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Tricks for making treats

From food coloring and jimmies to Halloween stencils and chow mein noodles, everyday items can make a standard cupcake into a scary work of art.

By JANET K. KEELER

© St. Petersburg Times, published October 24, 2001


From food coloring and jimmies to Halloween stencils and chow mein noodles, everyday items can make a standard cupcake into a scary work of art.

Real people can decorate cupcakes.

Your works of art may not exactly replicate the air-brushed, pristine versions in shiny-paper magazines, but at least they'll look like they were touched by human hands.

Like the ones on this page.

With Halloween galloping toward us faster than a headless horseman, it's time to get serious about festive fare. I scoured cookbooks and magazines for decorating ideas that could be accomplished by those of us with the desire to create, if not the Martha gene. I challenged myself to find the decorating supplies at one or two stores. After all, Halloween is a week from today, and parties start this weekend. Who wants to be running here and there and then back again to find black string licorice for spider legs? (I stopped looking after four stores.)

Cupcakes are culinary proof that good things come in small packages. They are fun to decorate and easy to serve because utensils and plates aren't required. The point of Halloween cupcakes is to amuse, and you can accomplish that with a lot of whimsy or a little.

There will be no fighting over who gets the biggest piece; everyone gets his very own fluted paper cup of good stuff. Armed with a few pointers, you can make cupcakes fit for a guy dressed up like a king.

Want to make the whole process even simpler? Have your grocery store bakers make the cupcakes and hold the icing. You'll be thrilled at how uniform and level they are, the perfect base for creative embellishment. Un-iced store-baked cupcakes are especially helpful if you're planning a classroom activity. One less thing to worry about.

My decorating idea search hit pay dirt with the October issues of Family Circle, Women's Day, Better Homes & Gardens, Sunset and Parents. I snubbed Martha Stewart Living, which is lovely to look at but frustrating to copy. Pillsbury's Come & Eat specialty publication displayed at the checkout counter offered last-ditch help for those pesky spider legs. Chow mein noodles! (Get them in clear plastic bags, rather than a can, so you can see how long and curvy they are.)

Family Circle, with its cover story on Halloween-decorated minicakes, offered the most visual ideas but not a lot of detailed instruction or shopping lists. I was on my own, but you don't have to be. Here are my tips:

Shopping

Realistically, you'll have to make another stop besides the grocery store unless you have a cupboard full of cake decorating supplies. For instance, you won't find orange or black food coloring at the grocery, but you can buy them at specialty stores such as Michael's crafts shops or Party City. Wilton is a popular brand. (Red and yellow make orange. Most standard food coloring collections give the formulas for non-primary colors, but they won't be as intense as specialty colorings.)

While you are there, look for nonpareils, jimmies, colored sugars and other sugar adornments to sprinkle on cupcakes. These are the easiest ways to decorate cupcakes and are simple for children. Halloween-themed cupcake liners also are available.

I found cookie and cupcake decorating stencils at Target in the seasonal display area. Stencils of cats, bats, witches and pumpkins can be made at home, too. If you are going to lay them over icing, make sure you chill the cupcakes first. If not, the stencils will pull off the icing.

Icing

When perusing the cake decorating supplies, pick up a can of powder mix for royal icing. Royal icing is very stiff and works well for writing or fine-line decorating. It hardens quickly and smoothly but is not particularly tasty as icing for an entire cake or cupcake. Gel icing, which is widely available in tubes, runs, and you won't be happy with the results on small surfaces. With gel icing, a tiny scar on Frankenstein's face looks more like a blemish. Trust me, I know.

An alternative to royal icing is to add powdered sugar to homemade or canned frosting, which thickens it for decorating. Add a little at a time so icing doesn't become gummy. Thicken just the amount you'll need.

A pastry bag with accompanying tips is great, but a plastic sandwich bag works just as well for simple designs. Starting small, cut a bottom corner off, fill the bag with icing and start squeezing out scars and noses. Voila! You're a cake decorator.

As for the cupcake frosting, canned works just as well as homemade. Make sure you buy white or cream-colored so it can be dyed.

Decorations

If you wander the aisles at the grocery store, you'll find plenty of things that can be turned into decorations. Check out these ideas:

M&Ms, regular and minisize, can be used for eyes, noses, even a spider's body.

Marshmallows transform into fluffy skeletons, a big one for the head, smaller one to make the neck. I used a Rolo candy for a hat.

Vanilla Wafers can be used for faces of people or animals. Rainbow Vanilla Wafers come in purple, orange, pink and green. Use green for Frankenstein (trim off edges to make rectangular face) or orange to make a colorful spider placed on a black-frosted cupcake. Sandwich two wafers together with icing and then insert chow mein noodles to make spider legs.

Orange slices, gum drops and candy corn have many uses. Trim two crescent-shaped orange slices into half circles and then push them together to make a pumpkin. Shorten a green gum drop to use as the stem. Candy corn becomes kitty ears, or cut off just the yellow part to use for the bolts that help Frankenstein keep his head on.

Look for tombstone-shaped cookies, such as Pepperidge Farms' Milanos, and write RIP on them. Push halfway into iced cupcakes. To make the grave look more ominous, I dyed shredded coconut black by putting food coloring and coconut in a baggie and shaking, then sprinkled it on the cupcake. (Beware: The eater will have black fingers and lips!) Other cookies, such as mini-Oreos, lend themselves to manipulation. If you can find string licorice, the mini-Oreos make great spider bodies.

A plain chocolate cupcake can be decorated simply. Use powdered sugar and a stencil to create a dramatic bat, or make a spider web of royal icing. An M&M disguised as a spider can be spinning the web.

So what if your cupcakes aren't perfect? If the spider web is more gloppy than gossamer? Tell your guests you're going as a real person this year and that the cupcakes are just part of your costume. They won't be able to hear you anyway. Not over all that cupcake noshing.

Orange-Ooze Cupcakes

Filling:

8 ounces cream cheese, softened

1 egg

1/3 cup sugar

Yellow and red food coloring

6 ounces chocolate chips

Cupcakes:

3 cups flour

2 cups sugar

1/2 cup cocoa

2 teaspoons baking soda

1/2 teaspoon salt

2 cups water

1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons vegetable oil

2 tablespoons cider vinegar

2 teaspoons vanilla

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line cupcake baking pans with paper cupcake liners.

In small mixing bowl, use electric mixer to combine cream cheese, egg and sugar. Blend in 2 drops yellow food coloring and 1 drop red food coloring, adding more coloring if necessary to reach desired shade. Use mixing spoon to stir in chocolate chips; set filling aside. In large mixing bowl, combine flour, sugar, cocoa, baking soda and salt; set aside.

In second small mixing bowl, combine water, vegetable oil, vinegar and vanilla. Add contents of small mixing bowl to large mixing bowl and stir with mixing spoon to combine. Using mixing spoon or soup spoon, fill cupcake liners half full with cupcake batter, then place 1 teaspoon filling at center of each. As cupcake bakes, the batter will rise to surround the filling.

Bake about 25 minutes or until cupcakes test done. When done, wear oven mitts to remove pan from oven and turn off oven. If desired, frost with orange icing or just let the orange filling ooze out as a surprise. Makes 36 cupcakes.

-- Source: www.crumbledcookies.com.

Black Bottom Cupcakes

1 8-ounce package cream cheese, softened

1 egg

1/3 cup white sugar

1/8 teaspoon salt

1 cup miniature semisweet chocolate chips

11/2 cups all-purpose flour

1 cup white sugar

1/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder

1 teaspoon baking soda

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 cup water

1/3 cup vegetable oil

1 tablespoon cider vinegar

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line muffin tins with paper cups or lightly spray with nonstick cooking spray.

In a medium bowl, beat the cream cheese, egg, 1/3 cup sugar and 1/8 teaspoon salt until light and fluffy. Stir in the chocolate chips and set aside.

In a large bowl, mix together the flour, 1 cup sugar, cocoa, baking soda and 1/2 teaspoon salt. Make a well in the center and add the water, oil, vinegar and vanilla. Stir together until well-blended. Fill muffin tins 1/3 full with the batter and top with a dollop of the cream cheese mixture.

Bake in preheated oven for 25-30 minutes. Makes 2 dozen cupcakes.

-- Source: www.allrecipes.com.

Golden Vanilla Cupcakes

11/2 cups all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon baking powder

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened

3/4 cup sugar

2 eggs

1 egg yolk

2 teaspoons vanilla extract

1/2 cup milk

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line 12 muffin tins with paper liners or butter and flour the tins.

In a small bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder and salt; set aside.

In a medium bowl, beat the butter until light and fluffy with an electric mixer on high speed. Gradually beat in the sugar until very light and fluffy. Lower the mixer speed to medium. Beat in the eggs, one at a time, the egg yolk and the vanilla. Lower the mixer speed to low. Beat in the flour mixture alternately with the milk just until blended.

Spoon the batter into the prepared muffin tins; fill cups 3/4 full.

Bake until the tops of the cupcakes are springy when lightly pressed with a fingertip but not quite golden, 20-22 minutes. Cool 15 minutes in the muffin tin on a wire rack. Makes 12.

Per cupcake: 201 calories (44 percent from fat), 10 gm fat (6 gm saturated), 72 mg cholesterol, 25 gm carbohydrates, 3 gm protein, 91 mg sodium, 0 dietary fiber.

-- Source: "Cupcakes" by Ceri Hadda, Simon & Schuster.

Creamy Frosting

6 tablespoons (3/4 stick) butter, at room temperature

11/2 cups confectioners' sugar, sifted if lumpy

2 tablespoons heavy cream

3/4 teaspoon vanilla extract

Food coloring (optional)

3 ounces unsweetened chocolate, chopped (optional)

To make vanilla frosting, in a medium mixing bowl combine the butter, confectioners' sugar, cream and vanilla. Using the electric mixer set on low speed, beat until the mixture is smooth. Turn off the mixer several times so you can scrape down the sides of the bowl with a rubber spatula. Use frosting immediately.

To make colored frosting: Make the frosting as directed. Add a drop or two of food coloring to the frosting and mix until thoroughly blended. Alternatively, divide the frosting among 2 or 3 small bowls and mix a different color into each bowl. Use the frosting immediately.

To make chocolate frosting: Make the frosting as directed above. Fill a small saucepan half full with water. Choose a small, deep heatproof bowl that fits snugly on the saucepan. Be sure the bottom of the bowl does not touch the water. Add the chocolate to the small bowl and set the whole thing (water-filled pan and bowl) over medium heat. Heat the chocolate, stirring with a wooden spoon until it is melted, about 5 minutes. Using a potholder, remove the pan from the heat. Set the bowl aside to cool. Stir the melted and cooled chocolate into the frosting until well blended. Use the frosting immediately.

Makes 1 cup. Per tablespoon: 112 calories (56 percent from fat), 7 gm total fat (5 gm saturated), 12 mg cholesterol, 13 gm carbohydrates, 1 gm protein, 44 mg sodium, 0 dietary fiber.

-- Source: "Williams-Sonoma the Kids' Cookbook," edited by Chuck Williams, Time-Life Books.

Tender Chocolate Cupcakes

1 cup all-purpose flour

1/2 teaspoon baking powder

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

1/4 teaspoon salt

6 tablespoons (3/4 stick)

Unsalted butter, softened

1 cup sugar

2 eggs

2 squares (1 ounce each) unsweetened chocolate, melted and cooled

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1/2 cup milk

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line 12 muffin tins with paper liners, or butter and flour tins.

In a small bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt; set aside.

In a medium bowl, beat the butter with an electric mixer on high speed until light and fluffy. Gradually add the sugar, beating after each addition, and continue beating until the mixture is very light and fluffy. Lower the mixer speed to medium. Beat in the eggs, one at a time, then beat in the melted chocolate and vanilla. Lower the mixer speed to low. Alternately beat in the flour mixture and the milk, just until blended.

Spoon the batter into prepared muffin tins. Bake until the tops of the cupcakes are springy when pressed with a fingertip, 15-20 minutes. Cool for 15 minutes in the muffin tins on a wire rack. Makes 12.

Per cupcake: 200 calories (43 percent from fat), 10 gm fat (6 gm saturated), 48 mg cholesterol, 27 gm carbohydrates, 3 gm protein, 128 mg sodium, 1 gm dietary fiber.

-- Source: "Cupcakes" by Ceri Hadda, Simon & Schuster.

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