Cake decorating is the ultimate culinary arts and crafts project.
The Wilton method is one of the most widely taught cake-decorating techniques. Lush, extravagantly decorated Wilton cakes have a definite look, typified by the star filled-in pattern.
The Chicago-based Wilton Co. has put icing flowers and cartoon-character cakes within reach of the average cook. Its instruction booklets and student kits cater to those who prefer to teach themselves -- though naturally Wilton spokeswoman Zela Junkin recommends taking a course.
Curious, I enrolled in a Wilton class at a craft shop. The class was free, but the supplies I bought after the first lesson added up to $50. Most of the things -- a plastic cake stand, paste food colors, a package of cardboard cake rounds and the student decorating kit -- are things you can use over and over once -- or if -- you master the method.
Eleven students showed up for the two-hour class, and a diverse group they were: three homemakers (two with children in tow), three senior citizens, one newlywed, a family of three who took turns decorating a single cake, and me. Our teacher was the quick-wristed Jennifer Artkop.
Most of us were there for fun, though some professionals have taken the classes.
"We love to eat and cook," said Aglaia Harissas, who was sharing the course with her husband and daughter. "And we thought it would be something fun to learn together."
Leann Schumann has a friend who has turned her Wilton training into a moneymaker, decorating special-occasion cakes. But Ms. Schumann and her friend Cindi Struble were taking the class for fun and to make cakes for their children.
The first lesson was all lectureand demonstration. Ms. Artkop showed us how to level a cake, fill it and ice it; gave us tips on making basic buttercream; and expertly decorated her cake with perky frosting clowns in bright blue and yellow. It looked so easy.
For the second lesson, we needed to bring an iced cake to work on. I made a Duncan Hines (the official recommended mix) yellow cake. Despite Ms. Artkop's advice to make the cake ahead of time, I reserved only a couple of hours the day of the lesson to make mine. Assuming I knew better than the back of the box, I underbeat the batter (and had to dump it out of the greased and floured pans back into the bowl) and underbaked the cake.
I had not invested in the Wilton cake leveler -- a contraption like a cheese cutter with a wire that perfectly cuts off the mounded top of a cake layer -- so I did the best I could with a long serrated knife. My cake looked as though it had been levelled by the San Andreas fault, but I figured the icing would cover a lot of mistakes.
In class, we learned to fill featherweight pastry bags and practiced writing with icing -- print and cursive -- on our practice boards and on our cake. I squeezed out "Anna" in honor of my 5-year-old; it looked just like her handwriting.
Then we decorated our cakes, using the star fill-in method, a Wilton signature technique mostly used for character cakes such as Ninja Turtle and other cartoon characters.
"It's all a matter of pressure control," said Ms. Artkop calmly as she squeezed out row after row of perfect stars. After an hour of arduous (though fun) work, I'd filled in three heart shapes with pink stars; Ms. Artkop showed us how to make a shell border, and my cake was finished.
"You won't believe how much better your cake will look by the last class," she said encouragingly.
I experienced icing problems this time out. I loaded my featherweight bag in a jiffy, only to realize I hadn't put the coupler (the piece that holds the decorating tip on the pastry bag) in first.
I had to start over, but I finally got the pastry bag cleaned and filled again, just in time to discover, once more, how important it ,, is to read and follow directions. I'd ignored the icing recipe's instructions to sift the confectioner's sugar, believing I could beat the lumps out. My tip clogged almost immediately.
By this time, most of the class was already making darling rows of drop flowers with tip 2D. I still was struggling with my pastry bag and had green icing on everything in the vicinity. Ms. Artkop politely avoided using my bag to demonstrate: "Touch down, turn, stop, lift."
Everyone squeezed away, muttering, "Touch down, turn, stop, lift, touch down, turn, stop, lift." I made one row of flowers and the lesson was over. Everyone else had advanced to teddy bear heads.
This was the big lesson. After all, the rose is buttercream icing's big moment.
Wilton teaches you to make those big, overblown blooms that have blossomed on your birthday cake since you were 4. This requires very stiff icing so the petals stand up crisply around the center .
First, just like Mother Nature, we made rosebuds. Mine turned out great. Then we made The Rose. You start with a cone of icing, then (listen carefully) you turn the icing flower counterclockwise while moving the icing bag up and down at a 45 degree angle.
It's a little like patting your head and rubbing your stomach at the same time. And you do it 15 times for each blossom. Then you lift the flower with scissors and place it on the cake.
Maybe by the time the 5-year-old turns 6, I'll be up to covering a cake with the requested pink roses. Ms. Artkop assures me that "practice is really the key."