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10 Nov 2009

Cupcakes galore – Episode 1

The time has finally come to try my way at cupcakes.
It was Wednesday when, just arrived at my afternoon coffee place, a very excited friend sat beside me and starts telling me of this new store in town that sells only cupcakes and for which people go simply nuts! In effect cupcakes are quite a novelty here in Europe, I guess that after doughnuts it was time for them to come in (conversely, watch out over-sea cousins, macarons will soon colonize even your country!) Talk talk, talk talk, taste here and taste there pondering the possibility of trying my hand at them. No big difficulties in effect, I have been experimenting with muffins since few weeks and really like the texture I got from a recipe I found in Shirley Corriher’s “Bakewise” book.

How much sugar in them, in the frosting, how much frosting etc are some of the variables to keep in consideration when your target is almost an exclusively female public. A key point in cupcakes is beauty so they represent the perfect ground on which to develop my piping skills (remember my first post on piping? Well, not much has been done after that first attempt.).
Since the batch I was preparing was supposed to yield 18 cupcakes, I wanted to put together 3 different kinds of them. To decide the flavors I asked my tweeting friends to tell me their favorites and chocolate resulted as a must (with delicious toppings like dulce de leche for instance. Yum!).
The other base ought to be nutmeg and peanuts. Why? These were the flavors I used for my first batch of muffins, with the addition of roasted sesame seeds and apples; the results were so great that this combination was a must.
The third base was a warm, cozy, simple almond flavor.

Now for the frosting; the chocolate one was calling for a lavender and white chocolate one, the nutmeg got orange zest and the almonds some ginger.
For the newbie out there, the frosting usually used for cupcakes as well as for many cakes, is a buttercream. This is a fluffy, silky mixture made up by combining an egg foam, sugar, flavorings and naturally butter (with a bit of shortening at times to improve the emulsifying property of the whole). Naturally, as it is usual with yummy things, there exist many versions of buttercreams; namely a French, a Swiss and an Italian one.
So what is all this nationalism about buttercream? Well, they indicate different way of doing the meringue:
French buttercream uses whole eggs whipped and a hot sugar syrup;
Italian buttercream uses whipped egg whites and a hot sugar syrup;
Swiss buttercream uses warmed egg whites whipped with sugar.

The Italian approach is the one traditionally used because it is the more heat stable; the only problem with this buttercream is that, since there are no egg yolks in it, there is the risk of the water-butter emulsion to break if too much butter is beaten into it. An easy solution to this problem is just to beat some emulsifier in in the form of soya lecithin dissolved in a little bit of water or using shortenings (as mentioned above).
Which kind of buttercream to use then? A quick search on the net and a few words from valuable tweeting chefs, I opted for the Italian buttercream.
Here we go! All the virtual ingredients are lain out, now to the cupboard! Take out your electronic scale, a couple of bowls, a whisk and start preparing the batter.

Muffin like cupcake base (adapted from S. Corriher’s Bakewise recipe page 129)

Ingredients (make 18 cupcakes of 7cm in diameters if filled up to 2/3, 12 if leveled):
• 250g all-purpose flour;
• 130g sugar;
• 9g baking powder;
• 118ml (1/2 cup) canola oil;
• 118ml (1/2 cup) buttermilk;
• 118ml (1/2 cup) heavy cream;
• 2 large eggs;
• Flavorings.

Warm up your oven to 200C/390F and why those coils are doing the heating work, mix together all the dry ingredients, including the dry flavorings (use a whisk for this and stir them for about 30s). Do the same with the wet ingredients and add them to the dry ingredients. Stir thoroughly the batter and add now your fruits and chunky nuts, if you have any. Whip the heavy cream and fold it into the batter. Fill the muffin tin with the batter and bake for 15-20 minutes or until golden brown and cooked through.
Nutmeg-Peanuts Muffins:
Add to the batter 1/4 tsp of cinnamon, 1/4 tsp of grated nutmeg, 1-2 tbsp or roasted sesame seeds and 1/2 apple peeled and diced. As extra touch push into the just filled cups, 1 or 2 of chocolate covered peanuts. They will sink to the bottom (given their smooth surface) giving an extra treat for the last bite.
Masala Muffins:
Add to the batter 4g roasted cumin and coriander seeds, grinded; a knob of ginger in brunoise along with 1/2 an apple diced. As extra touch you may substitute 1/3 of the requited sugar with some brown one.
Chocolate Muffins:
For a chocolate version, substitute 40g of flour with the same amount of bitter cocoa powder (careful NOT to use the Dutch processed one that is quite alkaline and will retard the setting of the batter) and add some vanilla extract to the batter.

Whenever you add diced apples to a cake batter, the results will be fluffier and the cake will rise better, at least from my experience. This is mostly because they provide steam during the baking supporting the watery part of the cake batter. If you cut them in a small dice, you won’t even fell them in the final products.

Being made for muffins, this recipe gives pastry with a beautiful peak so for my cupcakes I decided to reduce the oven temperature to 180C to have a flatter top. The cupcakes baked in about 20 minutes but some of them didn’t stick to the paper cup and contracted during the cooling down; next time will bake them at 200C as usual (the peak is in effect also quite useful to control the amount of frosting put on the cupcake).
While the bases are baking, there is no real time during which work on the buttercream, so I had to do this while the muffins were cooling down.
Also the recipe for the buttercream has been adapted from Shirley’s Bakewise (page 212), here it is:

Italian Buttercream

Ingredients (enough for roughly 30 cupcakes):
• 6 egg whites at room temperature;
• 1tsp cream of tartar (I found that this amount gave a final products a bit too sour for the flavorings I wanted to use. Half this amount should do the trick);
• 400g sugar (divided);
• 1tbsp light corn syrup (I used agave syrup);
• 120ml+1tsp water;
• Few grains of soya lecithin (you will find it in health stores);
• 450g butter;
• Flavorings and food colors.

In an impeccably clean mixer bowl, add the egg whites along with the cream of tartar and start breaking them whisking the mixture at low speed. Slowly raise the whisking speed and whip the egg whites, when soft peaks will form start adding little at a time 50gr of the sugar and whip the whole till you obtain a glossy white meringue.
In a small bowl dissolve the granules of soya lecithin in 1tsp of lukewarm water.
Leave the egg whites aside while you prepare the sugar syrup. In an unlined saucepan (better if with high walls since the syrup may boil over) put the water, the sugar and the corn syrup. Put over medium heat and stir until all the sugar will be dissolved, now stick in an instant read or a candy thermometer into the saucepan. You will need to boil the syrup till it reaches 120C/248F. The syrup temperature is an important indicator for the amount of water that is left in the syrup (Do you wonder why? Here it is. Water boils at 100C and any water based solution will keep boiling at this temperature until almost all the water will be evaporated. At this point the rest of the ingredients may get hotter without that the water will strip away most of the heat from the pot as it evaporates). Usual buttercreams don’t feature the lecithin so if there is too much water or too much butter, the buttercream may separate during the whipping process but I think that with this recipe you won’t have such problems with it.
If your saucepan doesn’t have a spout, warm up a Pyrex measuring cup with spout by rinsing it with boiling water. When the syrup temperature will read 120C, pour it into the measuring cup, switch on the mixer at medium speed and start drizzling slowly the syrup into the meringue trying to avoid hitting the whisker or the side of the bowls (in my case I managed not to hit much each of them but surely the apple that was standing beside the mixer and under the pot got a candy coating). When you will have poured all the syrup in, you will need to beat the meringue on high speed until the bowl will feel lukewarm to the touch. What you are actually doing is cooking your meringue. While you are whipping the meringue, add the dissolved soya lecithin to it.
When the meringue will have cooled down, turn the mixer speed to medium and start adding it the butter to the bowl, little at a time waiting for each chunk to be fully absorbed before adding ext onere. Don’t worry if the mixture will look slack, the butter will melt when incorporated with the warm meringue so the farer you go with the beating and the addition of butter the more the buttercream will cool down and the butter will solidify again (this is also why you will have to whip it at medium speed or you will have splatters of buttercreams all over the kitchen like I did).
When all the butter will be added you can flavor your buttercream. Scoop out the amount you need in a clean bowl and add the flavorings and eventually the food colors drop by drop mixing thoroughly until you will reach the tone you need.
This buttercream will keep refrigerated for up to 4 days and up to 1 month if frozen. If you decide to freeze some of it, whip again the thawed parts with the paddle attachment before using it.
Now that all is ready it is time to have fan putting together and decorating your cupcakes. Choose the tip you want to use (I used a #195 for the yellow frosting, a #2c for the orange and a painter spatula for the violet), fill your pastry bag with the buttercream and have fun!

Note to self:
While moving the frosted cupcakes beautifully arranged over the glass cake stand, be very careful or they might try again to fly into the night.


  1. Target an exclusively female public uh?

    Wow, I've never read so extensively on buttercream in my life - your thesis was on what, again?

  2. @Colloquial Cook: Lol yeah, the customers of the tea-room are mostly women :P
    I hope the buttercream part will be helpful ;) I might indeed do my thesis on egg foams eheh

  3. Alex! What a great post... Now I know why you had so much buttercream on your walls last Friday!!! Although I have a feeling you had more on your plate and your fingers!

    I truly appreciated all the exact, scientific details you gave about making the buttercream. All in all a wonderful read and recipe that should inspire any reluctant cook to try their hand at the art of cupcakes! Job super-well done... :)

  4. A chocolate one for me please :-)

    Very well written A.I've never looked at cupcakes in such detail before :-)