Jazzing up a special cake — for Valentine's Day or any special occasion — doesn't have to involve pastry bags and five colors of buttercream. Many new cookbooks have been using "found sweets" — think peppermint patties, sugared fruit, store-bought cookies — to adorn cakes. Just remember, says Letty Halloran Flatt, pastry chef at Deer Valley Resort in Utah, to choose items with complementary flavors (to give "a hint of what's inside," she says) and appropriate scale. You never want the decorations to overpower the cake. Here are some ideas:
Flatt encircles the top of a chocolate truffle cake in her book, "Chocolate Snowball" (Lyons Press, $19.95), with chocolate truffles. But who's stopping you from using malted milk balls or red and white M&Ms?
In "Rose's Heavenly Cakes" (Wiley, $39.95), cake maven Rose Levy Beranbaum surrounds a two-layer cake with Pepperidge Farm Pirouettes (e.g., rolled wafer cookies) cut in different lengths to mimic candles; she tops each cookie with red piping gel for flames.
Another cool idea: Beranbaum covers a one-layer cake with inverted chocolate chips. Time-consuming, she writes, but easy.
Pastry chef Joanne Chang, author of "Flour" (Chronicle, $35), suggests thin mint candies (such as Andes Mints) "shingled around the bottom and along the top (of) a chocolate cake."
Chang also suggests buying sugar cookie dough and baking cookies using a flower (or other any shape of your choice) to adorn the top or sides of a cake.
And never forget the allure of nuts, ground or whole. They "cover a multitude of sins," Flatt says.
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