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an 11th birthday celebration: cupcake war

shemadeitshemight | heatherbursch | ella at 10 1/2

Ella at 10 1/2 years old, stop growing

Just days after Ella’s 10th birthday, Ella and I went on one of our pretend party walks. The whole way down the parkway we brainstormed party ideas, and by the time we were on our way back we had one option for her 11th birthday party played out in our conversation. She loves this brainstorming, and hello so do I.

Like any party I plan, I asked about her favorites, the current likes and dislikes.

One favorite to-do was baking. If she goes for a week without getting her hands dirty in the kitchen, Ella starts to beg. She loves the whole process, even the cleaning up! And I love that she loves both of these things more than words can say. Mmmwah.

baking in the winter

Another of Ella’s favorites has been the show Cupcake Wars, a formulaic reality show competition where cupcake shops come to compete in a bake-off for a $10,000 grand prize.

What started as a walking brainstorm became this year’s party theme:

Ella’s 11th Birthday Cupcake War

cupcake war birthday party

1. We divided the 9 guests into 3 teams: Ella was the assistant to all the teams and one of the judges in the end.

2. We created 3 rounds of challenges: taste round, artistic round and presentation round.

Round #1: the taste round – Each team made 3 identical cupcakes, 1 for each of the 3 judges to try. Since this was the taste round, this cupcake was judged on how delicious it was from the top to the bottom.

Team A made this raspberry bottom vanilla cupcake with chocolate raspberry garnish.

chocolate raspberry cupcake

Team B made this carrot and cream cheese frosted cupcake with walnut carrot garnish.

carrot cupcake

Team C made a marble cupcake with a buried KitKat bottom and candy chocolate drizzle topping.

kitkat cupcake

Round #2: the artistic round – Each team made 3 different cupcakes but this time each was decorated in a different way. As an opportunity to create individually, each girl was able to decorate as they wished by contributing 1 cupcake for their team plate. Each team was judged on the color, creativity and overall artistic impression the cupcakes made visually on their collaborative plate.

cupcake wars

Round #3: the presentation round – Each team chose a platter or cake plate to present their remaining cupcakes in any way they chose to decorate and display them. Each team was judged on how the team displayed them but also on how they orally described their team’s finale. This last round was a scare-the-judges round for some! Though it required a few future cupcake shop owners to let go a bit, it was hilarious to hear them describe the messy mix so eloquently for the win.

cupcake wars

Directions we gave each team before we began:

1. Choose 1 kind of cake to make from scratch – I had 3 different recipes: vanilla, chocolate and carrot. Each team picked just one. If two teams wanted the same thing, which they did, we drew for it to make preparing easier and to ensure variety.

shemadeitshemight | heatherbursch | kitchen aids

2. Make 1 dozen cupcakes following your recipe. I explained all the challenges to the girls up front and reminded them to think ahead to all 3 challenges before putting their cupcakes in the oven. Would they want to add things before baking or make them different in any way? I gave them some time to discuss this and make a plan, as I went around answering any questions that popped up. This lead to girls getting really creative, like raspberry bottoms and buried KitKats in a few of their cupcakes, but not necessarily all 12 were the same.

carrot cupcakes

3. Tell and tell again: At each round we found it necessary to repeat instructions and give clear directions as to what was coming next. The girls had a lot on their minds and just needed the leadership from the front to keep it flowing. Many of them had just met one another but I was so impressed with how they worked together. I think leading it from the front and giving it some guidelines/boundaries helped the process not get bogged down and become a project on how to make group decisions. I’m all for that if I was their teacher and had time to practice, but for the party’s sake it was good to give it some structure.

carrot cupcakes

Side Note: Ahead of time, I made 1 batch of vanilla cupcakes that any team could borrow and use in addition to the recipe their team ended up needing to make. It gave them some variety when it came to round 2 and 3. This worked great. I even had some batter left and one group mixed it into their chocolate for a marble cake. So creative! (There is NO WAY that each team could have made more than one batter for at least 100 reasons which mostly have to do with my ability to remain calm and collected. If you have a bigger kitchen and bigger brain and a bigger oven and a bigger selection of kitchen aids, then by all means go bigger and live to tell me about it!)

vanilla cupcakes

Our Party Schedule:
11-11:30 am
 – played a get-to-know-you game so girls could learn names and faces before teaming up!
11:30 am – introduced the contest, challenges, instructions and presented all of Ella’s favorites from the ingredient table.

shemadeitshemight | heatherbursch | ella's favorite things

11:45 am – gave a 10 minute how-to on frosting and decorating a cupcake. I focused on 3 quick ideas to get the girls thinking, demonstrated the frosting bags and showed them a few tricks–like making a little hole in the middle of a cupcake and squeezing in some lemon curd.
12 noon – Lunch break and time to chat in teams about strategy and game plan. Menu: Orange Juice Izzy’s, meat and cheese plate, veggies, chips and a big bowl of strawberries.

shemadeitshemight | heatherbursch | lunchtime birthday party

12:30 pm – official Cupcake war began. We set-up 3 KitchenAid mixer stations in the kitchen but did most of the measuring and mixing in our dining room pre-arranged into 3 stations. Each team worked at a station and asked Tim, Ella or I for supplies as needed. This worked great as it gave the girls (and the kitchen) room to work.

shemadeitshemight | heatherbursch | frosting


1:30 pm – miraculously every cupcake was in the oven and Tim took the girls outside for some food related games like the classic egg on the spoon relay and not so classic game of hopping on one foot with a banana under your arm? Eventually that banana did end up on a girls pant leg but there were lots of giggles.

shemadeitshemight | heatherbursch | outside girls birthday party

2 pm – frosting time! I made 3 kinds of frosting ahead of time: vanilla butter cream, cream cheese and chocolate ganache. Teams could add ingredients to turn vanilla or cream cheese frosting into anything they wanted using items from Ella’s favorites and a few additions like fondant. I popped the chocolate ganache into a squeeze bottle, the frosting into bags and the world was their oyster.

shemadeitshemight | heatherbursch | fondant

3 pm – time for judging. Thank you, Cole and Aunt Mindy, for your very fine judging skills and art appreciation.

shemadeitshemight | heatherbursch | Cole, Mindy and Ella

shemadeitshemight | heatherbursch | Cole

The day ended with winners in each category, gift card prizes and treat bags that included a few of Ella’s favorite ingredients.

treat bags for birthday party

Last but not least, the girls sang Ella a little happy birthday and finally tasted one of their own creations.

birthday girl

Happy 11 dear ella, happy birthday to you.

shemadeitshemight | heatherbursch | happy birthday cupcake

Thanks to all of Ella’s adorable and inovative friends for making the day so sweet, in every way.


top photo by Kristin Johnson

{ 6 comments… add one }

  • Nana November 5, 2013, 11:49 am

    Great!! It looks like you had a beautiful party. So fun to see how your converstions and brainstorming came together. I am sure Ella and her friends had a fun time. Thanks for sharing that day. Happy 11th to Ella !!!

    • heather bursch November 5, 2013, 10:33 pm

      Thanks, Nana! I remember talking with you many months ago about this party. We finally made one of the versions happen. 🙂

  • shan November 5, 2013, 8:40 pm

    Amazing memories, fun idea and great way to celebrate sweet sweet Ella! LOVED you post!
    xo Shan

    • heather bursch November 5, 2013, 10:32 pm

      Thanks, Shan! I saw the cutest pictures of your latest little birthday party. We’ll have to swap notes in the future!

  • Michelle francis May 16, 2017, 2:47 pm

    Wow. This was the perfect anecdote to my party anxiety! I was thinking I needed rules at the beginning, and this really laid it all out splendidly. My 13-year old is excited about her birthday and I can’t wait to have the party. We are thinking to have the girls do the mixing outside. I think I will let the girls make the frosting ahead of time (they are 13 after all). I will give the winners a box of cake mix with a ribbon on it! They get to decorate the tray they put the cupcakes on.

    • heather bursch May 16, 2017, 5:14 pm

      I love how you plan to simplify it! They are going to have a blast!

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