Until I became a pastry chef, I associated stencils with quaint country inns and old-fashioned arts and crafts projects. But they can be used for so much more than retro wall decor. If you’ve got a good stencil and a powdery ingredient—think powdered sugar or cocoa powder—then you’ve got a chic and effortless way to decorate a cake, cookies, tarts, or even the plate your dessert is served on. Best of all? You don’t need any equipment beyond what you already have in your kitchen. To embark on this aesthetic journey, all you need are two things: something to use as a stencil and an ingredient you want to decorate your baked goods with.
What can you use as a stencil?
Any lightweight object that can cover part of a cookie or cake can be a stencil. Fancy “official” cake and cookie stencils can create intricate pro-level designs. But several basic kitchen items stand out as my favorite ways to make simple homemade cake and cookie stencils.
A sheet of parchment paper ranks at the top of the list, with many ways to get creative. Lightly drape a square of parchment over any portion of your cake top. Dust the negative space not covered by the parchment with a topping like powdered sugars and lift the stencil from the cake. Play around with angles for a modern, minimalist design.
For more involved stencil action, get scissor happy. Cut parchment into strips of any thickness. Arrange the strips on the top of your baked good in lines, angles, crisscross patterns, or a combination. Top with your stenciling ingredient.
You can also cut paper into stencil shapes: hearts for Valentine’s Day, little stars just because, and so on. Tear parchment into narrow, uneven strips and arrange the strips closely together for zebra lines.
Beyond the world of paper, fresh leaves (clean, of course) make beautiful negative-space stencils for fall. An old-fashioned paper doily can be used as an instant intricate stencil, and kitchen tools like a fish spatula can be employed to create modern lines.
What can you decorate with?
Once you’ve determined what kind of design scheme you’re after, you need to decide what ingredient you’re going to use to create it. Keep two considerations in mind when deciding on your stenciling ingredient: Will it look good, and will the flavor complement the dessert?
Some of my go-to dry ingredients for stencil-decorating the surface of a cake, tart, or cookie include the always-classic powdered sugar, different colored sanding sugars, cocoa powder, and matcha powder. (And, honestly, rainbow sprinkles are always a good decision.)
If you want to get a bit more involved, and the flavors work, blitz freeze-dried fruits like strawberries in a blender until they’re ground to dust. The resulting powder will have a gorgeous natural hue and a bright, tart flavor.
Here’s how to stencil like a pro.
Use a light touch. Unless you are going for a stucco look, make sure your stencil rests very lightly on top of your cake frosting, otherwise it will leave a distinct impression. You can even chill the frosted cake for a few minutes to stiffen the frosting before stenciling, which will prevent the stencil from sinking or making a deep indentation.