How to make perfect buttercream icing and other baking essentials, with cake genius April Carter

Jane Willson
21 October, 2014

London-based baker and blogger April Carter’s stunning creations offer serious wow factor, but she balances that with a natural, flavour-driven approach to decorating. The results rock.

Q: You're young and releasing your third book. How does that happen?

I'm 33 and the last few years have flown by, I still can’t believe that Decorated is my third book! It all started with my blog, Rhubarb & Rose. I was really into cake pops when they came over from the US and had lots of photos of them on my blog. Kate Pollard from Hardie Grant happened to be looking for an author for a cake pop book that she had in mind and got in touch.  

Q: Tell us about your blog Rhubarb & Rose? You started it in 2010?

I have always had a thing for baking but I really got interested in blogs, food photography and writing recipes when I was planning my wedding five years ago. I was inspired by American and Australian wedding and design blogs like Design Sponge with their fresh DIY approach to styling and wedding cakes, and the beautiful photography that they featured. I started Rhubarb & Rose after the wedding and found that I really enjoyed the process of documenting what I'd baked and why. 

April Carter is the author of Top of the Cake Pops, trEATs, and her latest book, Decorated.

Q: And by extension, your food journey? Did you grow up among food lovers or cooks? Are you self taught, or a bit of both?

My mum and grandmother both cooked a lot when I was growing up and when I was little I loved to bake simple things like scones and chocolate crispy cakes. I was fascinated by the spice rack and the glacé cherries and angelica that my grandmother kept in her baking cupboard for decorating her famous Christmas trifle. 

My mum has always had a good eye for aesthetics and attention to detail when it comes to food and our birthday cakes ranged from '80s Walkmans to pirate ships. Up until last year, I was mostly self taught but since then I've trained at Leiths School of Food & Wine and completed a pastry internship at Sketch [in Mayfair], where I learned how to fill eclairs and decorate macarons.

Q: And blogs: do you have a latest favourite? And maybe one you keep returning to?

I love Top with Cinnamon from fellow Hardie Grant author Izy Hossack for the gorgeous photography and I always go back to Cup of Jo for fun articles on life, style and food in New York.  

Q: What do you love about Decorated – and what sets it apart from other books about baking?

I prefer a more natural and flavour-driven approach to cake decoration, which is why I'm so proud of the projects in Decorated. I want my cakes to look as delicious as they taste and I love to show off the ingredients inside the cake as well as using elements like fresh flowers. In the book you'll see candied hazelnuts topping my burnt butter hazelnut cake, glittering blackberries all lined up on top of the dark chocolate and blackberry cake and a crown of crystallised rosemary on my apple, parsnip and rosemary cake. When I do use colouring for things like the citrus confetti cake, I like to bring out the colours of the fruits to hint at the flavours inside. I also love the beautiful photography by Danielle Wood and the fact that you can mix and match the cakes, buttercreams and decorating techniques. 

Burnt butter hazelnut cake | Dark chocolate and blackberry cake

Q: What recipe do you most often return to?

The chocolate and sea-salted caramel is always a favourite and I've made lots of cakes with this flavour combination. Caramel looks so beautiful dripping down the side of a cake too. 

Q: What do you say to people like me who are competent enough bakers but intimidated by the decorating bit!?

Keep it simple and take your time. I think lots of people underestimate how long it takes to bake and decorate a cake and it can be a stressful process if you feel rushed. If you're baking for a special occasion, I would recommend doing as much as possible the day before, whether it's making some decorative cake flags or getting your ingredients gathered together. When it comes to the decoration, choosing a cake that's maybe a smaller size but has height and nice even layers will give you impact. Once you have that, all you need is some fresh flowers, lots of birthday candles or a single sparkler to make it really special. 

Q: Where is the best place to start?

When I'm planning a cake I think about the season, who the cake is for and where I need to transport it to. For cosy birthday drinks at the pub I might go for a chocolate chip cookie layer cake decorated with a single candle, which is easy to transport and share. For a summer party in my garden I'll make a fig and almond cake with honey vanilla cream on a nice cake stand as I don't need to worry about transporting everything.

Chocolate chip cookie layer cake | Fig and almond cake with honey vanilla cream

Q: How important is it to master a good buttercream icing? And what is the key?

It's essential and not too tricky to get right. A creamy, smooth buttercream that keeps its shape makes covering your cake and piping designs a lot easier, as well as tasting delicious. Always use an electric mixer (I love my stand mixer but a hand held one works too) and beat your sugar and butter together for at least five minutes to incorporate air for a pale colour and light texture. Turn your mixer down to its lowest setting for a couple of minutes before using your buttercream to eliminate big air bubbles. Temperature is important too. Try covering and chilling your buttercream for 15 minutes if it's too soft and not keeping its shape.  

Q: What else do you consider to be foundations for the aspiring baker?

Being organised and reading the recipe all the way through before you start. Also, get creative and don't be afraid to experiment with different flavours and decorations. 

Q: The stacked Victoria sandwich that also appears on the cover of Decorated is a serious wow cake. Is there a story behind this?

Thank you! The first time I made this cake was for a Diamond Jubilee party as part of an afternoon tea hosted by Betty Blythe. It was covered in glittering strawberries and I ended up being interviewed about it for Japanese TV. I recently made it for a close friend's wedding covered in seasonal berries and her favourite flowers. It's such a versatile cake and much quicker to put together than a covered version, I'd love to try a raspberry red velvet version next. 

Q: If we were to cook one cake from your book, which would you recommend?

It's so hard to choose, but you can't go wrong with the simple store cupboard chocolate cake. Follow the step-by-step instructions for foolproof even layers and impressively smooth buttercream covering and top with a simple sparkler. 

April Carter is the author of Decorated: Sublimely crafted cakes for every occasion. Check out her beautiful cakes here.


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