Rather than poke up through the soil, icing flowers emerge, petal by petal, from the shiny tip of a pastry bag. Still, each little bud, smelling of sweet butter, seems as miraculous as one of nature's own.
With a pastry bag and a set of tips, you can fashion cakes as charming as fresh-picked bouquets. First, get comfortable with the equipment: Choose a pastry bag that isn't too large, 10 or 12 inches, and fill it with no more than one cup of frosting. Twist the top of the bag, and use your writing hand to keep it closed as you apply pressure to pipe the shapes; with your other hand, you can steady the tip or rotate the cake. Don't worry if those first attempts aren't flawless -- they'll still be delicious.
Our 10-cup buttercream recipe is best made using an electric mixer with at least a five-quart bowl. You can also make it with a handheld electric mixer in a large heatproof bowl, but the mixing times will likely be longer than those listed here.
Disposable pastry bags are quite helpful: They are inexpensive enough to buy in quantity, and having many makes it possible to use one for each shade of frosting, so you can switch from color to color. There's no need to buy an entire set of pastry tips; at a dollar or less per tip at cookware stores, you can buy just the ones you need. Fitting the bags with couplers allows you to change pastry tips without emptying the bag.
Having plenty of frosting on hand allows you to practice mixing colors and piping flowers before you begin decorating. To blend colors, first tint a small amount of buttercream by adding gel-paste food coloring a dab at a time. Blend after each addition, until the color is darker than you would like. (You can use a single shade of food coloring or experiment by mixing two or more.) Gradually mix the tinted frosting into more buttercream until you get the right shade. Pipe flowers onto parchment or waxed paper until you're comfortable enough to try them on the actual cake.
Cupcakes make excellent canvases for beginners, since they're easy to maneuver. A coupler, a plastic ring that screws onto the end of a pastry bag, allows you to change tips easily. As you pipe, wipe off the tip frequently for neat results. We piped the chrysanthemums directly onto the cupcakes.
Making a Chrysanthemum
Make the leaves first: With the No. 68 leaf tip and green frosting, hold the bag at a 45 degree angle to the cake with the tip's flat side up. Squeeze bag, and pull out from the base of the leaf, releasing pressure and lifting to form the end.
With the coupler alone (or the No. 12 round tip) and frosting in the flower color, make a raised one-half-inch-wide dot to anchor the petals. Change to the No. 80 fluted tip; hold bag at a 45-degree angle against the edge of the dot, the tip forming a U.
Gently squeeze the bag while pulling out in a quick stroke. Repeat all around the dot; form two or more petal layers over the first, making petals shorter and pulling bag upward with each layer.
With the No. 3 tip and green frosting, pipe three dots in the center.