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hot to throw a cupcake war birthday party

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 of Ella’s favorite things to do is to bake. 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:


cupcake war birthday party

1. We divided the nine guests into three teams Ella was the assistant to all the teams and one of the judges in the end.

2. We created three rounds of challenges – taste round, artistic round & presentation round.

Round #1: Taste Round

Each team made three identical cupcakes, one for each of the three judges to try. Since this was the taste round, this cupcake was judged on how delicious it was from top to 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: Artistic Round

Each team made three different cupcakes, but this time each was decorated differently. As an opportunity to create individually, each girl was able to doll it up as they wished by contributing one cupcake for their team plate. Each team was judged on the color, creativity and overall artistic impression the cakes made visually on their collaborative plate.

cupcake wars

Round #3: Presentation Round

Each team chose a platter or cake plate to present their remaining cupcakes in any way they decided to decorate and display them. Each team was judged on how the team showed 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 one kind of cake to make from scratch.

I had three 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 more manageable and to ensure variety.

shemadeitshemight | heatherbursch | kitchen aids

2. Make one dozen cupcakes following your recipe. 

I explained all the challenges to the girls up front and reminded them to think ahead to all three 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 genuinely creative, like raspberry bottoms and buried KitKats in a few of their cupcakes, but not necessarily all 12 were the same.

carrot cupcakes

*Side note #1 – Repeat directions. At each round, we found it necessary to redo instructions and give clear steps 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 only met one another on this day, 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 #2 – Make ahead. I made one batch of vanilla cupcakes ahead 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. Do this; it worked great. I even had some batter left, and one group mixed it into their chocolate for a marble cake. I love spontaneous creativity! (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, bigger brain, bigger oven and a bigger selection of kitchen aids, then, by all means, go BIGGER and live to tell me about it!)

vanilla cupcakes

Party Schedule:
11-11:30 am – Introductions
: We played a get-to-know-you game so girls could learn names and faces before teaming up!
11:30 am – Instructions: We 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 – Baking Lesson: We gave a 10-minute how-to on frosting and decorating a cupcake. I focused on three quick ideas to get the girls thinking, demonstrated the icing bags and showed them a few tricks like making a little hole in the middle of a cupcake and squeezing in some lemon curd.
Noon – Lunch: Girls had time to chat with teams about strategy and game plan. Our simple to serve menu included orange flavored Izzys, meat and cheese plate, veggies, chips and a big bowl of strawberries.

shemadeitshemight | heatherbursch | lunchtime birthday party

12:30 pm – Cupcake War: We set-up 3 Kitchen Aid mixer stations in the kitchen but did most of the measuring and mixing in our dining room pre-arranged into three 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 – Bake & Games:  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 traditional 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 – Decorate: I made three kinds of frosting ahead of time: vanilla buttercream, 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 icing into bags and the world was their oyster.

shemadeitshemight | heatherbursch | fondant

3 pm – Judge: Thank you, Cole and Aunt Mindy, for your excellent 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 creations.

birthday girl

Happy 11 dear Ella, happy birthday to you.

shemadeitshemight | heatherbursch | happy birthday cupcake

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


top photo by Kristin Johnson

Last Updated on June 16, 2022 by Heather Bursch

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  1. 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 !!!

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

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

  2. 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.

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