice on your top coat.

Once the crumb coat is nice and hard, I use my fingers to press down any pieces sticking up. Then it’s time for the top coat of frosting. If I want a super smooth coat, I will fill a coffee cup with piping hot water, and let a few butter knives rest in there. Then I keep switching them out so the knife is always hot as I smooth out the frosting. (Do the smoothing after you apply frosting all over, not during the application.) You can also smooth by refrigerating the cake again, then smooth the cold, hard frosting with wet fingers. (This is easier than the hot knife, but not quite as smooth.)

10. Embellish!

My kids love seeing fun & interesting ingredients on their cake. Like I used KitKats for the black keys on Lia’s piano cake. I filled the train cars with M&Ms for Connor’s train cake. Finn’s owl cupcakes had Oreo eyes. I decorated the bug cakes with crushed Oreos and gummy worms. Elsa’s Ice Castle had ice-cream-cone towers. Graham crackers, coconut, pretzel rods, marshmallows… the possibilities are endless. Take a jaunt down the cookie/candy aisle and see what pops out at you. Also consider using your own toys as embellishments! If your child loves that theme, then you probably already have some trinkets sitting around.

For fine details & lettering — I simply use ziploc bags with the corner cut off.  You can also mold tootsie rolls or starburst — just warm them up in your hand a bit, then sculpt into your desired shape.


Here’s a look at some of the cakes I’ve made over the years, to give you an idea. Like I said before — not perfect, but definitely fun for the kids!

Fancy Cakes {for dummies!} 🎂

Connor’s favorite cake was the Angry Birds cake he could actually shoot birds at:

One last piece of advice:

Have fun! This is trial & error, and you’ll learn techniques of your own along the way. And give yourself grace! {Look at my Rapunzel’s Tower cake above — that thing did NOT stand on its own!}

If anybody has a picture of a  cake they’ve made, drop it in the comments over on the Facebook page! I’d love to see it!!

Pin this on Pinterest so you have it later!!

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