Most people assume I love to bake. They’re right, but it’s a bit more complicated than that. The cycle goes something like this:
Step 1, the day of baking something I’ve already committed to and absolutely cannot back out of: I don’t want to bake. I don’t have time. I’m going to make a mess. It’s going to come out horribly. I’m so bad at everything. I’m tired. I’m grumpy. I hate this. Why did I agree/offer to do this? I hate baking.
Step 2, in the kitchen, doing prep work: Okay, this isn’t so bad. I’ll be done in an hour and then I’ll go finish that novel/television show I’m in the middle of and relax for the rest of the evening.
Step 3, hands saturated in butter, sugar, and egg, process well underway, music blasting, baker singing, kitchen thoroughly destroyed, well more than the anticipated hour later: I love baking! I’m going to make Jon clean the kitchen and just decorate cakes all night long because it’s oh-so-fun, and I couldn’t imagine anything better than this. I should quit my job and open a bakery! Everything is awesome!
While baking is not without difficulty, the process itself is something I enjoy completely (once I get started, that is). My writing process is remarkably similar to this, too. If I’m in the middle of working on something in the kitchen, I’m completely in my own head, and it is glorious. But unless it’s something I’ve made a thousand times (I’m looking at you, cupcakes), baking unnerves me. And no matter how many times I set foot in the kitchen, I assume I’m going to mess everything up. In my experience, there isn’t much room to play when you’re baking, unless you’re well familiar with the rules of the dish, and just how far you can bend those rules before they break and you end up scraping out a spring form pan filled of what should have been a beautiful Apple Sharlotka into a Tupperware container, saddened and frustrated by defeat at the hands of the chunky, doughy mess before you (surprisingly delicious, but aesthetically unappealing and un-structurally sound). It’s more flattering to chart the progress of a successful dish over that of a failure, of course, but the failures can be helpful, too – where did I go wrong? How can I make this better?
That being said, while layer cakes still terrify me (far less forgiving than a cupcake, and far more impressive if you don’t screw them up), nothing is more stressful than coming up with a recipe that requires me to work with a new material, which leads me into detailing for you the process of creating ballerina cupcakes. These cupcakes combine a few of my favorite things, the first and foremost being my incredible four year old niece, for whom these were designed for, in honor of her first recital; the rest being baking, feeding people things that will undoubtedly kill them, and ballet.
I’ve always sworn I’d never work with fondant – that sickeningly sweet, inedible plaster-esque confection that has the ability to turn a cake into a masterpiece, yet is only fit for consumption by a child whose palate is refined only to distinguish between things that taste like candy (good) and things that do not (bad). In using fondant, a baker has to resign herself to sacrificing taste for appearance – something I’m always unwilling to do. While the aforementioned Sharlotka looked like dog vomit, it tasted beautifully. While fondant cakes look beautiful, they taste like garbage. I like to walk the line between something pretty and delicious, but not overly complicated in appearance. This philosophy has led me to turn down jobs where the client wanted cakes that resembled things buttercream is unable to recreate due to its limitations in consistency and pliability.
In creating ballerina cupcakes, I took a Groucho Marx approach (“These are my principles; if you don’t like them, I have others.”) in order to create sugar leotards on top of buttercream tutus topping miniature cakes. I didn’t use fondant, I used gum paste, which is basically fondant that dries the second you stop kneading, rolling, shaping, or looking at it. Both fondant and gum paste are similar to marshmallows in regard to ingredients, but not in taste (the main difference being that marshmallows are delicious). The things we do for love, right?
Gum paste smells like bubble gum Big League Chew, which made me nauseous about ten minutes into working with it. I refused to try it, but Jon assured me it tasted “sort of like a marshmallow,” though I remain skeptical. It’s also a huge pain in the ass to color because it requires you to knead it for an ungodly amount of time before the color is uniform, instead of the weird tie-dye effect you get if you haven’t kneaded it long enough. You can make your own or you can buy a tub of it. I used Satin Ice gum paste because I wanted to ease my way into using it by seeing if it would work for what I needed before making it from scratch. It took about a pound to make 24 (~4-inch high/~3-inch wide) leotards. This process was tedious, yet surprisingly simple: using Wilton gel colors, I dispersed small amounts of pink gel into the gum paste using a toothpick. I then kneaded the color until it became uniform, and rolled it out into a thin sheet. From here, I used a swimsuit cookie cutter, placing each cut-out on a baking sheet lined with wax paper. If you have someone at your disposal (poor Jon), have them continue to knead the gum paste you haven’t cut out yet so it doesn’t dry up – it makes the process a hell of a lot easier. Once the cut-outs are complete, use a paintbrush to brush edible glitter over them (if desired). To make the pearl neckline, I lightly wet pink sugar pearls and pressed them into the still soft gum paste. You’ll need to set these out, uncovered, overnight. Once they’ve set on one side, flip them over so the other side may dry.
That’s the hardest part to these, in all honesty. For the rest, I simply made my favorite vanilla bean cupcake recipe and a vanilla buttercream, dyed lavender (for lavender buttercream, use Wilton’s violet gel as your base, and add pink gel until the desired shade is achieved). You’ll want to frost your cupcakes before topping them: to make a ruffle effect, don’t use what Wilton calls their ruffle-tip – or use it but use a stiffer buttercream, maybe – this did not work for me. I used a medium star tip, but used less pressure while piping the buttercream onto the cupcakes to create a fuller effect.
Once you’ve piped your “tutus”, decorate them with sugar pearls, edible glitter, whatever you can think of. It looked as though a unicorn vomited all over my kitchen once these were done, which made me feel like I had succeeded in my mission to impress a four year old. Once the tutus are decorated, place your leotards on top. If you want to ensure the leotards don’t fall over - there is no delicate way to say this, or there is, but let’s not be coy – you’ll need to insert the bottom (i.e., the crotch of the leotard) into the cupcake. This will ensure your ballerinas look graceful, rather than drunken messes, and will enable you to tell impressed family member curious about your process that you just “jammed the crotch in there.”
These cupcakes were a hit and so was my niece’s recital. Upon completion of a giant cookie and a ballerina cupcake, she looked up at me with giant saucer-eyes, glazed over and wild, crazed with sugar, lavender staining her mouth, cheeks, forehead, and hands, and proceeded to growl and make silly noises at me, signaling to me a job well done, making the sacrifice of using almost-fondant absolutely worth it.