My son graduates from middle school tomorrow. To celebrate, I made mortarboard cupcakes like the ones I made for his kindergarten graduation eight years ago. The cupcakes may look complicated, but they're really easy to prepare.
Start by preparing any flavor of packaged cake mix. Line mini muffin pans -- it helps to have more than one -- with miniature cupcake liners. Scoop 1 heaping tablespoon batter into each cupcake liner. Don't skimp on the batter or your cupcakes will look like the ones on the top row instead of the ones on the bottom.
I've read many explanations about what causes cupcake liners to separate from cupcakes. The reasons run the gamut from the amount of fat used in the recipe, to the amount of wax in the cupcake liners, to the amount of time the cupcakes are left in the pan after being removed from the oven. I have my own hypothesis: If you don't use enough batter, the baked cupcakes don't reach the top of the liners which causes the liners to separate from the cupcakes. This is why you need to fill the liners 1/2 to 2/3 full.
You may be wondering why you even need to use cupcake liners. There are two reasons. One, if you bake the cupcakes without a liner, the top of the cupcakes are rounded instead of flat. This matters because the cupcakes will be turned upside down when assembled.
Two, if you remove the liners when the cupcakes are baked, the sides will be sticky when the cupcakes are removed from the serving tray.
Cupcake liners solve both those problems.
Bake the cupcakes 10 to 15 minutes or until done. Put the pans on a cooling rack for 1 or 2 minutes. Remove the cupcakes from the pans and cool completely on a cooling rack. I bake the cupcakes a day or two ahead of time and store them in a covered container.
It's a good idea to prep the remaining ingredients before you start assembling the cupcakes. My son's school colors are red and white so I leave the frosting white. If you want a different color, tint the frosting with food coloring.
The tassels can be made from licorice strips or fruit roll snacks. I've used both, but prefer Twizzlers Pull 'n' Peel licorice. The licorice may not be as flexible as the fruit roll snacks, but it's definitely easier to cut! Separate the licorice into strands.
Cut the strands into pieces approximately 2 1/2-inches long.
It's better to err on the side of caution and cut the tassels a little long. You can always trim them if they're too long.
You also have a choice when it comes to the candy: Skittles or M&M's. If the school name starts with an "S" or "M," it's cute to leave the letter facing up. Otherwise, turn the candies upside down so the plain side is showing.
I find assembly is faster when I work on five cupcakes at a time. Turn the cupcakes upside down so the paper liner is on top. Spread a little frosting on the center of each liner. The frosting keeps the cookies from moving. Don't use too much frosting; you don't want it to ooze down the sides when the cookies are added.
Turn the cookies upside down and spread some frosting on the center of each cookie. Place a cookie on top of each cupcake liner.
Add the tassels and a candy piece to each cookie to complete the mortarboard. If the tassels are too long, trim them with a pair of kitchen scissors.
If you have someone graduating -- from preschool to graduate school -- a batch of these mortarboard cupcakes decorated with school colors is a tasty way to say "conGRADulations!"