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Cupcakes take the fuss out of icing and slicing

POSTED: November 9, 2011 1:30 a.m.
TOM REED/The Times

Cupcakes have come a long way in the world of desserts. Given a few simple upgrades, they make an excellent alternative to a traditional layer cake and are easier to decorate.

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Like the once lowly lobster, cupcakes have risen up the food ranks.

Instead of being relegated to children’s parties, the mini-treats are everywhere from food trucks to wedding receptions. They’ve become the fodder of television shows like "Cupcake Wars" on Food Network, and bakeries devoted solely to creating the latest and greatest in bite-sized cakes are popping up all over the country.

With the holidays right around the corner, now is the perfect time to consider building your own cupcake repertoire.

Why labor over icing a sheet cake or trying to stack layers just so, when you could get the same flavors in a neater package? An added bonus is they’re self-contained, so you don’t have to worry about slicing and serving anything.

The cake

Unless your great-grandmother has passed down her famous pound cake recipe to you, or you’re known for your death-by-chocolate cake, there’s no need to go through the hassle of making your cupcakes from scratch.

With turkeys to roast and yams to candy, who has the time? An easier solution is to jazz up a box mix. The thought may rattle more traditional bakers to their core, but hear me out.

Author Ann Byrn, has built a very successful career around her "The Cake Mix Doctor" line of cookbooks. There’s a reason for that. The results are just as good as from-scratch recipes with a lot less muss and fuss.

Consider the box of cake mix as your base and build the flavors up from there. Once you’ve followed the package’s directions for creating your batter, feel free to let your imagination do its thing.

A simple tweak would be to add a few teaspoons of your favorite extract to the batter.

If you split the batter into separate bowls before making any additions, you can create a variety of flavors from a single mix. The mild flavor of a basic yellow cake mix makes it a prime candidate for revamping.

Liqueurs also lend themselves well to
baking. To get the most flavor, try brushing them onto your cupcakes as soon as they come out of the oven or adding a few teaspoons to your icing.

Although you’re skipping a few steps by using a cake mix, I would recommend taking the time to make your own icing. It doesn’t take much effort, and it helps boost the homemade appeal of your dessert. A basic buttercream icing will get you where you want to go with most cakes.

Should you draw a blank when trying to come up with flavor combinations, consider pulling elements from your favorite dessert or snack.

Love banana nut bread? Try stirring in a few teaspoons of banana extract and some chopped pecans or walnuts into your batter. Top it off with a basic buttercream icing and you’re sure to have a hit.

What about making a margarita cupcake? To do so, simply brush on a little margarita drink mix onto your cupcakes as soon as they come out of the oven and add a few teaspoons of triple sec to your buttercream icing. To make it even more authentic, you could sprinkle flavored sugar crystals on the top.

Decorations

The cupcakes you were used to eating as a child probably came in a pastel-colored paper liner or a silver foil version.

A short stroll down the baking aisle at your local craft store will reveal cupcake liners have come a long way since then.

There are ones with scalloped ends to make your cupcake look like a flower; funky animal prints and ones sporting damask and argyle prints. Although the traditional liners are still available, why not give your guests something to get excited about?

If you’ve added an unexpected flavor to your cake, you may want to work a visual cue into your decorations. For instance, if there is a raspberry filling inside the cake, top off the icing with a whole raspberry.

Technique

You may want your cupcakes to taste homemade, but you certainly don’t want them to look that way. One of the easiest ways to dress things up a bit is by piping the icing onto your cupcakes, instead of smearing it with a spoon or knife.

While you could go out and buy a bunch of professional tools, you really only need one — a decorating tip. You can pick one up from places like Michael’s and Jo-Ann Fabric and Craft Store for less than $2.

The bigger the opening in the tip, the easier it will be to decorate your cupcake since it will cover more space. And you don’t have to worry about fancy techniques, simply swirl the icing around in a circle.

Instead of buying a piping bag, which is sometimes referred to as a pastry bag, you can make your own from a plastic quart- or gallon-sized freezer bag. Simply cut off one of the corners, insert your decorating tip and have at it.

You can also use the modified bag to squirt filling inside of your cupcakes.

To make it easier to fill the bag, sit it tip-side down into a drinking glass and fold the edges of the bag over the rim of the glass.

Like with their full-size counterparts, you want to let your cupcakes cool completely before you attempt to ice them. Once decorated, you also want to let them sit out on a counter uncovered for at least 30 minutes to let the icing set.



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