Thursday, April 06, 2006

Adventures in Baking: The Cupcake

Cupcakes make me smile. I think of birthday parties and summer picnics. Of pastel-colored paper wrappers and beaters waiting to be licked. A treat for the 8-year-old in all of us.

Yet on baking’s Richter Scale, the cupcake earns a relatively lowly rank—more difficult than toasting a Pop-Tart but several degrees of magnitude below puff pastry. To the experienced baker, and I consider myself such an individual, it’s the equivalent of Barry Bond’s playing slow-pitch softball.

Why then, does the cupcake plague me so?

Yesterday, I was aiming for 12 jumbo vanilla cupcakes. When I flipped on the oven light halfway through the allotted 30 minutes, I saw the paper wrappers drowning in a sea of batter that had overflowed its levees. Ruined.

My gut reaction—blame the recipe. I had downloaded instructions from, and this wasn’t the first time the domestic doyen had led me astray. After a near debacle with Palmiers during my holiday baking extravaganza, I’ve learned to treat Martha’s oven temperatures, baking times and quantities yielded as approximations. I had adjusted for those variables and still produced cupcake soup.

I turned to the list of ingredients—nothing more exotic than cake flour, which I actually had on hand. I even sifted it with the baking powder, soda and salt as directed, a step I usually ignore but have been shamed by my brother Joey into following.

I revisited the process. This was my second stab at cupcakes in the past year. My first attempt, in which I also followed the recipe to the letter, had produced perhaps 10 times the batter necessary. It filled my baking cups twice over, plus two loaf pans, resulting in a sort of pound cake. If I had wanted pound cake, I would have made pound cake.

Martha’s recipe specifically stated that these were to be jumbo cupcakes. So as I once again eyeballed a vat of batter, I wasn’t alarmed.

“Divide batter evenly between baking cups (2/3 cup batter per cup),” Martha ordered.

I did as commanded, using a 1/3 measuring cup for added precision. My baking cups were filled nearly to the rim. I felt a slightly sinking feeling. Experience with muffins told me this couldn’t be right. Perhaps Martha had meant to say, fill baking cups 2/3 full. In which case, I would have another pound cake on my hands. So I took Martha at her word—and pulled a sheetcake out of the oven. Were it not for the pesky issue of the embedded paper liners, I could have frosted it right there and called it a day.

Much as I would love to try and convict Ms. Stewart and send her back to that prison in West Virginia or wherever it was, I must present one final bit of evidence.

I do not own a jumbo muffin/cupcake tin. So I purchased large liners at Sur La Table and arrayed them on a jelly roll pan as a substitute. I learned this technique from Costco—actually, from a box mix of Cinnabon muffins purchased at Costco—and enjoyed spectacular results. Only in that instance, the baking liners had been provided as part of the package. In retrospect, it’s possible they were both thicker and roomier than the ones I used for the cupcakes.

I am left to conclude:
A) All cupcake recipes are inherently flawed and produce too much batter
B) Never trust Martha Stewart
C) “Large” is not the same as “jumbo”

The experiment was not a complete wash. I excavated the dozen amorphous UnCupcakes from the jelly roll pan and peeled off the liners. I tossed aside Martha’s buttercream frosting recipe and turned to one devised by the editors at Cook’s Illustrated. It takes these folks a good two pages to explain how their Test Kitchen arrives at each “Best” recipe, which is annoying as hell but damned if they aren’t right. The buttercream was perfection.

I pulled down my 13x9 pan and layered a half dozen UnCupcakes along the bottom, filling in the gaps with scraps from the sheetcake. I slathered on the buttercream, smoothing over the cracks. On went another layer of UnCupakes topped by enough buttercream to disguise the imperfections and plug all the holes. (If sliced just so, I imagine it would be possible to hit a pocket of pure frosting.) The finished product: a perfectly delectable two-layer confection.

But not a cupcake.


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