Years ago I saw a version of the Periodic Table of the Elements made with cupcakes, and I knew that someday I would have to do that too! Last fall, the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC) published the names of the four no-longer-unknown elements, and with my youngest son in AP Chem at school... the time was right! Here's how I did it.
First - this project is very easy to do, but it takes a lot of time. Much of the work can be done in advance. If you aren't familiar with the periodic table, start by spending a bit of time with one. Color is generally used to represent the different element groups: nonmetal, alkali metal, alkaline earth, transition metal, basic metal, lanthanide, actinide, semi-metal, halogen and noble gas. Get a feel for the elements in each section.
When looking at the table, notice that there are 118 elements, but generally 120 boxes. 2 of the spots on the table are "placeholders" for the 2 series of elements that are usually presented below. These are the lanthanide and actinide elements. My table reflects this approach, and you will need 120 cupcakes total.
Prep work: to decorate the cupcakes, you will need little signs with the element information. I made labels with the element name, symbol, atomic number, date of discovery and genesis of the name for the front of each cupcake. These are color-coded to reflect the element grouping above. I made corresponding labels for the back of each cupcake with a "fun fact" about the element. You can access the label data here: http://www.cc.gatech.edu/~eisen/Periodic%20Labels.pdf (This file also has a 1-page "tasting notes" with references and other information. Print this and save for serving.)
To make the labels, print the pages on card stock. Cut out the labels, associating the front and back of each one, using the numbers. Lay the front of the labels down, apply a small bit of double-sided tape, place a toothpick or small plastic cocktail pick, on the tape, then stick the back label on. Once these are done, take "self-seal" laminating sheets and cut strips that are a bit bigger than the labels. (I got 4 strips per sheet, with an inch or so leftover.) Place the strip down, remove the backing film, and place 8 labels across the strip. Leave a bit of space between them. Remove the film from another strip and lay across the labels, pressing down. You can now cut the individual laminated labels out.
You will end up with 120 labels - 118 for the elements and the placeholder Lanthanide and Actinde series labels.
I knew that I would need to stick these in the cupcakes at school during set up, so I sorted them and stored in ziploc-style snack bags. I sorted them by having in order all the elements DOWN columns 1 and 2 (so H, Li, Na, K, Rb, Cs, Fr, all in one bag, Be, Mg, Ca, Sr, Ba, Ra in bag 2), then having the elements across the rows for columns 3-12 in bags (so bag 3 contained Sc, Ti, V, Cr, Mn, Fe, Co, Ni, Cu, Zn... bag 4 started with Y...) then bags for columns 13-18 down, and one bag for the Lanthanides (elements 57-71) and Actinides (89-103) at the bottom. I'm sure there are other ways to organize these, but I will say that my approach make set-up very easy!
Next thing to do in advance is order some plastic cupcake trays. I found these on Amazon that were perfect: Clear Plastic Dome Cupcake Boxes I ordered 1 of the 4-count 24 cupcake holders (and used 3) plus 1 of the 12-count 6 cupcake size (and used 8 of these, 7 for the table and 1 just to carry the extra 6 cupcakes). The holders make transporting this project very easy and also help keep all the elements in order for decorating. I laid these out as follows:
Note - I did not use any single cupcake holders. There are 6 cupcakes that don't fit in the holders. I transported these in one of the 6-cupcake holders, but then just placed the cupcakes on the table where they belonged during set-up. The single holders here represent where they will go. Also, the lids on the 6 pack holders are attached. I used a knife to cut the plastic, so that I could take the lids completely off for serving.
Once you have the labels done and the holders ready, you can bake the elements!
Shopping list for the baking part:
5 box cake mixes, plus eggs and oil as needed to bake
120 paper cupcake liners
4 lbs powdered sugar
2 cups butter (4 sticks)
2 cups Crisco shortening not butter flavor - plain (2 sticks)
4 tsp pure vanilla extract
8 or tablespoons of milk
2 cans Wilton Color Spray - silver
1 can Color Spray - gold
decorating sugar in various colors (see pictures)
if you can find it, a pinch of Wilton color dust in copper color
small tub (8 oz) of white or grey fondant
black, burgundy or red, and brown paste food colors.
Note: I bought a bunch of different colors of Wilton color dust, but these were awful to use. They don't "shake" on evenly and didn't add nearly enough value to justify the cost. I used them for some nuance here - making chlorine a "yellow-green" but I would not buy these again and I cannot recommend them. Stick to the spray color or regular dusting sugars. (If I did this again, I would get additional colors of spray mist, yellow, maybe blue and green.)
Baking: This will take exactly 10 dozen cupcakes, from 5 box cake mixes or an equivalent amount of your own cake batter. I used 3 boxes of chocolate cake and 2 yellow cake.
Note - be careful not to overfill the cupcakes, as you need to get at least 2 dozen from each mix. (I was very careful, as I wanted to get an extra 2 yellow cake cupcakes.) When cool, I arranged them in the trays to make decorating easier. You can see that I've done the transition metals in the middle and the lanthanide and actinide series at the bottom in chocolate. Pay close attention to order as you decorate, consulting my color guide (below) or another copy of the actual table to make sure all the elements are in order!
I wanted to keep decorating as simple as possible while still conveying some of the beauty of the elements. In real life, most of the elements are either colorless, silver or grey. A few, however, have color (such as gold) or are strongly associated with a color (such as neon, which glows red in vacuum tubes, cesium, whose name means sky blue or magnesium, which is the key element that makes chlorophyll green) - so I took a little liberty to add color using decorating sugar where appropriate. Here is the color guide that I used: http://www.cc.gatech.edu/~eisen/periodic%20table%20color.pdf
To decorate, you will need 2 batches of standard buttercream (see the recipe on the side link) using 4lbs of powdered sugar. I made one 2lb double batch to get started, then made a 2nd when the first was used.
Using my color guide, first decorate all of the colorless elements using plain white icing. I put the icing is a large disposable pastry bag with a Wilton 2D decorating tip. Using a bag makes icing the cupcakes go very fast! Cover the top of the cake with icing stars. I kept the cupcakes in the trays, so that I could easily pull out the ones for each color as I went.
When the white ones were done, I decorated all of the silver elements using white icing, but then giving each one a good spray with Wilton Color Mist (silver) and decorating with silver sugar.
When the silver elements were done, I decorated gold, copper and iron, using gold color mist spray. I put gold sugar on gold, copper dust on copper (a bit of lime green sugar on the copper cupcake would have worked as well) and some red sugar on iron. For the other colored elements, use white icing (no spray) and dust with sugar as appropriate.
I did take a bit of time with mercury and bromine, the 2 elements are liquid at room temperature. For these 2 cupcakes, I used a knife to put a layer of icing on the cupcake. I then rolled a thin, round sheet of fondant (colored grey for mercury, dark brownish-red for bromine), and placed these on top of the cupcakes. I sprayed mercury heavily with the silver color mist and finished with round silver sugar pearls. I sprayed bromine lightly with gold color mist and patted with a damp paper towel to get the liquid look I wanted. (These were a big hit, well worth the added effort.)
When all the colorless (white), silver and colored elements were done, I added a bit of black food coloring to the remaining icing so that I had a nice dark grey. I used this to decorate the rest of the cupcakes. I finished by adding some black sugar to the carbon element cupcake, to give it a darker sparkle. (Diamond sugar would work well too.)
To serve, arrange the holders so that the elements are all in the right place, using the color guide. Place the six elements that don't fit in a tray in place: H at the top of column 1 on the left; He at the top of column 18 on the right; and B, C, Al and Si next to the tray where they go. Lastly, insert each label into the element, watching the numbers to make sure everything is still in order. I placed the 1-page "tasting notes" sheet (printed with the element labels) next to the table for reference.