Interview with Krystina Castella, author of Crazy About Cupcakes

Name: Krystina Castella

Title: Author, Professor, Industrial Designer

Age: 39

Location: Los Angeles

Occupation: Professor of Graduate Studies in Industrial Design, Art Center College of Design Designer, Author


How did you get started baking cupcakes? What was the first recipe you followed?

My grandmother taught me how to bake from the time I was 4 or 5. We baked every Sunday together in her Brooklyn kitchen. My mom and I also baked together after school⎯it was our bonding time.

What was the first cupcake you made on your own?

When I was about 7 or 8, I had a Nancy Drew Cookbook and made some cupcakes based on one of the mysteries. They were pretty gross⎯they looked like bloodshot eyeballs using fried eggs on top and tomato juice dripping on the top.

When did you officially become "crazy about cupcakes" and how did your book come about?

I have been baking cupcakes for friends’ parties since the early 90's, but wasn't quite cupcake crazy then. I baked about a batch once or twice a month as a creative outlet. One of my favorite things about cupcakes is that in a batch of, say, 18 to 24, each one can taste and be designed to be unique. When I make them for friends, part of the fun is picking and choosing which one or ones to eat. Every time I baked cupcakes since the early days, I also photographed them individually so I had a record of my experiments so that I can remember them or recreate them.

In 2000, I sold my product licensing and manufacturing company and after working 60 hours a week, I all of a sudden had much more free time. I volunteered for Meals on Wheels, taught kids in homeless shelters, and became a ranger for the National Park Service. I also had more time to bake cupcakes and more people in my life to share them with. So I baked cupcakes several times a week. Everyone appreciated my cupcakes.

Since I documented all of the thousands of cupcakes I made from the early 90's, I had hundreds of recipes I created. I wanted to share them in a book. At the time there weren't any current cupcake books (could you believe that!) so I did some market research to find out that I wasn't the only one obsessed with cupcakes and the market was growing. I decided to prepare a proposal and send my thousands of photographs and recipes to publishers. I also took a class at UCLA (where I was teaching at the time) on writing a cookbook that helped me to learn how to write very detailed technical information. I spent about 8 months on the book proposal refining a table of contents and editing my recipe selections. I was very lucky that I had several publishers interested in my book in the first round of submissions.

How long did it take you to create and test all the recipes? Where did you get the ideas for them (like the tiramisu cupcakes)?

The recipes I developed over about 14 years, so I had continually tested them. After I had signed the book deal with Sterling, I refined them so they are easy for a novice baker to make. Every recipe I made 3-5 times, tasted one and brought the rest into the college where I teach to have many people sample them and choose the best ones. I conducted real focus groups for taste tests but I would also leave them by the coffee cart for free and watched like a spy to see which ones people were attracted to and disappeared first.

All of the flavors have to do with the holiday, type of party or event. For example, tiramisu is a common dessert for dinner parties so I refined tiramisu to its ultimate cupcake form. The other dinner party cupcakes, like cheesecake cupcakes and napoleon cupcakes are also based on other common dinner party desserts. The dinner party cupcakes are the only cupcakes in the book that are served without a wrapper on a plate with a fancy sauce and glamorous toppings and gold leaf covered almonds. I also offer a version for traditionalists with the wrapper on and sauce on top.

Which type of cupcake has proven most popular with your friends?

Tiered cupcakes. I am known to make sculptures out of cupcakes. Stacking either the same size or different sized cupcakes on top of each other to create the forms. The petit four cupcakes are 2 mini cupcakes stack on top of each other with a filling in the middle. The wedding cupcakes are mixes of all sizes stacked 2 or 3 tiers high. I have many examples of how to create these forms my web site.

What was the most exciting part of the process of working on the book?

Creating cupcake combinations with flavors and decorations that reinforce a mood, holiday, theme or event. There were too many great combinations so I added charts in the back that show which cupcake recipes work well with which frostings and toppings. The actual writing of the book was fun too. It was challenging to describe how to make something very complex and visual in a few words.

With so many recipes, it can be a little overwhelming to have so many choices. How would you recommend a novice baker go about picking out which cupcake to make?

I put all of the recipes in the front of the book in the recipe chapter so a novice who just wants to experiment with flavors can make the cupcake and frosting recipes and focus on getting them right. For those who like to decorate they can follow the decorating instructions in the everyday, holiday, parties, occasions and kids chapters.

Did you discover any foods or flavors that don't work with cupcakes? Were there any bloopers or disasters that went with your recipe testing?

Not really.

What would you say was the most fun cupcake in the book to make?

I like the one right on the cover⎯the crystal flower cupcake. It has a few really fun techniques; the basket weave with marzipan is really fun to do. Also the sailboat scene cupcake is fun in the luau grouping because the frosting is treated like paint, so it is like making a painting or a collage. The petit fours are fun too.

What are you working on next?

I have been working on my web site and plan on releasing new recipes and decorating techniques on the site throughout the next year. I also have two new cookbook ideas that I have been meeting with publishers about. I am currently working on proposals for them. They are both for people who like to be creative and have fun with their food.

And now for some personal questions . . .

How often do you eat cupcakes?

About once a week.

What's the best thing about eating cupcakes?

What I love about eating them is they are compact and not messy. I like the size range⎯I can have a mini one when I just want a taste⎯or an extra large one when I want to indulge.

What's your favorite type of cupcake?

Chocolate and coffee are both equal.

How do cupcakes compare/contrast to other baked goods for you?

Cupcakes provide more opportunities for creativity.

Is there any innovation you'd like to see made to the cupcake that would improve it for you?

I like using liners but I don't like making so much extra trash. If the liners were made from corn or rice flour paper than the liners could decay quickly in the compost bin or you can eat them too. Also, how about more shapes for cupcake pans?

Do you bake your own cupcakes? Or (even better) have someone who bakes them for you?

Yes, I bake my own but now that friends have my book they have been baking them and treating me to them. That is really fun. On Thanksgiving it was great to think about my friends and all of the people who were spending their holiday enjoying the pumpkin, cranberry, maple walnut, or pecan cupcakes.

What's your first cupcake-related memory?

I remember baking cupcakes and bringing them into school for fundraisers and bake sales when I was a kid. Other kids’ mothers bought cupcakes from a store or made them for the kids to bring so I was pretty proud to have made my own.

What's the most fun you've ever had with a cupcake?

Creating a DIY cupcake contest at a party is a lot of fun. Each person decorates their own cupcakes and then displays then everyone votes on the blue ribbon prize winners. After the judging people get to share their cupcakes with their new friends.


Unknown said…
Good interview. Loving this blog, btw.
Anty Harton said…
I don't like this cupcake recipes book. Difficult to follow and doesn't look interesting. I'm sorry I bought it.