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Zen and the Art of Baking with a Toddler: Cupcake Edition

Harry’s first hero: Bob the Builder. Second hero: Thomas the Tank Engine. Third: Handy Manny. (I won’t even get into how hard it was for me to let go of my ideals for only wooden, non-commercialized toys.) Yup, he’s 100% boy—regardless of our efforts to raise a gender-neutral, sensitive little creature, he seems to be hardwired to adore stereotypically male categories. His first word was “digger,” for crying out sake! (OK, it was more like “didig,” but we knew what he meant.)

The other day we were driving home, and he said, “I want to make Flicker cupcakes with you.” As if baking them with me was the important part of the equation, not the cupcakes themselves. Who can resist such a request? I knew who Flicker was, thank goodness:

He’s Handy Manny’s handy flashlight pal. Cute, no? But hardly cupcake-like. I hadn’t a clue how to go about making a cupcake that resembled him, so I did what any mother would do: I stalled.

“I don’t have all the ingredients, Harry. We’ll bake them tomorrow.” This did not please him. Much back-seat screaming ensued, until I distracted him by pointing out a particularly interesting crane.

But toddler memories are right up there with elephants’. When Harry woke up the next day and immediately asked if we’d be making Flicker cupcakes, I knew I was beat. These things had to be made, somehow.

The cupcake itself was no problem: I’d use the Amazon Cake recipe, the simplest, most deliciousest chocolate cake in the world. But the decorating, well, that was another story.

While Harry was at camp, I scrambled. Mildly panicked, I emailed my friend Sara Schneider, who bakes and decorates the most fantabulous cakes you’ve ever seen as a sideline to her real job. This woman knows decorating. Sure enough, within minutes she’d sent me a diagram of how to proceed, and even gave me her foolproof frosting recipe.

So. Fast-forward a few hours. Cupcakes are baked. Frosting is whipped. All that remains is to make the various colors and do the actual decorating. With Harry sitting right beside me. This is where the Zen part comes in: Harry, like most nearly-3-year-olds, is not the best at patience. Or sitting still, or not tasting things that are clearly delicious before they’re ready. So I let him stir in the food coloring, which made him momentarily happy. Then I let him hold open the Ziploc bags I used instead of pastry bags, while I loaded in the colored frostings. (I know I have a set of bags & tips somewhere, but for the life of me I just couldn’t find them. Improvisation was necessary.)

Meanwhile, Harry had spied the container of green gel paste. And as anyone who knows him—and even some people who don’t—can tell you, green is his favorite color. Junior was ready to abandon the Flicker idea entirely, in favor of solid green cupcakes. But dammit, we’d already gone too far! I wasn’t turning back without a Flicker cupcake to show for it. So on we went.

I’m not sure I should have bothered.

This guy was decorated by Salvador Dali, apparently.

His cousin looks pretty good, except for those devil horns.

Personally, I don’t find a double-eyeball weird at all.

The winner: The only one that’s even remotely Flickerish.

Good thing Harry’s a toddler. He didn’t seem to notice how terrible they looked—he was just excited to eat a Flicker cupcake. Or more specifically, Flicker himself:

Flicker cupcake? What Flicker cupcake?

Remember that thing I said, about toddler memories? Of course, junior didn’t forget the green cupcake idea, so after making only four Flickers, he was all about the green.

His favorite part? Squishing the green frosting between his hands. What a weirdo.

Sara’s Foolproof Frosting
Adapted by her, from the Institute of Culinary Education

Notes from Sara:
Here’s the LARGE version—1/2 of it is enough for 36 cupcakes. Have never had to do 1/3 of it, but that would work too. [Indeed, 1/3 works perfectly well—that’s what I did.]

Meringue powder is the only tricky-ish ingredient. But you can always get powdered egg whites at a grocery store to use instead. [In fact, I didn’t have time to buy any, but Sara gave me permission to just leave it out. And the frosting was still fabulous!]

1 1/2 pounds unsalted butter (6 sticks)
1 t. salt
3 pounds of powdered sugar
1 tablespoon real vanilla extract or paste (I always use the paste and prob. use 2x that amount—this stuff is great
3 tablespoons meringue powder (can usually find at a craft store or sometimes at the supermarket, can also use powdered egg whites)
4 1/2 ounces milk (I use whatever I have, the fattier the better!)

Beat the butter with a paddle attachment of the mixer until very soft, scraping down the sides of the bowl as necessary. Add the salt and slowly add the powdered sugar, a couple of scoops at a time. (My secret to keeping the whole kitchen from filling with powdered sugar dust: place a large damp dish towel to cover the mixer and bowl. Just make sure it doesn’t get caught up in the paddle!)

When all the powdered sugar is in, add the vanilla & meringue powder. The mixture will be really stiff. Slowly add the milk, again scraping down the sides so it’s all combined.

Beat the buttercream on high for approx 7 minutes until it’s nice and whipped.

This Post Has 10 Comments

  1. Jenn@slim-shoppin

    I have two sons, they are 13 and 11now, but I have fond memories of Bob the Builder, both my boys loved trucks so much, the could name a paver, dump truck, excavator by the time they were three! What a cute story. And I've seen a few handy manny shows, so as soon as you said Flicker, I knew what you were talking about!

    Great job, I think they turned out great!

  2. debbie koenig

    Thanks, Jenn! Harry's just like your boys–he recognizes a front-end loader vs a backhoe vs an excavator, which means that now I do, too. Such fun. For his 2nd birthday, in fact, I created a doozy of a cake–a construction scene complete with teeny toy trucks and fake trees. Lord knows what he's going to ask for this year…

  3. Rayna

    I find it interesting that you wanted to raise your child in a gender-neutral manner, yet you tweeted rather snarkily about 'the PC Police' when someone responded to your 'attention parents of truck-loving boys' post. It's worth keeping in mind our construction of gender is often un(sub?)conscious. Our (seemingly) tiny, daily assumptions and generalisations contribute much to this.

    I'm not trying to be snarky – I applaud that you thought consciously about your child's relationship to gender, rather than simply taking it for granted.

  4. JB

    Harry loves trucks. He also regularly cooks and bakes with his mama. Teaching boys how to cook and bake is as feminist as it gets, in my book. I am regularly in awe of your ability to involve Harry in your cooking/baking projects. I am so lazy I often seek to avoid the extra mess of letting my toddler "help."

    WTEB is one of the best food blogs around. Can we get back to the far more awesome topic of cupcakes?

    Damn, those look good, Debbie. Your claims that the Flicker looks "terrible" does not deter my desire to scarf them.

  5. debbie koenig

    Rayna, thanks for your insight. I've been stewing over this since I first read your comment, and while I'm tempted to enter into a much larger discussion about gender and how we influence our children (as well as what constitutes "snark"), this is a food blog and I think that's where the focus belongs.

    As JB so wisely suggested, let's get back to the cupcakes!

  6. Lindellica

    Those look fabulous to me. Extremely impressive!!

  7. Kristin

    I have a ton of zucchini and wonder if you think adding zucchini to the amazon cake recipe would work. Would you swap out something? I'm just looking for a way to sneak in a few veggies.

  8. debbie koenig

    Hmm, that's a tricky one.

    I think it might throw off the texture–Amazon Cake is definitely a cakey-cake, while cakes with zucchini in them tend to be more spice-cake-like, heavier if that makes sense. OTOH, if you try it I'd LOVE to hear how it turns out!

    It's not vegan, but I did find this recipe for an actual Chocolate Zucchini Cake on Simply Recipes: That's a great site and I totally trust Elise's recipes.

  9. Devora Leah Lein

    Debbie- this is hysterical! I love this. You did a great job with those flashlight guys.

  10. Toddler Nutrition

    Cool stuff! I quite liked it.

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