Saturday, March 14, 2009

Cupcake Heaven

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Winter. Growing up it meant boots and mittens, sleds and snowmen. In Memphis it means grey skies and rain, plunging temps followed by 60 degree days, and sometimes a little ice. In the span of one week I can go from sleeping with the windows open to freezing my fanny off. This week will be just that. So in honor of our 13 degree Thursday on its way, we are going to cupcake heaven. The most wonderful vanilla cupcakes with vanilla buttercream, iced in pink and dusted with pearl sugar. Add a hot chocolate if its in the 30's, cold milk if you see the 50's. Either way it really IS heaven.

Working at WS, I have tried the entire line of Sprinkles Cupcake mixes. They really are great if you are not a scratch baker. But, they really are expensive, about $14 for a mix that makes 12 and that doesn't include the frosting. Scratch is always better.

This is a good place to reinforce the quality of ingredients. Unsalted butter, kosher salt, Nielsen-Massey Vanilla, paste food coloring. No substitutes allowed, really. Why?

First, unsalted butter. The salt in salted butter ranges from 1.5% to 3%. If there is no standard, it is impossible to know how much you should add. Too much and yuck, too little and the depth isn't there. Use unsalted and add the salt yourself!

But add only Kosher Salt. Almost every baking recipe calls for salt, and it is critical to the depth of flavor. In a yeast recipe it helps slow the fermentation giving the bread a tighter gluten structure (I could use tighter "glutens" myself), and it helps deter the growth of bacteria and molds. Kosher salt has an interesting structure to it, almost like a pyramid which means it dissolves easily and is truly more flavorful than table salt. It is also additive free.

Nielsen-Massey Vanilla. This is Bourbon vanilla and these slender beans come from Madagascar. The flavor is unparalleled. I have had friends make my recipes and complain that it wasn't the same. The difference is always the vanilla. Yes, it is expensive, but so worth it, especially in buttercreams, meringues and sugar cookies. There is no comparison with the stuff in the grocery store. And if your bottle says imitation...well I wouldn't even turn the oven on. Tahitian vanilla is wonderful, but will lose its flavor when baked, use this delicate vanilla for pastry creams or ice creams.

Paste Food Coloring. Basically it is the liquid food coloring partially dehydrated. This means a small dab will give you very intense color. The best part is that companies like Wilton have a rainbow of colors to choose from, and they never seem to go bad. A great investment!  So now what?

We bake!  This is a basic yellow cake that everyone raves about.  The icing, well, I wish I had a specific recipe, but I really go by look, taste and texture. But I have given you a baseline.  Remember, only the best will do, take your time and give these to someone who is really special.

The Best Yellow Cake
2 1/4 cups flour
1 T baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
12 T butter Unsalted, at room temperature
1 3/4 cups sugar
2 t vanilla, only Madagascar vanilla here!
3 eggs, large
1 1/3 cups milk

Sift flour, baking powder and salt and set aside.  Cream butter and sugar and vanilla until smooth and fluffy.  Add eggs, one at a time and mix well.  Add part flour mixture and then milk alternating until all is combined.  

An ice cream scoop works great to fill cupcake cups.  Fill 24 to about 2/3 fill.  Bake at 350 for about 16 minutes.  They should look moist, but a tester should come out clean.  

Buttercream Frosting
1 stick unsalted butter, room temp
1 pound box confectioner's sugar
3 T milk (more or less to desired consistency) 
1 teaspoon vanilla

Cream the butter and vanilla, add confectioner's sugar and milk until you have the consistency that you want.  Use all the sugar! You want the frosting to be soft and moist if you are hoping to get sprinkles to stick.  If you are just spreading it on, you can make it a little thicker.  Add food paste coloring with a toothpick, just a small glob at a time.  The color is very saturated so start slow and add it as you go! 

There you go.  The secret is out. The cupcakes you all love are right here.  Get in there and bake!!! 

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