Bags, Tips and Couplers….Oh My!

As children most of us looked forward to our birthdays all year. What small person doesn’t want a day dedicated to their awesomeness and to eat cake without having to choke down broccoli first? Birthdays and cake go together like, well….birthday cake.

Photo by Daria Shevtsova on

I have made a lot of birthday cakes in my time, some of them my own. Making my son’s birthday cake each year is something I have both anticipated and dreaded. Each year I would wipe my brow and watch him blow out the candles, trying not to think of apocalyptic mess in the kitchen. I give myself the proverbial pat on the back at a job well done and happy child. It usually takes about 48 hours after the cake for him to come to me with glee in his eyes and tell me about the idea he has for next year that will top the 3 story wonder of cake architecture I just finished.

Don’t get me wrong, I make cakes for a living because I genuinely love cake more than is probably normal for a human to love a food group. I can hear you saying that cake isn’t a food group but I beg to differ, in the same way I would argue that coffee and chocolate make the world turn on its axis. But trying to repeatedly top yourself, creating magic for your kids and still managing to get a shower in, is some serious parenting stuff. There is a reason why it said that it takes a village to raise a child.  

Baby Shark – AKA: toddler crack tv the likes of which I have never seen!

This week I found myself making a Baby Shark cake for a little person turning two. My son is fourteen so I am a little out of touch with the hot tv shows for the toddler demographic. Apparently this Baby Shark phenomenon has taken little tyke cartoon viewing by storm! While I was elbows deep in blue buttercream, I recollected on my week and the serendipitous connection made with a local non profit. I teach pastry arts for a culinary school and was asked to give some tips and tricks on cake decorating to a group of volunteer bakers part of Cakes 4 Kids. I had never heard of the organization prior to the email request landing in my inbox. I googled it of course and was shocked that I was not already aware of this organization earlier. This group bakes birthday cakes for underprivileged children whose parents would not otherwise be able to provide one. What? This is a thing? There have certainly been years where finding the time and funds to bake a cake for Brayden felt like a herculean effort of mom’ing (try and tell me that’s not a word) magic!

In a few days I was thrilled to jump on the computer and virtually convene with these fantastic individuals. So, what tips did I give them? Well, read on fellow baker. Here are some of my “go to” tricks of the trade.

  • It’s in the bag
  • Tips, Tips, Tips
  • Practice makes perfect

It’s in the bag…

90% of both your success and frustration when piping is the bag. As you are honing your skills, it helps to give yourself a fair amount of real estate to work with. Using a small bag with too much frosting can make it difficult to control the frosting and can lead to half of your frosting squishing out of the bag in the wrong direction. I like to use a 12″ bag and fill it about a quarter of the way full. This bag to frosting ratio will give you enough of the bag to twist closed, while maintaining control of the tip.  

Photo by cottonbro on

The key is to remember that the majority of the pressure and movement you are directing into the piping bag, is going to come from your wrist and hand. The finer movements like delicate flowers, is going to come from your hand and your manual dexterity. Believe it or not, you will develop muscle memory for these movements, just like an athlete does when learning how to kick a soccer ball. My partner Melissa used to play soccer and is truly a sports goddess. I trip on even ground when walking and chewing gum at the same time. A soccer champ I will never be but I can pipe the heck out of a buttercream rose. The larger movements like borders and frosting cupcakes will come from your wrist and forearm.

Tips, Tips, Tips…

The great thing about piping tips is that they are endlessly versatile. You can make dozens of designs with just a handful of the most basic tips. There are the must haves that you will want to start with, and once you feel confident about your muscle memory and control, its time to branch out and start learning how to use the more specialized tips. As you start trying out different styles, you will find the ones that begin to be your favorite to use. I often buy tips from a couple of different brands and each has their own numeric way of labeling the different shapes. I tell my students to use the numbers as a basic guide but to really learn the look and feel of each tip. If you know you can always make a lovely shell border on an 8″ cake with a star tip that is a 1/4 of an inch in diameter, then you know any 1/4 star tip will do the job regardless of the brand.

Photo by Jess Bailey Designs on
A brief word about couplers…

Couplers are amazing and you can never have enough. They are little like socks, and like the elves that steal your left sock, their grumpy cousins steal your coupler’s mate when you leave them in the dishwasher. Because I care for your sanity, and because feel strongly about the coupler issue, here is the link to my favorite couplers on Amazon.

Practice makes perfect…

Truly, this was the most aggravating thing I heard in culinary school on a very regular basis. We pastry humans tend to be creatures who strive for perfection. The thing I learned quickly is that there is no perfection in the craft. We can always improve and learn as we create. Invest in some parchment paper, they even make compostable parchment paper if you are concerned for the trees. Dust that ruler off and draw yourself 6 to 12 straight lines on each sheet of parchment. Whip up some practice buttercream (check down below for my recipe) and pipe your heart out. Practice one border style over and over again until you feel it start to stick. Focus on your consistency in size and gradually build up your speed. I practiced so much in the beginning that I googled compostable parchment paper so that the thought of ruining the rainforest would stop keeping me up at night.

Piping and cake decorating are one of those skills that gets easier with time, it’s all about the muscle memory. If you would like the opportunity to practice your skills and make some amazing kids happy at the same time, check out the volunteering options with Cake 4 Kids.

Practice Buttercream

  • 1/2 lb shortening – I like Crisco
  • 1 lb powdered or confectioner’s sugar
  • 1/4 cup room temp water
  1. In a stand mixer with a whisk attachment, begin whipping your shortening so that it becomes soft and fluffy.
  2. Slowly add your powdered sugar in stages. If the mixture becomes too thick, add room temperature water as needed.
  3. Buttercream will last for 1 year in an air tight container stored at room temperature.

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