Is there anyone who doesn’t love cupcakes? Cute and friendly, hand–size or bite–size, they’re always just–right–size for snacks, desserts, and celebrations. Everyone gets a whole “cake” of his or her own—no fighting over the corners or the center! And when you use paper liners in your cupcake tins, there’s virtually no mess.
But those are side benefits. For the baker, the real joy of cupcakes is having one or two dozen opportunities to express your creative flair with every batch. Cupcakes practically beg to be decorated—and not only with frosting, as we’ll discover. And they offer myriad display options, too. No wonder cupcakes are big news in bakeshops: Many cities now have trendy bakeries that sell nothing but cupcakes, like Boston’s Johnny Cupcakes and San Francisco’s Kara’s Cupcakes and Citizen Cupcake.
To learn how to make cupcakes that rival those of the pros, we consulted Krystina Castella, author of Crazy About Cupcakes (Sterling Publishing Company, 2006) and of a website, also called Crazy About Cupcakes. Krystina, who learned to bake from her Italian grandmother and whose husband calls her “Cakie,” is equally at home in the design studio as in kitchen. A professor of industrial design at Pasadena’s Art Center College of Design, she says her career involves “experimenting in all kinds of materials, from plastic to metal.” Cupcakes, she adds, “are just another medium to play with.”
When she was researching her book, Krystina discovered that not much is known about cupcakes’ origin. They were first mentioned in an 1828 book, E. Leslie’s Receipts (an old word for recipes), but were surely invented earlier. Unlike traditional cakes, cupcakes involved measuring ingredients in cups rather than weighing them: a huge time saver in the kitchen. They were also baked in tea cups, although by the early 20th century those cups were replaced by “gem pans,” a predecessor of our muffin tins. (In England, meanwhile, a similar small, frosted cake came to be called a “fairy cake.” Unlike American cupcakes, which can be any flavor, fairy cakes are almost always made from vanilla sponge, or genoise.)
Modern cupcake pans come in three sizes: mini, standard, and large. Any recipe can be used in any size pan, but baking times—which in recipes are standardized for “medium” cupcake pans—will need to be adjusted: five to seven minutes less for mini cupcakes, says Krystina, and five to ten minutes more for large cupcakes.
And yes—you can use almost any cake recipe to make cupcakes: a recipe for two 8" or 9" layers, or one 13" x 9" cake, will yield 24 to 36 cupcakes, depending on the size of your cupcake pans. But Krystina (who has developed recipes specifically for cupcakes) cautions that layer–cake and sponge–cake recipes, with their lighter texture, work better than denser, richer recipes such as pound cake. Try, for example, our Chocolate Sponge Cake, Classic Yellow Layer Cake, or Basic White Layer Cake.
And then have some fun. “There’s a difference between cakes and cupcakes,” says Krystina. “Why not take advantage of it? Add some fruit or nuts to each cupcake—or frost each one a little differently.”
One last “basics” question: what’s the difference between a muffin and a cupcake? “Muffins usually use just one or two eggs,” Krystina says. “And you have to be careful not to overmix the batter. Cupcakes usually have double the number of eggs that muffins have, and you want to get lots of air into the batter to make it fluffy.”
Frosting and Decorating
Of course, there’s another important distinction: muffins are almost always eaten plain, while cupcakes can be as fancy as your imagination allows. Some cupcakes go naturally with certain types of frosting, like our Black Bottom Cupcakes with Cream Cheese Frosting or Double Orange Cupcakes with Orange Frosting (made with C&H Pure Cane Powdered Sugar for an extra–smooth texture).
Chocolate and coffee flavors are a perfect match in Fudge Cupcakes with Chocolate Coffee Glaze. Or give a rich cupcake like Dutch Chocolate Minicakes a simple, elegant finishing touch: a dusting of C&H Pure Cane Powdered Sugar.
The fun really begins after you’ve frosted your cupcakes. While the frosting’s still moist, decorate with candies (for starters, try nonpareils, gumdrops, and snips of licorice), mini marshmallows, Colored C&H Sugar, or fresh fruit such as blueberries or sliced peaches. Create a wedding theme by placing a bride–and–groom figurine on each cupcake. Tiny baby–doll toys or miniature baby bottles are perfect for baby–shower cupcakes.
For Valentine’s Day, Krystina proposes sweetening a batch of classic chocolate cupcakes by submerging a chocolate truffle into each batter–filled cupcake liner. After the cupcakes have baked and cooled, frost with rose–flavored icing (add a few teaspoons of rosewater, available in specialty shops and online, to a basic white frosting recipe), then sprinkle with red and pink colored sugars and place a Marzipan rose in the center of each cupcake.
Other Krystina recommendations for this sweetest of holidays: Chocolate Raspberry Cupcakes (with Krystina’s Cream Cheese Frosting or White Chocolate Buttercream) or Strawberry Cupcakes—with fresh or frozen strawberries folded into the batter and frosted with lemon, fudge, or strawberry icing.
Looking for a guaranteed “wow!” when you bring your cupcakes to the table? Try making tiered cupcakes. Krystina says she was inspired to invent them while pondering how to create miniature wedding cakes. She looked at the different-size cupcake tins in her kitchen and realized she had her answer.
Some of Krystina’s tips:
- “Using different–sized cupcake pans makes it easy to experiment with building unique cupcake forms.” In addition to cupcake tins, consider cutting small squares out of a cake baked in a conventional square or rectangular cake pan, or using cookie cutters to create fanciful shapes.
- “When pouring batter into the pans or cutting squares, keep track of how many of each layer you are making and be sure you have enough of each size for bottom, middle, and top layers.”
- “Frost the lower tier first, then the sides of the second tier, and then the top.” Repeat with the next tier. Use different–color frostings for the various tiers, sides, or tops for a playful effect.
- Try stacking shortbread cookies or C&H sugar cubes between layers.
For the fancy Valentine’s Day cupcake pictured here, Krystina stacked a mini cupcake atop a medium cupcake, frosted both, and decorated with candy hearts and a single white chocolate chip on the very top. Need more ideas? Go to her website to download a PDF template for creating and decorating tiered cupcakes.
When it comes to impressive presentations, cupcakes are endlessly versatile. For a child’s birthday party, place cupcakes in waffle cones (with flat bottoms). If you’re serving a crowd, place two or three dozen cupcakes on a tray and frost them together, just as you would a large sheet cake—and then invite guests to pull cupcakes away from the array.
Finally, a specially designed cupcake stand really “takes the cake” at parties and bake sales. Corrugated–paper stands holding up to 40 cupcakes are available online for less than $6 each; fancier and more durable stands made of polystyrene, aluminum, or filigreed wire are about $30 to $40 each. All are readily available at specialty baking shops, thrift stores, and online stores.