The Art of the Cupcake

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There’s something attractive about miniature versions of things. Small dogs that you can cart around in your bag, tiny plastic animals or babies, miniscule colored pencils, and the Mini Cooper all come to mind. This must be what gives cupcakes their charm. They have everything a regular cake has, but they’re SMAAAAALL!

It’s weird to think that just a few years ago, the only adults who gave cupcakes the time of day were those who happened to be making some for their kid to take to school on a birthday. Now, it seems every city has at least one bakery devoted specifically to these petite desserts. My particular city has four cupcake establishments, plus myriad other cafes and boutiques that carry a significant number of fancy cupcakes. We’re in a cupcake zeitgeist. (We especially love this “Revenge of the Nerds” cupcake.)

revenge of nerds cupcake

If you take a family trip to Los Angeles any time soon you can visit the famous Sprinkles Cupcakes, which is credited with being the originator of the gourmet cupcake phenomenon. Since Sprinkles began peddling upscale cupcakes made with gourmet ingredients and unique flavors at their Beverly Hills store in 2005, franchises have been springing up all over. Just the thought of a chocolate marshmallow cupcake is making me drool. Sprinkles and its cupcake business cohorts are a prime example of what can happen if you follow your passion, even if it’s not popular at the moment.

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Since cupcakes and nerdiness are both becoming more prevalent these days, it’s likely you’ve seen some diminutive delights featuring classic nerdist imagery. If you’re into baking, you may have even made some of your own. The whole nerd cannon is represented online, from Star Wars to math equations. Here’s a lovely little Tumblr showing Plants vs. Zombies fondant décor.

So, you’ve decided to make some of these tasty tidbits. Why not take the opportunity to teach your kids about art? One art technique that might be fun for you and your kids to try is pointillism*. What are cupcakes anyway but small, round points made of cake? With a little practice, anyone can paint a frosting face on one, but only a master planner can create a face with many. (Although it must be noted that cake artist Zilly Rosen has done exactly what we’re talking about.)

star wars cupcakes

Find a picture you’d like to replicate. To start, you’ll probably want to choose something simple. Have your kids make a list of the colors represented; these will be the hues of frosting you will need. Help them trace an outline of the picture, creating something like a paint-by-numbers template. Then fill in all the areas with cupcake-sized circles. Next, using the original as a guide, kids can color in the circles.

Make enough cupcakes to fill a large baking sheet. Set out the frosting colors and some brushes (or in this case, maybe spatulas.) The last step is to paint the edible dots to match the paint-by-numbers colors version.

doctor who cupcakes

Decorating cupcakes can be a much more artistically rich experience than the old “frost them however you want” method. Your kids can use up one whole day of spring break, make some dessert, and come away knowing a bit more about art too.

*This is the painting technique of creating a picture using hundreds of small dots or dashes that, when seen from afar, blend into an image. Check out some Paul Signac.

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