Technique: Cupcake Bouquets
Pretty enough to eat... so why the hell not!
Pastry is food... delicious food... indulgent food. To those of us with a sweet tooth, it's food perfected. But pastry can also be food at the intersection of art... although there's been considerable debate on that claim.
Can food really be art? True art? When a chef becomes overly fussy with his plating, has the meal suddenly become worthy of a frame and a gallery space?
Probably not, at least for the savory side. A seared Hudson Valley Duck may look remarkable, but it exists to be eaten. But with pastry, the argument for food as art is stronger. Showpieces - edible towers of Dough, Chocolate or Sugar - are more a matter of visual appeal than they are gastro-satisfaction. While pastry showpieces could be eaten, they often exist purely for display.
A common entry into the world of showpieces are "lookalikes" - pastries designed and constructed to look nothing like their edible components. Increasingly popular are Cupcake Bouquets (thank you, Pinterest) - floral creations assembled in the kitchen rather than grown in the garden.
The Internet is loaded with step-by-step guides for making Cupcake Bouquets, and I see no need to add to that clutter. After all, the process is easy to summarize: attach decorated Cupcakes to a styrofoam ball placed in a vase or pot.
That concept is simple enough for anyone to understand. What I offer are a number of tips and techniques that the basic guides do not mention - details that will hopefully result in a bit of a wow factor and not earn you a spot on some Buzzfeed list of Home Baking Failures.
Should it taste great or look great?
Of course, the answer is, "Both!" A Cupcake Bouquet should taste and look great. But there will be compromises. When making something like a Cupcake Bouquet, there's a give-and-take between creating a delicious dessert and constructing an eye-catching showpiece.
An edible Cupcake Bouquet must remain fresh and be easy to serve. A showpiece, however, should be visually perfect and must be able to survive more than a couple of minutes on display.
Before you start making a Cupcake Bouquet, decide which factors are most important to you.
It's all about the base!
Long before you bake your first Cupcake, consider the base for the Cupcake Bouquet. The Cupcake Bouquet is most easily formed on a styrofoam ball placed in a vase or pot. The Cupcakes are then attached using toothpicks (for miniature Cupcakes) or wooden skewers.
- The vase or pot should be weighted (e.g. rice, coins, etc.) so that it remains stable even if the Cupcake Bouquet becomes top heavy.
- The fit of the styrofoam ball and vase is critical. The styrofoam ball should fit into the vase or pot such that only the top half is viewable. The bottom half should fit snuggly into the vase or pot.
- If the styrofoam ball does not fit snuggly into the vase or pot, consider securing the two pieces with tape or glue (but only after you have finalized your plan for construction).
- If the Cupcakes will be widely spaced on the styrofoam ball, consider painting the ball some color other than white so that it is less noticeable. Space between Cupcakes can also be filled with greenery or tissue paper.
- To eliminate any exposed space between the bottom row of Cupcakes and the vase or pot, consider lining the rim of the vase or pot with greenery or tissue paper. It's easier to do this before you start attaching Cupcakes.
Not all Cake is created equal!
You likely have a number of favorite Cake recipes, but not every recipe is appropriate for a Cupcake Bouquet. It's easy for any Cake to sit peacefully on a plate. It's an entirely different matter to hang that Cake vertically to make a Bouquet. Some Cakes are not up to the challenge.
- An overly light and fluffy Cake may tear or fall off the Cupcake Bouquet once it is weighed down with frosting.
- ... however, an overly dense Cake may be too heavy for a Cupcake Bouquet. Dense Cupcakes may hang well from skewers, but they will make the entire Cupcake Bouquet top-heavy, even before it is frosted. If the Cupcake Bouquet is top-heavy, it is extremely important to put extra weight in the base (e.g. coins, rice, etc).
- Bake more Cupcakes than you think you will need. You never know when you will need back-ups.
- Regardless of the recipe used, do not under-bake the Cupcakes. Under-baking may give you extremely moist Cupcakes, but they will lack the structure necessary to hang onto the Cupcake Bouquet.
- Wait until the Cupcakes have cooled completely before attempting to assemble the Cupcake Bouquet. Even consider chilling the Cupcakes in the refrigerator.
Have a plan!
Take the time to map out where the Cupcakes will be placed before working with the final Cupcakes. The extra time up front will spare you a lot of frustration.
- Decide how closely spaced you want to make the Cupcakes. A more realistic bouquet should be more densely packed. However, it can be more difficult to arrange. It will also be harder to cleanly remove the Cupcakes for serving (if that is the final plan).
- Test the spacing of the Cupcakes using skewers and empty baking papers. This will give you a good sense of how many Cupcakes are required for your particular Cupcake Bouquet.
Keep it steady!
Just because a Cupcake successfully attaches to a skewer doesn't mean it will stay there. Gravity is cruel. So are heat and humidity.
While it may pain you to poke holes into your precious little Cupcakes, ask yourself which is worse... a couple of holes in each Cupcake or a pile of Cupcakes fallen from a failed Cupcake Bouquet?
- Use at least two toothpicks or skewers per Cupcake. By using two skewers placed side-by-side, the Cupcake is less likely to fall or spin.
- Place the skewers into the styrofoam first. Once you have the skewers placed exactly where you want them, then place the Cupcakes.
- For any Cupcakes that hang vertically from the side of the Cupcake Bouquet, stick the skewers towards the bottom half of the Cupcake (the lower part of the Cupcake closer to the table). This will make the skewers support more of the Cupcake's weight making it less likely for the Cupcake to tear and fall off the Cupcake Bouquet.
Check... double check... triple check!
Take the time to re-evaluate your construction as you work. If you notice that one of your Cupcakes isn't well-secured, or if you notice that your placement is no longer even, fix it immediately. It will be much harder to correct those errors later on.
The bigger they are, the harder they are!
A small Cupcake Bouquet is relatively easy. With five or six Cupcakes to attach on a relatively small ball, there are only so many things that can go wrong. But as that design gets larger and larger, so too do the challenges.
- Cupcake Count: The number of Cupcakes required to cover a styrofoam ball increases exponentially with the diameter of the ball. It may seem as though going from a 6" ball to an 8" ball is insignificant... but the difference is huge (as in a dozen Cupcakes)!
- Weight: As the Cupcake count increases, so does the weight. Adding 12 Cupcakes to the Cupcake Bouquet can easily add three pounds to the final weight.
- Fit: It's relatively easy to visualize how to fit six cupcakes onto a styrofoam ball. A clean arrangement is harder to plan with two dozen Cupcakes. The issue of fit can be mitigated by using Cupcakes of different sizes. Start with standard-sized Cupcakes, and fill in the spaces with miniature Cupcakes.
And now for the Frosting!
The Frosting used to decorate the Cupcakes is the biggest area of compromise. The give-and-take between texture, taste and stability cannot be taken for granted.
There are basically two Frosting Options: A true Buttercream (i.e. Italian Meringue or Swiss Meringue) or an American Buttercream.
A real Italian or Swiss Meringue Buttercream is made by beating Butter into an egg-white-based Meringue. A real Buttercream will produce the smoothest, glossiest looking flowers. And you cannot beat the taste and texture. When prepared correctly, a real Buttercream is light, smooth and not overly sweet.
Here's the bad news about real Buttercream Frosting. It is notoriously sensitive to heat. Within a few minutes of moving from the refrigerator to a warm room, real Buttercream will begin to soften... then melt. When it is used to decorate Cupcakes that are being supported vertically, the risk of the Frosting sliding off the Cupcake is significant. The melting risk can be mitigated by replacing some or all of the Butter with Vegetable Shortening. The frosting will still appear smooth and glossy, but the texture and mouth feel can be unpleasant.
The alternative is "American" Buttercream, which is made by creaming 1 part Butter, 1 part Vegetable Shortening and 4 parts Powdered Sugar. This Frosting is amazingly stable. In fact, if the ratio of Powdered Sugar to Fat is high enough, it will actually harden over time. The downside is that American Buttercream does not have the smooth, glossy appearance of a Meringue-based Buttercream. It is also extremely sweet, given the high Sugar content. Kids love it. Adults may find their teeth aching.
Piping a little pop!
For every Internet guide on making Cupcakes Bouquets, there are at least 10 tutorials on how to pipe various Buttercream flowers. So, again, I defer to the extensive resources available. But...
- A 2D Wilton pastry tip will be your best friend. This closed-star tip is extremely versitile for piping flowers and well worth a mere $1.99.
- Well-executed flower Cupcakes using a single color Frosting will look great, but two-toned flowers (a base color and a highlight) will make for considerably more dynamic Cupcake Bouquets.
The two-color technique is very effective for creating more natural looking flowers. Nature isn't monotone, after all.
What I find particularly helpful is that the actual distribution of the highlight and primary colors changes as you continue to pipe. As a result, each flower is unique.
Frost now or frost later?
Most Cupcake Bouquets tutorials recommend decorating the individual Cupcakes and then attaching them to the styrofoam ball. I couldn't disagree more.
Decorating first can work if you plan to have significant space between each Cupcake. Otherwise, you will inevitably bump the Frosting and ruin your time-consuming decorative work along the way.
I greatly prefer placing the Cupcakes first and then frosting them. The risk of accidentally destroying your work is greatly reduced. Yes, it does mean that you will need to pipe some of the Cupcakes at an angle. This may take a little practice at first, but it's not nearly as frustrating as the alternative.
Regardless of whether the final Cupcake Bouquet will be eaten or displayed, a few final touches can make all the difference. Visible gaps between Cupcakes can be filled with greenery (for a more realistic look) or colored tissue paper (better for Cupcake Bouquets that will be eaten).
A Cupcake Bouquet made to be eaten should be served within 1-2 days. If the Cupcake Bouquet is made with a Meringue-based Buttercream, store it in the refrigerator until approximately one hour before serving.
Questions? Comments? Send me an email or leave a comment.
follow on Twitter @BreadChefMark. And sign up for the email list.