"I really needed an outlet for my creativity," said Viola. "I come from an Italian family, so I grew up with my mother's cooking, and I still make many of those dishes. But I like the creativity of decorating."
Constructing gingerbread houses remains Viola's primary passion, but this year she teamed up with 11-year-old Maria to enter the Peddler's Village Cupcake Decorating Contest. They placed second in the Baker's Choice category with their spring-flower cupcakes featuring roses, calla lilies, daisies, tulips and tiny stephanotis floribunda.
"It was a lot of fun having my mom teach me," Maria said. "My favorite part was the process of making flowers."
Each flower was cut and rolled from sheets of fondant and glued together with a sugary substance called gum paste. The budding competitive baker admits that there was eating as well as decorating, but the most exciting part was seeing a ribbon on their creation.
"My friends were almost more excited than I was," said Maria. She plans to learn more about cakes and decorating, with an eye toward more advanced flower-making.
Her mom, the champion gingerbread-house contractor, has made some elaborate birthday cakes, including a golf theme complete with a putting green and bunker. This Easter she created a lamb cake. She says that cupcake decorating is a good way to start.
"There's less architecture involved, and it is based more on how something actually looks," she said, adding, "you don't have to be a baker to do this. I often just make a box mix - sometimes I can't wait for the baking part to be over so I can get started decorating!"
Viola advocates the Internet for instructional help. She recently wanted to make an icing tulip, and the information was at her fingertips with a quick Google search that yielded a YouTube video lesson.
She also recommended cupcake decorating as a fun kids'-party theme, because they can make something to take home - and the mistakes still taste good!
For a basic cookbook, Viola recommends Cooking Italian with the Cake Boss, by North Jersey baker Buddy Valastro. With an emphasis on Sunday family meals, it has many of the favorites she grew up on. She often refers to The Gingerbread Architect, by Susan Matheson, who is a trained architect.
Along the way, there have been some learning curves. Viola made a pirate cake for her son's birthday that starting cracking like the Titanic.
"Gravity was splitting it down the center," she said. "Thank goodness for Royal Icing to patch it up."
Another time, a little clumsiness found the cat covered in confectioners' sugar.
Viola gets decorating inspiration just about everywhere and will try just about anything. For her gingerbread displays, a mini ice-cream cone turned upside down becomes the base for a tree. Mini M&M's are doorknobs on her houses.
Most important is not being intimidated, Viola said. "If [you] can pipe a little dot out of frosting, you can make a flower."
Your toolbox of cupcake tips
Cupcake decorating doesn't have to be a big investment, according to Lisa Viola. She recommends these tools to get started. All are easy to find in a craft store or kitchenware shop.
- Decorating bag with standard set of tips used to pipe frosting onto cupcakes. These are available in kits.
- Tapered or angled spatula for frosting the cupcakes. It's also known as an offset spatula.
- Regular spatula for putting icing into the decorator bag.
- Food-coloring gels in desired colors.
Now that you have the equipment, it's time to bake and decorate. Here are guidelines from Viola:
- Bake with fresh, quality ingredients. Always check the expiration dates!
- Ingredients should be at room temperature before mixing to help prevent the doming effect on cupcakes.
- Keep designs simple. For example, even large dots of icing close together in different colors look great, as does a large swirl of frosting sprinkled with colorful jimmies. Here's where creativity can run wild.
- Use food-coloring gels instead of liquid food-dye drops to color white icing. This prevents the icing from getting watered down.
Recipe for cupcake icing
Lisa Viola tweaked a basic buttercreme recipe to give it "a little something else." She recommends this for beginning decorators because it is easy to manipulate and the consistency can be adjusted by adding water or confectioners' sugar.
WHITE CHOCOLATE BUTTERCREME FROSTING
3 sticks salted butter, softened
2 tablespoons lukewarm milk or water
1 tablespoon vanilla
One 12-ounce bag white chocolate morsels (2 1/2 cups), melted
4 1/2 cups confectioners' sugar
Using a mixer with paddle attachment, beat butter, water and vanilla on medium speed until mixture is light, creamy and pale in color. Occasionally scrape sides of bowl and continue to mix.
Melt white chocolate chips in microwave-safe bowl in 20 second intervals until fully melted, stirring morsels between each interval. Add melted white chocolate mixture to butter mixture and continue to mix until fully incorporated, scraping sides of bowl occasionally.
With mixer on low speed, add confectioners' sugar a little at a time until thoroughly combined. Continue to mix on medium speed until a smooth and creamy texture is achieved.
If frosting seems too thick, add lukewarm water, one tablespoon at a time, until desired consistency is reached. If frosting seems to thin, add confectioners' sugar one tablespoon at a time until desired consistency is achieved.
Divide frosting into amounts you'll need to make various colors. Makes six cups, enough for about 18 cupcakes - with enough to make a few mistakes!
Source: Lisa Viola
Lari Robling is the author of the cookbook Endangered Recipes: Too Good to Be Forgotten. Nothing makes her happier than championing the home cook. Follow her on Twitter @larirobling.