You guys, I am a sort of crazy over-achiever.  Ok, maybe that’s not exactly breaking news, given the whole PhD thing.  Anyway, my nephew’s seventh birthday was today, and I volunteered to make cupcakes.  His only request was that the cake be that sprinkly Funfetti kind. (I’m sad to say that, cake snob that I am, my inner self heaved a deep sigh at the thought of cake. mix. cupcakes. But then it came to actually making the cupcakes, and when it took me .6 seconds to get the batter ready I thought, “Oh, right, that’s why we have cake mixes.”)

After some debate and lots of flipping through my trusty standbys, Hello, Cupcake! and What’s New, Cupcake?,* I decided to go totally off the map and make Thomas the Tank Engine cupcakes, based on lots of Google images and my own (totally untested, “I can do this….right?”) design.  And since I know every child in the world under the age of 10 is a both-Thomas-and-cake-a-holic, and most of us can’t afford the $18 (!!!) per cupcake I saw on some of the fancy bakery websites, I thought maybe you’d like to know how I did it–no fondant, no fancy baking gear, just using basic things you can mostly get at Target. So, without further ado…

Thomas cupcakes, guaranteed to drive your children wild.

Step 1:  At about 7 o’clock the night before the birthday party, decide that instead of the simple cupcakes you had been thinking about, you are going to attempt a kind of huge project with a lot of little pieces that have to be individually decorated.

Step 2:  Have a plan.  I like to sketch a sample cupcake before I get started, like this.

Hi. I’m Thomas. You will spend so much time staring at me that my face will haunt your dreams tonight.  Good luck.
Make the sketch as close to scale as possible.  That way you can measure cookies, candies, and other decorating objects against it when you’re shopping.  Label everything so you can make sure you don’t forget anything.  There’s nothing worse than getting home from the store, getting two hours into a project, and realizing you forgot the mini chocolate chips and your Thomases will have no irises. Which is creepy.

Step 3:  Shop for everything you don’t already have.  (Any excuse to go to Target, really.)

What you need for 18-ish cupcakes:

one cake mix, whatever kind you want, and whatever goes with it (eggs, oil, etc.)
two cans of white frosting (not the whipped kind – it doesn’t melt well, and melting is important)
one tube of black frosting
blue, yellow, red, and green food coloring
cupcake liners, blue if you can get them
Oreos (one for each Thomas cupcake)
sugar wafer cookies (one for each Thomas cupcake)
mini chocolate chips (four for each Thomas cupcake)
root beer barrels or black licorice (one for each Thomas cupcake)
1/3 cup white candy melts
several small Ziploc bags, one large one
wax paper
A kind of steady hand (ok, you can’t get that at Target. I cheated.)

Step 4:  Time for some Thomas faces.  Put a 1/2 cup of white frosting into a small microwavable bowl.  Add enough black frosting to get the color of gray you want.  If it’s too lavender-y, add some yellow food coloring to balance it out.  Did I mention stir?  You have to do that. (Wow, I should really write a cookbook.)  Microwave the frosting for 7-10 seconds at a time, stirring often, until the frosting reaches the consistency of glue (it should drip off the spoon.  You know, like glue.  If you use a spoon for your glue.)

Step 5:  Get your Oreos ready.  If you have to taste one to make sure you didn’t buy a poisoned batch, go ahead.  But you probably want to do that before you microwave the frosting.  Otherwise you’ll just have to reheat it.

Step 6:  Holding an Oreo by one side, dip it into the gray frosting until the frosting covers the Oreo filling.  Let the extra frosting drip off and put the Oreo on a plate, frosted side up.  Repeat with the remaining Oreos.  Put the plate into the freezer for a few minutes to let the frosting firm up.

Step 7:  Pause to admire your handiwork.

Thomas faces. Pretty star plate optional.

Step 8:  Remember the dear child for whom you are making the cupcakes and resist the urge to eat all of the frosting-covered Oreos.  Even if you are dying to know whether a frosting-covered Oreo is as delicious as it sounds. (It is.)

Step 9:  A lot like Steps 4-8.  Put a 1/2 cup plus a little more of the white frosting in a microwavable bowl.  Add red food coloring until you get the red you want.

Baking business:  While we’re here, a little word about food coloring.  I was asked how I got my colors so bright, and I’ll tell you: I buy professional gel food coloring (AmeriColor Soft Gel Pastes) from a cake decorating store.

Mama’s little secret.

Your typical grocery store food coloring is not really comparable in terms of coloring quality.  The professional gels cost more than grocery store brands, but they last much longer too, and they don’t liquefy your frosting.  You can order them online if you don’t have a baking store near you.  I’ll list all the colors I used at the end, if you care.

Ok. So you’ve got red.  Microwave it for 7-10 seconds at a time, stirring in between, until it’s gluey.  Take your sugar wafers and dip them, just like the Oreos.  These will be your red bar thingies that go under Thomas’s face.  You don’t know what they are, the frame maybe, but they’re on every Thomas cupcake you’ve ever seen, practically, so you’ve got to have them.  Put your plate of red bar thingies in the freezer.

Step 10:  Eye the package of leftover sugar wafers on the stove.

While you’re at it, eye that lovely avocado-colored stove top and think…well, keep your thoughts to yourself.

Remember how much you loved sugar wafers when you were a kid.  Sneak one (sneak? From whom?  How old are you anyway?  Be an adult and just eat one already, loud and proud.)  Realize that there’s a reason you haven’t actually seen one of these cookies since your childhood: they’re like faintly sweet cardboard.  Or maybe it’s just the Target brand.  Resolve to splurge on the $3 brand next time.

Step 11:  Mouth time.  No, not yours, the Thomases’.  The Thomas mouths are made out of candy, not frosting (too iffy with the black frosting, candy smiles are easier. Trust me.)  So.  Remember that sketch you made?  It’s going to come in handy now, because you’re going to use the mouth on your sketch as the model for your candy mouths.  Double check the size of your sketch-mouth against the Oreo, to make sure it will fit and be in the right proportion.  Put your sketch on a flat surface, and lay a sheet of wax paper over it.

You will understand this picture in a minute, I promise.

Step 12:  Put your white candy melts in a small Ziploc, and don’t seal it.  Microwave the bag for 10 seconds at a time, kneading the wafers in the bag after each time, until they’re fully melted.  Snip a teeny (about 1/8-inch) hole in one corner of the bag.  Back at your wax paper/sketch station, use the melted candy to trace over the sketch-mouth on the wax paper and then fill it in.  Move the wax paper so you have a clean spot over the sketch-mouth, and repeat.  It may take you some time to get the hang of this, so repeat as often as you need to until you have enough mouths that you like.  You may want to make some extra, because they can be a little fragile.  At the end, your wax paper may look like this.

Bonus: If you lay this wax paper over the Declaration of Independence, it becomes a treasure map.

After the mouths dry, you can peel them off the wax paper.  If you want, you can freeze them too, but you don’t have to.

Step 13:  Decide to make a sample face, so you can figure out whether you’re totally insane for wanting to make Thomas cupcakes.  If the sample doesn’t turn out Thomas-like, it’s not too late to make some blue sprinkle cupcakes.  The seven-year-old will never know.

Step 14:  Get your face assembly kit together.  You’ll need mini chocolate chips, a candy mouth, white frosting, and black frosting.  Put just a teeny bit of black frosting in a small Ziploc, and a teeny bit of white frosting in a small Ziploc. Snip a weensy hole (really weensy, less than 1/8-inch) in the corner of the black frosting bag, and a slightly bigger hole (about 1/8-inch) in the corner white frosting bag.

Step 15:  Ready?  Take one of the gray Oreo faces.  Using a little dot of white frosting, attach the candy mouth to the Oreo.  Take a deep breath.

Step 16:  Using the white frosting, draw big round eyes and fill them in.  Place mini chocolate chips, pointy ends down, in the eyes as pupils.  Add a dab of white frosting to each chocolate chip.

Step 17:  Use the black frosting to draw high eyebrows, a nose, and smiley cheek lines.  Outline the candy mouth, and draw a little curvy line under the center of the mouth to make a little lip.

Step 18:  Take one of the red bar thingies, and use black frosting to draw two parallel lines about an inch apart, in the center.  Together, your two pieces will look like this:

The root beer barrel is clearly superior to the black licorice in this eyeball test.

Step 19:  Decide that your Thomas face only looks sort of like a cracked-out circus ringmaster with a twirly moustache, so maybe this will work after all.  Resolve to be more careful with the rest of the faces.

Step 20:  Realize that it’s almost 1 a.m. and the birthday party is at 11 tomorrow morning.  Convince yourself that you can bake the cupcakes and make the rest of the faces in the morning.  Leave the Oreo faces and red bar thingies in the freezer overnight, since you really don’t want the frosting to melt.

Step 21:  Go to bed and dream of frosting.

Step 22:  Wake up at 8:15, stumble out of bed, and turn on the oven.  (Since your oven is an evil, temperamental monster, if the recipe says 350, set it to about 309 and see what happens.)

Step 23:  Well, shoot.  Clean up the kitchen from the night before.

Step 24:  Feel smugly superior as you add the ingredients to the cake mix in your pretty red Kitchen-Aid mixer.

Step 25:  Come down to earth when you realize you forgot to add water to the cake mix.  Add water, shamefacedly, and re-mix.

Step 26:  Check the oven temperature.  It says it’s done heating, but the thermometer says 335.  Adjust the temperature to 325 and see what happens.

Step 27:  Pour the cupcake batter into a large Ziploc.  Press all the air out and seal the bag.  Snip a 1/4-inch hole in one corner.  Squeeze batter into the waiting cupcake cups, filling them about 2/3 full.

Step 28:  Go to put the cupcakes in the oven.  Realize that the oven temperature has shot to 370 degrees (see above re: evil, temperamental monster oven).  Begin the oven dance, wherein you try to anticipate how the oven will react to any and all of the following: open the oven door to let heat out, turn the temperature knob to 275, see what happens, repeat.

I make baking a magical adventure!

Step 29:  Once the thermometer actually reads 350 (with the knob at 317), bake the cupcakes according to the directions on the box.

Step 30:  Take a gratuitous picture of your matching Kitchen-Aid mixer, spatula, and measuring cup, just because.

I owe about 10,000 thank yous to the ladies who chipped in for this mixer for my bridal shower. I use it ALL. THE. TIME.

Step 31:  While the cupcakes are baking, put some College Football GameDay on tv and get to work on making the rest of the Thomas faces.  Put larger amounts of black frosting (about 1/3 of the tube) and white frosting (about 1/4 cup) in small Ziploc bags, snip the corners, and repeat the process from Steps 15, 16, and 17.

Baking business:  And here I’d like to say just a word about the black frosting.  I bought a tube (Cakemate or something) at Target because I didn’t have any black food coloring and the cake decorating store was closed.  The color was great, but I hated the consistency.  It was thick, a little gloppy, and not smooth at all.  In the future I think I’ll buy chocolate frosting and add black food coloring to it, which I’ve heard is a great way to get a nice, solid black color.  (By the way, I like the taste of homemade frosting, but I prefer store-bought for serious decorating because it takes colors better and is a little more durable.)

Step 32:  Put the plate of finished faces back in the freezer to cool, because it’s hot as Hades outside, even though it’s late September, and the faces are starting to sweat.  Maybe sneak a bite.

Step 33:  @#()$&$@#.  It’s 9:45 and the party starts in just over an hour.  Make blue frosting, fast, with 1 cup of white frosting and blue food coloring.  Add yellow food coloring to a large spoonful of white frosting, and scoop it into a small Ziploc bag.  Snip a 1/8-inch hole in the corner.  Make sure you have handy everything else you’ll need for final assembly: root beer barrels (unwrapped, lady, unwrapped.  They’ll be impossible to unwrap when you’re in the middle of frantic assembling and your fingers are covered in blue, gray, and red frosting), mini chocolate chips, your baggies of black and white frosting (if your bags are low, just add some more), the faces, and the red bar thingies.  You should already have added the black parallel lines to the red bar thingies, but you’re running late, so add them fast, right now.  Hope no one at the party has 20/20 vision.

Step 34:  Frost 12 cupcakes with the blue frosting.  Use swirls of white frosting to secure a face and red bar thingy to each cupcake.  Realize about two cupcakes in that the only way to get the root beer barrel (your smokestack) to stay on the cupcake is to put it on and smoosh it (very delicately but as fiercely as you can) into the top edge of the cupcake before you add the face.  Whoops.

Step 35:  Add a little yellow dot on either side of the smokestack, and place an upside-down chocolate chip on top.

Step 36:  35 minutes to party time, enlist family members to help you in any way possible.  Bark orders about green frosting to your enlistees (add green food coloring to about 3/4 of a cup of white frosting – my forest green professional gel was too dark, so I mixed it with the lighter Cakemate stuff I had rolling around the cupboard).  Don’t document your progress with pictures because you are too busy wiping frosting off your face with frosting-covered hands and wiping frosting onto cupcakes with frosting-covered implements.

Step 37:  As you finish putting the Thomases together, force your family members to frost six cupcakes with the green frosting.  Put your finished Thomases into the freezer to solidify.  If you have a cupcake carrier, it’s really handy right now.

Step 38:  Squeeze the remaining black frosting into yet another small Ziploc bag.  Cut a 1/4-inch hole from the corner of the bag.  Asfastashumanlypossible,drawrailroadtracksacrossthegreen-frostedcupcakes.

Step 39:  Are you done?  You’re done?  What time is it?  11:10?  What does your hair look like?  Oh, Lord.

Step 40:  Wash all the frosting off your hands.  Throw on some clothes (when all else fails, wear what you wore yesterday.  No one at the party saw you yesterday anyway.)  Shellac your hair into a ponytail with some bobby pins and hairspray.

Step 41:  Throw every dish into the kitchen sink.  Throw away anything that’s obviously trash.  Grab the cupcake carrier, run to the car, and race to Chuck E. Cheese, where you can lay out the cupcakes like this:

Step 41:  Enjoy the happy faces of the birthday boy and his party guests.

This face makes all the work worth it!
Real men love Thomas.

Step 42:  Go home, watch football, and pretend like you don’t have to clean the kitchen.  At least try to hold off on cleaning the kitchen until you’ve gotten out the sentence, “I don’t think I’m going to clean the kitchen just yet.”  Then by all means, clean away.

* * * *

Food coloring (all colors are AmeriColor Soft Gel Pastes):
Super Red 120
Lemon Yellow 107
Royal Blue 102
Forest Green 109

*Disclosure: These are Amazon Associate links. But I bought the books on my own and use them just about every time I bake.🙂  Even when I’m not using their designs, I’m generally using techniques I learned from them.