Let the Cake Cool
Whether you're using frosting or whipped cream, the heat-on-dairy action won't do you any favors at this stage. Later, you can quickly heat your metal spatula over a stovetop flame (we're talkin' three or four seconds, no more) and run it gently across the surface of the frosted cake—the heat will melt a butter-based frosting ever so slightly to create a glossier finish.
A Butter Knife Won't Cut It
Invest in a 1-inch straight or offset icing spatula (check the slideshow for a picture of one). You'll have it forever, and it makes all the difference.
Use (Or Make) a Cake Round
These disposable round pieces of cardboard (available at kitchen stores, markets and bakeries) are made in sizes that correspond with traditional cake pan sizes. Choose one that's the same size as your pan and has smooth (not scalloped) edges, and place your cooled cake on it before decorating.
You'll be able to pick up the cake even after it's covered in frosting, and it'll come in handy (again, see the slideshow for proof) for making straight, clean sides.
Stay in the Center
Add the frosting or whipped topping in large dollops, then, keeping your spatula in the center so there's always cream on either side, move your spatula in short side-to-side motions. If you push, rather than drag, the frosting, you'll find you're less likely to skid into the surface and end up covered in crumbs.
Use Right Angles
It's tricky to stifle the instinct, but try never to move your spatula from the top to the sides of the cake in one motion. Work on the top, then tackle the sides separately. Go back and forth between areas as needed to create clean lines and edges.
When it comes to design, ultimately you're the boss. Some like it loose and wavy (a la the cake pictured here). But if you plan to pipe a message or design onto your dessert, you might be a bit more orderly (the slideshow—so where you need to be right now).
About the author: "Sue Veed" is an editor at a Manhattan-based food magazine and a current culinary student who's trying to learn it all so she can cook it all. She'll take us along for the ride as she makes the journey from home cook to professional. Among things she may never master: looking natural in a chef's hat, and acting demure whenever a pork product hits the table.