This is a post for the parents/aunts/uncles/grandparents/in charge adult type person of the kid in 3rd grade who forgot to tell you that it was their snack day…the night before. Oh, and they want cupcakes. Seriously, if there are no cupcakes by tomorrow morning, there will be a meltdown. Tears, screaming and possible ostracization by their 3rd grade friends. Alright, easy enough. Just go buy some cupcakes from the store right? I mean, sure. If you wanna be like every other basic Becky in the 3rd grade, go buy some premade cupcakes. But Amanda, it’s 8pm! You want me to make them from scratch?! No way. Take a breath, my desperate friend. I’m going to teach you some bakers shortcuts to make box mix and canned frosting look and taste like you stayed up all night. Let’s see Linda from the PTA complain now.
First things first. Using a box mix does not make you a bad baker. Box mixes exist because everyone, including real life bakers, sometimes need a shortcut. And the funny thing about box mixes is that they are always perfect. You can’t mess up a measurement when it’s already measured in the box! The question becomes, how do you make the box mix taste like it’s not? For starters, spring for the box mix with pudding. The few extra cents you spend on a good mix will absolutely be worth it.
Second, you improve the mix by adding and replacing what is requested on the back of the box. Add an extra egg to the amount already required: this will pump up the moisture and improve the structure. Take out the oil and add melted butter instead. Butter is just oil with a lot of extra flavor and a little more junk in the trunk. Butter is also infamous for coating gluten proteins and not allowing super strong bonds to form between them. This keeps the cake soft, squishy and bursting with flavor! Replace the water with milk: adding milk will increase the richness of the cake or cupcakes. Super secret tip! (shh don’t tell Linda - everyone will start using it!) If you’re making chocolate cake, replace that water with brewed coffee! You’re going to be drinking it anyway, since you’re up baking these cupcakes no one told you about. Brew a pot of coffee, drink a cup or two, let the rest cool and then replace the water with that coffee. Although it seems like it wouldn’t, the coffee deepens the flavor of the chocolate and makes it extra rich. You won’t taste coffee, but you will taste expensive chocolate. And, in answer to your question, yes you’re adding a tiny bit of caffeine to the cake. But the amount you’ll use isn’t enough to truly affect anything and, anyway, those sugared up kids will be at school!
Congratulations, those stupid cupcakes are baked! Now it’s time for frosting. Do you have your can of frosting ready? Good. Dump it into a bowl and pull out your electric mixer. Start beating the frosting on medium, stop and add a tablespoon of vanilla extract if you have it, and keep beating the frosting until it’s roughly doubled in size. How does it do that? Frosting in the can is super compressed for shipping and shelf stability. By whipping the frosting with the electric mixer, you’re introducing a ton of air and making the frosting a lot fluffier and easier to work with. If you’ve ever had a cupcake from a grocery store and thought “ugh, this icing is so thick,” then you know why it’s important to add all the air. I’d also recommend, as a little extra deliciousness, to throw some sprinkles into the frosting itself. You can absolutely add them after you frost the cupcakes, but they’re more likely to fall off.
Now, take a resealable plastic bag and snip off a pinky width of the corner of that bag. Shove icing into the bag, twist the top of the bag to push out excess air and get the icing pushed down to the cut corner. Now start at the edge of the cupcake, slowly put pressure on the bag, and make the icing chase its own tail! Keep putting slow and gentle pressure on the bag until the entire cupcake is iced. And voila! You are officially done! Go get some sleep - the school day starts early and it's likely your third grader will have absolutely no idea where their shoes are in the morning.