Like so many indispensable discoveries, piping, the simplest technique of cake decorating, was invented by happy accident: During the early 1800s, a confectioner's apprentice in Bordeaux snipped the end off a paper cone used for wrapping sweets, filled it with meringue, and inscribed his name on the kitchen workbench with a flourish, no doubt. Although initially incensed by the sugary graffito, Monsieur Lorsa, the presiding confectioner, soon saw the potential in this act of vandalism. He filled the cornet with royal icing, and an ornamental tradition was born.
The mere act of squeezing a spoonful of frosting through a narrow opening can produce an astonishing array of decorative details -- ruffles, swirls, swags, bows, petals, leaves, shells, dots, zigzags -- depending on the tips you use. The following cakes, piped with buttercream, royal icing, and meringue, draw upon a limited repertoire of piping techniques to achieve a wide palette of expressions, from whimsical to majestic, and delicate to bold.
A steady hand and a sure eye, a collection of tips, a flower nail, a pastry bag, and a coupler (which allows you to change tips without having to refill the bag) are all the tools you'll need to crown a cake with the requisite finery.