10 Best Ways to Decorate Cupcakes

As they say, you eat with your eyes first. The cupcakes on our list taste as good as they look. See more pictures of cupcakes and cakes.
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Cupcakes used to be so simple. You could slap some canned vanilla frosting and sprinkles on a couple of tiny cakes and not have any reason to feel like you weren't pushing the envelope. But in the past few years, things have gotten complicated, and bakeries like Crabapple in Australia, Sprinkles in L.A. and Magnolia in New York have put the gourmet cupcake on the culinary map. Once just a vehicle for delivering a sugary frosting payload to the bloodstream, cupcakes are now a sophisticated, diverse set of desserts in their own right.

Fortunately, unique cupcake decorating techniques are not out of reach for ordinary kitcheneers and weekend bakers. It's easy to create elegant and delicious cupcakes at home without years of training or recipes more complicated than the instructions on a box of cake mix. In this article, we'll take a look at 10 sophisticated cupcake recipes and ideas for decorating that go beyond chocolate jimmies and toothpick flags.

10
Brownie S'mores Cupcakes
This cupcake combines the gooey goodness of s'mores with chewy chocolate brownies.
This cupcake combines the gooey goodness of s'mores with chewy chocolate brownies.
Thomas Barwick/Getty Images

Sometimes, the best cupcake recipe combines the little cake with another classic dessert. The easiest way to whip up s'mores cupcakes is to bake a standard chocolate cupcake, frost it with marshmallow creme and finish it off with a dusting of chocolate shavings and graham cracker crumbs. However, if you've got a little more time on your hands, you can try this recipe.

Ingredients

  • 1 box brownie mix, prepared according to directions (You can make brownie batter from scratch, if you prefer.)
  • 1 2/3 cups graham cracker crumbs
  • 1/4 cup sugar
  • 1/4 cup softened butter
  • 1/4 cup chocolate shavings
  • Marshmallow creme to taste

(Yields one dozen cupcakes)

Directions

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit (176 degrees Celsius). Combine the graham cracker crumbs, sugar and butter in a bowl and mix well. If it feels a little dry, add in a couple more tablespoons of butter -- the goal is for the graham cracker mixture to pack nicely without too many crumbs. Press the mixture into the bottom of a greased cupcake tin. Bake the crusts for about 8 minutes. Remove the pan from the oven, and fill the crusts 2/3 full with prepared brownie mix, then bake according to package directions. When the cupcakes have cooled, frost with marshmallow creme and top with chocolate shavings.

9
Light Kiwi-strawberry Cupcakes
Light and fluffy angel food cupcakes taste heavenly with glazed fruit.
Light and fluffy angel food cupcakes taste heavenly with glazed fruit.
Skip Nall/Getty Images

Angel food cake is a favorite, especially in situations where a heavy cake and thick frosting just won't do. These angel food cupcakes, topped with fresh whipped cream and glazed kiwis and strawberries, are a great way to go if you're looking for something a little less filling and a little more summery.

Ingredients

  • 12 premade angel food cupcakes
  • 2 kiwis
  • 6-8 large strawberries
  • 3 cups powdered sugar, divided
  • 1/3 cup light corn syrup
  • 4 tablespoons warm water
  • 2 cups heavy whipping cream
  • 2 tablespoons vanilla extract

(Yields one dozen cupcakes)

Directions

Cut the kiwis and strawberries into thin slices. Mix 1/2 cup of powdered sugar, corn syrup and warm water together in a mixing bowl to make the glaze. Keep adding water tablespoon by tablespoon if the mixture is too thick. Dip the kiwi and strawberry slices in the glaze, then set them aside on a tray.

Next, combine the cream, remaining powdered sugar and vanilla in another bowl and mix -- slowly at first. After the ingredients start to come together, blend on high for 3-5 minutes, until the cream forms stiff peaks.

Using a spatula, top the angel food cupcakes with a dollop of whipped cream and garnish with the glazed kiwis and strawberries.

8
Nutella Shard Cupcakes

It's hard to pick which is better: the cake part of the cupcake or the icing. In this case, the answer is clear. This famous chocolate and toffee frosting recipe comes from Crabapple Bakery in Melbourne, Australia. The frosting is pretty rich and flavorful, so choose a simple cupcake flavor to complement it. White, vanilla or milk chocolate all taste great with Nutella shard frosting.

Ingredients

  • 1 750-gram jar of Nutella
  • 1 tablespoon Frangelico
  • 1/2 cup whipped cream
  • 1 cup crushed hazelnuts
  • 4 cups sugar
  • 2 cups water

(Yields frosting for about one dozen cupcakes)

Directions

Combine the Nutella and Frangelico in a mixing bowl. Fold in about one-fourth of the whipped cream. Once that's been beaten smooth, mix in the rest of the whipped cream. When the frosting is fairly light and fluffy, you're done mixing. Paint it liberally onto the cupcakes. A piping bag and a star tip will make for a more professional-looking cupcake, but bedhead can look as good on cupcakes as it does on people -- smearing it one with a spatula will do the job fine.

Next, you'll make the toffee shards. Spread the crushed hazelnuts onto a greased baking sheet. Add the water and sugar to a saucepan, and stir over medium heat until the sugar dissolves. Bring the sugar-water to a boil, then drop the heat and let it simmer until it turns a crispy, golden brown. Remove it from the heat and allow it to settle. Once it looks a little clearer, pour it over the hazelnuts. Wait for the toffee to harden, then snap it into thin shards. Garnish the cupcakes with the toffee pieces.

7
Maple-bacon Cupcakes
Bacon goes way beyond breakfast in this unique cupcake recipe.
Bacon goes way beyond breakfast in this unique cupcake recipe.
Stockbyte/Getty Images

Bacon is tasty. Maple syrup is tasty. Why not combine them? Use plain yellow or white cupcakes for this frosting -- surprisingly, bacon is delicious when you combine it with certain sweet things, but don't let it get too complicated.

Begin with a batch of homemade or store-bought plain yellow cupcakes; you'll need one dozen. Next, fry four or five slices of bacon until it's crispy. While your cupcakes and bacon cool, it's time to make the maple glaze.

Ingredients

(Yields glaze and garnish for about one dozen cupcakes)

Directions

Begin by adding the vanilla to the powdered sugar, then gradually whisk in the maple syrup until it becomes a smooth, thick glaze. If it's too thick, or if the whisking becomes too difficult, add water a few tablespoons at a time until you get it to your desired consistency. Ideally, the mixture should be thin enough that you can dip your cupcakes in it to glaze them, but thick enough so that the bacon will stick. Frost the cupcakes by twisting them top-down in the glaze or by drizzling the glaze over them. Garnish the cupcakes with crumbled pieces of bacon.

6
Banana Fudge Cupcakes

Who has time to make everything from scratch? You can make great cupcakes with a boxed cake mix, but that doesn't mean you have to do whatever the instructions on the box say. Adding a few overripe bananas to a boxed cake mix is a great way of getting rid of them without resorting to baking them in the same old loaf of banana bread. These semi-wholesome treats take things up a notch with a generous dose of chocolate.

Ingredients

  • 1 box chocolate cake mix
  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 2 cups mashed bananas
  • 8 cups powdered sugar
  • 1 cup cocoa powder
  • 2 sticks (1 cup) softened butter
  • 3/4 cup milk
  • 1 tablespoon vanilla extract
  • 1/2 cup white chocolate chips
  • Macadamia nuts

(Yields one dozen cupcakes)

Directions

First, prepare the chocolate cake mix by following the instructions on the box. Add the cinnamon and bananas to the batter, and bake according to directions.

While the cupcakes are baking, you can start on the frosting. Sift the cocoa powder and sugar together in a bowl, and set it aside. Cream the butter in another bowl for 1 to 2 minutes, then add the milk, vanilla, and about half of the cocoa-sugar mixture. Beat for 3 minutes, add the remaining cocoa-sugar mixture, and mix for 3 more minutes until smooth and spreadable.

After the cupcakes have cooled, frost them. Melt the white chocolate in a pan, then drizzle over the frosted cupcakes. Garnish with macadamia nuts and serve after the white chocolate hardens.

5
Strawberry Butterfly Cupcakes
There are more exciting ways to use strawberries as a garnish. This recipe offers one interesting idea.
There are more exciting ways to use strawberries as a garnish. This recipe offers one interesting idea.
Marcy Maloy/Getty Images

Decorating cupcakes isn't all about garnishes and frosting. Why not change the shape of the cupcake itself? This method, which also comes from Melbourne, Australia's Crabapple Bakery, is a good way to add a little 3-D pop to your cupcakes. These cream-filled treats are perfect for people who don't like a lot of frosting.

Ingredients

  • 12 plain vanilla or lemon cupcakes
  • 1 cup thickened cream
  • 1 tablespoon powdered sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1/4 cup strawberry jam
  • 6 large strawberries

(Yields one dozen cupcakes)

Directions

Prepare your cupcakes and bake them. Next, you'll want to make the cream filling, using an electric mixer to combine the cream, sugar and vanilla. Stir in the jam by hand and set the mixture aside.

Once the cupcakes have baked and cooled, it's time for surgery. Remove their tops (whatever's risen out of the pan), and cut this part in half. (These will be the butterfly wings.) Hollow out a small divot in the cupcake, and fill it with a generous dollop of the cream mixture. Top the cream with a halved strawberry, flanked by the cupcake wings. Finish with a dusting of powdered sugar.

4
Lemon Meringue Cupcakes
Lemon meringue isn't just for pies. On top of cupcakes, it adds up to a novel, bite-sized dessert.
Lemon meringue isn't just for pies. On top of cupcakes, it adds up to a novel, bite-sized dessert.
Diane McDonald/Getty Images

These cupcakes are a variation on the classic pie. If you're baking for someone who doesn't have much of a sweet tooth, these sugary-sour treats are a good choice.

Ingredients

  • 12 plain vanilla or lemon cupcakes
  • 4 large egg whites
  • 1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar
  • 1/4 cup powdered sugar
  • 3/4 cup lemon curd

(Yields one dozen cupcakes)

Directions

Prepare your vanilla or lemon cupcake batter. Fill your cupcake pan only about two-thirds full. (You may have to adjust your baking time for smaller cupcakes.) Once they're done, remove them from the pan and let them cool until they can be handled comfortably. If you weren't baking at 350 degrees Fahrenheit (176 degrees Celsius), readjust your oven to that temperature. Use a sharp knife to cut about 3/4 of an inch into each cupcake, and remove a small cone from the top. Spoon about a tablespoon of lemon curd filling into each of the holes, and plug the opening with the cone.

To make the meringue, beat the egg whites and cream of tartar in a large bowl with a whisk or a mixer on a low setting. Once it starts foaming and the cream of tartar dissolves, switch to medium speed and beat until peaks form. Continue beating while gradually adding the sugar.

Once finished, use a spatula to frost each cupcake with about 1/3 cup meringue. Place the cupcakes on a baking sheet, return them to the oven and bake until the meringue turns golden brown -- about 15 minutes. Cover, let cool for an hour, and refrigerate. Serve these cupcakes chilled.

3
Hi-hats

These towering chocolate cupcakes have a marshmallow surprise inside. They may look and taste gourmet, but any cupcake novice can make them.

Ingredients

  • 12 chocolate cupcakes
  • 1 3/4 cups sugar
  • 1/4 cup water
  • 3 large egg whites
  • 1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1/2 teaspoon almond extract
  • 2 cups (12 ounces) semisweet chocolate chips
  • 3 tablespoons vegetable oil

(Yields one dozen cupcakes)

Directions

Prepare your chocolate cupcakes, and let them cool thoroughly. To make the marshmallow filling, combine the sugar, water, egg whites, and cream of tartar over a double boiler and beat until foamy. (If you don't have a double boiler, place a metal mixing bowl over a saucepan of simmering water, making sure not to let them touch.) Continue beating the mixture for about 12 minutes -- it should get to the point where if you remove your beaters, they will leave stiff peaks. Remove the mixture from heat, and mix in the vanilla and almond extracts.

With a spatula, pile 2-inch mounds of the marshmallow mixture on each cupcake. Chill in the refrigerator while you make the chocolate shell.

Next, use the double boiler to melt the chocolate. Let it cool for about 15 minutes, then dip the top of the chilled marshmallow mounds in the chocolate. Spoon on extra chocolate to cover any bare patches. Refrigerate again until the chocolate sets and serve cold.

2
Spiderweb Gingerbread Cupcakes

These spiderweb gingerbread cupcakes get points for both flavor and style with their easy and elegant cinnamon spiderweb design. Any recipe for gingerbread will work as a base for the cupcakes, but if you're looking for a little bit of an extra kick, add a small handful of candied ginger to the batter.

Ingredients

  • 12 gingerbread cupcakes
  • 1/2 cup (1 stick) softened unsalted butter
  • 6 ounces softened cream cheese
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 3 cups powdered sugar
  • 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1-2 teaspoons whole milk

(Yields one dozen cupcakes)

Directions

Beat the butter, cream cheese and vanilla in a large bowl until smooth, then gradually add the powdered sugar and beat until frosting is light and fluffy. Ice the cupcakes as smoothly as possible with a knife or spatula, but leave about 1/4 cup of frosting in the bowl. Next, stir in the cinnamon and milk.

Once you've got enough milk in the mixture to thin it out a bit, scoop it into a plastic sandwich bag and cut a small hole in the corner -- this will be your pastry bag. Pipe a small dot of cinnamon icing onto the center of each cupcake, then draw two concentric circles. Next, use a toothpick to draw a line radiating from the center dot out to the edge of the cupcake. Repeat until the spiderweb design is complete.

1
Top-to-Bottom Crumb Cupcakes
These miniature crumb cakes go great with afternoon tea or even with breakfast.
These miniature crumb cakes go great with afternoon tea or even with breakfast.

They're essentially mini-crumb cakes, so these cinnamon and brown sugar cupcakes are perfect for a special breakfast or a sweet afternoon snack.

Ingredients

  • 1 1/4 cups unbleached flour
  • 1 cup light brown sugar
  • 2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 3/4 cup unsalted butter
  • 1 box yellow cake mix
  • Powdered sugar to taste

Directions

To make the crumb topping, stir the flour, brown sugar, cinnamon and salt together. Cut the butter into pieces and add it, mixing with an electric mixer or by hand. Mix evenly until large crumbs begin to form.

Prepare the cupcake batter according to the directions on the box of cake mix. Fill the cupcake tin with one spoonful of crumb mixture, pour in cupcake batter, then spoon crumbs over the top to cover. Bake, and enjoy -- there's no need to frost this cupcake variety.

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Sources:

  • Cooking with Caitlin. "Fresh Whipped Cream." 2009. (Sept. 29, 2009). http://www.cookingwithcaitlin.com/dish/whipped_cream_recipe
  • Graham, Jennifer. "The Crabapple Bakery Cupcake Cookbook." Penguin Books. 2007.
  • Klivans, Elinor. "Cupcakes!" Chronicle Books. 2005.
  • What's Cooking America. "Egg White Meringue - How To Make Perfect Meringue." (Sept. 29, 2009). http://whatscookingamerica.net/Eggs/perfectmeringue.htm