Monday, April 16, 2007

My First Cupcakes

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I’ve never made cupcakes, probably because I figured I would eat them all in one sitting. But as they are probably still the number one fad-food going these days, I decided to try my hand. I don’t have a lot of strong opinions about cakes in general, except that I’m usually disappointed by them. They’re usually too sweet, or dry. The frosting usually just tastes like powdered sugar and butter. There are of course exceptions – my dad has an amazing chocolate cake with a chocolate ganache frosting that is a family favorite. We made it famous among friends at our wedding, when we shared the recipe and its secret ingredients with the kitchen at the Wild Basin Lodge in Estes Park, Colorado. All my friends had heard of these cupcakes, but didn’t quite get what we meant by “special” until they took their first bite.

I guess I also avoided making cupcakes because; what was the point? There is only one recipe that is worth eating: my dad’s. I also haven’t done the big taste-testing that a lot of people do, as most cupcakes taste the same to me (other than my dad’s). Magnolia never fails to disappoint. They taste like sugar mixed with sugar and flour. They set the trend, but the product in my opinion doesn't live up to the hype. There are many cupcakeries all over the city with their own version, many of them are former Magnolians, I hear. And I have friends who SWEAR by so-and-so’s and such-and-such’s cupcakes. I just haven’t really cared much. Yawn.

After an Armageddon-like rainy Sunday spent indoors, my husband and I decided to venture out during the eye of the storm, when the sky had stopped dumping, and there was an eerie warmth and quiet in the air. We made it to and from our Corner Vegetable Store just in time, as the sky opened up again, this time with electrical fury. Our fruit and vegetable market is so fabulous – it’s open 24 hours, and they have so much more than just the fruit and veg; tons of canned foods, baked goods, juices, cereal, herbs, some dairy, nuts, coffee beans by bulk…and all sold so cheaply that even if Fresh Direct DID deliver to us, we would continue to cross porn-store avenue to get our produce.

While there, Mr. Roux scanned the snack selections for some kind of sweet. There were the usual Entenmanns cookies and donuts, but he wisely passed them up when he saw the “25% more, free!” advertised on the boxes. He knew that we would eat all 125% ourselves, even though it was meant for a family. So I promised to bake something fun.

The cupcake recipe I dug out of an old issue of Cook's Illustrated. I trust their test kitchen implicitly, and wish I could just camp out in one, giving my opinions and consuming all the test foods – successes and failures alike. They touted this as the best cupcake recipe, so who was I to argue? They suggest a chocolate ganache frosting to pair with the simple yellow cakes, but I didn’t have all the necessary ingredients. I found an easy frosting recipe in my new Better Homes And Gardens Cookbook. (Tangent: I so wished that I would have gotten this red and white checkered cook book as a wedding present, but I didn’t. I always associated it with “your first year as a wife” kind of thing. So I bought it a couple weeks ago myself and realized it was the one key cookbook missing from my mostly cookbook-bare kitchen. From the notebook layout, the tabs, to the meat, herb, mushroom, and poultry guides within – this is the funnest cook book ever. Granted, the recipes tend to be for the “busy parent” – in that they are not all based on fresh ingredients, I find the variety and basics very helpful.)

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Results: The cake is good! I like that they’re a little tangy – the sour cream keeps them moist and adds a little zip. I almost wish I had taken them one step further and added lemon zest. I might have over baked them, as the top of the cupcakes were a little crunchy on the edges (I like this, but I don’t know if it’s de rigueur). The frosting wasn’t the best pairing. As my husband put it “it’s like whipped cream, or cool whip. Not like frosting." And he’s right – I really liked it’s tanginess too – again from the sour cream, but it wasn’t substantial enough when spread on a dense cake. I think this frosting would be PERFECT on a really light lemon cookie, or a light, tart lemon cake. But these cupcakes really wanted something a little denser. I will say that I was pleasantly surprised by how well the frosting held up – I thought it would melt instantly, and run down the sides of the cakes. But it held up like a meringue. Mr. Roux ended up scraping off the frosting so he could eat four, one right after the other. I managed to eat two, and brought the rest in to work.

A couple of recipe notes: I didn’t have room temperature butter or eggs, as the recipe calls for. Per the test kitchen notes in Cooks Illustrated, I added the cold butter one tablespoon at a time to the dry ingredients in the mixer until they were blended, and got fine results. Also, where the cupcake recipe indicates your batter should be “smooth and satiny”, I found mine wasn’t as much of a satin liquid as I expected, a little doughier.
Lastly, I baked these in foil cupcake liners set on a cookie sheet – no cupcake tin required!

Yellow Cupcakes (from Cook’s Illustrated Jan/Feb 2005)

1 1/2 cup unbleached all purpose flour
1 cup sugar
1 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
8 tablespoons (one stick) unsalted butter (room temperature)
1/2 cup sour cream
1 large egg, room temperature
2 large egg yolks, room temperature
1 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

1) Adjust oven rack to middle position; heat oven to 350 degrees. Line standard muffin cupcake tin with paper or foil liners (or place 12 foil liners on baking sheet).

2) Whisk together flour, sugar, baking powder and salt in bowl of standing mixer fitted with paddle attachment. Add butter, sour cream, egg and egg yolks, and vanilla. Beat at medium speed until smooth and satiny, about 30 seconds. Scrape down sides of bowl with rubber spatula and mix by hand until smooth and no flour pockets remain.

3) Divide batter evenly among cups of prepared tins using 2 oz ice cream scoop or heaping tablespoon. Bake until cupcake tops are pale gold and toothpick or skewer inserted into center comes out clean, 20-24 minutes. Use skewer or paring knife to lift cupcakes from tin and transfer to wire rack; cool cupcakes to room temp about 45 minutes.
4) Spread 2 to 3 generous tablespoons of frosting on top of each cooled cupcake; serve.

Easy Crème Fraiche Frosting (from Better Homes and Gardens cookbook)

1 8 oz dairy sour cream
1 cup whipping cream
3/4 cup powdered sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla

In a large mixing bowl combine sour cream, whipping cream, powdered sugar, and vanilla. Beat with an electric mixer on medium speed until mixture thickens and holds soft peaks. This frosts the tops and sides of two 8 or 9 inch cake layers, halve the recipe if making cupcakes (unless you like lots of left-overs!). Store frosted cake (or cupcakes) in refrigerator.


Tennille said...

I made cupcakes last week too! We are so hip. You should have invited me over for yours (I would have helped you eat the entire batch, lessening the guilt). I made mine with coconut, which I hate, but it was helpful to not eat.

Nina Roux: The Sweet, The Savory and The Sass said...

The original idea was to make these for you - but they didn't make it! You're next, lady. And yours will be perfect=)