Cupcake cuteness

Last summer, when Deborah Robinson's grandson Eddie was turning 5 and having a pool party, she didn't spend hundreds of dollars at the bakery and she didn't slave in the kitchen for weeks: She merely unveiled a dessert that looked as if she had.

Each cupcake charmingly captured the essence of the beach — with the blue sea lapping at grainy sand and little bathing-suited bears lying under umbrellas and floating in inner tubes.

The kids were astonished. The adults probably even more so, taking in what Robinson calls "a little miniature work of art." Yet she swears it was easier than pie.

Robinson, a semiretired attorney from Roland Park who writes a dessert blog called B-More Sweet, is part of a creative cadre whose efforts are hopelessly setting back the "don't play with your food" movement. They're painters with icing palettes and craftspeople whose Home Depot is the grocery store treats aisle

Robinson calls herself a "candy detective," following in the sugary footsteps of Karen Tack and Alan Richardson, the original detectives who wrote 2008's "Hello, Cupcake!" and its sequel that just came out this month, "What's New, Cupcake?"

The authors, who spent decades together styling food, pride themselves on building their creations with ordinary treats, things like marshmallows, spice drops, M&Ms and licorice.

To them, a Circus Peanut candy isn't just a Circus Peanut — it's the body of a goldfish, it's the head of a horse or the feet of a clown. Fruit chews and Tootsie Rolls are both sliceable geometric pieces and modeling clay.

"People are surprised that by taking a few candies and using simple techniques, they can turn cupcakes into these really professional creations," Richardson says. "It's really an eye-opener for people to think outside the box on how to decorate a cupcake."

Robinson's beach masterpiece was constructed of crushed cookies (the sand), Teddy Grahams (the sunbathers), coconut strip candy (the beach towels), Gummi rings (the inner tubes) and gumballs (the beach balls). The water? Nothing trickier than store-bought icing with blue food coloring.

"It's so much fun to see the people when they see these," says Tack. "They're like, ‘Oh my God, that looks so difficult.' But it's so easy. They are so, so doable."

Though these elaborately decorated treats will obviously be great for children, perfect for birthdays and holidays, it's just as easy to take the desserts in an elegant, sophisticated direction.

Tack and Richardson transform cupcakes into full-blown mums with mini-marshmallows, colored sugar and licorice. Gorgeous, glistening red apples are done with mini-doughnuts, Tootsie Rolls, green fruit chews and chocolate-covered sunflower seeds. Knitters who want to invite folks over for some communal stitching could serve yarn cupcakes with needles — just white chocolate, wheat sticks, light yellow Smarties and carefully piped icing.

The Chinese takeout cupcakes, which almost have to be seen to be believed, would work at any adult dinner party. Fruit chews, licorice, sprinkles and icing look disturbingly like lo mein, while the same sort of chews combined with rice cereal, jelly beans and more licorice ends up looking just like fried rice — particularly when placed smartly in one of those ubiquitous cardboard containers, as Tack and Richardson, who never miss a detail, do.

Mum's the Word Cupcakes

Makes: one bouquet or 8 cupcakes

8 vanilla cupcakes with orange paper liners

1/4 cup each blue,white, light yellow, bright pink, bright yellow, orange and purple decorating sugars ***

1 bag flavored mini-marshmallows in assorted pastel colors

1 bag mini-marshmallows

1 cup canned vanilla frosting

40 pastel-colored licorice pastels (like those made by Jelly Belly)

Green licorice twists (like Twizzlers Rainbow Twists)

Place each colored sugar in separate shallow bowls. Sort out 22 like-colored marshmallows for each cupcake. Make the petals for each cupcake by cutting the 22 mini-marshmallows in half on the diagonal, allowing all of the marshmallow pieces to fall into one of the colored sugars. Shake the bowl and press the cut sides of the marshmallows into the sugar to coat. Repeat with the remaining marshmallows and colored sugars.

Spread a thin layer of frosting on top of one cupcake. Starting along the outside edge of the cupcake, arrange like-colored marshmallow petals, sugared sides up, close together. Continue with another two rows of the same color marshmallows to almost completely cover the cupcake. Repeat with the remaining frosting, cupcakes and marshmallows.

For the stamens, insert five like-colored licorice pastels in the center of each cupcake. Arrange the flower cupcakes on a serving platter. Trim the green licorice twists to look like stems and place on platter.

*** To tint your own sugar: Place sugar in a zip-lock plastic bag. Add a few drops of food coloring to the bag. Create new colors by mixing basic colors like yellow and red to make orange. Seal the bag and shake until the sugar is evenly tinted.-- From "What's New, Cupcake," by Karen Tack and Alan Richardson