Not very long ago, I wrote an ode to Swiss buttercream, the mother of all buttercreams, for taste, texture, and superior decorating capability. When I first learned to make it, years before I ever set foot in pastry school, I delighted in making neat, uniform mounds with fluted ridges using a set of metal piping tips that I'd purchased at a yard sale. I never really knew how to pipe, but I'd force the tips through a tiny hole cut into the corner of a plastic bag, load it up with buttercream, and squeeze, moving the bag in a circular motion. The cupcakes always looked good enough, and they tasted great.
When I got to pastry school, I discovered that faking it like that would no longer cut it. There were month-long sections in which we learned techniques for decorating cakes, and I discovered quickly that, much like my lefty chicken-scratch handwriting, my cake decorating skills were sloppy and illegible. My skills and sensibilities for this particular art form were so bad, that I remember whipping up a batch of buttercream and sitting at my kitchen table for hours with my piping bag and decorating tips, piping shapes for practice onto a plate, scraping the frosting off, and repeat. This exercise definitely paid off. When it comes to cake decorating, practice makes perfect.
Decorating cakes the way the pros do takes years of dedication and practice, but knowing a few cool tricks can definitely make the difference between a boring cake and a cake that looks elegant and special. With just a basic set of metal piping tips; including an open star tip, closed star tip, round tip, leaf tip, tapered petal tip, and a basket tip, there are many impressive designs that you can create to jazz up a cake. (Here's a good set of tips, nails, and coupler on Amazon, though many people also sell these for much less on ebay.) Additional equipment is not absolutely necessary, but it's also nice to have a piping bag, either the disposable plastic or the reusable kind (you can also use heavy-duty, plastic freezer storage bags in a pinch), and a plastic coupler, which allows you to switch decorating tips as you go without having to stop, empty, and refill the piping bag each time.
With just these basic decorating tips, you can make all kinds of dots and stars, shells, flowers, leaves, stripes, and a woven basket design. This tutorial just scratches the surface of the possibilities when creativity meets buttercream. Click through the slideshow to learn some of the designs, then whip up a batch of buttercream and get practicing.