Whether you make cupcakes from scratch or buy them premade, there's always good reason to add an eye-catching finishing touch. Here are 10 imaginative ways to spruce up this classic dessert. Whatever decorating tips you employ, remember to brush freshly baked cupcakes with your fingers or a clean paintbrush to get rid of any stray crumbs before you start frosting or glazing. The experience of eating a cupcake also has to do with how it's displayed. When your batch is ready to serve, set them out on an attractive platter of some kind, such as a rustic cake stand, silver serving dish or plate with an interesting pattern. Have fun and remember that when it comes to decorating cupcakes, your imagination is the limit!
Sprinkles and Spice and Everything Nice
Of course, the standard colored sprinkles in solid or assorted colors are a tried and true cupcake decoration. Your options range from fine, sandlike granules to tiny pearl-sized nuggets or shapes. When applying fairly small flakes, hold the shaker higher for a light, even dusting and lower for denser coverage. But don't let what's prepackaged as "sprinkles" on grocery stores' baking aisles limit your creative prowess in the kitchen. There are many relatively small edibles that can serve as a type of sprinkle -- many of which are already in your kitchen pantry! Try sprinkling on chocolate chips, grated nuts or even coffee grounds. Spices like cinnamon, cayenne or cloves can also do the job and add another dimension of flavor to your baked confection.
Use Candy, All Sizes Big and Small
For as much candy as there is in the world, there are just as many ways to garnish cupcakes. A layer of frosting is like a blank canvas. Carefully apply individual pieces of candy like M&Ms or Skittles around the outer edges, or use them to form a shape (kids love smiley faces, hearts and flowers). If candy is too delicate or small to handle easily with your fingers, try applying with tweezers. Don't dismiss the almighty candy bar because of its size: Use a food processor or cleaned-out coffee grinder to pulverize it into chunks for a tasty garnish. (You can also put it in a sealable bag and smash it with a can or wooden mallet.) The best part about using candy as a garnish is that it comes in all sorts of seasonal shapes, colors and flavors, which makes it easy to coordinate your cupcakes to your party's theme. For example, jellybeans make great decoration for Easter cupcakes, and candy corn looks autumnal for Halloween or harvest cupcakes.
Garnish with Fresh Fruit
If you're looking for ways to dress up cupcakes without loading on a lot of high-calorie toppings, experiment with fruit. Play with different methods to slice and display your pickings. You might be surprised by how many ways you can cut up star fruit, strawberry or mango. Or, you can mash the fruit so it takes on the consistency of jam, and use that as a substitute for sugary frosting. For more decadent flavor, spread the fruit onto the cupcake crown before adding a dollop of whipping cream or layer of frosting. Generously pile on fresh fruit, or place only a few pieces artistically, depending on the look you're going for.
Make an Impression with Stencils
You don't have to be a whiz baker to get this technique right. Cupcake stencils let you produce a professional-looking design with no fuss. Maybe you're making a batch of cupcakes for your preschooler's classroom or an office meeting around the holidays. Whether it's in the shape of a snowflake, baseball or something else, select a stencil that fits the occasion. Simply apply a flat layer of frosting first. Hold the stencil over the cupcake so it's almost touching the icing. Then, sprinkle colored sugar, cocoa or your favorite topping onto the stencil. Voila! You've got a lovely dessert that looks like it took hours to make.
Top with Toys and Figurines
Embellishing cupcakes with miniature toys and figurines is a sure way to delight the most discerning dessert lovers -- kids! Find miniature G.I. Joe warriors, paper umbrellas or plastic jewelry at dollar stores or toy outlets. You can use them to establish a theme, like pretty princess or superheroes. Cupcakes can even be an innovative way to present party favors; an inexpensive toy ring or necklace presented on a cupcake could be quite a hit at a little girl's birthday party. Fool around with toy placement to determine whether it looks best centered or cockeyed and cascading over the side. Items stand out best against a frosting backdrop that's a contrasting color. Before serving up any cupcakes with toy toppers, be sure that everyone knows the toys aren't edible!
Customize with Food Coloring
According to some food scientists, artificial food coloring is made with chemicals that have been shown to be dangerous to our health -- even in small amounts. Fortunately, natural food coloring alternatives are available, which let us infuse cupcake dough and frosting with a kick of vibrant color without sacrificing our well-being. Be aware that colors derived from vegetable-based dyes and other natural dyes generally aren't as intense as their chemical-rich counterparts. You may have to add more coloring or just live with a rosy blush rather than a true red, depending on the brand of dye you buy. Add one drop at a time to icing until you arrive at the color you want.
Adorn with Edible Flowers
Edible flowers are an effortless and natural way to give your cupcakes a hint of whimsical charm. Grow your own, or buy them by the bag at specialty grocery stores. Nasturtiums, pansies, violets, chrysanthemum, lavender and chamomile all make pretty garnishes. Make sure to gently rinse your edible variety of choice first to rid petals of bugs or fertilizer. Pat flowers dry, clip off stems and gingerly press the blooms into frosting so they stay put. Placement doesn't have to be limited to the cupcake itself. You can also scatter leftover flower heads on the cupcake serving platter for extra effect.
Play Dress-up with Decorative Liners and Sleeves
Liners prevent cupcakes from sticking to a muffin tin, and they make transporting your baked goods infinitely easier. They also add a little attitude to their presentation. Cupcake liners come in a rainbow of colors, patterns and materials, such as paper or foil. Cupcake sleeves are similar, but they're purely for decoration. Wrap them around the outside of the liner. Also called "cuffs" or "wrappers," they can either sit a bit higher than the frosting line or lower, covering only the liner. Some sleeves feature a cutout design, which shows through to the liner. If this stained window effect is what you're going for, use a different color liner and wrapper to accentuate the pattern on the cuff.
Achieve Professional-quality Frosting
Let's be honest: Taste always trumps looks. But you can have the best of both worlds so that your cupcakes appeal to the eyes and the palate. Once you've nailed a cupcake recipe, you're ready to tackle decorating techniques to make your dessert look as great as it tastes. One tool that can help you embellish like an expert is a decorating bag, which comes in reusable, disposable or parchment triangle versions. Experiment with which one feels best for you. Tip sizes vary and can help you create everything from scalloped edges to rose petals and much more. Also, did you know there are loads of different types of icing? From smooth and stiff buttercream to fluffy whipped versions of meringue frostings, you can select the right kind for the look and taste you want to achieve.
Glaze on the Finishing Touch
A glaze can be a simple and elegant substitution for frosting. Made mostly with water and powdered sugar, glazes are either transparent, opaque or colored (the tint comes from food coloring or fruit purees). Drizzle a hot glaze over a cupcake to create a smooth, sugary coating that pools on top. It'll cool to form a thin, hard crust, which helps keep the cupcake fluffy and moist. You can also use a spoon to drizzle on a smaller amount, forming zigzags or other designs. Glazes have a biting sweetness. To temper, try flavoring it with grapefruit juice, milk, coffee or one of your own favorite flavors.
HowStuffWorks looks at some great British Baking terms — and some American ones as well.
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