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Wednesday, October 1, 2008

In The Name of Love

It appears the humble cupcake is having its fifteen minutes of fame.

Bakeries exclusively devoted to cupcakes opened last year in my neighborhood back in Chicago, featuring, um, ‘interestingly’ flavored cupcakes…green tea, chocolate port, persimmon, etc…Fancy grocery stores are offering cupcakes in their bakery departments…right next to the pretty fruit tarts, and chocolate mousse cakes. Celebrated restaurant pastry chefs are making cupcakes and at least one restaurant I know of has a cupcake “flight” available for dessert. They are all catching on to something I’ve known for some time now.

A cupcake is a powerful thing.

In the early days of our marriage, I asked my husband what he wanted me to bake in celebration of his birthday. A cake? Maybe I could try my hand at a chocolate mousse? Or, maybe a cheesecake? (Cheesecake was big back then.) He immediately answered, “cupcakes”. Not a second of hesitation. His directive was simple: Yellow cake. Chocolate frosting. No funny stuff. A small amount of colorful sprinkles were acceptable, but not necessary. Candles were ok.
So, the night before his birthday, I made a batch of cupcakes using a Duncan Hines cake mix and pre-made frosting from a container I’d picked up on my way home from work.

The joy those cupcakes gave was something to behold. (Despite their lopsided appearance. I’d used those thin, paper cups, which couldn’t seem to contain the batter very well…or maybe I’d overfilled?) My husband was beaming with happiness. The man was thrilled. I was a Baking Goddess. Who knew?

Years went by, and each birthday brought the same request: cupcakes. Seeing the happiness they created, I made cupcakes for children, for co-workers, for anyone who was about to celebrate something.

I was loved by all.

How can something so small, you ask, have such power?

The answer lies in the simplicity of perfectly moist cake, and rich, creamy frosting, in exactly the right amounts…a few delicious bites.
The beauty of the frosting’s ying, to the cake’s yang, existing in perfect harmony.
I’d say that a good cupcake has the amazing ability to transport one back to a simpler time. Most definitely before the time of ‘super-sizing’, and I suspect that French Women Who Don’t Get Fat would approve of eating one, dainty cupcake in celebration of a birthday.

I admit this next part sheepishly…I continued using prepared cake mixes and frostings for years. What was not to like? The cake was always moist. The frosting was chocolate-y. And, besides, there was something daunting about making real cake batter. Wouldn’t that mean measuring and mixing all sorts of separate ingredients?? (I thought the same thing about pancakes, but that’s another story.)

Finally, not that long ago, I made the leap to baking from scratch.

There were a few misfires along the way to Cupcake Nirvana. (Like the yellow cake recipe which required a cup of white wine -- huh? -- but seemed to come out stale, right from the oven.) Then, a couple weeks ago, a curve ball. September is birthday time around here and the man asked for Red Velvet cupcakes. Seriously? Red Velvet? But, I haven't even come close to finding the perfect yellow cake/chocolate frosting recipe! Oh, the things one does in the name of love...

Research revealed a couple options. A New York Times article on red velvet included recipes for cake and frosting (...enough for a three-layer cake. I was going to be halving the amounts for sure…) and the Williams-Sonoma web site offered the super-easy Sprinkles cupcake mix. It was like the little devil on one shoulder saying “Get the mix! Get the mix!” and the little angel on the other side urging me to “stick with scratch”. Sigh... I went in search of red food coloring...

It's odd that something so strange-looking, could be so delicious. They were incredibly moist and rich and , umm, incredibly red. The batter was almost disturbingly red and included an exciting final addition of bubbling combination of baking soda and vinegar, but the main winner in my mind was the frosting -- a heavenly blend of whipped cream, mascarpone and cream cheese. I would frost carrot cake, pumpkin bread and pretty much anything I could get my hands on with this frosting.

My husband proclaimed them "the best cupcakes ever". That's the thing about them...cupcakes are almost universally greeted with complete awe and acclaim and are pretty much guaranteed to win over the snootiest adult or a cranky child. Which brings me to the essential truth here.
Men. Women. Children. All become putty in your hands after consuming a cupcake, or two. And, the world is catching on, so it seems.

So, go ahead. Stop by that cute bakery you keep walking past, or pick up a few cupcakes from the grocery store (maybe even during a holiday when you know they’ll have those corny decorations we all secretly love), or take a Sunday afternoon, make a batch and share the love.

Note: I halved the recipe to make a dozen and half cupcakes and what still seemed like a ton of frosting. Next time, I'll split each cupcake and put a layer of frosting in the center!

Red Velvet Cupcakes

Adapted from The New York Times and "The Confetti Cakes Cookbook" by Elisa Strauss

1 1/4 cups cake flour
1/4 cup unsweetened cocoa (not Dutch process)
3/4 teaspoon salt
1 cup canola oil
1 heaping cup granulated sugar
2 large eggs
3 tablespoons red food coloring
1 teaspoon vanilla
3/4 cup buttermilk
1 teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon white vinegar.
1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Place cupcake paper liners in a 12-muffin baking pan.
Whisk cake flour, cocoa and salt in a bowl.
3. Place oil and sugar in bowl of an electric mixer and beat at medium speed until well-blended. Beat in eggs one at a time. With machine on low, very slowly add red food coloring. (Take care: it may splash.) Add vanilla. Add flour mixture alternately with buttermilk in two batches. Scrape down bowl and beat just long enough to combine.
4. Place baking soda in a small dish, stir in vinegar and add to batter with machine running. Beat for 10 seconds.
5. Pour batter in muffin cups, place in oven and bake until a cake tester comes out clean, 20 minutes. Let cool in pans 20 minutes. Then remove from pans and cool completely before frosting.
Yield: 18 cupcakes

Red Velvet Cake Icing
Adapted from The New York Times and “The Waldorf-Astoria Cookbook,” by John Doherty with John Harrisson (Bulfinch, 2006)

1 cups heavy cream, cold
8 ounces cream cheese, at room temperature
6 ounces mascarpone
½ teaspoon vanilla
3/4 cup confectioners’ sugar, sifted.
1. Softly whip cream by hand, in electric mixer or in food processor. Cover in bowl and refrigerate.
2. Blend cream cheese and mascarpone in food processor or electric mixer until smooth. Add vanilla, pulse briefly, and add confectioners’ sugar. Blend well.
3. Transfer cream cheese mixture to bowl; fold in whipped cream. Refrigerate until needed.
Yield: A LOT of frosting!!