Easy cake decorating: simple silhouettes make stunning cakes

While the big holiday rush may be winding down, most families I know still have a birthday or two coming up soon. As much as I love decorating there are days I just don’t want to pull out the piping bags, gel colors, tips, and other hoopla that I usually use for cakes.

Have no fear, though. You can still make an amazingly beautiful cake with simple kitchen tools and no piping is involved. Hey, PJ, no piping! Come on, you can DO this!

What you will need is a computer, a printer, and sharp scissors or an X-Acto knife. Plus cocoa powder, a fine sifter, and some imagination. Oh, yes, and a cake.

First, pop online and browse some free sites for a pattern. For beginners, start with plain silhouettes that don’t have a lot of fiddly small areas to cut.

This particular cake was for a little girl’s birthday, so I went classic and elegant. The only really delicate parts of the ballerina were her fingers, so this made a good choice.

Once you’ve printed out your design, place it on a safe cutting surface and cut with a very sharp X-Acto knife or very sharp scissors.

Aaarrrggghh! What is with the blurry photo? No matter what I tried, I just couldn’t get a clear shot of this. *sigh*.  Just use care and trim around the whole design. Turn the cutting surface rather than the paper for smoother curves.

Once you’ve trimmed out your silhouette, give it a few practice runs on your cutting surface or another washable surface.

Place about 2 to 3 tablespoons cocoa in a very fine sieve. Our sugar duster works beautifully for this task, and our black cocoa makes a very stunning statement. You can certainly use other cocoas; they might not be quite as classic black, though.

Dust the cut-out lightly and evenly. Tapping the side of the sieve with a spoon tends to work better than shaking, in my opinion. Pay close attention to the little details, too, such as fingers and toes.

Not bad. Not bad at all. Removing the cut-out template takes a bit of practice, which is why testing a few times will help you get it right. Simply wash off the cocoa, or brush it back into a bowl and try again until you’re happy with the results.

Here’s a closeup. You’ll definitely have a little bit of blurred cocoa on the very edges but unless you get very close and really look for it, no one will notice.


Once you’re happy with your technique, get ready for the real deal.

You all know my affinity for Italian Buttercream. I was able to access the big stash in the freezer, and tint it a pale, pale pink. A touch of Fiori di Sicilia and a drop or two of blackberry flavor gave it delightfully fruity flavor, too.

After layering my cakes, I happened to have one layer left over, perfect for a practice run. You’ll see that this is actually the black cut-out piece of the paper. I had it taped to the fridge for fun. The paper stuck a little to the soft, creamy icing, but that’s just fine.

When you are dusting the actual cake, be sure to put it in the freezer for about 15 minutes to firm up the icing so that the paper will not stick. I was rushing a bit to test this out, I tend to get excited about cake.

Dust with cocoa, peel up the template…

Sprinkle on a few stars I found in the back of my stash. I’m sorry we don’t have these for sale at this time, I’m hoping we’ll have them again someday.

Et voilà! Now feeling confident, we’ll go for it!

Place and center the paper template on your cake. If your cake is small enough, trace around the cut-out design with the cake pan, and cut off the excess paper. Then your template will exactly match the cake, making it very easy to determine placement.

Dust on the cocoa. Remember, NO blowing!

Peel off the template to reveal your perfect picture. If you have any slight smudges use a very small flat tool to scrape them away. Here I’ve used the back of a small measuring spoon.

The finishing touches? A border of chocolate chips to echo the black and pink theme, a dusting of edible glitter, and a sprinkling of edible pearls.

And not a piping bag in sight.

Just think of all the possibilities for this technique. Skull and crossbones for a pirate party? Bridal cupcakes complete with blushing brides? How about making your own silhouettes?

There are plenty of tutorials online on how to set up a light and trace your child’s outline. Wouldn’t Grammy just cry buckets over such a personalized cake?

Actually, let’s keep the tears to a minimum and hope she’s all smiles at you, her favorite rock star cake decorator!

MaryJane Robbins

MaryJane Robbins grew up in Massachusetts and moved to Vermont 20 years ago. After teaching young children for 15 years, she changed careers and joined King Arthur Flour in 2005. MaryJane began working on King Arthur Flour’s baker’s hotline in 2006, and the blog team ...


  1. "Mandi F."

    Hi, Mary Jane! Great post. RE: getting blurry lines when peeling up the paper, I’ve only ever used firmer stencils made from plastic and with those it helps if you spray them with nonstick spray before sprinkling with cocoa or powdered sugar. Think that would help at all with the paper stencils?

    1. MaryJane Robbins, post author

      I’ve never tried it Mandi, but I bet if you did a light coating so the paper didn’t curl up at the edges, it should work. I’ll put it in my list to test out next time I make cake. Yay cake! ~ MJ

  2. Angela Gilmore

    This is such a clever idea. As a complete novice cake decorator, I will take all the ‘shortcuts’ I can! I am going to try this on my next cake!

  3. Carol

    Wow! This could not have come at a better time. I have a grandson soon to be 3. I was trying to decide what to do for him. My granddaughter just had a birthday so I will keep this on file for next year. What a great idea.

    1. The Baker's Hotline

      It really is a great tip, you can functionally used anything for the stencil! Jon@KAF

  4. sandra Alicante

    Yup, stencils are brilliant for quick decorating jobs. Some of us are lucky enough to have die cutters too, which makes it even easier!

    Other things to use are children’s cookie cutters in fun shapes, especially if doing them for kids anyway. Just lay one in the icing and fill with edible decorations, sprinkles, whatever, until the base is covered. Lift off carefully and your design is done!

  5. Brooke

    Love the cake idea, but my question is about the blog in general. Where is the New Year kitchen mishaps post? My kids and I look forward to those after laughing through your disasters for the past couple years!

    1. PJ Hamel

      Brooke, you’re just a bit ahead of yourself – we post our mishaps on April Fools’ Day, so stay tuned, and don’t worry – we’ve had plenty of things go wrong this year! 🙂 PJH

  6. Mary Ellen

    What a great application for my Silhouette Cameo!! I can get anything with that machine and it will cut this without me having to use an exacto knife. Brilliant!

    In regards to blurry photo, what kind of camera are you using? Looks like the first thing may need is more light. The blurry photo is a result of a longer shutter speed due to a need of increased lighting (assuming it is on Auto or not speed priority).

    1. PJ Hamel

      Thanks, Mary Ellen – the photo was taken awhile ago, and I think since then MJ has made the equipment and lighting adjustments she needed to prevent it happening in the future. Cheers – PJH

    2. MaryJane Robbins, post author

      Hi Mary Ellen,
      First of all, color me jealous over your machine! Secondly, thanks for the photo tips. I’d say that is probably the biggest struggle for me as a food blogger. I’ve bought myself a few books and it has helped tremendously. I still get tickled when photos come out well, so it’s a work in progress! ~ MJ

  7. Laura Everage

    I feel the same way about pulling out all the cake-decorating tools – especially for the post-holidays birthdays (twins right after Christmas, and another daughter’s birthday this coming weekend!) I’m taking your advice this weekend as I bake yet another cake! And, I’ll remember – no blowing!

    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Well please feel free to share a picture of your cake this weekend! We would love to see everyone’s creations. Jon@KAF

    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Fiori is a citrus and vanilla flavoring that can be bought right on our website! Jon@KAF

  8. M Williams

    If you have access to a Cricut Cutter use it! This machine can cut out all kinds of detailed shapes. Use a transparency as mentioned above. Also mentioned was spraying with cooking spray, if you use plastic, spray on both sides. The top will catch the dust and may help with the smudging and loose bits falling off as you remove the stencil. This cake looks great and has my imagination running at full speed.

    1. The Baker's Hotline

      I am happy to hear we could get your creative juices flowing! Feel free to share your designs, I bet everyone would be happy to see them. Jon@KAF

    2. MaryJane Robbins, post author

      Hi M,
      I tried and tried to tell my hubs that a Cricut was something I needed for work, but he wasn’t buying it, literally! 🙂 I do hope to try one out someday! ~ MJ

  9. Queen

    What is the best flour (NOT CAKE FLOUR) to use to get the softer more moist cupcakes, or the flour with the lowest protein content?

    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Well, cake flour is of course going to have the lowest protein content and make for light and moist cupcakes out of any flour. If this is not an option for you, then I would suggest a pastry flour. Jon@KAF

  10. Lisa Brown

    This kind of cake decorating is just my speed! I am barely proficient in piping! I have a daghter who can do amazing cakes, now I have a little trick up my sleeve for competition!


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