Not-So-Sweet Cupcakes.

As I’m writing this it’s sunny and warm and pretty much dazzling outside, and I think the only proper way to celebrate is with cupcakes, ideally these.

Some people think the whole cupcake craze is over and that its heyday is a thing of the past, but I honestly don’t care.  Do I prefer a full-blown cake?  Certainly.  Does  that mean I won’t ever make cupcakes?  Of course not.  I mean, what’s there to hate?  They’re perfect single-serving desserts that you can eat with your hands.  In my mind, that’s pretty ideal.  Give me the chance to forgo silverware and I’m all over it — in spite of the fact that I highly value table manners and etiquette in general.  There’s a time and a place for everything, and sometimes it’s fun (and appropriate) to get a little barbaric.  For example, you’d never see me cut up a piece of pizza with my fork and knife; it’s hands-on food, and I say the same for the perhaps-overexposed cupcake.

What’s tricky about the cupcake, apart from putting aside propriety and cutlery, is avoiding both dryness and superfluous sweetness…  which is why this recipe is so great.  Yes, it calls for one and a half cups of sugar, but that’s spread out over twenty-four cupcakes.  And sure, you have to be on alert during the baking process so you don’t overbake the cakes, but you’d want to do that anyway, right?

For me, the hardest part is the topping — I have yet to perfect my frosting-smoothing technique, not to mention that so many frosting recipes out there are too damn sweet and oftentimes also too damn rich.  You might not think that a glutton like me would be into moderation, but when it comes to desserts I most definitely am.  I have no problem with foie, with Hollandaise, with cheese on everything in sight; desserts are another matter.  I want them to be full of flavor, but light.  I want them to end the meal on a sweet note, but one that’s not too sweet.  And, ideally, I want there to be chocolate.

This cupcake fits the bill, especially if you drizzle a white chocolate glaze over the top.  Keep in mind that this is extremely messy to do.  The white chocolate gets everywhere, so if you have a raised rack to place atop a baking sheet, I highly recommend setting your cooled cupcakes on that during the glazing process.  Otherwise you will end up like me and have white chocolate fingers and cupcake liners* bathed in white chocolate.  Which might not be a bad thing.  Just like these cupcakes.

Chocolate Cupcakes, adapted by Suzanne Lenzer for Bitten from Maida Heatter’s Book of Great Desserts

Makes twenty-four cupcakes

for the cupcakes
2 cups sifted all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
¼ teaspoon salt
½ cup unsweetened cocoa powder, preferably Dutch process
5 1/3 ounces sweet butter
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 ½ cups granulated sugar
3 eggs
1 cup milk

  1. Heat the oven to 350° and line 2 6-cup muffin tins with cupcake liners. Sift together the flour, soda, salt, and cocoa powder and set aside. Use a standing mixer or hand-mixer to cream the butter. Add the sugar and vanilla and mix to combine. Add the eggs one at a time, beating after each one until smooth.
    On the lowest speed, alternately add the dry ingredients in three additions and the milk in two. Beat only until smooth and fully combined, you don’t want to overwork the batter.
  2. Scoop the batter into the prepared pans filling each about two-thirds full (don’t bother to smooth the tops — the batter will level itself as it cooks). Bake the cupcakes for about 25 minutes, or until the tops are puffed and spring back when lightly pressed. Be careful not to overbake the cakes, but know that if you take them out too early they may sink a bit. Cool the cakes in the muffin tins for about 5 minutes and then remove them to a rack and let cool completely.  The cakes can be made a day in advance and refrigerated (they actually get better) or frozen in an airtight container.

White Chocolate Glaze
Makes more than enough for twenty-four cupcakes

8 ounces white chocolate, cut into small pieces
¼ cup light cream

Place white chocolate pieces in medium heat-proof bowl. Heat cream in a small saucepan over medium heat to a gentle boil. Pour cream over white chocolate and whisk slowly until incorporated and smooth.  Use immediately.

* You can’t tell by this picture, but I used skull-patterned cupcake liners, a Christmas present from my friend Darlington, who knows of and appreciates my love of skulls.
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Birthday Cupcakes.

I’ve said it before, but here I go again: I’m not super into baking.  Even though cooking is more my speed, I’ve recently found myself popping more and more items into the oven lately.  I even told Keith on his birthday this past Wednesday that I wanted to make something for him — though I was careful not to use the word bake.  I was semi-hoping he’d ask for a steak.

After some thought though, he said, “I like cupcakes.”

Of course, I didn’t just want to make — I mean bake — a prosaic sort of cupcake; since I know how much Keith likes cinnamon I decided I would try to figure out how to make one fashioned after a snickerdoodle cookie.  The thing was, I had no idea how to go about doing this, so I got on the phone.

“There are so many recipes for orange-cinnamon cupcakes, or strudel-y things,” I said to Marcella, “but nothing snickerdoodle-y.  I don’t want just a cinnamon cupcake.”

snickerdoodle-cupcake“You could try rolling an iced cupcake in cinnamon and sugar, or using a textured sugar,” she suggested, which got me thinking…

What if I were to butter my cupcake tin so that a cinnamon-sugar mixture would stick to the walls of each depression?  Or, better yet, what if I were to instead use individual foil cupcake liners, each sprayed and dusted with cinnamon-sugar?  I could whip up a vanilla cupcake batter in lieu of a sugar cookie dough, and still end up with exteriors marbled with cinnamon just like a snickerdoodle.  This way, I wouldn’t even need to make a frosting to top the cupcake; their cracked and swirled domes would be decoration enough.  I could even sprinkle a little cinnamon into the cupakes themselves for a little more pep…

You know what?  Not only did the cupcakes came out perfectly, but they were ridiculously easy to make.  Not as easy as a steak, but simple nevertheless.

Snickerdoodle Cupcakes, adapted from Everyday Food’s yellow cupcake recipe
Makes twelve cupcakes

1 ½ leveled cups all-purpose flour
1 ½ teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoon salt
½ cup milk
1 ½ teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1 stick salted butter, room temperature
1 cup sugar
1/8 cup plus one tablespoon ground cinnamon, separated
2 large eggs
Baking spray

  1. Preheat oven to 350°.  Arrange 12 foil cupcake liners on a baking sheet; spritz each liner with baking spray.  In a small bowl, combine 1/8 cup cinnamon and ¼ cup sugar.  Spoon mixture into foil liners, swirling to thoroughly cover entire interior of each one.  Tap out excess and return liners to baking sheet.
  2. Whisk together flour, baking powder, salt and remaining cinnamon in a small bowl and set aside. In a liquid-measuring cup, mix milk and vanilla; set aside.
  3. In a large bowl, beat butter and sugar with an electric mixer until light and fluffy, 3 to 4 minutes. Add eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition. With mixer on low speed, add half of dry ingredients, followed by milk-vanilla mixture, then remaining dry ingredients. Take care not to overmix.  Divide batter evenly among prepared cupcake liners; bake until a toothpick inserted in center of a cupcake comes out clean, 20 to 25 minutes.

Cupcake from Les Glaceurs.

les-glaceurs First of all, I couldn’t help myself with this photo.  Doesn’t it seem kind of like Baby’s Day Out, but the cupcake version?  A cupcake’s big adventure in the the big city — I would absolutely line up to see that movie.

Down to business…

Ever since I was young, I’ve had a soft spot for Old Montréal.  Sure, it’s overtrodden by tourists and souvenir shops, but the neighborhood’s charming architecture and ambiance far outweighs the kitsch.  Another pro in its favor is the presence of Les Glaceurs, a café/bakery peddling cupcakes, cookies and macarons.

Because I’ve got no willpower whatsoever when it comes to chocolate, I all but pounced on the chocolate-menthe cupcakes ($2.85 CAD each).  The cake portion of the cupcake was made of a dark chocolate that stood firmly on the dividing line between sweet and bitter; the pastel pouf of frosting decorating the top of the mini-dessert had a flavor I can only describe as icy, with its burst of refreshing mintiness.

My only wish is that Les Glaceurs offered a sampler pack; how great would that be, to help yourself to a taste of each little treat?  Then again, how dangerous…

Les Glaceurs
453, rue Saint-Sulpice
Montréal, QC H2Y
Canada
514.504.1469
lesglaceurs.ca

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Sunday Morning Brunch with Book Club.

Another Sunday, another brunch date with book club…

This time, we all gathered at Amanda’s apartment in Harvard Square to discuss Henry and Clara, which happens to be the fourth book we’ve read that somehow deals with the Civil War years. (The first three were March, Assassination Vacation and Afternoons with Emily.) By Thomas Mallon, this novel is the fictionalized account of Henry Rathbone and Clara Harris, the young couple who had the misfortune of sharing Lincoln’s box at the Ford Theater the evening the President was assassinated.

Personally, I think this is a fascinating subject. After all, I have no recollection of ever, during any of my history classes, learning about the Lincolns’ box-mates. (Actually, now that I think about it, I don’t believe I even knew the President and First Lady had box-mates!) Not only that, something I also find extremely interesting is the fact that John Wilkes Booth became the first person to assassinate a president — if there were a club, I’m sure Leon Czolgosz, Charles J. Guiteau and Lee Harvey Oswald would elect Booth himself president.

Two other aspects of the novel that captivated me were the title characters — Henry and Clara — themselves. In addition to being lovers and spouses, the two were linked by another bond: they were stepsiblings. While not related by blood, their marriage was still thought of as extremely unconventional and even downright odd; their presence at Lincoln’s murder did little to elevate their status in society. In fact, Henry — already painted by Mallon as being somewhat unstable — was driven to insanity, and ultimately ruined both himself and his family. (It is a little tricky, writing about something that is a historic fact as well as an invented fiction. I keep wanting to write in present tense to describe the novel, but since it is so intertwined with that actually took place, I find myself writing in the past tense. Bear with me, please.)

Ultimately, everyone in book club seemed to like Henry and Clara very much… except for me. When the others spoke about the absorbing characters and intricately-woven plot, I thought about the lackluster writing and uneven pacing. Though I can certainly see the allure of the storyline, I still stood alone in disliking the novel.

What we agreed on, however, was a topic about which we all see eye-to-eye: the spectacular quantity and quality of food we assembled. This time around, we had some fluffy blueberry pancakes, a richly decadent quiche, sparkly mimosas and a mango-and-raspberry salad. My contribution was carrot cake (in cupcake form), made from the bunch I had received in my CSA box last week. Not only were they my first go at carrot cake baking, but also my first time at carrot cake eating. I’m pleased to say they came out quite well.

Carrot Cake with Cream Cheese Frosting, from The New Best Recipe Cookbook
Makes ten to twelve portions

for the cake
2 ½ cups all-purpose flour
1 ¼ teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 ¼ teaspoons ground cinnamon
½ teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
½ teaspoon salt
1 pound carrots, peeled
1 ½ cups granulated sugar
½ packed cup light brown sugar
4 large eggs
1 ½ cups safflower, canola or vegetable oil

for the frosting
8 ounces cream cheese, softened but still cool
5 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened but still cool
1 tablespoon sour cream
½ teaspoon vanilla extract
1 ¼ cups confectioners’ sugar

  1. Adjust an oven rack to the middle position; heat the oven to 350°. Spray a thirteen-by-nine baking pan with nonstick cooking spray. Line the bottom of the pan with parchment paper; spray the parchment.
  2. Whisk together flour, baking powder, baking soda, spices and salt in a medium bowl and set aside.
  3. In a food processor fitted with with the large shredding disk, shred the carrots (you need three cups). Add the carrots to the bowl with the dry ingredients and set aside.
  4. Wipe out the food processor and fit with metal blade. Process both sugars with eggs until frothy and thoroughly combined, about twenty seconds. With the machine running, add oil through the feed tube in a steady stream. Process until mixture is light in color and well emulsified, about twenty additional seconds.
  5. Scrape mixture into a large bowl; stir in carrots and dry ingredients until incorporated and mixture is streak0free. Pour into prepared pan and bake until a toothpick inserted into the center of the cake comes out clean, thirty-five to forty minutes, rotating the pan from front to back halfway through baking time. Cool the cake to room temperature in the pan on a wire rack, about two hours.
  6. When the cake is cool, process cream cheese, butter, sour cream and vanilla in a clean food processor until combined, about five seconds, scraping down the work bowl with a spatula as needed. Add confectioners’ sugar and process until smooth, about ten additional seconds.
  7. Run a paring knife around the edge of the cake to loosen it from the pan. Invert cake onto a wire rack, peel off parchment and invert cake again onto serving platter. Using a spatula, spread frosting evenly over the surface of the cake. Slice and serve.