For Karen Tack, a cupcake is never just a cupcake. Give her some marshmallows, candy, cookies and frosting, and Karen will turn this most basic of desserts into a horse, a turkey, a penguin, a sunflower, a baby, a werewolf, a corncob ... In Karen’s eyes, the cupcake is both raw material and muse, and with meticulousness and great whimsy (not to mention a Laffy Taffy or two), she has elevated its decorating to an art form.
That baking has become Karen’s career is, well, icing on the cake for her. After various restaurant jobs, the culinary school grad and mom of two discovered her talent for cakes while working as a food stylist. For 20 years now, her scrumptious desserts have appeared in magazines, including Bon Appetit, Gourmet, Martha Stewart Living and FamilyFun. With her writer/photographer partner, Alan Richardson, Karen is also the author of the best-selling “Hello, Cupcake!,” “What’s New, Cupcake?” and “Cupcakes, Cookies, and Pies, Oh, My!”
Yet for all their artistry, Karen and Alan’s confections have a playful accessibility, and the duo often demonstrate their craft for fans, including kids. In fact, on the day we caught up with Karen, she was about to meet a Girl Scout troop to create dog cupcakes. Still, she was happy to take time to give us her decidedly sweet ideas on inspiring kids in the kitchen.
Q: Why are cupcakes a good bet for beginning bakers?
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A: Cupcakes are small and cute, and kids love small and cute. Cupcakes are manageable, too. Kids can feel a sense of accomplishment and creative ownership when they frost and decorate their own cupcakes. It’s not like, “Mom frosted the cake, and I did one side.” Plus, you can eat or share a cupcake right away!
Q: What’s the allure for you?
A: They challenge me to stretch my imagination. Sure, a cupcake is a cupcake, but what else can it be? Alan and I love to push ourselves to try something really different -- like putting three cupcakes together to make corn on the cob. We’re always asking ourselves, “What if?”
Q: How can parents get kids excited about baking or cooking?
A: You want to make the experience as easy as possible in the beginning. Even though it may take a little forethought, it’s great to be really organized so that you’re not in the kitchen for hours. You want to get to the fun part fast. Alan and I make cupcakes ahead of time and freeze them. Maybe you decorate only four -- whatever you can do to make the process less daunting and arrive at the wow factor.
Q: Your designs are so impressive. Can you reassure those of us who might be intimidated?
A: We always tell people that the cupcake decorations in our books are examples of what we think works, but you might want to use another kind of candy or a different color sprinkle. It’s your cupcake! You can interpret it any way you like. That’s part of the fun.
Decorating is like creating a painting -- your work is never going to look exactly like another person’s because it’s your hand doing it. When the Girl Scouts make our dog cupcakes, each dog will have a unique expression. And when we put them all together, it will be hard not to smile.
Q: So we should choose our decorating ingredients as if we were choosing our paints?
A: Exactly. Anytime I travel, I go to the grocery store and hunt for something new in the baking, candy and snack aisles. It’s so much fun to take in all these incredible shapes and color and textures and think, “Hmm, now what could I make with this?”