Sun 20 Sep 2009
The bakery cupcake phenomenon kind of escapes me. It highlights my fleeting disconnect from people who don’t see cooking as Something You Do. Living in Los Angeles, I’m within each reach of at least a dozen bakeries with beautiful and famous cupcakes…but I’ve never been to any of them.
My reasons are two-fold. First, the few I’ve had have been fine, but not great. It’s not that they’re bad, exactly, they’re just not something I’d go out of my way to track down. Second, I can’t fathom paying someone several dollars for a single cupcake when I can make piles and piles of them at home with the staples in my pantry and fridge.
However, I wholeheartedly support the cupcake movement, such as it is. Tiny cakes that can be dressed and frocked to suit the wildest and mildest palates alike are whimsical genius, in my best opinion. Cupcakes are simply fun. It has been delightful to see something so fun and so manageable at home become so broadly popular recently. I only wish I could convince more people to make their own.
Do you want to know the secret to true cupcake perfection? Take an unfrosted cupcake and slice it in half on its horizontal axis so that you have top and bottom pieces that are of roughly equal thickness. Next, spread a generous layer of frosting on the bottom layer and set the top layer on top. Frost the top as you normally would. Carefully spread a final layer of frosting around the sides and voila, a tiny layer cake for one. Enjoy with a fork.
Of course, cupcakes in wrappers are also lovely. I made these Red Velvet Cupcakes for a friend’s birthday a few weeks ago when she told me her list of cake likes include lemon, chocolate, and cream cheese, in no particular order. Red velvet has experienced a bit of a renaissance in the past two years or so. No longer a regional staple of Southern birthday parties, it has gained a place in this new canon of cupcake frippery. I think it brilliantly exemplifies the genius of cupcakes. Here is a hyper-pigmented, sugar coma-sweet confection, packaged for one. It’s Dolly Parton as a dessert. A perfect platform for its flavor foil, frosting energized by the tangy snap of cream cheese; a perfect symbol for our national sweet tooth.
If you don’t have a pastry bag for piping the frosting, don’t worry about it. You can do a swell job with a dinner spoon. Load up the spoon with frosting. Holding the spoon in one hand and the cupcake in the other, set the spoon down on the center of the cake and rotate the cupcake in one, clean circle so that the frosting sweeps the whole top. Touch up as needed – you’ll end up with a lovely look.
Red Velvet Cupcakes
Makes approximately 18 cupcakes
Adapted from Pinch My Salt
2 ½ cups sifted cake flour (yep – sift it by itself, then sift again with the other dry ingredients)
1 t baking powder
1 t salt
2 T unsweetened cocoa powder
2 oz. red food coloring
½ cup unsalted butter, softened (one stick)
1 1/2 cups sugar
2 eggs, room temperature (warm up in a small bowl of warm water)
1 t vanilla extract
1 cup buttermilk, at room temperature
1 t white vinegar
1 t baking soda
- Sift the cake flour
- Sift the dry ingredients together
- Make a paste from cocoa and food coloring
- Beat the butter and sugar
- Add eggs
- Add vanilla and cocoa paste
- Alternate adding dry ingredients and buttermilk until combined
- Mix the vinegar and baking soda
- Add the vinegar mixture to the batter
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
Sift together the flour, baking powder, and salt into a medium bowl and set aside. As I noted above, you need to sift the cake flour by itself first, then sift with the rest of the dry ingredients. Cake flour doesn’t have the same anti-caking additives as other flours, so it’s important to take the time for this step. In a pinch you can use a colander for this part.
Mix the cocoa powder and food coloring together in a very small bowl until you have a smooth paste. Set aside.
Beat the butter and sugar together in a large bowl (or the bowl of a stand mixer) with an electric mixer at medium-high speed for approximately three minutes, or until light and fluffy. Add the eggs one at a time, beating well between each addition. Add the vanilla and the cocoa paste, beating well until fully combined. Be sure to scrape down the sides of the bowl a few times to fully incorporate the dribs and drabs that climb beyond the beaters’ reach.
Add about a third of the dry ingredients, and beat until combined. Add half the buttermilk and beat again, scraping the sides of the bowl as you go. Continue alternating between the wet and dry ingredients this way until they are fully incorporated, ending with the last of the dry ingredients.
Combine the vinegar and baking soda in a small bowl and add the mixture to the batter. Stir well. Line a muffin tin with cupcake papers. Using a ladle or an ice cream scoop, fill the cups 2/3 of the way full with batter. Bake f0r 20 minutes and test with a toothpick. If it comes out clean, they are ready to remove from the oven and cool on wire racks. If the toothpick comes out dirty, return the cupcakes to the oven in 3-minute intervals, watching them carefully to be sure they don’t overcook. Cool in the tin for 10 minutes before removing the individual cupcakes to cool fully. Allow at least an hour before frosting – they should be completely cool to the touch or your frosting will melt.
Cream Cheese Frosting
16 oz. cream cheese, softened (2 packages – do not use low-fat or fat-free)
½ cup unsalted butter, softened
1 t vanilla extract
3 cups powdered sugar
Pinch of salt
- Blend the cream cheese and butter
- Slowly blend in remaining ingredient
- Blend everything on high until fluffy
The cream cheese and butter can easily achieve their requisite softness through an hour on the counter while you make the cupcakes. Be cautious microwaving them if you need to speed up the process – don’t let things get runny.
Blend the cream cheese and butter with an electric mixer until they are smooth. Add the powdered sugar, vanilla extract, and salt and blend on low speed until everything is mostly incorporated. Crank up the mixer to high speed and continue blending until light and fluffy. Add additional sugar if you feel the frosting needs to be stiffer, or if you like a sweeter frosting. Use immediately or refrigerate; if you choose the latter, allow it to come to room temperature on the counter for 15 minutes before blending smooth again.