Cooking school teaches you that garnishes should be tasty and tasteful. Their role is to complement the food they dress, create an accent in texture and hue. These days, glossy food magazines rarely show food with decorative touches. They celebrate simplicity and serenity.
That said, with spring colors popping and tables moving outdoors, food sometimes screams for a little accessorizing. In my home, this is true of desserts in particular. I don't know about you, but tranquil photo spreads do not reflect my life -- teetering on the verge of chaos is more like it.
Forget keeping it simple. I prefer to have fun in the kitchen, spend a little unavailable time on something completely nonessential.
Plain dessert is fine. But the sweet thing that calls to me -- shouts, actually -- is the one with the doodad on it. This cupcake (or cookie or tart) is special. It's for me.
"Cupcakes are popular now," says Barbara Stratton, New York City chef and owner of Columbine, a breakfast and lunch spot where huge numbers of cupcakes are baked and sold. "People think cupcakes don't have any calories because they are not a serious dessert," Stratton says.
Lately, even complex-to-the-hilt restaurants are occasionally getting into a whimsical mood. More than once, the finale to an ambitious, high-end dinner has been something childlike and humorous -- bright-blue cotton candy at Palette on 15th Street NW or homemade lollipops at Komi in Dupont Circle, for example. That makes my day. It garnishes it!
Most tools needed for decorating are already in our kitchens. The basics are a cutting board, paring knife, chef's knife, kitchen scissors, vegetable peeler (the sharper the better -- replace yours regularly) and a citrus stripper known as a Canelle knife.
Here are 11 ways to decorate cupcakes using candies or chocolate. I've used mini cupcakes in these photos, so the decorations may appear proportionately smaller on regular-size cupcakes. These decorations are nice for cakes, too, when used in quantities or repeating patterns.
Each set of these directions will make enough candy decorations for about a dozen regular cupcakes. It's best to spread wax paper or parchment paper as a work surface. About 1 cup of granulated sugar is used for each, unless otherwise noted. These may be stored in airtight containers for up to two weeks. Any leftover sugar can be passed through a strainer, stored, and used later, if desired.
Apricot Roses (1 1/2 to 2 apricots per cupcake)
What you will need: Sugar, a rolling pin, dried apricots.
On a work surface sprinkled with sugar, using a rolling pin, flatten a few whole dried apricots at a time to 1/8-inch thickness (or as thin as possible without tearing). Add sugar to the surface as needed to prevent the fruit from sticking. Twist apricot pieces into rose shapes, squeezing the bases firmly to secure them.
Bubble Gum Bows (1 to 2 sticks per cupcake)
What you will need: Sugar, sticks of bubble gum (not sugar-free), a rolling pin, pastry wheel or paring knife and small, sharp scissors.
On a work surface sprinkled with sugar, using a rolling pin, flatten bubble gum to about the thickness of card stock. Add more sugar as needed to prevent the gum from sticking to the surface.
Transfer the flattened strips to a cutting board, and, using a pastry wheel or paring knife, slice them into manageable lengths of "ribbon." Manipulate into bows, wrapping the centers with short pieces. Trim the ends into "v" shapes with the scissors.
What you will need: Sugar, gumdrops (often called spice drops), a rolling pin and a petal-shaped cutter or small cutter that is pointed at both ends. (You may use a 1/2-inch wide cardboard template and cut around it with a knife. You may also use small scissors to cut the petals freehand.)
On a work surface sprinkled with sugar, using a rolling pin, flatten the gumdrops as much as possible without tearing. Add sugar to the surface as needed to prevent the gumdrops from sticking. Use the cutter to create shapes from the gumdrops. Dust with more sugar. Press into flower shapes on top of the iced cupcakes.
What you will need: Oranges, grapefruit, lemons (or other citrus of your choice), well-scrubbed and dried, a cutting board, a vegetable peeler, an 8- or 10-inch chef's knife, a small heavy-bottomed saucepan, sugar, water, a baking sheet and a strainer (optional).
Peel the citrus into wide strips of zest only (no white pith). On a cutting board with the chef's knife, stack the strips of peel and cut them into thin shards. In a saucepan on medium heat, add the shards of peel, just enough sugar to cover and then just enough water (a tablespoon or two) to dissolve the sugar. Bring the mixture to a boil, stirring occasionally until large bubbles have formed, and cook for 1 more minute.
Remove from heat and stir constantly until the mixture cools and the sugar crystallizes, forming an even white coating on the shards of peel, which now resemble hay.
On a baking sheet, spread the coated peel until cooled.
What you will need: Sugar, a small, heavy-bottomed saucepan, water, a tablespoon and parchment paper.
In the saucepan, stir sugar and about 1 tablespoon water together. Over high heat, heat the mixture until it turns golden. Spoon golden drips onto the parchment paper, making pleasing shapes; blobs with long spikes are nice. Let cool completely.
NOTE: In humid weather, the drips will become too sticky to work with when they have cooled.
What you will need: Spaghetti or cappellini, a small skillet, vegetable oil, a slotted spoon, paper towels, a small strainer and 1/4 cup sweetened cocoa powder (may substitute a mix of powdered sugar and unsweetened cocoa powder).
Break the pasta into 1- to 6-inch lengths, or longer for bigger cakes. In the small skillet over medium-high heat, heat about 1 inch of oil. Using a slotted spoon, gently drop the pasta pieces in the oil and cook for a few seconds until they are golden. Transfer them to paper towels to drain. Using the strainer, dust the pasta with the cocoa powder.
Sugared Flowers, Mint Leaves
What you will need: Edible flowers, mint leaves, powdered egg whites diluted in water, 1 cup of superfine sugar (may substitute bar sugar), a bowl, a small, clean paintbrush and parchment paper.
Using the paintbrush, lightly coat each flower and mint leaf completely (but lightly) with the egg white mixture. Holding each flower and leaf at its base over a bowl to catch the excess sugar, sprinkle sugar to coat completely on both sides. Gently shake off excess. Set the flower or leaf onto parchment paper and set aside to dry for at least 24 hours.
Each set of these directions will make enough chocolate decorations for about a dozen regular cupcakes. Again, it's best to spread parchment paper (or wax paper) as a work surface. For most of these, I start with a 4-ounce baking bar of semisweet or bittersweet chocolate.
To melt the chocolate, place it in a double boiler or in a bowl over a pan of simmering water and stir occasionally until smooth. Unless otherwise noted, let the melted chocolate cool until it feels just warm when touched to your lower lip.
Do not refrigerate to cool. Make these decorations the same day you're going to use them.
Chocolate Mint Leaves
What you will need: Shaved or finely chopped chocolate, fresh mint leaves, a double boiler and parchment paper.
Set aside about 1/2 ounce of the chocolate (before it is melted). Melt and cool the remaining chocolate as indicated above, stirring in the reserved chocolate until the mixture is smooth. Dip mint leaves into the chocolate, letting excess drip off. Place leaves on parchment paper and let cool until hard.
What you will need: Shaved or finely chopped chocolate, a piece of small-bubble wrap, an 8- to 10-inch chef's knife.
Set aside about 1/2 ounce of the chocolate. Melt and cool the remaining chocolate as indicated above, stirring in the reserved chocolate until the mixture is smooth. On the bubble wrap spread out smooth with the textured surface facing up, spread the chocolate evenly across the wrap and set aside to cool until the chocolate is hard. Place chocolate-sided bubble wrap on a cutting board and peel off the wrap. Using the chef's knife, cut embossed chocolate into triangles.
Chocolate Polka Dot Triangles
What you will need: About 2 ounces white chocolate chips (mini chips are especially nice), parchment paper, shaved or finely chopped chocolate, a double boiler and an 8- to 10-inch chef's knife.
On the parchment paper, place the white chocolate chips randomly about 1/2-inch apart. Set aside about 1/2 ounce of the chocolate (before it is melted). Melt and cool the remaining chocolate as indicated above, stirring in the reserved chocolate until the mixture is smooth.
Gently pour the chocolate over the white chocolate chips. Using a metal offset spatula, carefully spread the chocolate over the chips, trying not to disturb them. Set aside to cool until the chocolate is firm. Transfer to a cutting board and use a chef's knife to cut triangles. Peel off the parchment paper.
What you will need: A 4-ounce chunk of room-temperature chocolate, a vegetable peeler and parchment paper.
With the chunk of chocolate resting on the parchment paper, run the peeler across its edge, forming a nice curl. If the chocolate is too cool, the curl will crack. To warm the chocolate slightly, put it in the microwave for just a few seconds at a time, until you can easily peel off curls. Repeat until you have the desired amount.
Lisa Cherkasky is a cook, writer and food stylist who lives in South Arlington. She last wrote for Food about decorating for the holidays.