Happy birthday to me: Chocolate butter cake with neoclassic buttercream

25 Mar

Wednesday was my birthday, and it should come as no surprise to all of you that I spent it–yep–baking! Or, more accurately, decorating, since the whole process was so time-consuming I had to spread it out over two days. I realize that some might find it sad or strange that I baked and decorated my own birthday cake…but what those people don’t realize is that for me, the baking and decorating is even more fun than the eating! And these days, as you know, I take any and every opportunity to practice my baking.

Of course, I wanted this cake to be extra-good, so I decided to go with a really tried-and-true recipe…and what better place to find one than in Rose Levy Beranbaum’s The Cake Bible? I discovered this book a few weeks ago thanks to a reader’s suggestion, and after reading many of Beranbaum’s facts about cake chemistry and tips for successful baking, I was dying to try one of her recipes.

As I’ve said before, I’m a serious chocoholic, so it was a no-brainer that I’d pick a chocolate cake recipe. But, as it turned out, that wasn’t so simple: the book lists at least a dozen chocolatey recipes. After some hesitation, I chose the “perfect all-American chocolate butter cake” because it was basic and because Beranbaum writes that it goes nicely with buttercream, which I was also eager to make. After my last post, I really wanted to try making a buttercream that involves heating and dissolving sugar rather than simply mixing it into butter, and Beranbaum’s “classic buttercream” recipe fit the bill. But since I don’t own a candy thermometer, I chose to make her “neoclassic buttercream” instead. (I was actually all set to just cross my fingers and make the classic buttercream without the thermometer, but when I saw that Beranbaum claims her neoclassic recipe “yields identical results,” I breathed a sigh of relief and got out the corn syrup.)

I’m pleased to say that I found the recipe for both the cake and the buttercream on this page of the Community Food Co-op, so I don’t need to recopy the recipes here.

Mixing the first few ingredients was simple–water, cocoa, eggs, vanilla. But then it came time to blend the butter and some of the cocoa into the big bowl of dry ingredients. It sounds easy, but it took a lot of elbow grease and beater-scraping! Both my arm and my hand mixer got a tough workout. Without the eggs, the batter was very dry and kept lumping up without absorbing all the flour. It was practically like bread dough–I had to fight the urge to stick my hands in and beat it into shape myself.

Things got a lot easier after I added the eggs. I ended up with a nice, smooth batter.

Here’s something I know about myself: I’m a really slow worker. I mean, really slow. It took me forever just to get the batter to this stage. I tend to do a lot of things slowly, but I’m slowest when I’m doing something I’m not very good at, or something I’ve never tried before. Half of it is perfectionism, half of it is the belief that the slower and more carefully I work, the fewer mistakes I’ll make. While that may be true, it makes for some long projects! But it’s something I’ve mostly accepted about myself. Right now, I’m just grateful I have enough time on my hands to learn to bake at my slow and steady pace.

Nervously, I filled my cake pan and stuck it in the oven. Beranbaum claims that each half of the batter should fill a cake pan about half-full, but mine seemed significantly less than that. My first layer was just slightly less than half-full, but even that left me with barely enough batter to make a decent second layer. Strange….

Oh, and it might be worth mentioning that I own only one cake pan, so I can only bake one layer at a time. This was a conscious decision: at this point, I don’t think I’m a confident enough baker to throw two layers into the oven and trust that they’ll bake evenly. Plus, I’m kind of cheap. But maybe I’ll change my mind when I know what I’m doing and get sick of baking one layer at a time.

Both layers came out looking pretty good, though much more domed than I was hoping.

I set about leveling them to make them nice and flat for stacking. A while ago, a helpful reader commented that a good way to level cakes is to pull a string of dental floss across the edges of a cake pan, slicing the top of evenly. But since these layers were far too low for that method, I had to eyeball it using a knife. Fortunately, I have a very long serrated knife that worked really well for this purpose. It came out a little uneven, but it was definitely good enough.

After lopping off the top of each layer, I ended up with two big slices of cake that served no purpose. But I broke them up, stuffed them in a baggie, and froze them, and I’m considering using them to make cake balls someday…so stay tuned for that!

Before I’d realized that leveling the layers would give me extra cake to taste, I decided to save a little batter and bake a small cupcake to serve as a taste test. One reason I prefer baking cupcakes instead of cakes is that they’re much more conducive to sampling right out of the oven; with a cake, you can’t know if it tastes good until you’re serving it. So I baked a mini-cupcake to taste.

It tasted a lot like Beranbaum describes–light, but fudgy. It was the slightest bit dry for my taste, but I’m someone who prefers cake super-moist. For a light and airy cake, it was excellent–plenty chocolatey, and that was the goal!

With my cake layers baked, sliced, and ready to go, I was still barely halfway through the full cake-making process. It was finally time to make the buttercream. I was super-excited!

Dissolving the sugar into the corn syrup was a fascinating process. I realized I’d never used corn syrup before, and it’s got a really interesting consistency. Warming it up and mixing it with a ton of sugar made it into a strange, almost solid mass in the saucepan. Then, when it came to a boil, it got incredibly sticky.

Meanwhile, I had to beat the yolks until they were “light in color.” I really had no idea what this meant–how light was light enough?–so I searched some images on Google to get a sense of what I was supposed to achieve. After a while I decided they were light enough. In hindsight, though, I wonder if my final buttercream would have been significantly lighter if I’d beaten the yolks more…what do you think?

Mixing the corn syrup and sugar mix into the yolks was another trial. The syrup was straddling the line between liquid and solid, so when I poured it, the stream would trail off into a thin, threadlike strand that would stick to things–most obnoxiously, my beater. More than once, the strand got stuck on the spinning beaters and spun around and around until I broke it off by hand, leaving this odd-looking effect:

Even worse, when I poured a little syrup into the bowl and tried to mix it with the yolks, the whole mess clumped up on my beaters and climbed higher and higher until it was almost touching the body of my hand mixer. I couldn’t help but dream of how much easier it would no doubt be if I owned a stand mixer. Ah, that’s the dream.

Things got much easier after adding the butter. I finally ended up with a thick, buttery mix that was very smooth and spreadable.

I couldn’t get over how much nicer the texture was compared to quick-and-easy buttercreams involving powdered sugar, as well as how much less sickly-sweet it was. But at this point, I also realized how much extra work goes into making this version instead.

I also have to admit that the flavor of this buttercream was a little odd. It tasted almost plasticky, which I later realized was the taste of egg yolks. (But, as I soon learned, adding flavor in the form of liqueurs or chocolate basically fixes that problem.) I’m also not sure how I feel about using raw egg yolks in buttercream–doesn’t that seem a little unsafe? I suspect there are alternative ingredients out there. Despite all this, I’m adding this recipe to my list of favorites, because the texture truly is far superior to powdered sugar buttercreams.

I wanted to fill my cake with chocolate buttercream, so I melted some Ghirardelli and added it to the mix. Then I spread it on!

Finally, the cake was ready to be frosted on the outside. And it was looking pretty good, if you ask me!

At this point, I quit for the day. The next day, I got up early–very uncharacteristic of me, especially on my birthday!–to make a batch of plain buttercream to cover the cake. The process went a bit more smoothly this time, since I knew what I was doing.

I had a small moment of panic when I realized that, in its final form, the buttercream was very yellow–not even close to white. I assumed that this would throw off my plans of coloring the buttercream. But thank goodness I decided to test a small sample, because it worked just fine! I was able to achieve the lovely light blue I’d been picturing.

I also decided that my plain-Jane buttercream needed a little more flavor…so, naturally, I pulled out the bourbon. A few tablespoons later, the buttercream was tasting fantastic! And as we all know, whiskey and chocolate is a flavor combination made in heaven.

At last, I gathered all my frosting tools and got to work.

Finally, with the baking done, I could focus on what I do best: decorating!

The process took most of the day, and while I did snap photos of my work as I went, I won’t bore you with photos of the whole process (but feel free to ask to see them, if you’d like). A few hours later, the cake looked like this:




Because I was decorating my own cake, I didn’t want to follow a standard birthday theme–isn’t there something a little weird about writing “happy birthday” to yourself? So I just made it pretty. I like pretty things. Especially birds. It wasn’t until later that I realized this was my–drumroll please–”bird-day” cake. Yeah, go ahead, groan! But you have to admit it’s surprisingly fitting….

And when the time finally came to sit down with my family and eat it, I was happy with my results. Even though it wasn’t as moist as I would have liked, it was pretty marvelous when paired with the buttercream. My family loved it and dubbed me the official family birthday cake maker from now on. The rest of my birthday celebration didn’t disappoint, either: I got beautiful new jars to store my flour and sugar, as well as the loveliest apron I think I’ve ever seen.

Ultimately, I’d say my time and effort paid off. I ended up with a tasty cake that made me very happy and very proud. It was the perfect birthday gift to myself!

Posted here:

 

Guinness and chocolate cupcakes with Baileys Irish Cream frosting for St. Patrick’s Day

18 Mar

First of all: Yes, things look a little different around here! Sorry for the various changes to the site in the past few days; I’ve been fiddling around with its appearance in an effort to make this blog a little more personalized. I think I like where it’s ended up. But I’m a bit concerned about using typekit fonts, as I’m not sure if they’ll show up correctly for all my readers. So, it would be quite helpful if you could let me know if the font you’re seeing for the blog title and post titles looks like Times New Roman–it’s not supposed to! Thanks. :)

I’m a proud Irish-American lass–with the freckles to prove it–so I felt that making a St. Paddy’s Day-themed treat was obligatory. Of course, I realize that the holiday is actually a good deal more American than it is Irish, and I’m also sadly aware that it perpetuates some negative stereotypes about the Irish…but I see no harm in a little green-themed, boozed-up fun, as long as we keep those things in mind. At the very least, I figured, baking for St. Patrick’s Day would offer a fun new way to enjoy whiskey–which is something I can appreciate any day of the year!

I knew that whatever recipe I chose would have to involve whiskey, Baileys, and/or Guinness, and I did indeed find quite a few recipes that satisfied that requirement. I was shocked to find, though, that there were very few decent-looking recipes that involved putting Baileys in the batter (not just the frosting)…any idea why that is? It seemed like an obvious concept, yet all I found were Baileys buttercream recipes. So I ended up going with a simplified version of Smitten Kitchen’s recipe for chocolate whiskey and beer cupcakes, based on the (controversially named) “Irish car bomb” cocktail. The recipe called for Guinness, Baileys, and chocolate–and honestly, what sounds better than that?

My only problem? All I had was Guinness lager–not Guinness stout, as called for in the recipe (and all the others I’d found). I’m not much of a beer aficionado, so I don’t know the real difference between the two…but I do know that there is a difference, and I wasn’t sure whether it would have a big impact on my final product or not. I couldn’t find any information on the interchangeability of lager and stout in baking, though, so I decided to just go for it.

Featuring Seamus, my kitchen leprechaun!

Step one was to simmer the Guinness with butter and cocoa powder on the stove. This created a nice, creamy, yummy-smelling chocolate mixture.

I got worried, though, when I took it off the heat and the ingredients started to separate. The mixture got kind of lumpy and black streaks appeared in the chocolate. I was concerned that it would mess up my batter, like the chocolate mixture I made for my first batch of cupcakes. But I had no real choice but to soldier on.

Here’s something exciting: this was the first time I’d ever baked with sour cream! In the past few weeks, I’d read a lot of recipes that called for it, and it sounded like a great way to make your cake smooth and moist. I was happy to find it was easy to work with and eliminated the need for milk or oil.

My final batter looked good, although the beer (or the butter, I couldn’t tell) still wouldn’t blend completely with the other ingredients.

The cupcakes came out looking smooth and uniform, but a little flat. Although I’ve read about it, I still don’t know all the factors that decide how much a cake will dome as it rises…that’s something I’ll need to keep learning.

Whether or not they were supposed to rise any more than they did, they tasted fantastic. I’d read that the beer flavor would mostly bake out, and it did, but it also seemed to enhance the chocolate flavor. The cakes turned out moist and chocolatey, and I’d definitely make them again! I wonder if there’s a way to add more beer, or a different kind (maybe that’s why you need stout), to achieve a stronger beer flavor…any ideas? Regardless, these made my kitchen smell excellent.

Sadly, I was way too lazy to make the ganache filling called for in the recipe. But if you’re making these and feeling up to it, do it–I’ll bet it tastes amazing!

It was time to move onto the frosting–woohoo! I adore Baileys (who doesn’t?), so I was really hoping the buttercream would turn out well. It was a simple buttercream like the kinds I’d made before, with just butter, sugar, and Baileys. And it was definitely easy enough to make.

But here’s the thing: I’ve decided that I hate making this kind of buttercream. I just hate it! I hate creaming sticks of butter that gunk up my hand mixer…I hate constantly needing to scrape it off the beaters…I hate adding the powdered sugar a tiny bit at a time…and, most importantly, I hate the grainy texture of the buttercream that this technique inevitably makes.

I realize that all these things are the reality of making quick and easy buttercream. And I accept that. I’ll probably even keep making it, just because it requires less time and fewer ingredients than other techniques. But I’m dying to try a new approach–one that involves a stovetop, eggs, the whole shebang. I contemplated going for it yesterday, but wasn’t brave enough to do it with the Baileys. Instead, I’ve decided that for my next project (probably), regardless of the cake flavor, I’ll just try to make a plain vanilla buttercream by a new method.

Despite the grainy texture, my Baileys buttercream turned out really well. I added a little more Baileys than called for in the recipe, because I wanted it to be creamy and extra-Baileys-flavored. I also whipped the hell out of it with my hand mixer, which made for a wonderfully fluffy texture.

Since it was still so light in color, I went ahead and added some dye until I’d achieved a pale shade of minty-green. Then I swirled it on, sprinkled ‘em, and had a lovely batch of boozy St. Paddy’s cupcakes.

I would absolutely make both this cake and this buttercream again. The buttercream, especially, has made my list of favorite recipes. (Still, I’d love to find a new way to make it…)

Seamus thought they were pretty good, too! And he would know. He’s a leprechaun.

I’ve submitted this to a few different recipe link-fests! Click these buttons to check out other people’s recipes of the week.

Mardi Gras praline cupcakes …or pecan muffins

11 Mar

In honor of Mardi Gras, I wanted to bake something with a down-home Southern flavor. I toyed with the idea of red velvet, which is widely known as a Southern recipe, but after a little research learned that its Southern origins might actually be the stuff of myth. I’ve never spent much time in the South, so it took a lot of thinking and Googling, but I finally found a flavor that is distinctly Southern–and better yet, distinctly New Orleans: praline.

To tell you the truth, I don’t think I’ve ever had a praline. I didn’t even know what they were made of. But there were plenty of praline cake recipes online, and I had all the necessary ingredients on hand, and it sounded pretty tasty. I compared the recipes I’d found and realized most of them were identical. Here’s the one I followed most closely: Praline Cupcakes from cupcakerecipe.com.

Step one was to chop and toast the pecans. I got creative and looked up how to toast them with a little melted butter, sugar, and cinnamon. They smelled amazing when I pulled them out of the oven.

The rest of the mixing process was pretty unremarkable (except that I got to use my new measuring cups!), and I felt confident with my final batter. I’d been especially careful not to overbeat it, because I suspect that’s one of the main reasons some of my cakes have turned out tough in the past. I even went so far as to add a few ingredients not listed in the recipe–a bold move for an amateur like me! Of course, they were only spices, but straying from the recipe even a little made me feel kinda badass.

As usual, I filled the one cupcake pan I own and ended up with just a little batter left over (four cupcakes’ worth, as it turned out).

I was a little surprised to see that the recipe called for a 375-degree oven, because all the recipes I’ve been using have required a 350-degree oven instead. I went with it…but I’m wondering if it’s why the cakes came out looking browner than I’d expected:

Things went downhill from there.

I bit into one of the cupcakes…and was really unimpressed. The texture was dry, and it didn’t have much flavor at all; even the pecans were lackluster. Thank goodness they’d been toasted, though, because they would have tasted even blander plain. Oh, and once again–just like with my champagne cupcakes–the cupcake liners were stuck to the cupcakes like cement. Are you supposed to grease liners before filling them?… I kinda thought the whole point of using liners was not having to grease anything. Or maybe it’s just to keep cleanup simpler.

In any case, the whole thing was a big letdown.

Nonetheless, I soldiered forward, hoping that the praline topping would salvage the cupcakes themselves.

No such luck! The super-simple topping recipe directed me to mix melted butter with brown sugar, spoon the mixture over the cupcakes, and return them to the oven. Things went wrong immediately. First, I realized that the brown sugar I had was old…potentially really, really old. When I mixed it into the butter, I ended up with gross-looking clumps that didn’t look particularly “spoonable” in the way intended. I tried everything I could think of to get the sugar to melt more: I microwaved it, I heated it over a double boiler, I mashed it with a spoon. All I got was an even grosser mess that only kept getting harder and clumpier.

Still optimistic, I decided to make three cupcakes my guinea pigs and topped them with the sugar mixture. Almost all of it rolled right off the domed cupcake tops. I stubbornly stuck them back into the oven, as directed, but realized after two minutes that the sugar was only getting drier. Plus, since the cupcakes were already extra-brown, it hardly seemed like more oven time was going to help. I took them out, brushed them off, and tried to think of a way to top off these disappointing little cakes. I considered making a pecan buttercream, or even real pralines, but the thought of wasting more time and yummy toppings on such unexciting cupcakes was just depressing.

Then it occurred to me that I still had a little bit of batter left to bake. I realized that even though I hated the cupcakes I’d already made, this was my chance to tweak the batter and see if I could come up with at least a few decent cakes. The worst part about the cupcakes was their dry texture, so I added some canola oil. Then I added even more cinnamon, nutmeg, and allspice to amp up the flavor. For good measure, I threw in all the pecan crumbs I’d produced when chopping the nuts. And since I knew the praline topping was a bust, I topped them with a single pecan, just to make ‘em a bit prettier. Finally–out of curiosity–I greased the cupcake liners.

I also took them out of the oven sooner than before, so they came out paler and softer on top.

The good news? They were a little softer and moister than the others. The bad news? Their flavor wasn’t that much improved, and although they weren’t glued to the liners, they kind of fell apart when unwrapped.

Yeah…I don’t think I’ll be making these again.

Despite all my complaints, I have to admit that when I sampled another one later, it wasn’t all that bad–it just wasn’t a cupcake. As my brother said: “as cupcakes, they’re not that great. But as muffins, they’re not bad.” It’s a good thing I was too disheartened to make any attempt at frosting these, because I’ve realized that they actually make decent pecan muffins. They’re solid and kind of buttery in flavor, so with a little jam or margarine, they’re downright tasty.

I also learned a few valuable things from this little debacle. I’ve decided that from now on, when I bake cupcakes, I’m only going to bake half my batter at a time. That way, if I don’t like the outcome, I can adjust the second half and still end up with half a batch of decent cupcakes. I’ve also learned to grease my cupcake liners–or maybe do away with them entirely. And more than ever, I realize the value of moistening ingredients, like canola oil. Pretty soon I’d like to experiment with some more creative ones, like sour cream and applesauce. (I welcome any and all recommendations!)

After I’d come around to my “pecan muffins,” I decided to dress up the last of them, to make them feel a bit more special. After all, they were supposed to be Mardi Gras cakes! In lieu of doing anything too extravagant or green/gold/purple-hued, I went with a simple, sweet, ever-so-slightly fattening dusting of powdered sugar.

Hey, what better excuse to tack on a few more calories than Fat Tuesday, right?

Sprinkles Cupcakes–and a new baking toy

8 Mar

Ever since I became interested in cake decorating–and even more so since I became interested in baking–I’ve wanted to visit the world-famous Sprinkles cupcake shop. Because I’d heard so much about the quality of its recipes and about how it revolutionized the whole bakery scene, I was excited to finally have the opportunity to go see it myself yesterday. My friend Allie joined me as I headed down to the nearest Sprinkles store, in Chicago.

I did my research ahead of time, so by the time we got there, I knew almost exactly what I wanted to order. I went straight for the dark chocolate and banana and the St. Patrick’s Day-themed chocolate and Irish cream. I waffled over the other dark chocolate one, tempted by its glossy sprinkles, but then exercised a little self-control and settled for the two. And it’s a good thing, because they offered more than enough sweetness for one afternoon!

The banana-chocolate one was perfect. I could taste the high-quality ingredients in the frosting, and the banana cake was to die for. I’m a sucker for all banana cake, really, but this was particularly good. And honestly, what flavor combo is better than chocolate and banana? None. (Okay, unless you throw peanut butter into the mix. But that’s the only thing that could top it.)

The Irish cream cupcake was delicious, too, but not entirely what I’d hoped for. Although I could sense the Irish cream flavor slightly during my first bite, it was less and less present the more I ate. Halfway through, I felt like I was eating a regular chocolate cupcake with regular vanilla frosting. This may be partly because I’m not a huge fan of vanilla and can’t distinguish that well among varieties of it, but I do think they could’ve amped up the Irish cream flavor. After all, isn’t that kind of the point of this cupcake?

I will say that I loved that little clover on top. I don’t necessarily love the whole Sprinkles aesthetic all the time, but as decorations go, this one was simple and sweet and had the perfect effect.

As yummy as our cupcake adventure was, it wasn’t the highlight of my day. That came later, when the most amazing thing happened: I stumbled upon the exact novelty baking accessory I’d been hunting down for weeks!

Have you seen these?

They’re fully-functioning, accurate measuring cups that double as a set of Russian nesting dolls.

Unless you know me, it’s hard to understand how perfect these are for me; suffice it to say I collected nesting dolls when I was young and they’ll always have a spot in my heart. So when I learned that these existed, I knew I had to have them. By that time, though, they were sold out at the boutique where I’d first seen them, so I thought I’d have to get them online. Luckily, they fell right into my lap instead.

I can’t wait to try them out! Stay tuned to see how I put ‘em to use….

Ginger carrot muffins: my favorite recipe yet

6 Mar

After making a vegetable stir-fry for dinner the other night, I found I still had lots of carrots and lots of fresh ginger root left over. My solution? Bake them into something, of course!

I did a search for “ginger carrot cake” and was surprised to find a huge number of recipes. I hadn’t known it was such a time-tested and well-loved flavor combination. It took me a long time to settle on one recipe, but I finally chose this one from cooks.com. I picked it for a few reasons: I had all the necessary ingredients; it called for freshly grated ginger, not powdered; it called for lots of interesting spices I don’t use very often; and it featured a cute picture of a bunny.

Instead of preparing the recipe as a cake, as called for, I opted to make muffins. You may have noticed that I keep making cupcakes instead of cakes, and while I’ll admit that I do have a soft spot for mini-cakes, the main reason for this is more embarrassing: I still don’t own a cake pan. My only cake-appropriate pan is the heart-shaped one I used on Valentine’s Day–which will hardly do on any of the other 364 days of the year, I think. Don’t worry, I’m about to place an order for a new cake pan or two! My only concern is…what type do I get? The number of options out there is staggering. If you have any insight into what type/brand of cake pan is best, I’d love to hear it. Otherwise, I’ll just close my eyes, point to one, and order it. (I’m only slightly kidding.)

The recipe I’d chosen looked very simple and quick, and it was–except for one very long detour. Did you know that it takes freakin’ forever to grate one and a half pounds of carrots by hand? It’s also a hell of an arm workout. Still, it was kinda fun. And I ended up with a glorious heap of carrot shreds.

It also didn’t take long for me to discover that grating fresh ginger is much easier said than done. My attempts to grate it over the finest holes on my grater left me with a mushy wet mess. Then I remembered reading that ginger becomes easier to grate if it’s slightly frozen, so I stuck it in the freezer and left it there until I’d prepared everything else.

My batter looked pretty disgusting–brown and gooey and full of carrots. But it tasted good, so I figured I was on-track. I became a little worried halfway through when I found that the recipe was less specific about the order in which to mix the ingredients than the other recipes I’ve used recently; for instance, I wasn’t sure if I should thoroughly mix the wet ingredients separately before adding them to the dry ones, and I ended up kind of improvising.

While mixing everything together, I discovered that I love Jamaican allspice and I really, really love ginger. It’s got such a fresh, lively taste. I’ve decided to start finding ways to work it into other things I cook and bake. Oh, and the trick about freezing it did help a little–but I still had to use a grater with bigger holes before I got anywhere with it.

Into the oven they went, and 25 minutes later, out of the oven they came:

They weren’t the prettiest things ever, and I was a little worried when I first peeked into the oven and saw them rising a lot more in the center than on the sides. But they evened out slightly once they’d cooled, and they smelled lovely. And then I took a bite.

I’m not kidding when I say it was one of the best things I’d ever tasted. It was fragrant with ginger and nutmeg, and perfectly moist. I actually scarfed three of them, I think, before they’d even cooled off. My family swooped down upon them and managed to make six more disappear in the blink of an eye. Even my mother, who tries to avoid all pastries and sweets, ate one without hesitating.

Now I’m not tooting my own horn here–I give full credit to the author of the recipe. Still, it felt amazing to have made something on my own, from scratch, that tasted so damn great.

A few quick notes to anyone who might like to try out this recipe: I used canola oil, and I think it really helped make these muffins especially moist. Also, I’m pretty sure that if I made these again–okay, when I make these again–I’d add almost twice as much fresh ginger. I could definitely taste it when I took that first bite, but the flavor kind of faded after they cooled off.

When I first planned to make these muffins, I decided I would make a thin white glaze, drizzle it over the muffins, and top them all off with handmade crystallized carrots and crystallized ginger. I even studied up on how to make an icing with the right consistency and how to crystallize things, and I was looking forward to trying it all out. But when I tasted the muffins, I realized that they truly wouldn’t benefit from any toppings, as sweet or pretty as they may be. I think that an important part of being a baker or a decorator is knowing when to quit–so I did. I left them plain and more than a little homely.

…But damn, if they didn’t taste amazing!

Champagne cupcakes for Oscar night

28 Feb

To make sure I keep up with my baking practice, I’ve decided to use holidays and special events as motivation to bake thematic and timely treats. Inspiration immediately struck when I realized the Oscars were coming up. I wanted to make something festive and glamorous to bring to my friend Allie’s Oscar party, and the first thing that came to mind was–champagne! I immediately found a recipe for champagne cupcakes at GimmeSomeOven.com with photos that had me salivating at first glance.

My first thought was: Hey, I’m baking something that isn’t chocolate, for a change! My second thought: How on earth do I do this?

It took quite a bit of research before I felt confident enough to start. I copied the recipe down and added lots of extra tips for myself in between the lines about how to cream the butter and sugar, how to beat the egg whites, precisely how long to mix the ingredients at each step, etc. This ended up saving me a lot of time and angst during the actual baking process! And guess what? It went well. I ended up pulling beautiful little cupcakes out of the oven! But more on that in a minute.

My jar of day-old, flat champagne (which looks a little like something being sent in to the doctor). And my dog, Jack, in the background.

Let me complain about something for a second: I really dislike creaming butter and sugar together. I can never get it “very light and fluffy,” like they say in a lot of recipes. The best I ever end up with is a bunch of smooth, thick butter with a kind of grainy texture, thanks to the heaps of sugar in it. I’m starting to wonder if I’d be happier with my results if I took a different approach and starting dissolving the sugar in boiling water before mixing it in…but I’ll definitely need to do some more reading before I give that a shot.

Anyway, after mixing my butter, sugar, and dry ingredients, I ended up with a very dense batter that looked like this.

I’d read in some of the reviews that this batter did tend to turn out quite dense, so I wasn’t too worried. Plus, after I added the eggs, I had a batter with a very nice consistency:

As for the egg-beating–I learned a new skill! I’d never beaten egg whites like that before, and I learned a lot in the process about what kind of texture to look for, what to add to whites to make them stiffen, and how not to overbeat them. Learning how to do so was one of my favorite things about trying this recipe. The only downside was that it gave my ancient hand mixer a real workout! After all the creaming and beating, it started to get hot and give off a faint burny smell. But hey, maybe the baking fairies will grant me a stand mixer someday….

With fingers crossed, I filled ‘er up and slid ‘er in the oven…

…and loved my results!

Hello, lovelies!

These were by far the prettiest cupcakes I’d ever made. And I largely credit one huge difference in the way I mixed my ingredients: For the first time, I made a conscious effort to thoroughly mix my dry ingredients before adding them to the batter. Thanks to multiple readers’ comments (here on my blog and elsewhere, where I’d asked questions), I realized that my failure to do this was likely to blame for my oozy, splotchy cupcakes. Big, big thanks to those who opened my eyes to this problem!

Jack approved of my work.

It was time for the first taste test. I bit into one and noticed two things right away. First, the cake was super-dense–almost more like a hearty muffin than a light, airy cupcake. Second, the champagne flavor wasn’t very noticeable; it tasted more like butter than champagne. Still tasty, but kind of disappointing on both counts. If I were to make these again, I’d love to find a way to make them lighter, and I’d probably add more champagne, if possible.

Rather than despairing of the whole champagne theme, I decided to just make my frosting extra-champagney. I had a bit left over, anyway, so I dumped it all in–but realize now I probably should’ve at least measured it to know how much extra I was adding. I think I might have even doubled the amount called for. This made my frosting a bit stickier and goopier than it was probably meant to be, but the flavor was excellent; the given amount of champagne would not have been enough, in my opinion. Also, before I began the recipe, I’d worried that using dry champagne (all I had in the house) instead of sweet wouldn’t give me a sweet enough cake or frosting, but both were absolutely sweet enough–maybe even too sweet. Next time, I might use my friend’s advice to add a little lemon juice to the buttercream to counteract the sweetness.

The extra liquid in the frosting made it less than ideal to work with, but it was still thick enough to hold the design I’d had in mind. I wanted to evoke the aesthetics of champagne in the decoration, so I added enough yellow food coloring to give it a golden tinge. Then I piped the buttercream in a spiral on each cupcake and added sugar pearls to imitate bubbles.

In the end, they tasted good and were perfectly suited for our Oscar party. We gorged ourselves on sweets and made plans to see all the good movies we missed last year. My first event-themed baking project turned out to be worth all the hard work it required.

I hope you’re ready for more liquor-inspired treats. After all, St. Paddy’s Day is right around the corner….

Simple buttercream for Valentine’s Day rose cupcakes

24 Feb

As I mentioned in my last post, I used the extra batter from my Valentine’s Day cake to make a dozen cupcakes. It took me a few days to get around to frosting them, and my first frosting attempt crashed and burned…but the second one worked out well. Here’s what happened:

I really wanted to get creative with my frosting–which was probably my first huge mistake, seeing as I don’t even have the basics down yet. I liked the idea of chocolate cupcakes with strawberry frosting, and I happened to have some fresh strawberries ready to go in the fridge. So I went in search of a recipe online and picked this one. It seemed like my best bet since it consisted only of strawberries, butter, sugar, salt, and vanilla. Here’s the problem: it called for frozen strawberries, not fresh. This didn’t seem like a big deal at the time; plus, I figured, aren’t fresh berries always better than frozen ones? Silly me. I’m assuming this difference was a big part of the reason my “frosting” ended up as it did.

Oh yeah, and here’s another thing: I don’t have a food processor. Well, I do, but it’s stashed somewhere in my basement and I haven’t gotten around to setting it up yet. Because I’m so lazy, I tried to hand-mash my strawberries instead, which was pretty much hopeless…so I ended up with strawberry chunks, not strawberry puree. Then I beat in the butter and sugar. As you can see, it was a gloptastic mess.

Thanks to some reader comments, as well as a little research, I’ve learned that it is indeed possible to over-mix both frosting and batter. I’m sure this seems like common sense to most experienced bakers, but I guess I always assumed that the more well-mixed it was, the better! And the worse my frosting looked, the more I wanted to mix it. Alas, I think this was another big contributor to my epic frosting failure.

This was the very best I was able to achieve with my strawberry “frosting”:

Disgusting! It looks like brains. Or a bad skin condition.

Obviously, I tossed the whole mess. I realized I had to swallow my pride and my big frosting ambitions and try to make a straightforward buttercream instead. Once again, I pulled out my Martha Day baking book and used her recipe for simple buttercream–but this time, I actually used powdered sugar instead of granulated. Aren’t you proud of me?

The result was something that–drumroll, please–actually looked like frosting! It was incredibly thick, though, so I added a bit more milk and probably could have added even more. It was so thick, in fact, that it kept getting stuck in the beaters. Does anyone know of a way to avoid this, or is it just one of those things you have to deal with? It did seem to happen less when I turned the speed up, but I still found myself scraping the mixture out every minute or so.

I added a few drops of red food coloring until I had a nice baby-pink shade.

The consistency was good, so I filled my piping bag and got to work! These were my Valentine’s Day cupcakes, so it seemed only fitting to make them look like roses…

The frosting was still quite thick, so it wasn’t easy to work with and did leave me with some rough edges. Still, I’m pleased with how they turned out, both in appearance and in flavor. Next time, I’m thinking of using a few tricks I picked up on a baking forum to make my buttercream smoother. As always, I’ll let you know how it goes!

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