Sweet solutions that take the cake

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


, 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.