Celebrate spring with cupcakes

With practice, you'll be piping like a pro

click to enlarge Celebrate spring with cupcakes
Photos by Ashley Meyer

Cupcakes are pure fun. Whether they're elegant or whimsical, simple or ornate, tender cupcakes topped with decadent frosting are a perfect way to celebrate the arrival of spring. It's possible to make beautiful creations no matter your experience or skill level and without specialty decorating tools.

To begin with, use a reliable recipe and make sure that your cupcakes are properly baked. Lining a muffin tin with paper liners makes for easy cleanup. Be sure to only fill each cupcake two-thirds full so the cupcakes don't rise over the edge, resulting in a muffin-top shape. Check the cupcakes for doneness by piercing one in the center with a toothpick – it should come out clean without batter or cake crumbs stuck to it. Once the cupcakes are baked, make sure they are completely cooled before icing. When baking a large volume of cupcakes for a party or event I often bake them a week or two in advance and freeze them in zip-top bags, then allow them to thaw on the counter before decorating.

There are a myriad of choices when it comes to frosting. Classic American buttercream and cream cheese icing are incredibly simple to make and require only a mixer (or a lot of elbow grease) to prepare. For those comfortable using a double boiler, Swiss meringue buttercream is a luscious and remarkably stable option, ideal for more intricate piping work. Each of these base recipes can be easily customized with flavoring additions such as jam, spices or espresso powder, melted and cooled chocolate, or liqueur. Vanilla cake and Swiss meringue recipes can be found at https://www.illinoistimes.com/springfield/that-homemade-cake-life/Content?oid=11454891

The simplest way to ice a cupcake is to dollop about two tablespoons of frosting on top of a cooled cupcake, then use the back of a spoon or an offset spatula to smooth the top of the icing. It helps to gently grasp the cupcake in one hand and turn it as you hold the spoon in the other. While simple, this method is quick, and serves as a blank canvas for an array of toppings, such as jelly bean Easter eggs, fresh spring flowers (make sure they haven't been sprayed), berries or candied carrot curls.

For the ambitious, a piping bag can take cake decorating to the next level. A range of shapes and designs can be made with just a few icing tips, which are available at specialty cake shops and even many large grocery stores. Piping bags can be canvas, silicone or disposable plastic and come in a range of sizes (12-inch bags are a good choice for home bakers). If you want to use different decorating tips with the same bag of frosting you'll need a small plastic two-piece tool, called a coupler, that allows you to switch out tips.

To fill your piping bag, first cut the tip (if using a disposable bag). Use your icing tip as a measuring gauge – you want to cut the hole large enough so the whole point of the tip is exposed, but not so large that the tip pushes out of the bag when pressure is applied. Once your tip and coupler is in place, you're ready to fill the bag with frosting. Use a pint glass to hold the bag while you fill it, to avoid spills and mess. Place the tip of the bag in the empty glass and fold the top three inches of the bag over the edge of the glass, then fill with frosting of your choice. Avoid overfilling the bag – make sure to leave at least three inches of room so you can close it securely. Remove the bag from the glass and squeeze it just slightly, until the frosting begins to emerge from the tip, then secure the top closed with a twist tie to keep the frosting from squishing out the top as you pipe.

To pipe two or three colors at once, half-fill two 12-ounce piping bags with different colored frostings of your choice. Place these bags side by side in an empty 16-ounce piping bag fitted with a coupler. Twist and secure all the tops together with a twist-tie and proceed.

There are hundreds of different shapes of icing tips to choose from. For cupcakes the large open and closed star tips are an ideal place to start. The open star tip can be used to create the classic ice cream cone shape, while the closed star tip creates a more ruffled effect. Start piping around the outer edge of the cupcake, working your way inward to achieve the cone effect. A rose can be created by using the same technique, but starting in the center of the cupcake, then slowly winding around until you get to the edge of the cupcake. When you get to the edge stop applying pressure and pull away at a slight angle to help tuck the end under. Another fun effect can be created using a grass tip or multi-opening cake decorating tip. It looks like a tiny thimble with holes in the top and easily creates a whimsical grass effect, perfect for topping with pansies or chocolate eggs.

It helps to practice shapes on a piece of parchment paper when you first begin, so you can get a handle on how much pressure to apply and the best angle to hold the piping bag. Your first attempts will likely not be perfect but the frosting can easily be scraped off the paper and back into the piping bag to use again. With a little practice you'll soon be piping like a pro, and if all else fails, just cover it up with edible flowers or candy.