Shabby chic or pretty in pink? Survival tips for cake decorating

[Click on the link below to listen to an audio version of this post.]

You know that moment, in your kitchen, after you’ve spent God knows how long putting together a creative dessert — an idea, a vision of something meant to be spectacular — and you realise you are in the midst of a massive Pinterest fail?

I hate those moments.

My husband has joked with our friends that, on occasion, I won’t serve a dish, or will start completely over on a dish that has not met the expectations of my Type A personality. Between us, it’s not a joke. And I’m pretty embarrassed about it. I don’t know if it’s my mother’s Japanese perfectionism coming to haunt me, or if I’m really just a stickler when it comes to how my food looks. But let’s face it, in the world of cake making, oh heck, in the world of anything making for me, appearances are important. I don’t want it to just taste great. I want people to want to taste it because it happens to look amazing.

So now that I’ve admitted to being a culinary cake snob at best, let me emphasise that after months of my own cake making attempts here in Basel, after months of pushing myself to figure out the 101’s of fondant and frosting, I’ve learned two things. First: it is not easy. It requires a heck of a lot of patience and time, and even when everything appears to be working in your favour, the chances of your cake imploding are always there. Second (and this is the comforting one): when you realise Pinterest is about to credit your culinary implosions with its longevity, you still have a choice: work harder to make it pretty and pink, or give up and turn it into shabby chic.

Don’t believe me? It’s okay. For this blog post I thought it would be nice to speak with a professional who could help folks get the most out of their cake making experience.

Vanessa Mercieca-Jacobs, Basel-based owner and creator of the Red Cake Tin, was that person. I invited Vanessa to my home earlier this year, and with a cup of tea in hand, the Maltese native explained to me how when she moved to Basel, she began baking as a way to connect with her community; meet neighbours, make friends and so forth. One day, she made a batch for her husband to bring to work.

“And he came back and he said ‘everyone is saying I should retire and promote you as a baker and make you open your shop and make millions off your back’. And I was like yeah right,” she joked.

The seed was planted. Fast forward several years later, she’s now a successful bespoke baker, providing birthday cakes, holiday cookies and other treats to folks in the Basel area.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

When I asked Vanessa how she came up with the name, the Red Cake Tin, she nostalgically explained…

“Red because that’s my favourite colour. And a cake tin is because growing up my grandmother would always have cake tin or a drawer full of sweet things. I thought everyone should have a cake tin. In my case, a red cake tin. And that’s how I ended up with the name.”

Vanessa had several tips for me. Returning to the first issue on hand, she agrees that not only is the shabby chic look in at the moment, but it’s also a lifesaver for when things don’t go as planned.

“It doesn’t need to look good,” she says. “Even if it’s messy, it’s still an organised mess.”

An organised mess. I love this term.What a great way to bring comfort to folks, like myself, who occasionally freak out when things don’t work out perfectly.

This was great news for me, especially as I had just recently made a birthday cake for a friend.  My original plans included making a chocolate cake with a super sleek ganache frosting. I had read about how smooth ganache goes on cakes. Unfortunately, water seeped into mine while I was making it and left it spotted. The solution? I made an extra glaze and let it drip over the sides to cover up the spots as best I could.


This was a bit better, but you could still see some of the lighter spots the water had created. I thought: “I can do more”. So I grabbed some wax paper, smeared some melted chocolate on it, covered it with another piece, rolled it up and secured it with clothes pins, and popped it in the fridge to set.

The result? Really cool chocolate shards, which looked great on top of the cake, especially in a high mound atop some leftover frosting.


With these new additions, my water spots became less noticeable, dare I say, even added to the colour balance of the cake?

IMG_7291Vanessa was spot on: planned or unplanned, shabby chic works.

Another useful tip from Vanessa included making sure to “crumb coat” your cake. That means applying an initial layer of buttercream to your cake and popping it in the fridge until it hardens.

“And when you put [on] another layer of buttercream,” says Vanessa, “all the little crumbs will not get stuck to the outer layer of buttercream. It gives it more of a polished finish.”

Also, for all you busy folks who think you have to bake your cake the night before a party to keep it fresh, think again. Vanessa says that a freshly baked cake has a longer shelf life than you would think, especially as the fondant or buttercream coverings act as a moisture sealant. Instead, she says to give yourself time to make your cake. If the birthday party is on Saturday, bake the cake Thursday night, decorate on Friday, and devour it the next day.

“It’s actually not that great to bake a cake and decorate it straight away, especially if you are putting things on top of the cake,” she says. “Because the cake needs to firm up. And if you bake it and decorate it straight away, it is more likely to collapse, or it might not collapse straight away but then you put something on top, you think ‘Oh it’ll be fine’ and then it breaks.”

Vanessa admits that developing her decorating skills took time and a lot of practice. And rightfully so, she takes pride in her work. Today, she says she sometimes does a double take at some of her cakes. At first glance, she says they may seem simple, “but for me they are so creative. And for me to be able to do that, I’m like ‘Whoa I made that!’ I’m very proud of what I do now. It’s great.”

I love those moments. When you stand, head held high, starring in awe at your accomplishments. Everyone should have those. Our struggles keep us grounded, but our accomplishments…those help us take off again.

I had one of those in-flight experiences recently with a baby shower cake I made for a friend. The theme was princess, and I really wanted to challenge myself and get my fondant skills under better control. And so YouTube video after YouTube video, I read up and watched how to lay fondant, how to pull, ever so slightly, at the edges so that the creases fall under the cake.


Speaking of which, Vanessa adds that when it comes to fondant, don’t stress. Even if you get a tear in your fondant covering, there are plenty of ways to fix it. Make a flower and place it over the tear, for example, or make a bow slightly larger so that it covers all the cracks.

With my cake, I also read up on how to make pedal shapes out of flower cookie cutters. It took some practice (and many mess ups), but eventually I started seeing the shapes come together.


What started out as an idea, began to take form, slowly, and carefully. I also read up on how to make a tiara out of fondant


Who knew that a circular canister could be such a useful tool? That was a cool project.

In the end, I was thrilled with this cake, especially the bottom flower petals that were so much easier to put on than I had originally anticipated. Lots of time, lots of patience, but I think I got pretty close to my expectations at the end.


For the record, I nervously sent a picture of this cake to Vanessa after our interview, and to my relief, she approved.

Vanessa was fantastic to speak with, and not just because she liked my cake. Here is a woman who grew up baking, but never intended to become one, and this is the part I find fascinating: She was, and still is, a scientist at heart. Prior to moving to Basel, she was a science, physics and chemistry teacher. So cool, right? I love this balance, only because anyone who bakes understands the specificity that goes into it – the precise measurements, the balance between wet and dry ingredients, and so on. It is, in its own right, a science.

As a last bit of refreshing advice to folks wanting to perfect their cake decorating skills, Vanessa cautions folks not to take things too seriously.

“I like making it look pretty, but then I think at the end of the day somebody is going to be eating these.”

The point Vanessa is making is that baking is something to be enjoyed.

“It’s about being creative and not taking it too seriously.”

And she’s right. Life is busy enough when you are just trying to make the inside of it function the way you want. I know this stands in sharp contrast to how I started this post, but looks, be it in life, in love, and in baking are not everything. Important to some extent still, but not everything. Sometimes, focusing on what is inside is really what counts. After all, that’s what mom always told us, right?

Vanessa’s visit with me was eye opening. I’m finding myself having more confidence to challenge myself, because I suppose I’m getting more comfortable with the idea that at the end of the day, I can mess up and still turn it into something inspiring. 

An organised mess, if you will.

Cake Tips from the Red Cake Tin:

  • DONT over bake: If a recipe calls for 30 minutes in the oven, check it at 25.
  • DO crumb cake when possible: Make some buttercream, frost a bit lazily, fridge to set, then frost seriously.
  • DO stick with what you know: If you have a cake recipe that you trust and know well, use it.
  • DO use the shabby chic method or even the naked cake method when you feel that things aren’t working out as planned.
  • DO have fun learning new methods from YouTube or other social media sites.
  • DO use strategically placed bows, cutouts and cake toppers to hide imperfections. Even fruit toppings work great in hiding what lies beneath.
  • DO give yourself time to decorate your cake: If a party is on Saturday, bake the cake Thursday night, decorate on Friday, and enjoy on Saturday.
  • DONT take things so seriously: Remember. At the end of the day, a cake is meant to be eaten, not simply admired.