CakeWalk: Top me off bartender…err, baker in this case

Fondant Mrs. Pacman Birthday Cupcakes by Miami's Cupcakes Nouveau (Photo courtesy of Cupcake Nouveau)

CakeWalk is a weekly column by Mary Ann Porch dedicated to every baker who has ever struggled to achieve the right consistency with their icing, unsuccessfully searched for the perfect cupcake topper or just wants to learn something new. Because with a few helpful tips, cupcakes are a cakewalk.

Over the past month, we’ve talked about the fundamentals of a good cupcake – what constitutes real buttercream icing, the secret to a moist cake, sweet versus savory. But let’s be honest. Sometimes we need a bit of glamour. Even the tiniest cupcake can pack a mighty punch with its decoration.

When it comes time to accessorize your cupcakes, you have a myriad of choices – plastic toppers, various types of frosting techniques, fruit, edible flowers, etc. The list could go on forever. A short visit to any party supply store or an afternoon spent on Etsy will see you stocked up on amazing cupcake decor options.

If you’re wondering why I’ve chosen this topic specifically for this week’s column, it’s because I was fortunate enough to be the guest at Katie Robinson’s fondant class on Wednesday night at the Brooklyn Kitchen. Katie and I were both judges at the Brooklyn Kitchen’s Cupcake Cook Off earlier this month, and it was there that we started talking about fondant. I admitted that I had no experience working with this medium, so I was thrilled to see an e-mail in my inbox less than a week later inviting me to her fondant class. Since fondant is an excellent way to make snazzy cupcakes, I was up for the challenge.

Katie Robinson teaching a fondant class at the Brooklyn Kitchen (Photo courtesy of author)

I’ll admit – fondant terrifies me. I was never an A+ student in art class growing up (my sister got the artistic genes in the family), and any project I ever attempted that involved sculpting usually ended up looking like an ashtray. You would think that most elementary art class teachers wouldn’t encourage a 7 year old to make an ash tray out of modeling clay, but when your artistic abilities rival those of creatures with no opposable thumbs, you’d be surprised how lenient they are. Since fondant is essentially the food equivalent to Play-Doh and clay, you can tell why I was nervous.

Let’s start at the beginning. There are two types of fondant: poured fondant and rolled fondant. Poured fondant is used as filling or coating for cakes, pastries and candies. Most of you have probably eaten this, whether you realize it or not: The main filling of a Cadbury’s Crème Egg is poured fondant. This column is going to focus on rolled fondant, which is used to decorate cakes. Rolled fondant is made from gelatin and food-grade glycerine, which makes for a pliable product with a dough-like consistency.

Even though rolled fondant is mostly used in wedding and special occasion cakes, you also see it commonly used today to jazz up cupcakes.

Cupcake featuring fondant Hello Kitty (Photo courtesy of Nevie-Pie Cakes)

For Katie’s class, we were tasked to decorate a simple 6-inch cake. Obviously, this isn’t a cupcake, but I considered it an oversized canvas that would allow me to try out fondant for the first time and hone my skills for a smaller piece of art in the future i.e. the top of a cupcake. Since the creation of a tiny fondant bluebird was the part of our “to do” list that is most closely related to how you would decorate a cupcake, I’m going to focus on this.

If you know me or have hung out with me at least once, you know I have a somewhat offbeat personality, so I decided to change things up from the instructions we were given on how to make the bird. Now, I’m fully aware that most people don’t want to eat a cake with a dead bird lying across the top, but if it’s an adorable dead bird…well, I think we can make a case for that. My fellow cake decorators got a good laugh out of it, at the very least. (Side note: My mother’s reaction after seeing the photo below was this: “Why am I not surprised?”)

My fondant bird. I call this cake "Bye Bye Birdie" (Photo courtesy of author)

Shockingly, the entire class agreed that making the bird was fun AND easy. Here are the instructions (you can also see them here, courtesy of Wilton):

Step 1: Tint a 1 3/4 in. ball of fondant blue. Shape a 1 1/2 in. ball of fondant into a teardrop for body.

Step 2: Flatten teardrop point and cut notches for tail feathers with craft knife. Roll a 1 in. ball for head; attach with damp brush. Shape two 3/4 in. balls of fondant into small teardrops and flatten for wings; cut notches for feathers and attach with damp brush.

Step 3: Cut a small white circle for breast, score feather lines with knife and attach. For beak, tint a small ball golden yellow. Shape a small cone and attach with damp brush. Draw dots for eyes with black FoodWriter.

Wilton’s website has a whole section dedicated to cupcakes and ideas on how to incorporate fondant into your cupcake reportoire. The possibilities are truly endless.

Here are some other great sites that can offer you terrific cupcake decorating options as well:

~ Layer Cake Shop

~ The TomKat Studio

~ StockPaper

~ Buttercream Bee

Garden gnome cupcake toppers from Layer Cake Shop on Etsy (Photo courtesy of Layer Cake Shop)

As all the CakeWalk columns have mentioned, it’s all about having confidence in your baking endeavours, and this policy carries through to decorating. In my fondant class, everyone’s bird looked different, but each of them reflected the personality of the decorator responsible. Your cupcake decor should be the same way. If fondant is too intimidating or time consuming, a mini plastic garden gnome purchased from Etsy would look just as amazing perched on top of any cupcake. As you build up your confidence, you’ll be able to make that same mini garden gnome out of fondant…as simple as a cakewalk.

Also, I can’t speak highly enough of Katie’s classes at the Brooklyn Kitchen. I recommend that all of you in the New York area to sign up for her June 9th class where you can learn the basics of decorating an all-purpose party cake (click here to sign up). You’ll walk away with your finished cake, a cake decorating starter kit to take home, AND you get a 10% off all products at the Brooklyn Kitchen after your class. I can guarantee you will walk away with some terrific ideas on how to decorate cupcakes.

Previous CakeWalk Columns:

The importance of a moist cake (May 15, 2009)
The Savory Cupcake Dilemma of 2009 (May 8, 2009)
Will the real buttercream icing please stand up? (May 1, 2009)

Mary Ann is the founder of the New York City chapter of CupcakeCamp NYC, an ad-hoc gathering born from the desire for people to share and eat cupcakes in an open environment. She is also the founder of Puff and Choux, a blog dedicated to the pastry and dessert arts. You can contact her at with any questions, ideas or just to chit chat. You can also follow her on Twitter at @MaryAPorch.