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

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.