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?