How I Create an Award-Winning Cake

Several people have asked me recently how I go about designing a cake, and what all goes into the process of producing the finished product.  Since this is fresh on my mind from last month’s cake show and several weeks of work, I thought I would walk you through my design process and share a few of my secrets.  I’ll also relate each step to the specific example of my Train Station cake, which took home second place at the Great Cake Bake, to show you what I did.   

            I can break the process down into four basic steps:  Plan, Design, Prepare, and Execute.  I’ll talk about each one in detail.

Step One:  Plan your cake.

This is the most important, and by far my favorite step of the process.  This is where you get to be creative and envision what you want to create. 

For me, this step includes:

meeting with the client to get a feel for their expectations and tastes,

brainstorming ideas,

researching examples and images,

considering color schemes and design elements,

determining how big the cake needs to be (how many people will it need to feed)

Example:  I did a lot of research and creative thinking for my train station cake.  Here are some of the images that inspired my design:


Step Two:  Design your cake.

Step 2 is when you take all of those ideas that are swirling around in your head and you put them all together to create something unique.  I love this step.  It’s like solving a puzzle, figuring out the best way to incorporate all of my ideas into one cohesive design.

 Example:  After I had a clear idea of what I wanted my Train Station Cake to look like, I got to work putting my ideas on paper and working out the details.  You can do this any way that is best for you, a simple sketch on paper is fine to get dimensions and form down, or I used a 3-D modeling program called Sketch-Up.  Sketch-up is a simple tool that allows you to quickly model ideas and analyze forms in 3 dimensional space.  And best of all, it is free!  You can download your own version here if you’re interested.  Here is my design, you can see how I worked through different ideas and color schemes until I found what I thought was the best solution:

First draft.  Hmmm something is missing.

First draft.  Hmmm something is missing.

So I added lower roofs on each side and some color but still didn't love it.

So I added lower roofs on each side and some color but still didn't love it.

That's better...and maybe I'll add a clock tower!

That's better...and maybe I'll add a clock tower!

Step Three:  Prepare to make your cake.

This step is when you determine what materials you will actually need to execute your design.  It is important to think through what materials will be most suitable for what you want to accomplish.  For example, you will need a denser cake like pound cake if you are sculpting, you’ll need to use gumpaste if extra strength is needed, etc.  You have to consider the following questions:

How will I support the weight of my cake (sometimes a cardboard base is enough, sometimes you’ll need a plywood base, or a more complicated support structure.

How many cake mixes will I need to bake, and what size pans will I use to minimize cutting.

How much fondant will I need, and what colors will I need?

How much buttercream or royal icinig will I need?

What other materials will I need (tape, foil, adhesive, dowels, popsicle sticks, rice cereal treats, candies, gumpaste, etc.)

What tools will I need to execute my design? (sculpting tools, spatulas, xacto blades, fondant cutouts, icing tips, etc.)

Now, you will need to go gather all of these materials.  I highly recommend having everything you need before you start putting the cake together.  I usually gather stuff over a period of time.  I always clip the coupons for 40-50% off one item from the craft stores, and then go to each of them and get the expensive items, especially large boxes of fondant or packages of gumpaste.  This saves a ton of money!

 Example:  For my train station cake, I used 10 pounds of fondant, 4 batches of buttercream, and 2 batches of royal icing.  This particular cake was actually made of Styrofoam, but had I used real cake, it would have been somewhere in the range of 15 cake mixes!

I also used a 24” x 24” piece of plywood for my base, and covered it with foil and then fondant, and glued black ribbon to the edges to finish it off.


Step Four:  Execute

This is when you actually build and decorate your cake.  So many people want to start with this step, but I have found that if I skip any of the other three steps, this one ends in disaster.  With a complicated sculpted cake, you must properly plan out what you are going to do. 

As you execute your cake, you will be following the blue prints that you have already created.  The more you plan in advance, the easier this step will be.

 Example:  For my train station cake, this step involved sculpting the Styrofoam (cake), cutting the fondant and applying it to the cake.  Making all of the details in advance to give them time to dry and harden, attaching all of the details and applying the finishing touches.  Here are a few progress shots:

Photo by Denise Retallack

Photo by Denise Retallack

photo by Denise Retallack

photo by Denise Retallack


And here is the finished Train Station Cake.  Thanks to Denise Retallack for the amazing photos!


A LOT of work for one cake, but totally worth it in my book!