Wilton Wannabe: Notes from Decorating Basics, Class #1

What fun!

We're going to have to throw out the cost analysis from my last post. I'm not saying it's going to get better, but it's definitely going to be different. Early spoiler: NO BABY WIPES REQUIRED. Woot.

This instructor is really great. This was her very first class, so I'm sure she' was mortified when her icing kept coming off the side of the cake while we sat there in polite silence, waiting, as the minutes passed, but it was actually useful to see how she fixed the problem. (Mostly it involved patience and perseverance. Just like pretty much all of life's bloopers.)

I arrived early and bought my can of Wilton frosting and used the coupon, naturally. Even the instructor was promoting the Michaels app and says she goes in and out of the store several times in one day, buying one item at a time. That was me after the class. (I "only" got in line twice. Yep, Michaels is completely cool with this.)

There are 11 people in our class. One person brought her mother as an observer and another woman brought her two children, so if you have kids, perhaps this is a babysitting option. The kids got a little chatty at the end, which raised my teacher hackles to a code orange shush alert, but it ended up being fine.

A Wilton sociologist could make much of what people brought to the first class. I fit the Eager Newbie stereotype - everything laid out, clipboard with three pages of notes by the end of class, volunteering my stuff as needed, making sure newcomers signed in on both sheets. If I still had my Safety Patrol bandolier from sixth grade, I could've worn it with pride tonight.

Some people had not even purchased the kit yet because they hadn't decided yet whether or not to get the Ultimate caddy. So, if you think this might be you, know that it's fine if on the first night you just watch others while you make up your mind. (I haven't made up my mind yet, although I'm wondering if - with the recent introduction of the fourth course - the caddy will be redesigned soon? Right now it is missing items needed for that class.)

Some people have very fancy aprons. One person does not bake at all. My tablemate had her mother's caddy, a goodie-filled toolbox that made me drool. My tablemate also sells cupcakes, so it's a good thing she's nice or I'd be thoroughly intimidated.

The instructor did her intro a few times before class and as people arrived. This is what the classroom looked like (one table not pictured) before the lights were on, the tables were covered, and the instructor demo area was wheeled in (behind where I took this):


Apparently we're very lucky to have a sink. (And that's why we don't have to bring baby wipes next week, but more on supplies later.)

Rather than tell it blow-by-blow (such as I remember), here are excerpts from my notes, which will give some idea of the techniques addressed:

  • The instructor likes to use a wax paper circle at the bottom of the pan instead of greasing/flouring/spraying/whatevering it.
  • She also likes the Bake-Even Strips that make the cake more (although not completely) level as it cooks. (Science behind it: the moisture around the pan keeps the outer edges from cooking at a much faster rate than the middle.) Since you still have to level the top of the cake off, it's kind of a matter of preference. She said she liked having less waste, which makes me wonder what the difference is in taste. Is the cake denser than it would have been?
  • HUGE TIP: K. (because I'm tired of typing "the instructor") likes to use the plastic Wilton plates usually used for tier cakes instead of cake boards unless she's giving the cake away. For stuff at home, she prefers the plastic so it can be reused. I was so happy to hear this; for me, it's a much more sensible option. I'm glad she isn't insisting on the show or foil boards, either. In fact, I really admire how she is clearly a huge Wilton fan but doesn't do the hard sell. More on that later.

    Wilton plate

  • If making multiple batches of icing, use a stand mixer. Otherwise, a hand mixer can be good to keep you from overmixing.
  • Did you know they now sell shortening in pre-measured (one cup) blocks, like butter? I didn't.
  • K. says that for flavour extracts (and you don't have to use Wilton brand - I think the only "magic" to Wilton brand is that it doesn't color the icing at all, if you want your white to stay snowy) she really likes to combine almond, vanilla, and butter.
  • If you use milk instead of water in the buttercream icing recipe, you have to refrigerate (sooner).
  • In this desert climate, she advises starting at 8 teaspoons (or was it tablespoons - see the recipe) of water, and probably increasing from there.
  • Make sure your powdered sugar is pure cane sugar. (There are other kinds of powdered sugar?)
  • The meringue powder used in Wilton's recipe is in lieu of the egg white you might find in other recipes. (And, again, makes it less perishable.)
  • We are asked to make at least one batch of icing ourselves for next week, so we can get the feel for it, but we can bring canned stuff for the rest of the course if we wish.
  • I like that she reminded people not to lick anything unless we're the only ones who are going to eat the end product. Did people really need to be reminded of that? I made a note at the time just so I wouldn't forget to mention it here, so of course now I'm paranoid that people think I felt the need to write that down.
  • (I totally lick things while I'm cooking, but then I stop and wash everything thoroughly before resuming. Yes, even if it's something for Mike. Well, usually.)
  • I'm not confident that I can tell the difference between medium and thin icing. (She passed around stiff, medium, and thin in cups.) The "jiggle test" (how still does the spatula stay when you stick it into the icing then jiggle the cup) will hopefully not let me down for next week.
  • K. only has one 10" bag. She usually uses disposables. Don't freak out if your bag becomes dyed from your icing colors. It happens. (Hers is pink. It's kind of cute.)
  • The big tip (mentioned in my last post) doesn't have a coupler. I'm also no longer sure that I'm going to get it. She demonstrated icing the cake using it, but I'm not convinced that I'm ready to appreciate its advantages.
  • How to prep the disposable bag for icing: Drop in the big part of the coupler, back it up a smidge, cut the bag with your scissors, put the tip on, and then screw on the ring. (Now I see that my "Baker's Secret" pastry bag from yonks ago is unique in being such a bugbear to clean - the bag is permanently attached to the big part of the coupler.)
  • Wilton has plastic tips you can throw onto the end of the decorating tip and then you can put a bag of icing, tipped and ready, into the fridge to use later, and it won't dry out. (Nice if you want a break or don't want to clean the bag out of excess frosting but also don't want to use what's leftover right away.)
  • Student suggestion: when filling the decorating bag, put it in a larger cup.
  • K's method: fold the top of the bag over. (If using Wilton's disposable bags, fold over at the top of the logo.) Fill the bag a bit past halfway. (If usinf the Wilton disposables, fill it up to the bottom of the logo.) Use the spatula to dump clumps into the bag, then run the spatula against your where your thumb (which is under the cuff) is pressing to clean it off before putting more in. Shake icing down to bottom. Smooth all icing to the bottom. Twist the bag a few times to eliminate air pockets and give yourself a nice, plump area for grasping. (Repeat the last two steps as you ice.)
  • Filled cakes. I feel like a whole world just opened up to me. She used the cheaper ($2-3) Wilton leveler, the one that is out of stock at Michaels and may not come back in because (theory is) Wilton could be revising that product. (Which doesn't really help me for next week, but I can get one elsewhere.) She did have to see-saw it slightly (a complaint on the forums is that it doesn't slice right though), and she also had to fiddle with it to get the wire on the right notch on both sides at the same time, but it seemed like a great product for the price. (The more expensive one is $25.) Anyway, I've always thought of cakes with layers as these complicated things involving lots of pans, and now I see it's just a matter of adjusting the leveler and going to town. Big secrets revealed!
  • Sidebar anecdote: I used to pester my great-granduncle Pat (not my father's uncle but my grandfather's uncle) for stories about my great-grandparents (his brother and sister-in-law) during our raging friendship of the late 1990s. He lived for them a bit in his younger years - my great-great-grandmother died when he was a kid, and my g-g-gf died when he was a teen. But now I'm just showing off that for awhile I had a best friend with such a deep and clear connection to my ancestors, so let's continue. So, he was living with them, and my great-grandmother (Pearl) was a very kind woman who liked to take care of the neighbourhood kids, feed them, and so on. One day a kid comes crying. Why? His mother beat him. Why? Because he was telling his mother about a triple-layer cake Pearl had made, and his mother beat him for lying. Everyone knew there was no such thing as a triple-layer cake! So, Pearl made a triple-layer cake that afternoon and took it to the boy's mother. Basically, she was all IN. YOUR. FACE. WENCH. As soon as I get my $3 cake leveler, I'm going to truly feel like Pearl's heir. (Although she probably used a knife.)
  • When filling a cake, make a dam of icing around the edge, about a half-inch away, first. We don't want jam or Nutella oozing out during the icing stage.
  • Some people use a dot of icing to stick their cake to the board (or plate) before decorating.
  • That hand stays (relatively) still. The turntable does all the work.
  • If you get a single crumb on your spatula (that you're using to spread around the icing), stop and wipe down the spatula. The spatula must never touch the cake - just the icing.
  • After 20-odd minutes, K. smoothed the icing by putting parchment over the cake and running a smoother (which she sad to learn is not in our kits, but any small, flat surface you can grab will work - think of a tiny, plastic iron) over it.

At the start of class K. handed out the lesson plan booklets, which have step-by-step instructions with pictures (as well as blurbs about non-essential but life-enhancing tools down at the bottom). Near the end of class, she went over the list on page 17, which is the list of what to bring to the next class.

Wilton list

See all of those X's and scrawled notes? Let me just bring up one more thing and then I'll go over the supplies I actually needed tonight and the ones I don't need after all for next week.

On the Wilton forums, a common complaint is that there isn't time to decorate the cookies on the first class. The other instructor who was doing sign-ups for the classes last Saturday warned me of this. K. said that she didn't get to decorate cookies on her first class. It's a known issue. A related complaint is that the instructor spends time showing off Wilton products in the store aisle that could have been used for more interesting instruction.

Well, we got to decorate cookies. K. took us on the field trip to the Wilton aisle after class, making that part optional (everyone went), and because she had modeled so many products so well during the demos and hands-on instruction, we all were able to ask intelligent questions, and everyone started buying their supplies for next week, so I don't think Wilton or Michaels lost any sales. I was amused by the people who were shocked by next week's supply list. Yeah, when you're sold the kit (described as "what you need for the class") and given a list of supplies for the first class, it's definitely misleading.

But, if you have a great instructor like K., I can see getting away with not buying anything else. You'd have a harder time, but you'd never feel like you were only half-participating. I think the people who didn't bring anything to the first class still had a good and useful time.

Okay, time to dissect the supply lists. This is the list for the first class, straight from the Wilton website, my comments in red:

  • Course 1: Decorating Basics Student Kit - only if you want to decorate and/or feel confident your class will get around to decorating or at least filling the bags (and you think you may need help with setting up your bag)
  • 1 can Wilton Ready-To-Use Decorating Icing - see above
  • 6 plain flat cookies with a box to transport them home (optional) - my tablemate practiced on crackers, and she's a pro baker. Unless you want the thrill/experience of having decorated on something "real," your practice board from the kit is good enough.
  • Apron - absolutely not needed for the first class unless you are sit-com levels of clumsy
  • Pen or Pencil and Paper - I would recommend just a pen. I was the only person taking serious notes. Other people just jotted down the odd thing in the margins of their lesson plan books, which is a smart idea as then you have it all in one place.
  • Scissors - we made one snip - the end of the disposable decorating bag. I'm sure you could borrow someone's scissors for that. (K. offered hers.)
  • Sticky notes - I have no idea why we'd need these. No wonder I was told not to bother with them.
  • Damp cloth - Our classroom is lucky to have a sink. Ask - maybe yours does, too. A cloth will be good in future lesson for just wiping hands, but I only got a smidge of frosting on one finger because I was careless. (Yes, I licked it.)
  • 1 gallon-size plastic food storage bag (to carry home soiled decorating tools) - Yeah, as I suspected in my previous post, any plastic bag will do. It just depends on how you pack your gear whether a bag that zips closed will be necessary for you.

Here's the list for next week, with my comments in blue, and items from this week that I've already addressed omitted:

  • Reusable, cloth wipes - no need, we have the sink
  • Toothpicks
  • Cellophane tape - K. couldn't even think of a reason why we might need it
  • Waxed paper
  • Bath-sized towel to spread over work area - no need, K. brings table-sized paper
  • Plastic bags for cleanup
  • Several small plastic bowls or disposable cups about 8 oz. size - K. said to bring IF we wanted to make colored icing and not practice with just white. I love her "optional" approach. (But of course I want to practice with colors. One of my three trips past the Michaels register today was to get the jumbo variety pack of icing colors.)
  • 25 paper napkins or a roll of paper towels - advised for convenience but not necessary as we do have some by the sink
  • 1 cup confectioners’ sugar - K. says we only need the sugar in case there's a problem with our icing we've brough from home, so not to worry about bringing an entire cup.
  • Squeeze bottle with water - this is for adding a few drops of water to the icing if necessary. I'm definitely using an old mustard bottle.
  • Lunch-size paper bag (optional) - "No." Another thing we don't know why we might have needed.
  • Contents of The Decorating Basics Student Kit and Lesson Plan
  • Angled Spatula to ice your cake - K. actually did hers with a straight spatula because her angled spatulas were all dirty. I don't think an angled spatula is necessary if your spatula is very long and you're dextrous at wielding it (so the handle doesn't touch the cake). I still haven't decided whether to go large or small. K. seems to like the large, but I feel awkward with them. Michaels is out of the smaller angled spatulas, so we'll see - my pocketbook (large with coupon or small elsewhere at full price) may decide.
  • Tip 789 Cake Icer Tip (optional) - I think I'll see how well I do getting the cake iced without one. Then it can either be a luxury I get in the future or a necessity I get the next day.
  • 16-inch Featherweight Bag (optional) - This is for Tip 789, so see above.
  • Piping Gel
  • Cake leveler - K. promoted this as optional but really useful. I think we all want one.
  • Turntable - K. actually used the smaller, less expensive turntable than the one everyone raves about. It seemed fine, but I am prone to hunching as it is, so I'm glad to have a little more height on mine. She didn't promote the turntable very heavily, but its value spoke for itself.
  • Icing colors of your choice - see sugar comments above
  • 10-inch cake board for torting - I have my plastic plate!
  • 10-inch foil covered cake board or Show ’N Serve board - not necessary - yay!
  • Cake filling (optional) - now I want to try this
  • Cake lifter (optional) - this is really tempting. I've had some bad experiences trying to lift things by using spatulas bfore. I bet the money saved on cake boards, the bigger bag, Tip 789, and baby wipes has found a new home. (At least the lifter is only $10 before coupon - cheaper than baby wipes!)
  • One 8-inch layer of cake on a cake board - K. did advise that when we make our cakes (if from a mix), we use the other half of the mix to make cupcakes (then freeze and thaw from Class #3).
  • Class Decorating Buttercream – recipe on page 7 of the lesson plan
    • 1 recipe thin consistency to ice cake in class
    • 1 recipe medium consistency

And now Mike is back from his own classes, so I must run. But wait, you say, how did the actual decorating go?


Well, I wouldn't share with the people on Facebook, but I can trust you not to laugh, right?

The practice board is really neat. You slip the examples under the plastic sheet and then pipe right on top of them. Today we worked with star tip #18. Squeeze. Hold. Hold. Release. How hard to squeeze and whether you press directly on to the board/cookie is a matter of personal preference.

I was having trouble first with my canned icing being too thick (stir it around before bagging, and hold the bag a bit so your hands warm and soften it). Then I had trouble because my stars were partially lifting off the cookie when I lifted the tip. Then I would try to make new stars to cover up the old half-stars. And sometimes I tried to make really big stars to cover up stars I just didn't like, and sometimes I tried to put stars between other stars even though there wasn't much space (but just enough to bother me.)

It will get better with practice, I'm sure.

(And I had lots of fun and feel inspired and encouraged, and that's what matters, right?)

09 March 2012 |






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