#ConnectToCuriosity: How (Not?) to Decorate a Holiday Cake

Quick disclaimer: I’m not a cake baker. I can’t bake cookies to save my life. Homemade brownies turn out, meh. But I was really interested in trying to bake and decorate a fun Christmas cake this year since I knew the Library had bakeware to borrow from the Gadgets & Things Collection.

Now, the art and science of baking isn’t totally lost on me. I do bake quite a few different types of yeast breads and other fairly intricate baked goods like Morning Buns from The Ovens of Brittany (a now-closed Madison, Wisconsin bakery and restaurant – recipe here). Yet somehow, made-from-scratch cakes, cookies, and brownies elude me.

I blame it on the altitude.

So when I told people that I was going to check out holiday-themed cake pans from the Library District and spend the weekend baking cakes and brownies, it brought a few snorts of laughter and one too many eye rolls from family and friends. (Plus a fantastic reaction from my nephew, “You can check out a cake pan at the library!?”)

I confess – I had been surfing Pinterest and came across super cute holiday cakes that I was positive I could recreate if I *only* had the right tools.

Enter the Library’s Christmas tree baking pan and the holiday house cake pan!

Next up, I gathered a bunch of cake decorating tools courtesy of my friend Laura. The bag she handed me included a bunch of “tips” that if I used properly would help me design my Pinterest-inspired cakes. (Spoiler alert: I did not use them properly. I couldn’t figure out how to make the “coupler” thingy work so I just winged it.)

I cut my losses in this whole experience by using a boxed cake mix and brownie mix. At least one thing was going to work out in my favor in case the homemade buttercream frosting and overall designs fell flat. (Spoiler alert: one did fall flat, literally.)

With the house cake and Christmas tree brownie baked and fully cooled, it was time to wrap them in cling wrap and put them in the freezer for up to an hour. I was assured by Pinterest that this was a critical step in making your frosting look good and not to pick up crumbles as you created an artistic masterpiece.

Fast forward one hour. I decided to start with the tree – it seemed the easier of the two cakes, plus I found fun instructions from The Cake Girls website on how to decorate it.

I started with a thin smear of buttercream frosting on the cold brownie to help the fancy decorations stick and maintain their shapes, and then I used the large star tip to create the bough-look of the tree. Things were moving along pretty well at this point despite not using the decorating tip correctly (remember: I couldn’t figure out how to insert and secure the coupler, so I just used the tip and a pastry bag).

My boughs were consistent and colorful.

My Christmas music was playing in the background.

My arms and shirt were only slightly smudged with green icing.

And then I ran out of frosting.

Note to self: When decorating a cake, make sure to have enough frosting made to actually finish the design. Or at least count how many drops of food coloring you put in to the batch of frosting to get the color you want. I did neither of these things.

Fortunately, I was able to make more buttercream frosting (but not until the butter softened so I could mix it), and through some trial and error was able to very closely match the new frosting with the old color so that no one would know unless I told them (oops, now you know).

I then used other icings to create the ornaments and garland on the tree. In hindsight, had I had fun candies lying around I would have used those as the ornaments, but I made due with what I had.

The final result…which tasted delicious by the way…

At this point, I’ve got some real cake swagger. I mean, I’m practically ready for my own show on Food Network (or at least ready to take on those noobs from the Great Holiday Baking Show). This was super fun!

With my confidence swelling, I decide to dive into the house cake.

And, I decide I want the house to stand-up like a 3D pastry paradise.

And, I want to use fondant.

And, I should have known better!

Stand-up cakes are all about balance, or at least about having the proper tools to prop up the cake. Since I’m not really a cake baker, I did not have those proper tools. So again, I winged it.

My house cake developed a slight Quasimodo hump while baking which threw of the balance when I tried to stand the cake up on the plate.

No problem though, I had my serrated knife at the ready and shaved off the offending but delicious-tasting lump. I then smashed some of that green buttercream frosting from the tree brownie onto the plate, plopped the house cake on top, and crossed my fingers hoping the frosting would serve as a bit of spackling to hold the cake upright.


Or so I thought.

When I finally got the fondant kneaded, rolled out, and onto the front of the house cake, the delicate balance of the cake had been upset. But I didn’t know it yet.

I happily went along with my decorating, creating a super cute gingerbread house-inspired design that even included icicles (!) hanging from the buttercream frosted roof.

I was going to change up my frosting and pastry bag, so I gently put the house cake into the refrigerator to get the existing decoration to “set up” before adding on.

After about 15 minutes I returned to the fridge to get the cake…

And it had fallen.


Onto my meticulously-created design.

And smashed it.

I tried without success to salvage the design. And perhaps if I had more experience (or patience) I could have figured out how to make it work.

Instead, I made the tasty decision to save what I could.

I realize now that I’m not going to get that Food Network show or win any awards for my cake decorating skills. But in the end, I had a very sweet and satisfying story to share, a few pieces of delicious cake to eat, and I got to use the Library District’s cake pans to try out a new hobby.

I had a lot of fun spending the day baking and decorating. I’ll definitely try again now that I have some experience of what not to do. Next up? Maybe the Santa Claus cake pan or star-shaped one. Neither of those require me to try to stand them up!