Cupcakes have been officially “over” for a while now, but that hasn’t stopped me from eating plenty of them. Trendy desserts are very different from trendy clothes, because even after they stop being the “it” sweet treat, they’re still wonderful. Cupcakes will always be endlessly customize-able, and also the easiest way to transport and share cake. No one turns down a good cupcake, so they’re still worth thinking about – even if they’re not the treat du jour like mermaid toast and cookie cakes.
The most overlooked thing about cupcakes is undoubtedly the cake part itself. Everyone gets carried away with cute toppings and frosting techniques, and a lot of the time the cake is a little dry and the flavor is off. I like to bake as much stuff as I can from scratch, but for basic yellow and chocolate cake, box mixes are a great choice. They require much less work than scratch cakes, they yield consistently nice results, and they’re pretty inexpensive.
When I was about 7, I had a Disney cookbook with a cupcake recipe that I made over and over. I loved that book and that recipe, but the cupcakes were terrible. They were dry, dense, and always had pockets of baking soda that never quite got mixed in properly (this cupcake obsession happened way before my mom got a KitchenAid). I had no idea that the cupcakes were so bad, because I just wanted to eat as much sugar as I could get my hands on. Any cupcake can be improved by putting a tub of frosting on it, like I used to. That 7-year-old metabolism was a beautiful thing, and I miss it.
Fast forward 20 years or so, and I’ve learned that baking a good scratch cake requires specific methods of adding and mixing ingredients. The recipe I like for scratch yellow cake is Fluffy Homemade Vanilla Cake from The Spruce, and the only thing I’ve changed is to increase the vanilla extract. The process involves creaming the butter and sugar until they’re fluffy, adding eggs one at a time, and alternating adding milk and dry ingredients until the batter is smooth. It’s more work than opening a box of mix, adding three other ingredients, and letting the mixer go for a few minutes, but it’s worth it. It’s a great recipe if you’re in the market for a scratch vanilla cake, or box mixes just aren’t your jam.
Now that we’ve covered the cake part, I can tell you about the decorations that make these cupcakes special. I actually dreamed them up for my boss’ daughter’s birthday, and I couldn’t be happier with how they turned out. She wanted butterflies on the cupcakes, and I didn’t really have time to run out and buy butterfly decorations. Instead, I found a simple butterfly image online and printed it out to use as a template. I used melted white chocolate to pipe the butterflies onto wax paper laid over the template. The best part? You can be absolutely terrible at piping and still have these come out nicely. Since you place them on the cupcakes piping-side-down, they look smooth and no one knows how much you struggled to stay in the lines. After they hardened, I broke them in half, and positioned the wings in the frosting at an angle, to make them look like butterflies perched on top.
I piped a simple buttercream frosting in the same rose shaped swirl I used for my Upside Down Lemon Raspberry Pavlovas, because I love the idea that the butterflies are sitting on sweet pink roses. The method I used for the butterflies can be used to make just about any decoration you can think of – I think the inspiration was from a Pinterest post about spiderweb cupcake toppers, done a similar way. These cupcakes are perfect for little kid birthdays, but they’re not cartoon-y at all, so they’d also make great desserts for a baby shower or an adult birthday. They’re an especially good option if complicated, cutesy decor isn’t your forte, and people will just love how adorable they are – and how great they taste!
Vanilla Butterfly Cupcakes
Cake recipe adapted from The Spruce "Fluffy Homemade Vanilla Cake"
- 2 2/3 cups flour 345g
- 1/2 tsp baking soda
- 1/2 tsp baking powder
- 1 tsp salt
- 1 cup unsalted butter
- 1 3/4 cups sugar
- 3 tsps vanilla extract
- 4 large eggs
- 1 cup milk
- 1/2 cup unsalted butter
- 1 1/2 cups powdered sugar - divided use
- 1/2 Tbsp milk
- 1/4 tsp vanilla
- 4 drops red food coloring
- 2 dashes salt
- white chocolate, melted
Sift together flour, baking soda, baking powder and salt. Set aside.
2. Cream butter in a mixer on low speed. Add sugar and vanilla, and beat on medium speed until fluffy, this will take about 10 minutes.
3. Add eggs, one at a time, making sure that each is fully incorporated before adding the next one. Mix for five more minutes at medium speed, until batter is light and airy.
4. With the mixer still running, add 1/4 of the dry ingredients. When it is fully incorporated, add 1/3 of the milk. Continue alternating dry ingredients and milk until everything has been added to the batter. Stop and scrape down the sides of the bowl as needed.
5. Pour batter into cupcake tins, lined with cupcake papers. Bake at 350 degrees for 15-20 minutes, until the tops are golden.
6. While the cupcakes bake, prepare the frosting. Cream together butter and 1 cup of the powdered sugar. Stir in vanilla, salt, and milk.
7: Stir in remaining powdered sugar. When sugar is completely incorporated, add food coloring and stir until frosting is uniform.
Optional, but highly recommended: Whip frosting in a mixer on high until very fluffy, about five minutes. Frosting keeps well in the refrigerator for several weeks.
8. To make the butterflies, lay a sheet of wax paper over a printed template of butterfly shapes - see the blog post for a link to a good one! Melt white chocolate chips in a bowl in the microwave, stirring every 20 seconds. Transfer to a piping bag, and pipe the white chocolate over the templates. If you don't have a piping bag handy, you can also melt the white chocolate chips in a Ziplock bag, and cut a small hole in the corner to pipe through. Let butterflies harden completely before peeling them off the wax paper, and setting on the cupcakes.