You know how some people dream of shopping sprees in high-end boutiques or shoe stores? I dream of unlimited shopping sprees in cake decorating/kitchen supply stores. In my future dream house there’ll be a special pantry just for baking supplies, and it’ll be filled with specialty cake pans, every piping tip in the catalog, and a rainbow of sparkling colored sugars.
Okay, so most of that isn’t feasible (though I do have quite a collection of cake pans), but colored sugar is actually within reach, and I don’t have to spend $5 on a bag of each color just in case I might need it someday!
All you need is sugar– I’ve got granulated but you could use sanding sugar (larger grains, often used for sprinkling on pastries) instead– and food coloring. (I have gel food coloring, but if you only have liquid you can use it without dilution) Mix your gel with a few drops of vodka or other clear alcohol, then add a little to a bowl of sugar. Mix with a fork until thoroughly combined. Keep adding more if you want a deeper color. When the sugar is the correct shade, spread it out on a plate and let dry. If clumps form, break them up between your fingers. Once the sugar is dry, you’re done! Store as you would any other sugar.
For these dahlia cupcakes I wanted the cake to be light and spring-y, so I went with a lemon cake base (I admit it, it’s from a mix, because I’m focusing on the decoration here!), which I doctored up with a little strawberry puree to make “strawberry lemonade cupcakes.” I just pureed some strawberries and mixed them into half of the cake batter, along with a few drops of red food coloring to punch up the color contrast. Then I swirled them together in the cupcake liners and baked as usual.
For frosting, I decided to use a new recipe that combines marshmallow fluff and cream cheese– I really like the flavor of this one, but it’s not quite firm enough for me to use on a regular basis. Still, if you want a lower-fat frosting (no butter here!), here’s the recipe:
Marshmallow Cream Cheese Frosting (frosts 12 cupcakes thinly)
8 oz cream cheese, softened
7 oz jar marshmallow fluff
1 tsp vanilla extract
1/4 cup powdered sugar
Combine all ingredients and mix with a hand mixer just until smooth. This is not a frosting that you try to “beat until fluffy,” because cream cheese gets runnier the more you beat it. Feel free to add more sugar if it gets too runny.
Once the cupcakes were frosted, I turned to the main decorations– marshmallow dahlias. To make them, pour various shades of colored sugar into shallow dishes. Then take a bag of mini-marshmallows and snip each marshmallow diagonally with a pair of kitchen shears. Give them a minute to puff back up into shape again, then drop the marshmallows into the sugar and swirl them around until the sugar sticks to the cut sides. I originally dipped them individually, pushing the cut sides firmly into the sugar, but it took forever and this way is just as effective, especially if, as you pick up each piece to decorate with, you push it into the sugar one last time.
Press the marshmallows, cut side up, into your cupcake frosting, starting with a ring around the outside and making concentric circles. When you get to the very center, you can just put one piece sticking straight up. In my experience, the outermost circle takes anywhere from 13-15 half-marshmallows, the next one takes 8-9 half-marshmallows, and then you use 3-4 for the innermost circle and one for the center (if it fits). Your mileage may vary, depending on the size of your cupcakes. You may get more in if you have a very domed cupcake.
Aren’t these gorgeous?
1. Frost these sparingly– if your frosting is too deep your marshmallows might push in too far, and if it’s a bit soft (like mine was) it won’t form a firm base for the marshmallows.
2. A standard bag of mini-marshmallows is more than enough to decorate two dozen standard-sized cupcakes, so don’t cut them all at once or they’ll go to waste. I think I used about 2/3 of my bag.
3. A note on the strawberry puree thing– if I had to do these again, I’d either drain the puree for a bit to make it less liquid-y, or weigh out my cake mix to mix things up separately and replace part of the water with the puree in the strawberry part. The problem with doing it by just adding the puree to the finished batter is that it adds too much liquid and upsets the delicate balance of the cake mix. My cupcakes looked gorgeous right out of the oven, but shrank drastically when they came out. Internet says too much liquid can do that, so I’m avoiding it next time.
4. Or, honestly, omit the puree entirely, add food coloring, and just tell everyone they’re strawberry-lemonade flavored. People will taste lemon and their brains will fill in the difference.
5. Your kitchen scissors will gum up every 15-20 marshmallows or so, so rinse them often. If you wipe them off and then oil them with just a drop of vegetable oil on a paper towel, they’ll cut much more effectively.