Cake Decorating Tips from Chef Dana Herbert

Chef Dana Herbert covered in flour
Chef Dana Herbert, covered in flour

Pastry chef and sugar artist Dana Herbert has enjoyed a heaping helping of good fortune in his career so far. While he's modest about his accomplishments, there's no doubt he's worked hard to earn the credibility and skills to back them up. Not only does he have his own bakery--Desserts by Dana, located in Delaware--but he's the winner of the first season of TLC's Cake Boss: The Next Great Baker. His work has also been featured in American Cake Decorating magazine, Essence, and Delaware Today magazine, where critics and readers voted his shop as part of the "Best of Delaware 2010" for contemporary wedding cakes.

Sugar sculpture by Chef Dana Herbert

Affectionately known as "The Sugar Daddy," Chef Dana has created sugar sculptures and cakes for ESPN, the Philadelphia Flower Show, the Philadelphia Eagles, Jill Biden, and the Paris Gourmet and Cacao Noel Pastry Exhibition.

Chef Dana specializes in sugar sculptures, wedding cakes, and custom desserts, but his talents extend to all areas of pastry art. In a comprehensive interview, he agreed to share some of his knowledge and expertise with LoveToKnow's readers.

Tips for Cake Decorating

Towering cake by Chef Dana Herbert

LoveToKnow (LTK): For an aspiring cake decorator with a limited amount of experience and time, which baking and decoration techniques do you believe are worth learning?

Dana Herbert (DH): First and foremost, master basic buttercream icing techniques: icing cakes, [making] buttercream roses and other flowers, and piping.

LTK: What about equipment? Name the tools and supplies you think are essential to any decorator's kitchen.

DH: The most important basic items are good cake spatulas, Kitchen Aid or Hobart mixers, a good oven, high heat spatulas, turntables, and a great set of bags and icing tips. Other great items include a set of flower cutters, an airbrush, and a sheeter.

LTK: Can you offer some basic sugar artistry tips to home bakers?

DH: The more you pipe the sugar, the better the result. You can never be too good.

LTK: Fondant and gum paste go a long way toward making cakes look professional, but they can be intimidating for beginners. How could an amateur cake decorator start with those materials?

Cake by Chef Dana Herbert

DH: With fondant, you have to get the feel for covering. It all starts there. Keep it as thin as you can reasonably manage and as you get better, it should get thinner. The other critical thing is using the right fondant. I use a premium brand called Fondarific. It stretches without tearing and has great flavor. Its pliability makes it great for beginners, too.

LTK: Is it possible to create a polished, professional look with buttercream? Do you have any tips for doing so?

DH: You can absolutely create a polished cake in buttercream. The first step is to make sure to cream your [frosting] prior to icing your cakes. The buttercream will be smoother and come out better. If you are still having trouble, use a bench scraper to achieve a flat edge. The last trick is to use a spatula that has been in hot water to get an ultra-smooth edge.

Cake Boss: The Next Great Baker

LTK: Tell us about what it was like to win Cake Boss: The Next Great Baker.

DH: Winning The Next Great Baker was incredible. It was a dream come true to win overall, but honestly I felt like I already won by being selected. That's what I told everyone else sitting in the room before we touched a single morsel of cake: "We won! Now we just gotta do the dance."

Image is used courtesy of Brittany Sykes.

LTK: Did you have a winning strategy that you followed on the show? How about techniques you used to make sure your desserts came out perfectly every time?

DH: My strategy on the show was simple: Don't come in dead last in a challenge. I wasn't stressing in the bakers' challenge, but the elimination challenge was key. We had to win. Outside of the first challenge, I was on the winning team or won as an individual each time. I wish that my baking [had been] perfect, but I remember two times when Buddy didn't like what I made. Both were due to technical errors and not flavor, but nonetheless they weren't perfect. Baking is such a science that you have to be exact. There is much less margin for error in baking versus cooking. We had the next day off after Buddy told me he didn't like my cake. My fellow competitors enjoyed the day, but I went to a kitchen and baked for eight hours. There was no way I was going to fear that he didn't like something again.

Experience and Background

Chef Dana Herbert

LTK: You have a lot of educational experience, including bachelor's degrees in restaurant management and culinary arts and an associate's degree in pastry. Would you recommend the same for anyone who wants to become a cake decorator or sugar artist?

DH: I knew I wanted to be a business owner, so I got a management degree and then went back for a culinary degree and a pastry degree. I encourage anyone interested in cakes to educate themselves by going to school to learn the fundamentals and then train [or] work at reputable places.

LTK: What is it like to create extremely intricate decorations with sugar, which is such a volatile medium?

DH: Sugar, by far, is one of the most difficult media. It is very hygroscopic and very fragile. With such extreme temperatures (320-plus degrees), blowtorches, and more, the potential for injury is high if you are not careful. Outside of the danger, what you can create with the medium is breathtaking. It looks so much like blown glass.

Image used courtesy of Brittany Sykes.

More About Chef Dana

LTK: Is there anything else you'd like to share with our readers?

DH: Please visit my website at Desserts by Dana [to see] some awesome cakes. Also check out our cookbook, The Sweet and Savory Union. These recipes are great cover to cover.

Decorate Like Chef Dana

Chef Dana Herbert has the talent to not only create stunning sugar and cake designs, but also to win Cake Boss: The Next Great Baker. Practice makes perfect, so follow Chef Dana's tips to help you hone your decorating skills.

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Cake Decorating Tips from Chef Dana Herbert