Not everyone can eat chocolate, and my mom is one of those folks. And because our nephew Roman requested a chocolate cake with chocolate icing for his birthday party this past weekend, I needed an alternative for Grandma Genny, who was also in attendance. The result: planet-themed vanilla cupcakes.
The most time-consuming aspect of these cupcakes was, quite obviously, the decoration.You need a decent quantity of vanilla buttercream, lots of food coloring, and plenty of time. It was a lot of fun to interpret the planets in frosting, though; I used a few colors mixed together for Venus, Earth, and Jupiter and got out the pastry bag for the rings on Saturn and Uranus, and of course the Sun, which was my favorite (and, incidentally, was the cupcake that I ate).
For the Vanilla Cupcakes
- 1 1/2 cups flour
- 1 teaspoon baking powder
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 8 tablespoons butter, softened
- 1 cup sugar
- 3 eggs
- 1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
- 3/4 cup milk
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
Line a cupcake pan with paper liners; set aside.
In a medium bowl, sift together flour, baking powder, and salt.
In a mixing bowl, cream butter and sugar until light and fluffy.
Add eggs, one at a time; scrape down bowl, and beat in vanilla.
Add flour mixture and milk alternatively, beginning and ending with flour mixture.
Divide batter evenly among liners, about three-quarters full each.
Bake until golden and tops spring back to touch, 20-22 minutes.
Transfer pans to wire rack; cool completely before frosting.
For the Vanilla Buttercream Frosting
- 1 cup butter, softened
- 3 to 3 1/4 cups powdered sugar, sifted
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
- 1 to 2 tablespoons vanilla extract
- 2 tablespoons milk
- Both liquid and gel food coloring; I used yellow and blue liquid coloring and golden yellow, orange, red, royal blue, and violet gel coloring
Place butter in a mixing bowl and beat for a few minutes using the paddle attachment.
Add 3 cups powdered sugar. With your mixer on low, incorporate the powdered sugar into the butter. (Hint: I find that placing a kitchen towel over the mixer during this stage prevents a powdered sugar blizzard.)
Increase speed and add 1 tablespoon vanilla, salt, and milk.
Beat for 3 minutes, then taste. If you’d like a stronger vanilla flavor, add the second tablespoon of vanilla, along with the additional ¼ cup of powdered sugar. Beat until combined and very smooth; you want an easily-spreadable consistency.
You’ll need just a few tablespoons of frosting for each cupcake, but I started out by tinting larger quantities in the colors I knew I’d need more of, like yellow and blue, then darkened them as I went along. Reserve as much un-tinted buttercream as you can so that you can lighten colors if you need to; I also used un-tinted frosting to pipe “Happy Birthday Roman” and some stars on Roman’s chocolate cake.
Tint about four tablespoons of frosting using golden yellow gel food coloring. Fit an 8-inch pastry bag with a star tip and pipe lines radiating out from the center of the cupcake to cover the top, then pipe additional “rays” so that they stand up vertically from the surface of the cupcake.
Tint about a half-cup of frosting using yellow liquid food coloring; you’ll just need a few drops to create the very pale yellow of Mercury. Frost the cupcake and create a smooth surface.
Tint a few tablespoons of frosting using orange gel food coloring; apply a thin layer of frosting, then add both yellow and un-tinted buttercream to create swirls.
Tint about a half-cup of frosting using blue liquid food coloring; you’ll just need a few drops to create a pale blue that you can use for Neptune. Remove a small portion of the light blue and tint it darker, using royal blue gel food coloring. Frost the cupcake using swirls of both blues and some white; add piped white “clouds” if you like.
Tint a few tablespoons of frosting using red gel food coloring. Frost the cupcake and create a smooth surface.
Using un-tinted, yellow, and orange frosting, frost the cupcake and create band-like effects with your spatula (or knife, whatever you’re using). Using a toothpick, dab some red frosting on to create the dust storm and drag the toothpick through the other color bands to create hints of red.
Darken the orange frosting you used for Venus and frost the cupcake to create a smooth surface. Tint a very small amount of frosting violet using violet gel food coloring; fit an 8-inch pastry bag with a leaf tip and pipe very loose rings.
Reserve some of the pale blue frosting for Neptune; darken the blue that you used for Earth and frost the cupcake to create a smooth surface. Pipe un-tinted rings using a star tip or plain tip.
Using the pale blue frosting you created before you frosted Earth and Uranus, frost the cupcake and create a smooth surface.
What about Pluto?
Yes, I also frosted Pluto using the violet frosting I had for Saturn’s rings, but there was no room for Pluto on my cake plate. And since Pluto was downgraded from planet status a few years ago anyway, I thought that was okay 🙂