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My dad's birthday party is tomorrow, and I do not know how to decorate his cake. He does not eat foods containing artificial flavoring or coloring. What are some methods I could use to accomplish this last-minute effort, and still suit his dietary needs?

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    His birthday is on April Fool's day? This sounds like the perfect opportunity to decorate his cake with ghost-chilli icing :-) – Richard Apr 2 '17 at 19:05
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    @Richard Jokes aside, imagine for a moment how awful it would be to have your birthday on april fool's day. Instead of celebrating nicely, people would forever be pulling stupid pranks on you and expect you to be ok with it, as if you'd actually asked to be born on that day. – Pharap Apr 3 '17 at 7:37
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The options are very wide. You are not telling us what kind of cake you have in mind, so I'll be making a few assumptions here. But once you start thinking outside the box that equals "birthday cake" with "cake with different colours of icing", a whole world of options opens up.

  1. Birthday cakes need not be (multi-)coloured.
    A one-tone cake that plays with texture can be very elegant, from luscious glossy chocolate ganache to swirls of light and fluffy frosting. You don't even need great piping skills (although it's a neat thing to master some day), heaping on the frosting and texturing into big fluffy "clouds" either with a spoon or a knife can be very beautiful and even my 7yo can produce very impressive results.

  2. Find edible decorations for that pop of colour.
    A bright red strawberry or raspberry on a white frosting, a few sprigs of mint or chopped pistachios for a touch of green. Some lemon or orange zest, perhaps. Even some jam or a fruit compote will do, put on top or served as a sauce on the side. Or go for a nature walk and find edible flowers.

flower and berry cake

  1. Choose non-edible decorations.
    Birthday candles aren't edible, so you can add more non-edible elements. Little flags on toothpicks or even a small garland held up by two or three large skewers come to mind. Perhaps spell out "HAPPY BIRTHDAY DAD" on bunting? Print a photo of your dad and mount it on a skewer or two? I have in the past even used toy figurines as cake topper. As long as everything that actually touches the cake is food safe, you needn't worry. You can use some parchment or plastic wrap to create a barrier under a topper, if necessary. The flags in the picture below are made from origami paper, masking tape is very handy, too, because it needs no extra glue.

muffins with flags

  • Because the OP mentioned food colouring, I didn't even think of other decorations. I like your idea! Although it's too late for the father's cake, it's a great option for others. There are many edible flowers too! I wrote a booklet with photos for a friend of edible flowers and ways to prepare them. Lots of ways to use them in sweet items. – Jude Apr 3 '17 at 18:58
  • With edible flowers or herbs, you can candy them, or just the petals or leaves (soak in hot sugar syrup and dry). It also occurred to me that even if flowers were not the desired theme, a mosaic of candied petals and leaves could be quite versatile - making fancy patterns or simple pictures, depending on skill and available edible foliage. – Megha Apr 4 '17 at 5:24
  • @Megha true, but I tried to keep the suggestions relatively simple. Lovely suggestion, though! – Stephie Apr 4 '17 at 6:08
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Since it's last-minute, I'm guessing it'll be tough to work out natural colorings, so I'd avoid doing color-based decorations altogether.

You can use chocolate chips or shavings, nuts, fruit (fresh or dried), crumbled cookies, or anything else you like as toppings. I think even just an even coating of chopped nuts looks pretty good, but you can get pretty fancy with patterns, especially if you use more than one thing.

Or if you want something you can pipe on, make frosting and a ganache (or another frosting) in different colors - plain white and chocolate, or caramel, or maybe even fruit if you have something strongly colored you can puree.

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What you are seeking are natural food dyes (or natural food colorings).

These are commercially available and you may find them at a local health or natural foods store or even a quality grocers.

They can be homemade, if you have the time and can get the ingredients.

Examples of their effects in buttercream:

(from Nourishing Joy)

Be careful not to end up with natural fabric dyes without careful checking, as many of these are toxic or bad tasting.

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    That last statement makes me worry that you've actually done that in the past, or know someone who has. – Pharap Apr 3 '17 at 7:40
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    Aren't you going to be able to taste these? I can't imagine spinach powder combining very well with cake. – Erik Apr 3 '17 at 8:16
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    @Erik Many of these colorants are very potent; the amount needed to colour something is too small too taste (although I don't have experience specifically with spinach powder). Jude also mentions this in their answer. Sugar has a much stronger taste and - in most cakes - is present in a much (much) larger quantity. – 11684 Apr 3 '17 at 9:52
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    I have tried going that way and almost all colors I have used have changed the taste at amounts which made the final product more on the pale than on the overcolored side. – rumtscho Apr 3 '17 at 10:09
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    @Pharap Fortunately not! But there were a couple of fabric dye sites in the search and, as my wife is a rug hooker and sometimes uses natural dyes, I am aware of some of the colour sources :) – wumpus D'00m Apr 3 '17 at 13:15
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Takes very little turmeric to give a bright yellow colour - not enough to have a noticeable taste, especially if you use flavouring. Got any beets around? They give a lovely magenta red colour to food. Diluting would give a pale pink. Mashing fresh peppermint leaves will give a green juice but since you couldn't use much without thinning down the icing, it would likely be a pale green. I know of nothing that gives a blue colour since even blueberries cook a purple-red.

So forgoing blue, you can play around with those three shades to make some varied colours. None of this is helpful though if you don't have these ingredients. Hopefully, someone else may know of others.

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    You may be able to get blue by adding a bit of baking soda to the purple from blueberries, grapes, red cabbage, etc. The purplish colors of these plants come from anthocyanins, which change color depending on acidity. The exact color will depend on the specific types of anthocyanins present, and on what else they're mixed with, so some experimentation may be needed. Also, mixing such a blue with acidic ingredients can turn it purple again, so you may need to adjust the color with more baking soda. – Ilmari Karonen Apr 3 '17 at 0:02
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    @IlmariKaronen I suggest raspberries -- I know the colour is string enough to get a good pink (was going to suggest under Jefromi's answer), and I know it reacts as an indicator quite readily. – Chris H Apr 3 '17 at 7:58
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    Turmeric also enhances other colors in the red/yellow/orange spectrum since it is flourescent! – rackandboneman Apr 3 '17 at 9:31
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Jam or Jelly

Got a jar of jam or jelly in the fridge or pantry?

For jam, you may want to run through a sieve to remove seeds. You may need to add a bit of water or liquor to thin it out enough to press through. If too thin, simmer briefly on stove to evaporate.

Mix well to your batter or frosting for a bit of color.

Or swirl. After apportioning batter to the baking pans, plop some jelly and swirl with toothpicks or a thin knife.

Ditto for frosting, but you may want to practice first on a plate or waxed paper. If too thick for the frosting, thin a bit with water, liquor, or real maple syrup. Heating in a pan briefly can also help to thin.

Another alternative: Drizzle a series of lines across the top of the cake, then swipe across the lines with a toothpick to get the fancy effect seen commonly on Napoleon pastries. As seen here or seen here.

enter image description here

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Suggestions:

  • Using a stencil, a seive and some icing sugar, you can create simple decorations known as cake dusting
    cake dusting
  • Consider using chocolate icing
  • Fruit can be arranged on top to make wonderful toppings/decorations
    cake - fruit decorated
  • Indeed, actually explaining what you're suggesting with icing sugar would be way better, but suggesting chocolate icing and fruit is an answer. – Cascabel Apr 3 '17 at 17:32
  • Thank you for adding photos! That really helps explain your suggestions. – Cascabel Nov 11 '17 at 18:03

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