How to Dress Up Your Cupcakes

by | Mar 30, 2011 05:54 PM ET

Clown-topped birthday cupcakes

If you follow How-to Stuff on Facebook, then you know that last week I was searching for the perfect cupcake and frosting combo to make for a birthday party. I'd already picked out a classic pairing to make for the kids (vanilla cake with chocolate buttercream), but for the parents and other adults, I wanted to prepare something a bit more exciting.

After flipping through a few cookbooks and clicking around a couple of Web sites, I finally found inspiration. But it wasn't a particular flavor of cake or a specific type of frosting. My muse was a photo of "fleur de sel praline" that I stumbled across at "Former Chef" (thanks, Kristina!). You may be asking, "Why start with a garnish?" Well, who among us hasn't built an entire outfit around a favorite pair of shoes or a funky necklace? Come on, admit it -- you know you have. So when I saw the photo of what looks like beautiful little pieces of amber glass, I had to find a cupcake worthy of wearing one of those sparkling gems as a topper.

The thing is, the kids' cupcakes (pictured below) were going to be sporting adorable little clown heads, so I couldn't possibly serve naked cakes to the adults. Anyhow, the winning flavor duo was dark chocolate espresso cupcakes topped with a salted caramel buttercream (also pictured below).

Dark chocolate espresso cupcakes with caramel toppers   
Photos courtesy K. Neer

It took two attempts to make the little shards of caramel. The first batch was as dark as a pint of Guinness, but the second batch turned out perfect. I made a few alterations to the Former Chef recipe. After pouring the hot caramel mixture onto the non-stick mat, I added some grated dark chocolate for extra flavor and some sanding sugar for texture.

Caramel mixture cooling on non-stick mat; the clumps in the upper right corner are sugar bits that I didn't manage to break up while cooking.

And, I was so inspired by the caramel toppers that my cupcake accessorizing didn't stop there. The vanilla cupcake recipe produced more batter than I needed for the standard cupcakes, so I made a few dozen minis, too. I knew I wanted something to contrast the chocolate buttercream and I wanted something tall to counter the miniature size of the cupcakes. The solution: white chocolate pretzel sticks. Here's how to make them:

1.     Melt approximately six to eight ounces of white chocolate chips or chunks in the microwave. Do this in 30-second bursts and stir in between so you won't overdo the chocolate.

2.     Add a healthy amount of grated orange peel (say two or three teaspoons)  and cinnamon (maybe 1/2 teaspoon) to the chocolate (I just dumped some in and then sampled it until it tasted right).  Stir and then microwave it for another 15 or 30 seconds.

3.     Spread out a bunch of pretzels (I used super skinny, tall pretzel sticks) onto a large sheet of parchment paper.

4.     Use a fork to drizzle the chocolate on the pretzels.

The chocolate will harden again in a few minutes. The pretzel sticks will be stuck together in groups of two, three, four or more. I found that groups of two and three made the perfect garnish -- so you'll want to gently separate the larger groups. Sadly, I don't have any photos at the moment. But if I find some, I'll post one here. Or I'll make some more chocolate pretzels and post the photos on our Facebook page. I love edible garnishes like these -- and, typically, so do my guests.

What are your go-to garnishes? If you have any recipes to share, we'd love to see them.

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