Cake Decorating 101
It's said that one can learn from bad examples, so here goes. My mother was a marvel at decorating cakes. We always looked forward to our birthdays to see what marvelous thing she created. Her cakes were immaculate. She easily squeezed out roses, lily of the valley, garlands and other lovely things. I do a lot of things well, but I totally flunked cake decorating. I try - I really do. My disasters live on in memory. See A Kinder, Gentler Kitchen. I was never able to make a flower with a decorator, or even write names and greetings reasonably well. Never the less, I was able to fake it most of the time when my kids were small.
First lesson; how to get the cake out of the pan in one piece. Don't try to remove the cake while it's hot. Let it cool to warm. If you plan to ice the cake, put squares of waxed paper all around the cake plate. Spread your hand on top of the cake; turn the pan over and shake a little. It should come loose. If not, put it back down. With a spatula, nudge the edges a little towards the center to loosen. Try the previous step again. Turn the cake back over onto the cake plate, supporting it with the other hand to keep if from cracking in half. (If it breaks up so badly you cannot glue it back together with some icing, make trifle.) The wax paper will help you adjust it to the middle of the plate.
If you wait until the cake is cold, it may or may not come out with a little nudging. If all else fails, put it on a burner for just a moment to warm the bottom. I know all you experts are falling down laughing but I can't be the only person to have problems getting the cake out of the pan.
Once in a while a bottom layer will swell into a dome shape. I have solved this by sawing it off level with a bread knife. This probably isn't professional, but it works. Next comes the filling; this can be a separate item such as a thick custard, jam or marmalade, or use some of the frosting. It can't be too runny or applied too thickly, or the top layer will slide off. If it slides anyway (and mine frequently did) I kept some clean pieces of thin dowel, and found that aligning the two sections, and inserting a dowel all the way to the bottom, saved disasters. The wooden skewers sold for shish kabob work great. Toothpicks work but I always felt they were too dangerous in case someone ate part of one.
Next problem; crumbs. I have rarely frosted a cake with a butter-cream type frosting without dragging crumbs into the icing, which is ugly. Using a soft basting brush, lightly brushing away crumbs before frosting often helps. The icing shouldn't be too stiff or it makes the crumbing or tearing worse. Too soft, it will sag and run. Oh, well. A better solution if you always have this problem is to either use White Mountain Icing, or after applying the icing, use a coarse sieve, colander or chopper to sprinkle the whole cake with finely chopped nuts, which will hide the crumbs. Another solution, not for parties of course, is to use a drizzle type frosting to make a glaze, and top with chopped nuts.
For cake which will be eaten right away, you can frost with whipped cream or whipped topping. Fresh fruit such as whole berries, or well-drained canned fruit pieces, are great but again, are for immediate consumption.
If you manage to get it frosted with butter-cream icing, one way to make it smooth and glossy is to use a hair dryer on it to slightly melt and smooth the surface to a silky gloss. Don't overdo it.
One way I got away with not being able to decorate cakes adequately was to let Nature do the decorating. Guests marveled over my cakes! They had no idea of my shortcomings. After frosting, just decorate with real edible flowers and leaves. Remove when serving. Just don't use poisonous ones. You can use roses, hibiscus, violets, nasturtiums, geraniums.. and their leaves. Apple blossoms, snapdragons, carnations, lilacs, or hollyhocks are fine. Also anything from the mint family. Pick them ahead of time, and float in a bowl of water for a while to check for ants or other bugs, which hide away in the crevices of the flowers - otherwise they can crawl out onto the cake. I speak from bitter experience. Of course a safer solution if you have access to them is to use crystallized flowers as decorations.
You can make a lacy pattern on butter-cream type frosting with a round doily. Lay it atop the iced cake; on a white cake, dust lightly with a chocolate drink powder mix, or even a little cocoa although little ones may not enjoy the contrasting bitter flavor. On a chocolate-iced cake, sprinkle with sifted confectioners' sugar.
For little children or baby showers, small plastic toys are great decorations. Most bakeries sell them, or try dollar stores or a five and dime. I realize that sets of sugary decorations are sold at the grocery, but I found them ugly, and are an advertisement for one's lack of creativity. Tubes of colored cake decorator from the grocery are best for writing a greeting or child's name, but do practice first on a piece of waxed paper. Colored sprinkles are a fool-proof decoration too.
Final touch; jerk out one by one the pieces of wax paper, which leaves the plate clean. Voila! A semi-professional-looking cake. If I can fake it, you can too.