My oldest (meaning longest standing, not elderly) friend, Amie, recently asked me to make cupcakes and cookies for her little boy’s first birthday. I was ecstatic! Not only do I adore the little man, but I hate walking into a party empty-handed, so this was the perfect solution to her needs and my desire to feed people.
The theme: safari animals. I instantly had the inspiration to pull out my cake decorating tips and put them to good use! My only problem was the fact that I had no idea how in the world I was going to put a darn animal on those cupcakes. As I’ve said in previous posts, I can create anything from a recipe, a pattern, or other set of directions, but when it comes to drawing, sculpting or doing anything of that sort, I am so not your girl!
And then…my mother-in-law, a woman who I truly believe should be sainted, saved the day. While walking around Wegmans – our joint obsession – she found adorable little icing decorations that were in the shape of animal faces — tigers, monkeys, and lions. With these gorgeous little decorations in hand, my plan unfolded beautifully.
Step one — the cupcakes…
I have a pretty strong philosophy on cupcakes – whether I’m doing them for friends and family OR whether someone asks me to bake them for some kind of event. If I’m decking them out with fancy decorations, I work from a box cake mix. I have a few secret ingredients I add to make sure that the cupcakes stay moist and have a little extra flavor punch. These ingredients are top-secret. One of them dates back to my Home Ec. teacher, Mrs. E., and was learned while she was teaching us basic cake decorating as seniors in high school! But here’s what I figure, if I’m taking the time to create a beautifully decorated cupcake (and doing many of them), I have to budget my time wisely and put the bulk of my effort where it really matters. The box mix cupcakes STILL taste phenomenal and, most of the time, no one ever really notices! I’ve also found that the cupcakes that are a product of these mixes are the ones that end up baking more uniformly, and I see fewer problems with “wet” and tacky tops.
If, on the other hand, I’m baking for a smaller number of people, and the decorations and frosting just need to be simple, I spend my time baking from scratch. In the end, it’s up to you…this is just what I do to make my life a little less crazy!
So, I start with a basic cupcake…these are a mix of chocolate and vanilla cake mix.
My others were straight-up chocolate and vanilla. No matter what, my vanilla cupcakes never look as pretty as the chocolate ones…what’s up with that?!
Step two — the frosting…
Since I was spending the majority of my time on creating the perfectly decorated cupcake, I made my frosting from scratch. My recipe is basic…just butter, confectioners’ sugar, milk, and vanilla for this batch. I will, often, add lemon, peppermint, or orange extract to this frosting when the cake flavor calls for it. It’s a super simple recipe, but one you definitely need a stand mixer OR a hand-held electric mixer to make!
1 c. (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened — I leave mine out at room temperature until it gets soft — don’t try to soften it in the microwave though — if it starts to melt, it’s the wrong consistency!
6-8 c. confectioners’ sugar
1/2 c. milk
2 t. vanilla extract (or other extract, depending on your cake flavor)
Put the butter in a large mixing bowl or in the bowl of your stand mixer. Add 4 cups of the sugar and then the milk and vanilla (or other extract). On medium speed (use your whisk attachment if you’re working with a stand mixer), beat until smooth and creamy (3-5 minutes). Gradually add the rest of the sugar, about a cup at a time, and beat well after each addition (give it 2-3 minutes), until your icing is of good spreading consistency. You may not need to use all the sugar (I always do).
Once the frosting is to your desired consistency, you can add some food coloring or icing color. For this project, I used Wilton’s leaf green.
This icing can be stored in an air-tight container for up to three days…but don’t store it in the refrigerator — it will set up on you, and you’ll never get it back to your desired consistency.
Step three — Decorate
To decorate these cupcakes, I used the Wilton #233 grass and hair tip. I loaded up a disposable decorating bag — no need to wash later with my tinted frosting. You just need to touch the tip to the cupcake, squeeze and pull up an away. You could start by practicing on a plate or piece of wax paper until you get it to look like you want it to look. After I finished the grass, I threw an animal face (on an angle, propped up with a little frosting behind it) and added the leaf that came frosting faces.
To finish my display, when we got to the party, I spread light brown sugar on a disposable baking sheet and put out the cupcakes. I also added some cute animal figures I found in the cake decorating section of my local party supply store.
All in all, I was pretty happy with how the cupcakes turned out, and they were a hit with the party guests — adults and children, alike. The take-away from a post like this is simple, you don’t have to do every single thing from scratch when it comes to entertaining. You can take some “safe” shortcuts, still make your food your own, and save yourself the time, headache, and occasional drama that comes from trying to do EVERYTHING the old-fashioned way!