I am warming up to cake. A year ago, I was completely terrified of anything to do with cake, particularly if there's any mention of layers or piping... and the only time I braved layer cakes was for very special occasions, like Carson's birthday or Dad's birthday. I've expressed my fears before, so I won't get into them again; but you should know that this is a big moment for me: I piped my first cupcake last weekend. Actually, I piped 36 of them.
I also frosted and decorated a two-layer sheet cake. I was a ball of emotion throughout all of it, but in all honesty, it was the most fun I've had in the kitchen in months.
To me, as my own worst critic and a painful perfectionist when it comes to baking, I look at this cake and I see lopsided corners, shaky, off-centered writing and uneven sides. Some of the frosting is droopy, the writing is too thick in places...... and then I stop and catch myself judging this cake -- this gorgeous, gorgeous cake -- and I realize how perfect it is. Not in its own way, but in all ways of cake: this is a perfect cake, because I made it out of love and it's coming to my 5-year-old niece's birthday party, and we're going to eat it surrounded by unicorn decorations and people we love. It meets all the requirements of cake, none of which include perfection.
Not to mention it's a funfetti cake covered in pink and purple buttercream and topped off with Sweetapolita sprinkles. The cake was enjoyed by all -- adults and kids alike -- but the true stars of the show were the cupcakes (and my nieces, of course).
I'm not sure if it was the swirled Swiss Meringue buttercream, the gold liners, the unicorn toppers or the sprinkles... really, I think it was just the whole concept of a cute, girly cupcake that got the kids. They swarmed around the tray, picking out which cupcakes they would claim, sticking chubby fingers in frosting and asking when it would be time for cupcakes... and when little Zoe (small cherub to the right of me in the photo) was asked which treat she'd like, she looks up with a confused, almost insulted expression, and says "both." She's a girl after my own heart. And when it came time for cake and cupcakes, the cupcakes suddenly disappeared, and the only remnants were the pieces of crumbs and smeared frosting all over each kid's face. A smashing success, if you ask me.
The cake is Smitten Kitchen's recipe - the only change I made was using imitation vanilla instead of pure vanilla extract, to keep the batter nice and white so the sprinkles pop! If you're interested in baking a sheet cake, I went with Deb's recipe that requires you to triple the party cake recipe and divide it among two 9x13 cake pans, and increase her recipe for buttercream frosting by 6 (it's a lot... it's a lot. But if you're going to pipe and decorate as I did, then yes, you should make all of it). As for the cupcakes, I tripled her recipe and made a large batch of Swiss meringue buttercream (10 egg whites and lots and lots of butter), but in the interest of whomever's reading this, my guess is that you really don't need all those cupcakes. So I will save you some math and just include a normal cupcake recipe, which will get you 12 cupcakes and enough Swiss meringue buttercream to pipe each one and have a little left over, just in case. ;)
For my piping technique, I know it looks fancy. (That's what I was going for). In reality, it's very simple and only requires a little extra patience, time and food coloring. Once you have your piping bag prepared with the tip, take an offset spatula and scoop in one frosting color, and use the spatula to spread it on one side. Wipe the spatula clean, then take another frosting color and spread it on the opposite side. If you're using a third color (I did purple, blue and pink), repeat the same method on another side of the bag. Before you pipe onto cupcakes, pipe some for testing on some parchment paper so you can make sure you're getting the effect you want. It will take a few test pipes for all the colors to appear. I used a Wilton 1M tip for the cupcakes, and each one had its own unique character. If yours aren't all exactly the same and you're beginning to think they should be perfect: take a note from me, and believe me when I say they don't need to be, and the way they taste will make up for any "imperfections."
Adapted from Smitten Kitchen
Prep Time: 15 minutes | Bake time: 20 minutes | Serves 12
1/2 cup unsalted butter, at room temperature
2/3 cups granulated sugar
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
2 large egg whites
1/2 teaspoon clear imitation vanilla
1/2 cup buttermilk
1 teaspoon baking powder
2 tablespoons cornstarch
1 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 cup rainbow sprinkles (use jimmies here, do not use nonpareils or they will bleed in the batter!)
Swiss Meringue Buttercream:
7 large egg whites
2 cups granulated sugar
1 1/2 cups unsalted butter, softened
2 tsp vanilla extract
Pinch of salt
Sprinkles, for topping
Preheat oven to 350 F. Line 12 cupcake molds with paper liners, and lightly grease each one. Set aside.
Beat sugar, butter and salt in the bowl of a stand mixer on medium speed. Add egg whites, one at a time, and beat until slightly fluffy. Add vanilla and buttermilk and beat to combine. The mixture will instantly look like cottage cheese, but don't fret! Add baking powder and cornstarch and beat very well. Scrape down sides of bowl and beat one second more. Add flour and mix until just combined, then use a rubber spatula to fold in the sprinkles.
Divide batter evenly among 12 molds, filling each 3/4 of the way full. Bake for 18-20 minutes, until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Let cool for 10 minutes in pans, then allow cupcakes to cool completely on a wire rack.
For the buttercream, bring a pot of water filled about 1-inch with water to a slow simmer. In the bowl of a stand mixer, add the egg whites and sugar and whisk together. Place mixing bowl over the pot of simmering water, making sure the bowl doesn't touch. Whisk constantly until mixture is smooth - dip two fingers into the meringue and rub your fingers together. If it feels gritty, keep mixing until it feels completely smooth.
Transfer the mixture to the stand mixer, and beat with the whisk attachment on high speed until stiff, glossy peaks form, about 15 minutes. Make sure the meringue is completely cooled before adding butter. Switch to the paddle attachment, then slowly add butter one tablespoon at a time, beating after each addition. (This takes a while, so be patient.) Once all butter is absorbed, scrape down the bowl and continue to beat until the frosting is thick and whipped. There may come a point where the frosting looks curdled and lumpy -- if that happens, don't worry. Keep beating until the mixture sets up (it will)!
Add vanilla and pinch of salt and mix until incorporated. At this point, you can divide frosting among bowls and add food coloring.
Fit a piping bag with a 1M tip for a classic cupcake swirl, or use the tip of your choice. Add frosting and fill the bag halfway, then twist tightly. Pipe each cupcake in a slow, circular motion. If you're going for the swirled/tri-color look, use a clean offset spatula to spread each color on opposite sides of the piping bag. Make sure you pipe a few for practice before piping on the cupcake -- it will take a few test runs for all colors to appear.
Add sprinkles and enjoy!
Frosted cupcakes will be just fine stored at room temperature for 2 days.