“PJ, you need to decorate some fancy cupcakes for a Valentine's blog post.”

ARGHHHH! Those two little words I (don't) long to hear–

“Decorate.” “Fancy.”

I immediately go into whine mode.

“Can't MaryJane do it? She's SUCH an artist, so good at all that... stuff.”

All that picky, intricate, delicate, SUPREMELY IRRITATING DECORATING STUFF.

For which I have all the patience of a 4-year-old at a birthday party...

I swear, my Web teammates just love to torture me.

But, discretion is the better part of valor.

And really, whoever came up with THAT old bromide never had to lay down a perfect row of tiny sugar pearls atop a cupcake.

Sigh...

OK, let's do the easy part first: bake some cupcakes.

Check out our Bake Sale Fudge Cupcakes, including the accompanying blog post, for a fast, easy recipe for deep-dark chocolate fudge cupcakes.

Next, gather your decorating tools.

White fondant is a sweet, malleable icing, the mainstay of professional cake decorators. Think Play-Doh - but much better-tasting. Fondant is the perfectly smooth coating you see on most wedding cakes; the base upon which all the fancy flowers and other furbelows rest.

Next, a springerle mold. You'll press this atop the fondant to make an imprint, which you can then cut out and drape over your cupcake.

That's what they tell me, anyway. We'll see.

I want to stop for a moment and thank my long-time friend and fellow King Arthur test-kitchen baker, Sue Gray. She's an expert cake decorator, and it's her hands you'll see doing the work here.

That's right; I chickened out.

Well, someone had to take the pictures, right?!

Truth be told, though - I actually could have done all this. I don't have the Martha Stewart gene, and I never WOULD do any of this in a million years - but I could.

And if I can, so can you.

First, sift a fine coating of cornstarch atop a clean work surface. A silicone rolling mat is perfect for rolling fondant.

Next, get out your fondant. Break off however much you think you'll need. If you're going to make 24 cupcakes with springerle decorations on top, you'll need about 12 ounces of fondant. For simpler, thinner heart cutouts, you''ll need only about 3 or 4 ounces.

Keep any fondant you're not using wrapped in plastic, to keep it moist and malleable.

Knead the fondant in your hands to soften it up.

Break off a generous 1/2-ounce piece, and gently flatten it.

How big is a generous 1/2-ounce piece? Well, if you have a teaspoon cookie scoop, it's just about one of those, slightly heaped.

If you don't, it's enough that you can roll it into a ball about 1” in diameter.

Sue says if you gently rub the flattened fondant, dipping your fingers lightly in cornstarch, it makes it easier to work with.

Think of gently rubbing cornstarch onto your baby's skin; that's about what it feels like. Silky smooth.

Press the springerle mold atop the flattened fondant.

Peel it off...

...and gently – especially if you're using a silicone mat, GENTLY, so as not to score the mat – cut around the edge. A 2” biscuit cutter is the perfect size for this particular springerle decoration.

Again, be sure you don't press down too hard; you don't want to injure the mat.

Peel the excess fondant away.

While fondant is malleable, it's not particularly sticky (thankfully). To anchor it atop the cupcake, brush the cake with simple syrup – which is easily made at home:

Combine 1 cup granulated sugar with 1 cup water; bring to a boil atop the stove; simmer for 3 minutes. Remove from the heat, cool, and store in a glass jar, at room temperature, for up to a month.

Center the springerle decoration atop the cupcake.

If you like, press sugar pearls alongside the fondant, to make a border. Do this while the cake is still moist from the syrup.

Note the single pearl I placed - on the fondant, rather than the cake. Good aim!

We used lilac-colored pearls here, but white-on-white is nice, too.

There!

What if you don't have a springerle mold? A heart cookie cutter makes a simpler, but just as elegant-looking cupcake.

Start by rolling the fondant between 1/8” and 1/4” thick.

Cut hearts. Remember to press lightly, if you're working on silicone.

Lay hearts atop your syrup-brushed cupcakes.

Add pearls. If the syrup seems to be drying before you've got all the pearls in place, just brush on some more.

Ta-da!

How about pink on white? Slather cupcakes with your favorite white frosting. Sue is using buttercream here, but any kind of frosting is fine.

Knead food color into your fondant; again, this is just like mixing different colors of Play-Doh.

Roll it out, cut hearts...

Awww...

And now, a word about cupcake papers. Sometimes, with chocolate cake, colorful cupcake papers lose their punch, due to the cake's dark color. Thus you'll see cakes baked in plain white papers, then set into the “fancy” papers after baking.

Luckily, the Valentine papers we sell hold their color through thick and thin - and chocolate.

The cake on the left is baked right in the Valentine paper. On the right, baked in a plain paper, then set into the Valentine paper. Not enough difference to warrant the double paper, I'd say.

OK, I have to admit - at the risk of losing my reputation as a fancy-decorating curmudgeon, working with fondant was definitely easier than I thought it would be.

Even kind of fun.

And next time Sue or MaryJane gets into one of these decorating projects, I'll be right there admiring their work and breathing a sigh of relief that it's not me doing it!

PJ Hamel
The Author

About PJ Hamel

PJ Hamel grew up in New England, graduated from Brown University, and was a Maine journalist before joining King Arthur Flour in 1990. PJ bakes and writes from her home on Cape Cod, where she enjoys beach-walking, her husband, two dogs, and really good food!

View all posts by PJ Hamel