Yes, you can make a photoshoot-worthy birthday cake in your very own kitchen, without fancy tools. Here's how:

By Susan Hall
April 30, 2020
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Who better than a professional food stylist to help us bake up a birthday cake worthy of all the Instagram likes? Rishon Hanners, food stylist and star of Food Stylist Vs., is here to share insider secrets on how to make a homemade birthday cake look like it came straight from a bakery, without any fancy tools or challenging skills.

Here's how she does it: 

1. Pick a Winning Recipe. Start with a no-fail number, like our Classic Birthday Cake, a buttery, vanilla-foward two-layer cake wrapped in rich buttercream frosting. Recipe: Classic Birthday Cake

2. Let Your Layers Chill. We all need a little chill time these days, including cake layers. After baking your layers and allowing them to cool to room temperature, wrap them separately in plastic wrap and stash them in the fridge for a minimum of one to two hours, and ideally overnight. Chilled cake layers are easier to frost, handle, and trim (if needed), because they are less likely to crumble and fall apart during the decorating process.

3. But Use Room-Temperature Icing. Conversely to the cool cake layers, your buttercream icing should be room temperature and ideally made fresh the day you decorate so that it’s easy to work with. Cold frosting is harder to spread and can damage your cake layers. “Make your buttercream with softened or room temperature butter and then just leave it out, covered, until ready to use,” Rishon says.

4. Choose Your Cake Plate. Before you ice, decide how you’re going to display your finished masterpiece. Will you show it off on a cake stand, an heirloom platter, or a pretty cutting board? Anything works, as long as it’s special and pretty to you.

5. Plop Down Some Parchment Paper. In her professional food styling kit at work, Rishon decorates cakes on a lazy Susan, which allows her to reach any side of the cake with a flick of the wrist. At home, Rishon reaches for a sheet of parchment paper to put under her cake, because it's easy to slide in circles and acts as a catch-all for wayward frosting and sprinkles. You can also use foil, wax paper, a paper towel, or go sans-buffer and place your cake right on the plate and get to it.

Photo: Aaron Kirk; Prop Stylist: Sarah Elizabeth Cleveland; Food Styling: Sarah Epperson

6. Invert Your Cake Layers. For a typical photoshoot, Rishon might trim the tops of her cake layers to make them flat and even. Here, her trick is to flip each layer upside down so the bottom-of-the-pan side is facing upward, creating a naturally flat surface that’s prime for icing without having to trim. If your layers are still uneven, you can trim them up a bit.

7. Grab the Right Frosting Tool. Rishon happened to have an off-set spatula at home, which allows for easy, even icing. If you don’t have a tool like this, she recommends “a regular butter knife … or better yet a spoon,” she says. “And just embrace the texture that your tool gives you. For example, you’re not going to to get a perfectly smooth sided cake when frosting with a spoon so roll with it and let it be unique.”

8. Pipe, Then Spread, Your Frosting. Piping frosting onto your layers using a piping bag or a Ziplock bag with a cut corner gives you more control and evenness when applying your buttercream. Pipe frosting on top of the bottom layer, moving in concentric circles from the outside in. Then spread the frosting evenly. Place the second layer on top, bottom-side up, and repeat, piping in concentric circles and spreading evenly. Finally, pipe around the sides of the cake and spread as evenly as you can.

9. Decorate With What You’ve Got. Sprinkles, jelly beans, chocolate chips, fruit slices … what you have in your kitchen is sure to look beautiful on your cake. Rishon’s trick with this cake is to place her colorful sprinkles around the outer edge of the top of the cake and along the lower segment of the side of the cake for a polished but fun effect.

10. Add Candles and Snap a Picture. Before you sing ‘Happy Birthday,’ place some candles if you have them, light them, and snap a photo for memory’s—and social media’s—sake before presenting your sweet creation to the lucky birthday reveler.