Our beloved columnist, Erin Gardner shares a buttercream transfer technique that will take your cakes to a whole other level! This easy technique is impressive enough to make any buttercream cake look like it was made by a professional, but simple enough that it won’t leave you tearing your hair out!
After years as a fine-dining pastry chef and high-end wedding cake maker, I now take more of a business casual approach to caking. I definitely want my cake designs to have a polish to them, but I’m no longer willing to sacrifice sanity or sleep to do so. The pursuit of military-sharp corners and lines piped with laser precision is entirely respectable. I hold those with a steady, disciplined hand in high regard. However, my personal cake philosophy centers more around the pursuit of happiness rather than the pursuit of perfection.
The designs that I share with you are ones that will not only add to your cake “toolbox” of skills, but will also just be loads of fun to make. My latest and favorite tutorials and techniques involve mediums that are not only beautiful, but also truly delicious. Cake, buttercream, candy, cookies, and chocolate—oh my! Those are my jam.
That being said, this design I’m sharing with you here does get a little fiddly at times. The inner portions of the flowers may be challenging to pipe and transfer for someone who is just getting into cake decorating. It’s not quite as simple as cutting out a fondant shape and sticking it on. This could take a little practice and patience. If you don’t have time for the first, or will, for the matter, make simpler, more graphic flowers. I always attribute lack of detail on any of my cakes to my modern design aesthetic. I suggest you do the same as you practice and improve. Oh, and the stripes? For someone who is not obsessed with getting things crisp, these stripe “stickers” are among the most satisfying things I’ve ever made.
I definitely did not invent the frozen buttercream transfer. This technique has existed in home kitchens and commercial bakeries for years. It’s long been a favorite method for creating character cakes for the kiddies. This project takes a look at that technique with fresh eyes and applies it in ways that are whimsical, but sophisticated. I used my favorite Swiss meringue recipes when making this cake, but you can use American or even Ermine frosting if you prefer the taste of those. Replicate my design as is or use it as a starting point to create your own cake adventure.
- 2-tier cake finished with SMBC, top tier black and bottom tier white, chilled
- 3 cups black cocoa SMBC
- 1 cup each of buttercream in maroon, fuchsia, pale pink, leaf green, lime green, and mustard (see coloring guide)
- Offset spatula
- Piping bags
- #3 round tip (optional)
- Templates or paper and pen for freehand drawing
- Parchment paper or wax paper
- Cookie sheet
- Small paintbrush
- Small flat-tip sculpting tool (optional)
Buttercream Color Guide
The following ratios are for coloring 1 cup of plain buttercream. Use this as a general guide since exact colors may vary from brand to brand.
Maroon = 1/2 tsp red + 1/2 tsp pink + 1 drop black
Fuchsia = 1/2 tsp pink + 2 drops red + 1 drop black
Pale Pink = 2 drops pink
Leaf Green = 1/2 tsp leaf green + 2 drops vibrant yellow + 1 drop black
Lime Green = 1/4 tsp leaf green + 1/4 tsp vibrant yellow
Mustard = 1/4 tsp vibrant yellow + 1 drop black
Split, fill, crumb coat, base coat, and stack your tiered cake. Leave the cake in the fridge overnight to chill thoroughly.
Make and tint the buttercreams. Store them in the fridge overnight and follow the directions in the recipe to bring the buttercream back to consistency when you want to use them. Leaving the buttercream in the fridge overnight will properly allow the colors to develop.
Measure the height of your cake (or eyeball it) and cut three strips of parchment paper to create the black stripes. Place a paper strip on a piece of parchment paper to help make cleanup easier.
Erin notes: I made my strips a little over an inch wide. Don’t worry if your paper isn’t large enough to make strips that wrap around the entire cake. It’s easier to work in sections anyway.
Use an offset spatula to spread a thin, even layer of black cocoa buttercream over the surface of the strip. Remove your cake from the fridge. Lift the strip up by the ends and line up the edge of the strip with the bottom of your cake. Hold the strip out and move it toward the cake so that the center of the strip makes contact with the cake first. Wrap the ends around the cake, making sure the bottom edge sits against the cake stand or platter. Apply gentle pressure to the strip to ensure all of the buttercream comes into contact with the cake.
Using the same process as in the previous step, apply the top strip next, lining it up with the top edge of the cake. Apply the center strip last making sure that is sits between the top and bottom stripes.
Pop the cake back into the fridge until the stripes are chilled solid, about 15 minutes. Carefully peel the paper away, slowly pulling it down and away from the cake.
Print out the flower templates or freehand draw your own flowers. Cut the templates down leaving about an inch border around each flower. Cut pieces of parchment paper a little larger than each template.
Place the template on a cookie sheet and then top it with a piece of parchment paper. Tape the parchment paper to the cookie sheet to hold it in place.
Choose one of the flower buttercream colors and fill in the entire flower shape. Start with the outline, then fill in the center. Use a clean paintbrush to clean up the outer edges. Smooth the buttercream over so that it’s level.
Erin notes: You could use an offset spatula to smooth the buttercream, but I find it quicker and easier to use a paintbrush.
Slide the template out from under the flower shape and move it to a clear spot on the cookie sheet. Top it again with another piece of anchored parchment paper.
Snip a very small opening in the tip of your piping bag, or, fit another piping bag with a #3 round piping tip and fill the bag with another of the floral colors. Beginning with one of the center areas, fill with buttercream and then clean up the edges with a paintbrush. Use the same brush to even out the surface of the buttercream. Continue filling in spaces working from the center out, taking care to keep them all at about the same height.
Erin notes: I prefer to work with a piping tip for the more detailed portions of the design, because I feel like I have a little more control.
Remove the template and pop the tray into the freezer until both components are frozen solid, about 10 minutes.
Once the flower parts are frozen, pipe a thin layer of the same color buttercream on the solid flower, leaving a small margin around the edges. Working quickly but carefully, flip the flower over and press it onto the cake. Gently press the palm of your hand against the flower to ensure all the buttercream has come in contact with the cake. This will also slightly warm the flower so that it bends to the shape of the cake.
If you have worked quickly enough, the appliqué could be cold enough to remove the paper right away. If the buttercream has softened, pop the cake back into the fridge until it’s solid again, then peel the paper away.
Press the floral details against the chilled flower appliqué. Once it’s in place, gently run your finger over every part of the design, making sure each piece comes in contact with the buttercream below.
Erin notes: You will be tempted to pull the paper off right away, but you will be much happier with yourself if you pop the cake back in the fridge until everything is firm again, about 10 minutes.
Peel the parchment paper away from the chilled appliqué. Clean up the edges of your finished design with a paintbrush or sculpting tool.
Erin notes: If any part of your design doesn’t transfer, you can re-pipe the section and try again or just let it go and call it a day. Your secrets are safe with me.
Repeat the same template and piping process as in steps 1 through 3, above, except this time with the leaf template. Fill the shape in with the leaf green buttercream. Repeat to make as many large leaves as you like.
Erin notes: I did not use a template for the smaller leaves since the shape is so simple, but feel free to sketch them out ahead of time if that helps you. Pipe the small leaves with the light green buttercream and clean up the edges same as above.
Apply the leaves to the cake using the same process as in steps 5 through 7, above.
The Finishing Touches
Add finishing details to the design by piping simple lines and dots with the mustard yellow buttercream. Snip a small hole in the tip of your piping bag or use a bag fitted with a #3 round piping tip. Add the leaf lines first and fill in with dots where you see fit.
Fixing Buttercream Boo-Boos
- If buttercream smushes out from behind a strip or an appliqué while you’re attaching it to the cake, you have two options. If the cake is chilled solid, quickly wipe away the stray buttercream with a clean paintbrush. If the buttercream is a little soft, pop it back into the fridge until chilled solid. Carefully lift away the stray buttercream with the tip of a knife and gently scrape away any remaining color.
- Got a little antsy and peeled the paper back too soon? If you catch yourself before you’ve removed the entire piece of paper, just carefully put it back in place and get the cake chilled before touching it again. If you pulled the whole piece of paper off and your design looks a little spikey and smeary, pop it back in the fridge as is. Let the smeary design firm back up and then clean up the edges and surface with a warm offset spatula, paintbrush, or rubber-tipped sculpting tool.
- If you totally ruin an appliqué with impatience or a stray finger, don’t fret. Once again, get everything thoroughly chilled. Slide the warmed tip of a knife or icing spatula under the wonky appliqué and lift it from the cake. Smooth over the spot as best you can and return the cake to the fridge. Make the next appliqué a little bigger to cover your tracks.
- Hole-y buttercream, Batman! Smoothing down the piped buttercream should help to give your appliqué a solid surface, but some holes will still pop up from time to time. If you’ll be adding additional layers or piping, then just leave it. Congratulations! You’ve found where the piping goes! If it’s an area you’d like smooth, run over the surface of the chilled buttercream with a warmed offset spatula. For small areas use the tip of a knife or a paintbrush that’s been dipped in warm water and wiped dry before using.