As a kid I wanted to be an artist “when I grew up.” (Mission accomplished on that front.) After taking my high school introductory art classes, it became extremely clear that my destiny was to attend an art college, which I did. However it wasn’t until my sophomore year of college, during one of my illustration classes, that it hit me: In my little second-grader brain, when I thought about being an “artist” when I grew up, I was actually picturing myself as a children’s book illustrator. I had known for years that such a job would be a fun profession as an artist, but it didn’t dawn on me until that moment that it was what I had originally imagined for myself.
I ended up interning for a children’s division of Penguin books (which I talk about in more detail here) and focused on an original children’s book for my senior thesis. Life took me in a slightly different direction after college (designing ads for a newspaper > etching gravestones/food blogging), but children’s book illustration is still something I would love to pursue one day. So with this being my history in a nutshell, it seemed obvious that I should team up with Danielle from This Picture Book Life for a blog post. She’s a writer (of children’s books and young adult novels), and her love for children’s literature is refreshing and infectious. Pop over to her blog to read reviews of tons of great picture books (with lots of artwork included) in her lighthearted, easy-to-read voice.
Today we’re both talking about Little Elliot, Big City by Mike Curato. I don’t think we could have landed on a better choice. The main character, Little Elliot, is a tiny spotted elephant and I’ve decided that we are soulmates. In one of the illustrations showing the interior of his home, you can see a collection of framed art on the walls – they look like portraits, except they’re depicting desserts, like cupcakes and ice cream cones. It’s like a little Cake Over Steak art gallery!
I know if I had read this one as a kid, these illustrations would have stuck with me. It has a lot of cute little details that I love. You know how when you were a kid and someone was reading a book to you, and the whole time you were studying the pictures? That’s what it made me think of. Another favorite page of mine shows Elliot in his kitchen, and you can see he had used a chair to get on his countertop, and then he was using a broom to get ice cream out of his freezer. (This guy is so me.) I’m constantly standing on a chair or the counter to get to stuff in our kitchen. Curato also illustrates Elliot taking a bath in his sink while he does the dishes. He’s a multitasker.
The main plotline of the book is that Elliot is lonely and no one pays attention to him because he’s so small. And, he just wants a cupcake. How can you not love this little guy? He ends up running into a mouse who’s trying to get a slice of pizza from a trash can. (Seriously? I just need to turn into a squirrel or something and I would be best buddies with these dudes.) Elliot helps the mouse, and then the mouse helps him finally get a cupcake from the bakery. Elliot ends up with a cupcake AND a friend. How perfect – that’s all you really need in life, right?
After doing some research on Curato’s illustration technique, I was delighted to discover that we use essentially the same method. While his Photoshop work is slightly different than mine (which is not surprising, since you can do the same thing a million different ways in the program), we both start with a full pencil drawing, scan that in and do all of our coloring and finishing touches in Photoshop. I love the fact that, just like with any medium, two people can use the same technique and achieve totally different results. I’m sure if he illustrated this cupcake it would look like a Mike Curato cupcake, not a Sara Cornelius cupcake. How fascinating!
So what’s this cupcake I’m talking about? When coming up with a recipe inspired by the book, I clearly had to make a cupcake. I remembered the stereotype of elephants always eating peanuts, which led me to peanut butter. It turns out that’s kind of a myth; elephants will eat peanuts, but they don’t love them or anything. However, they do eat a lot of fruit. I decided to run with the childlike myth of elephants eating peanuts and came up with these peanut butter and jelly cupcakes. Plus, what could be more childlike than peanut butter and jelly? Personally, I ate those sandwiches almost exclusively from age 3 to 19. And, as it turns out, those flavors make a darn good cupcake.
The batter for the cake itself is obnoxiously simple; it’s essentially a quickbread recipe. Mix your dry ingredients together, mix your wet ingredients together, and then combine the two. No stand mixer required – just two bowls, a whisk and a spatula. You’ll probably want a stand mixer or at least a hand mixer for the frosting, but just dump all of those ingredients in the bowl and let the mixer do the work. Before you frost the cupcakes we’re going to cut them in half, slather on your favorite jam and put them back together like a little cupcake sandwich. I can imagine that making these cupcakes would be a fun activity to do with small children. And then you could read the book together while you eat one.
So please head over to This Picture Book Life to read Danielle’s review of this fantastic book, and feel free to show her some love on Twitter, Pinterest, Instagram and Facebook. And, if you have an important little one in your life, I hope you’ll consider adding this lovely book to their collection.
PS – After having Robert be the primary photographer for my blog, I’m working on my food photography skills and transitioning into being my own photographer. I’ve learned a lot from shooting with him over the past 1.25 years and during the time we’ve spent together picking out the photos for my posts and deciding how I want them to be edited. This post is the first one I shot all by myself, and I even edited the photos with only some mild assistance from Robert. I’m learning to love this part of the blogging process and I’m excited to gain more experience with it. I’d love some feedback – how are you liking these photos?
- 1¾ cups (230 g) all purpose flour
- ¾ cup (150 g) granulated sugar
- 1 tsp baking powder
- 1 tsp baking soda
- ½ tsp kosher salt
- 1 cup milk (preferably whole)
- ½ cup canola oil
- 1 tsp pure vanilla extract
- 1 tbsp white wine vinegar
- ⅓ cup smooth peanut butter
- 2½ tbsp tahini
- 3 sticks unsalted butter (at room temperature)
- 1 cup smooth peanut butter
- 3 tbsp pure vanilla extract
- 3 cups powdered sugar
- ½ tsp kosher salt
- jam of your choice (I used blackberry)
- Preheat the oven to 350°F and line a standard muffin pan with cupcake liners or parchment (or spray with cooking spray).
- In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda and salt.
- In a medium bowl, whisk together the milk, canola oil, vanilla, vinegar, peanut butter and tahini until smooth.
- Add the wet mixture to the flour mixture and mix gently with a spatula until just combined and no more flour lumps remain. Do not overmix.
- Spoon the batter into the muffin pan, dividing it evenly between the 12 cups. They should be basically full.
- Bake for 18-22 minutes, or until lightly golden brown on the edges and a toothpick inserted comes out clean.
- In a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, combine the butter, peanut butter, vanilla, powdered sugar and salt. Start on low and work your way up to medium (#4 on a KitchenAid). Stop to scrape down the sides a few times.
- Whisk until the mixture is thoroughly combined and smooth.
- Once the cupcakes are completely cool, take them out of their liners and cut them in half horizontally. Spread one side with a layer of jam and put them back together like sandwiches.
- With an offset spatula or a piping bag, top each cupcake with a generous amount of the peanut butter frosting. Decorate with sprinkles. Enjoy!
- You might have leftover frosting, which is fantastic on a pan of brownies ...