Let Them Eat Vegan Cake

Fillings, Frostings, and Other Decorative Delights

By Laura McGuiness

After attending a vegan dessert class at a local health food store, I inquired about vegan cake decorating courses. The instructor told me point blank they didn't offer them because a vegan frosting suitable for piping did not exist. I took this as a challenge, and for the next few months I became obsessed with creating beautifully decorated (and delicious tasting) vegan cakes in my very own kitchen. These cakes have repeatedly opened the door to people curious or skeptical about vegan baking. Through my piping, whisking, and stirring, the lines of communication inevitably open, allowing me to have an honest discussion with others about the benefits of veganism. Have I convinced you to start decorating vegan cakes yet? If you weren't persuaded by the sugary prospects before, look at it as a type of activism!

The trick to making great vegan cakes is finding a good cake recipe. I prefer to look for ones with apple cider vinegar to enhance the dairy-like flavors in your cake as well as activate baking powder and baking soda, ingredients that act as leaveners. I always fill my cake pans as much as possible so the layers are exceptionally thick and make for tall cakes without baking more than necessary. I would suggest looking online or in recipe books for a great vegan cake recipe. Once you've found it, make sure to flour the pans before pouring the batter. While pouring, use a kitchen scale to weigh each pan, ensuring even layers.

After baking the cakes, there are a few steps to do before you can actually start piping the frosting:

  1. Wait for your cakes to cool. If you try to work with warm layers, they will be more likely to fall apart in your hands. While it is tempting to eat your mistakes, the frosting will go much smoother if your cakes are completely cooled. I tend to let them cool on the counter overnight.
  2. Level your cakes. I bought a cake leveler from the store because I possess the frustrating inability to cut straight — even on a cake. You can also use a serrated knife or even floss! Basically, when cakes rise, they develop a dome on top. You want to cut the dome off so the cake is as flat as possible, which you can do by placing it on a level surface, stooping down so you're eye-level, and cutting across until it appears even. This ensures your cake won't tilt during the decorating process.
  3. Center your first layer. This is a simple step. Buy a cake board from the store or create your own out of a clean piece of cardboard. For the first cake board, use one the same diameter as your cake. (Example: If you're baking an 8-inch cake, use an 8-inch cake board.) This is for aesthetic reasons, as a larger cake board will show any frosting or oil spots. Simply center your first layer in the middle of the cake board. If you are worried about the cake shifting on the board, anchor the layer to the board with a dollop of frosting. At this point, your cake is ready to be frosted, which is the most exciting part because you can actually see the cake coming together as your very own creation. Having a few choice tools is desired, if not completely necessary.


  1. Angled spatula(s). I prefer having two different size spatulas, a smaller one for frosting between layers and a larger one for the sides.
  2. Icing smoother. This tool makes it easier to smooth the sides and top of your cake.
  3. Cake turntable. This makes it infinitely easier to frost the cake.
  4. Piping bags (or large Ziploc bags). If you don't have a piping bag, just use a large Ziploc bag and clip the corner off with a pair of scissors.
  5. Piping tips (your choice). My favorite beginner's tip is the Wilton 1M.
  6. Coupler. A coupler is not necessary, but if you would like to easily switch between tips, I highly recommend it.
  7. Gel food coloring. Gel food coloring is superior to liquid food coloring, as I have found the latter can dilute the consistency of frosting and keep it from stiffening completely. It is important to be wary of certain food colorings as many contain non-vegan dyes and harmful ingredients. TruColor offers a vegan food coloring powder that can be combined with water to create a decorating gel. Be careful of using purple food coloring, as it is notorious for fading in both natural and artificial light.

Frosting and Preparing for Decorating:

  1. Frost the first layer. With your first layer firmly centered on the cake board and resting atop the cake turntable, use your angled spatula to frost the first layer of your cake. You want to use the flat side of the spatula to level the frosting so it is flat for the next layer of cake.
    Note: If you are adding a filling to the first layer of cake, pipe a dam of frosting around the edges and spread your filling in the middle. This ensures the filling does not seep out and run down the sides of your cake.
  2. Frost the second layer. After completing the first layer, place the second layer atop the first. Use your angled spatula to frost the second in the same way as the first.
  3. Complete your crumb coat. The crumb coat is a thin layer of frosting that seals in the crumbs, leaving a smooth surface for your decorations. When completing this step, I use a large angled spatula to frost along the top and the sides. It's best to look at online videos of people doing this, as getting an even frosting along all sides is difficult to accomplish. One tip is to hold your angled spatula flat against the sides so the frosting does not flare out anywhere. You can use an icing smoother here to scrape off any excess icing. With the crumb coat, it is okay to leave some of the cake exposed. The frosting does not have to be perfect, just smooth enough to create a perfect canvas for your finished product. When you are satisfied, place the cake in the fridge for at least 30 minutes to allow it to set.
  4. Frost the topcoat! This step takes quite a bit of practice; do not get discouraged. Use your angled spatula to smooth the remainder of your frosting onto the cake. Even out the tops and sides with your icing smoother. If you're unhappy with the product of your frosting job, you can use icing combs to create a pattern; this method has proved very forgiving of any mistakes.
  5. Decorate! Now is the time when you have some decisions to make. What piping tip would you like? What do you want to do with it? Do you want to use fondant? Would vegan buttercream work better or royal icing? What consistency do you need? This step requires enthusiasm and imagination to make it work. Play with different piping tips until you get your desired effect. To answer a few of the aforementioned questions: Satin Ice's white vanilla fondant is a great and widely available brand that is listed as vegan by the company. Royal icing is best for intricate lines and decorations that require stiff, jagged edges, such as Victorian roses.

Frosting-Making Tips:

  1. Make enough for the crumb coat, the topcoat, and any decorations. All my frosting recipes have been doubled to provide extra.
  2. Try not to use the soft shortening that comes in a tub. The hard, cubed vegan shortening sticks that Earth Balance provides are the best.
  3. Your recipe will not be vegan unless you use sugar that has not been processed with bone char. All organic sugar is vegan and is available in most stores today.
  4. You can use regular vanilla extract, but clear vanilla extract (found in cake decorating or craft stores) keeps your frosting perfectly white.
  5. Consistency, consistency, consistency! For the buttercream frosting in your middle layer, you might prefer it slightly creamier than what you're using in your piping bag. If that's the case, add non-dairy milk tablespoon by tablespoon until it reaches your desired consistency. For the piping bag, however, stiff peaks are necessary to retain their shape after being piped. The stiff consistency allows you to pipe borders, roses, hydrangeas, and other shapes, all of which can be learned through watching and/or reading online tutorials. Royal icing can range greatly in consistency depending on its desired use. If you want royal icing for writing, outlining, or piping, the consistency should be very thick. The best way to test any kind of frosting is to scoop some into a spoon and flip it over. If the frosting does not fall off the spoon or falls off very slowly, it's ready for the piping bag.

Cream Cheese Frosting

(Makes enough for a 2-layer 9-inch cake)

  • 1 cup vegan margarine
  • Two 8-ounce containers of vegan plain cream cheese
  • 4 cups organic powdered sugar
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
  • ¾ cup all-purpose flour
  • Vegan milk (optional)

Let your margarine soften slightly. I accomplish this by placing it atop my preheating oven. Cream the margarine and cream cheese together with an electric mixer; add the powdered sugar slowly into the mixture cup by cup. As the mixture thickens, add the vanilla. Then, add the flour slowly until stiff peaks form. At this point, you can add food coloring or thin with non-dairy milk.

Calculated as 24 servings:

Total calories per serving: 197 Fat: 11 grams
Carbohydrates: 24 grams Protein: 1 gram
Sodium: 156 milligrams Fiber: <1 gram

Royal Icing

(3 cups - for decorating)

  • 3 Tablespoons salt free aquafaba (brine from a can of garbanzo beans)
  • 2 ½ cups organic powdered sugar
  • ½ teaspoon vanilla extract
  • ½ teaspoon cream of tartar
  • Water (optional)

Using an electric mixer, mix the aquafaba until foamy and then add the powdered sugar, vanilla, and cream of tartar. Continue mixing on medium high for about 10 minutes or until stiff peaks form. If coloring is desired, add it here. If you have trouble attaining a thick consistency, try refrigerating the mixture for a short period of time and returning to it. Adding water only a teaspoon at a time can be useful if you'd like to thin the icing. When piping, the heat from your hand might melt the frosting slightly. If you are having trouble attaining jagged edges on your decorations, refrigerate the piping bag for a few minutes and return to it. Try to use this recipe directly after it's made. If you need to save it, cover the container tightly and refrigerate for a short period of time.

Total calories per serving: 25 Fat: <1 gram
Carbohydrates: 6 grams Protein: <1 gram
Sodium: <1 milligram Fiber: <1 gram

Custard Filling

(Makes enough for a 2-layer 9-inch cake)

  • 1 cup almond milk
  • 1 cup water
  • 2 Tablespoons cornstarch
  • 5 Tablespoons organic granulated sugar
  • 1 Tablespoon all-purpose flour
  • 1 pinch of salt
  • 3 Tablespoons vanilla extract
  • Small pinch of turmeric

Heat the almond milk on low heat, trying not to let it boil. Mix the water, cornstarch, granulated sugar, all-purpose flour, and salt in a separate bowl to ensure the cornstarch is completely dissolved before adding the mixture to the almond milk. Set to medium heat, stirring constantly, until warm. Wait until it has reached a sticky, firm consistency similar to pudding and use the cold spoon test. Add the vanilla to taste and turmeric to desired color. Use this custard shortly after the mixture has cooled. When placed in the refrigerator, it becomes very gelatinous and hard to spread onto the cake layers. If this happens, simply heat it up slightly so it becomes pliable.

Calculated as 24 servings:

Total calories per serving: 21 Fat: <1 gram
Carbohydrates: 4 grams Protein: <1 gram
Sodium: 13 milligrams Fiber: <1 gram

Basic Buttercream

(Makes enough for a 2-layer 9-inch cake)

  • 1 ½ cups vegan margarine
  • 1 ½ cups vegetable shortening
  • 7 cups organic powdered sugar
  • 2 Tablespoons vanilla extract
  • Vegan milk (optional)

Cream the margarine and shortening together in a bowl with an electric mixer. Slowly mix the powdered sugar into the bowl cup by cup. As the mixture thickens, add the vanilla extract. You want to mix until stiff peaks form. At this point, you can add food coloring or thin with non-dairy milk.

Calculated as 24 servings:

Total calories per serving: 353 Fat: 24 grams
Carbohydrates: 35 grams Protein: <1 gram
Sodium: 120 milligrams Fiber: <1 gram

Strawberry Filling

(Makes enough for a 3-layer 9-inch cake)

  • 1 heaping cup fresh strawberries
  • ¾ cup organic granulated sugar

Cut strawberries in half and remove the stems. Put strawberries and sugar into a saucepan over medium heat, stirring frequently until the sugar dissolves. Cover the pan and continue cooking, stirring frequently, until the mixture begins to boil and eventually thickens. If using a candy thermometer, remove from heat when the temperature reaches 210 degrees Fahrenheit (99 degrees Celsius). Otherwise, use the cold spoon test to determine thickness. To perform the cold spoon test, chill a spoon in the freezer before dipping it into the boiling jelly mixture. Raise the spoon away from the pan and turn the spoon upside down so the liquid runs off. You know this jelly is finished when the jelly forms a sheet that runs off the spoon instead of just dripping.

To assemble cakes with a filling: After centering the first layer, use a piping bag fitted with a large tip (like the Wilton 1M) to pipe a dam of frosting along the edges. Using an angled spatula, spread the strawberry filling along the inside. Repeat with the second layer. On the third layer, pipe your border along the edges and spread the filling along the inside. The border on the third layer is different than the dam on the others because it is a form of decoration. Everybody is going to see this when they look at your cake, so be creative with what kind of border you choose.

Calculated as 24 servings:

Total calories per serving: 26 Fat: <1 gram
Carbohydrates: 7 grams Protein: <1 gram
Sodium: <1 milligram Fiber: <1 gram

Lemon Buttercream

(Makes enough for a 3 layer 9-inch cake)

  • 1 ½ cups vegan margarine
  • 1 ½ cups vegetable shortening
  • 7 cups organic powdered sugar
  • 4 Tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
  • 4 teaspoons lemon zest
  • Vegan milk (optional)

Cream the margarine and shortening together in a bowl with an electric mixer. Slowly mix the powdered sugar into the bowl cup by cup. Add both the lemon juice and zest. You want to mix until stiff peaks form. At this point, you can add food coloring or thin with your favorite non-dairy milk.

Calculated as 24 servings:

Total calories per serving: 350 Fat: 24 grams
Carbohydrates: 35 grams Protein: <1 gram
Sodium: 120 milligrams Fiber: <1 gram

Laura McGuiness graduated from the University of California, Berkeley. She is a former VRG Intern.