Pretty Bakes Blog

Cake decorating basics for pretty cakes, cupcakes, cookies and other sweet treats

Archive of ‘Special occasions’ category

Happy National Cupcake Week

national cupcake week

Photo by Jennifer Melo

It’s national cupcake week (Sept 16-22, 2013) so eat a cupcake and share the love.



Update: I probably should’ve mentioned earlier that this glorious week-long celebration of cupcakes takes place the U.K., but I’m Canadian and Her Majesty is the Head of State here in Canada so it’s all good, right? Right? Yeah, I think you can go ahead and finish eating that cupcake, Canucks.

My second failed attempt at making macarons — another Martha recipe this time

After my first failed attempt to make macarons, I tried another macaron recipe from Martha Stewart. You see, I have faith that she knows what she’s doing — and I clearly do not.

baked mini macarons undermixed batter plate

Results from my first macaron-making attempt. Photo by Jennifer Melo

The last time, I followed the recipe as directed and ended up with poor results so this time, I tried another Martha recipe and made a few adjustments.

I’ve worked with recipe developers in my time and, understandably, they get really annoyed when someone complains about bad results but they didn’t follow the recipe exactly. But nothing irritates a baker more than following a recipe exactly as instructed and ending up with crappy cookies. Harrumph! (Arms crossed. Brows furrowed. Foot stomped.)

So this time, I veered from the recipe and made a big mistake that led to my doom. So not Martha’s fault.

This batch turned out worse than the first one, but I’m learning some great lessons along the way.

About the macaron recipe

I used Martha’s recipe for Parisian Macarons for my second macaron-making adventure. Calling it an adventure takes the sting out of making another bad batch.

I noticed this recipe calls for piping 1″ macarons so I thought that might correct my issue with the mini macarons I ended up with last time. So I made  a new macaron-piping template with 1″ circles to help guide me with sizing and spacing.

I also thought I’d mix the batter enough to make the mixture a bit more runny so it’d spread out more. But I ended up overmixing it this time.

Photo by Jennifer Melo

Piped macaron shells, overmixed batter. Photo by Jennifer Melo

Then I did more research and found a video that suggested I could bake two cookie sheets at once. I’m a sucker for time management, so I thought I’d try that. Bad call. BIG mistake.

This is what happened when I tried to bake two cookie sheets at once, alternating sheets on racks about halfway through baking time: Very inconsistent cooking results.

Making macarons: My results

– Inconsistent baking. Most of these macarons were plagued with problems. Some cookies were undercooked and others were overcooked on the bottom but not-so cooked on top.

-This recipe directs you to leave your oven door “slightly ajar” when baking. Hmm… maybe my definition of slightly ajar is different than Martha’s.

-I ended up with several cracked macarons and/or sunken middles. What the heck’s going on here?

green macaron shells

The two shells at front seem fine. Photo by Jennifer Melo

I had just a few good, camera-ready ones to show you (see?)

Photo by Jennifer Melo

Photo by Jennifer Melo

…But looks can be deceiving because these were raw in the middle.

green undercooked macaron

Undercooked macaron shells. Photo by Jennifer Melo

-Macaron size was still smaller than I’d like. The batter spread some, but very little, after piping.

-Several clung to the parchment paper and cracked when I tried to remove them, a common problem with undercooked macarons, I learned. So I cooked the white ones longer than the green ones but they fell flat rather than puffing up.

White, hopelessly flat macarons. Photo by Jennifer Melo

White, hopelessly flat macarons. Photo by Jennifer Melo

So it’s back to the drawing board for me. Here’s hoping third time’s a charm.

Biggest lesson learned: Don’t bake more than one sheet at a time.

And we learn from our mistakes. Right? Right!


My first failed attempt to make macarons – Martha’s easy recipe flops

They’re so cute, they’re so sweet, they’re so… freaking hard to make!

Macarons are light and airy cookies that sandwich a sweet filling like buttercream, chocolate ganache or even Nutella. Yum! I’ve been wanting to try my hand at making these pretty sweets so I jumped right in with minimal research. Not my best idea.

I later learned that macarons are known in some baking circles as the hardest cookies to make. And now I know why.

macaron template and ingredients

Tools and ingredients for macaron-making. Photo by Jennifer Melo

Martha Stewart macaroon recipe review

I wasn’t about to mess around with a random recipe so I turned to the domestic goddess herself, Martha Stewart for support. And by that, I mean I went to her website in search of a recipe (nice website redesign, by the way, Bravo to Martha’s web team!)

First I tried this recipe: French macarons

The recipe is simple and straightforward. But Martha, girl. You failed me.

I needed more instructions so I’d give it a three out of five in satisfaction rating. Specifically, I think the recipe needs more explanation when it comes to batter consistency.

piped macarons dry undermixed batter

Note: This is what undermixed batter looks like. Photo by Jennifer Melo

It could also use direction on working in food colouring because this green batter turned out a few shades lighter once baked …

piped macarons dry undermixed green batter

Note: Slightly undermixed batter looks like this. Photo by Jennifer Melo

…and more details about drying time in various conditions would be helpful too, please.

baked macarons, white, undermixed

Lumpy, bumpy, grainy macaron batter, dry, before baking. Photo by Jennifer Melo


  • The cookies cooked nicely overall, but they turned out too small for my liking. I thought the batter might spread (it didn’t) and maybe even expand after baking — it didn’t.  If this recipe was called “Mini Macaroons,” I would’ve been almost completely satisfied but I envisioned a bigger macaroon of maybe 1.5-2” in diameter. Mine were piped at 3/4” as the recipe directed and a three-quarters of an inch is where they stayed. That’s probably because I didn’t mix the batter long enough, so I’m partly responsible for this fail.
mini macarons undermixed batter

How many macarons can I fit in the palm of my hand? 4! Photo (shot one-handed) by Jennifer Melo

  • The colour lightened and browned a lot after baking. What started as a fresh apple-minty green batter turned into a dull, light khaki green after cooking. Reptilian, almost. Weird, definitely. This food-colour-fading effect is well-documented so I would’ve avoided this if I researched more.
  • Inconsistent macaron texture. Some of the macaron tops were rough, lumpy and grainy so I learned I should mix the batter a bit more next time and not mess around with the batter.
  • These macaroons tasted fantastic! Thank you, Martha. Yes, we can be friends again. 😉 I gave up on making macaron filling from scratch after I saw the cookies didn’t turn out so pretty. But waste not! I filled them with some delicious raspberry curd I got from a recent trip to the U.S. Want to hear all about it? Read me! > 10 great reasons to visit Norfolk, Virginia.
baked mini macarons undermixed batter plate

Forget the pretty presentation and just eat. Photo by Jennifer Melo

Learn from my mistakes

I went rogue by splitting the batter in half. I wanted to add food colouring to half of the batch and keep the other batch white but that was a bad idea. Don’t do that.

Macaron batter is sensitive and you need to pipe it promptly after folding the mixture. So I learned that if I want to make a batch in another colour, it’s best to start fresh by making the recipe all over again. Yes, even if that’s a whole lotta kitchen cleanup for one day.


Cooked through, with a crunchy shell and a chewy center. Photo by Jennifer Melo

So now I’m brushing myself off and starting again. In the meantime, please feel free to share stories of your macaroon flops or successes. I’d love to hear ’em. Ready, set, go!

Doc McStuffins cake for Maya’s birthday

Doc McStuffins cake - Pretty Bakes Blog

Photo by Jennifer Melo


I’m back to blogging after a little hiatus. To make up for my absence, you’re getting a post with a video today. Yay! Hooray!

Settle down, now, folks. It’s just a mini video a la Vine app. But in it, you can see how my cake came together so I think it’s pretty neat. What do you think?

First things first. My niece Maya asked for a Doc McStuffins cake for her birthday party last month. My sister kindly loaned me a cute plastic toy to use as a cake topper and we decided on a two-tier cake with the top cake carved to resemble the Doc’s bag.

Who the heck is Doc McStuffins?

I’ve watched a couple of episodes of the TV show while hanging out with my nieces but I couldn’t rely on memory alone. So I did a Google image search for inspiration. Doc McStuffins, for those of you who are unfamiliar with the TV show, is a Disney character who’s a veterinarian. She nurses sickly stuffed animals and toys back to health and she’s pretty cool in my books.

Inspired by the colour and pattern of Doc McStuffins’ leggings, I covered the cake for the bottom tier in a pale purple fondant. Then I added pink and white polka dots. Easy stuff. I used a round cookie cutter with scalloped edges and a round cookie cutter with smooth edges to make the “happy birthday” emblem for the cake. It stretched into an oval. I used a brown food colouring marker to write the message on a white fondant circle and then stuck it to the cake by moistening the back of it with water.

Tackling Doc McStuffins’ doctor’s bag

The doctor’s bag was the real challenge for this cake. I downloaded and printed a paper template for Doc McStuffins’ bag — and it really came in handy for both carving and cutting out pieces of fondant to cover the cake.

I started with 6″ round layers of vanilla cake — three of them — filled with buttercream icing. Then I used a serrated knife to carve the cake into the shape of the doctor’s bag. I coated the carved cake in buttercream and used my paper template to cut pieces of fondant perfectly sized to cover the cake.

The buttercream quickly crusted over so I sprayed some water on the cake to make the fondant stick well. I liberally spritzed a pieced of fondant with water before sticking bright pink sugar crystals on it to add some sparkle to the lid of the doctor’s bag.

Doctor McStuffins cake - Pretty Bakes Blog

Photo by Jennifer Melo

Tinting and hoping…

I used gel food colouring to tint white fondant fuchsia and purple. I used a mixture of yellow, brown, orange and pink to colour white fondant the right shade of tan for the bandage. And I used a tiny round piping tip to poke holes in it.

For the handle, I snapped a toothpick in half to make two pieces, and stuck them into the top of the cake to act as supports. I rolled and bent a piece of fondant, and stuck each end into the toothpicks. But the handle slouched in the middle because the fondant was soft so I used paper towels to hold the handle in place. I hoped the handle would firm up while left to dry overnight.

…and praying and waiting

The next day, it time for was my least favourite part of the whole cake-decorating process: Transporting the cake. Yes, I may still be suffering a little post-traumatic stress from that time I dented my best friend’s wedding cake. 😉

I had trouble getting the doctor’s bag to sit on the cake properly. It was on a cardboard base and I didn’t realize that the bottom-tier was slightly domed. It was just domed enough to leave a frustrating gap on the cake when I place the doctor’s bag cake on top.

During the drive to my sister’s house, the doctor’s bag wiggled a lot and I thought it might topple over. But it arrived safe and sound — Phew! I removed the paper towels from under the bag’s handle just a few moments before serving the cake and it stayed in place. Woot! Woot!

Maya loved her Doc McStuffins cake. Mission complete.

A Wiggles cake for Ella’s birthday party

Wiggles cake

Photo by Jennifer Melo

When my precious niece Ella asked if I’d make a Wiggles cake for her birthday, I happily agreed. Then I secretly thought, How the hell am I going to make a Wiggles cake?

So I was beyond thrilled when my sister-in-law (a.k.a. Ella’s mom) pulled out a sugar transfer sheet to make easy work of this cake. Yes!

She ordered the design online and it was mailed to her. How civilized! So all I had to do was bake a large rectangular cake, whip up a few batches of buttercream, ice the cake and stick the transfer on top using fondant smoothers.

I used a cake comb to add texture to the sides of the cake and I piped a pearl border at the seams. Then I piped rosettes as a border on top, around the edges of the sugar transfer, and I added rainbow sprinkles for a finishing touch.

Combed cake close-up. Photo by Jennifer Melo

Combed cake close-up. Photo by Jennifer Melo

3 things I learned while making my Wiggles cake

1. Apply a thick layer of buttercream on the cake before combing it. I mean A LOT. I had to tell my inner perfectionist to get lost but I believe I would’ve achieved smoother results if I had applied a thicker layer of buttercream.

2. I need more practice piping pearl borders. See how some of the pearls have little peaks on ’em? They shouldn’t be there. Gotta work on timing the release of pressure on the piping bag and remember to hold the piping tip at a 45 degree angle. I made two attempts at piping a border around the sugar transfer after I was unhappy with the first attempt.

3. Add sprinkles when the buttercream is fresh. I waited too long, the buttercream crusted and the sprinkles bounced around and made a big mess.

The cake was delicious. I used Betty Crocker’s Super Moist rainbox bit cake mix and Wilton’s buttercream icing recipe.

Wanna see inside? Of course you do! Here’s a peek.

Inside a rainbow bit cake

Photo by Jennifer Melo

What do you think of my Wiggles cake?