The spider cupcakes were my first commissioned baking project for my nephew’s preschool, to be part of the bake sale at their fall carnival. My goal was to show off and entertain myself while not traumatizing the children or horrifying the parents.
It wasn’t actually a Halloween carnival, but it was in October, so I figured that gave me license to make something a bit spooky, though the fact that the audience was two-to-five-year-olds placed some obvious restraints on what I could get away with. Because my time was also fairly limited I decided to go with the restrained elegance of a basic spider and web design.
I made the webs freehand with white royal icing from a medium-sized round piping tip. As I learned from the snowflakes on the Season of Love Cake, little kids love crunchy royal icing candy. At first I tried a few methods of making curved webs – piping them over bowls and such – but the results weren’t particularly inspiring, so I decided just to make them flat, which was much easier.
For the spiders, I was going for something leaning towards refined and arty (as opposed to ugly and scary or goofy and cartoony). I decided on a simple two-color palette. The dominant color was a deep grey-purple, highlighted with yellow. In the interests of maintaining a clean, elegant look I went relatively minimalist with the spiders. Each one was made up simply of two balls – one for the cephalothorax and one for the abdomen – plus, of course, eight legs. I made all these pieces out of gum paste. For the heads and bodies I started with three equal sized pieces – two purple and one yellow. I placed the two purple pieces on either side of the yellow piece and rolled the whole thing into a ball, resulting in purple spiders with irregular yellow stripes down their backs. For the legs, I just put a piece of yellow alongside a piece of purple and rolled them into very thin, striped ropes, which I cut to length and bent at the knee.
Before I even made the cupcakes, I was able to assemble the spiders on the webs. I’m pleased to say that I went to the trouble of tinting the royal icing that I used to stick the spiders together the same purple as the gum paste. I often find myself to be too lazy to tint my royal icing adhesive appropriately, and I always regret it. The key to assembling convincing spiders is to remember that the legs are attached to the cephalothorax, not the abdomen.
With my spiders settled comfortably on their webs, it was time to make cupcakes. I used some special Halloween cupcake paper cups for most of them, but I ran out and had to use plain silver for the rest. My initial plan had been to frost the cupcakes with buttercream icing the color of fall leaves, and then texture it like a leaf by gently pressing it with a piece of lettuce. That way (I thought) it would look like the spiders had spun their webs in a tree covered with fall leaves. It didn’t work at all. The buttercream just stuck to the lettuce and rather than nicely textured, it wound up bumpy and ugly. So I gave up on that idea and just piped the icing in a swirl with a big star tip and then plopped the spider webs on top, which looked fine. Frankly, even if my plan to make the leaf texture had worked, it wouldn’t have read very well through the spider web anyway.
The cupcakes were very well received when I dropped them off at the preschool. I’m told that they were even sold for more money than the standard cupcakes at the bake sale. It’s nice when I’m able to combine my love of showing off my cakes with something that actually benefits other people.