I don’t have to tell you I like baking cakes. (Almost as much as I like eating them). But as for frosting–if you think back you’ll realize you haven’t seen it around these parts, not, at least when this sister is posting. Maybe I’m just lazy–by the time I’ve made the cake, I’ve already mentally closed up shop and have enough dirty dishes staring me down, topsy-turvy and dripping in the sink, and am dissuaded. (I already have payoff in the form of a cake, after all). Maybe I’m just impatient. No digging in while I wait for the cake to cool enough to smooth on frosting? Maybe I’m virtuous–why add more sugar into the mix (doubtful explanation, but thought I’d throw it out there).
Whatever the reason, it’s certainly not a lack of love for frosting. How could it be? I’m not above using a knife to surreptitiously get a little bit of frosting that’s left on the plate after serving myself cake. (Even if the frosting arguably is part of the next piece to be sliced. If it’s debatable, I’ll take it). It’s a noble tradition for us, as even our mother admits to having “accidentally” eaten half the icing off of a cake without realizing it.
I may beg off frosting my cakes, but when it came time for little E and baby H’s joint birthday party (yes, they are 7 weeks apart; did I mention I can be lazy?) I knew I couldn’t present a room full of toddlers with icingless cupcakes. Can you imagine the scandal?
I figured I couldn’t go wrong with Joanne Chang’s recipe (from the Flour Bakery cookbook). Especially since it’s her take on a “dump cake”; as in, dump all the ingredients into a bowl and stir. Sounds good.
Even better, the batter can sit in the fridge for a few days before baking. So I mixed it together on Friday night, and was able to still pull off fresh-baked cupcakes for the party on Sunday. The batter goes from very liquid to very firm in the fridge, very easy to scoop into your cupcake tins. (I did make a few cupcakes Friday night just to “test” things out. I believe it was my sister-in-law Colleen who pointed out that cupcakes are better to make for parties than cake because you can sample beforehand).
As for the icing, I gritted my teeth and accepted the challenge of making an egg-white based buttercream. I’d done this in my class at the CSCA, where we boiled sugar in water and then carefully poured a stream of this hot liquid candy to egg whites being beaten in a stand mixer, while being warned: take care not to let it splatter. (I burned myself making caramel in high school. The wounds are healed, the memory is raw). Scary. I’ve also seen versions where you beat the eggs by hand over a double boiler until they stiffen. Sounds like a lot of effort–I tried to beat egg whites once by hand. It’s not fun. This recipe’s method was a perfect combination of low danger and reduced effort: whisk the egg whites and sugar together over simmering water until hot, then pour into your mixer and fire it up. The egg whites aren’t necessarily hot enough to be pasteurized by the mild heat, so I used store-bought pasteurized whites. (Even if I were using boiling sugar syrup, I still would use pasteurized eggs for a room full of toddlers, out of caution as I’ve read mixed reports about whether or not this method kills all the nasties. Talk about spoiling the party! Talk about terrible party favors!)
Because heat helps meringues to grow higher and loftier, the egg whites started to foam ever so slightly over the heat, also indicating that they were soon ready to be transformed into glossy, glistening clouds.
As a side note, this is what is technically known as a Swiss meringue: because of the slight cooking of the sugar and egg whites, the meringue has a lovely sheen and is also far more stable–and less difficult to irreparably mess up–than completely raw meringues, also known as a French meringue. The sugar syrup method–scarier, but also most resistant to abuse–is known as Italian-style meringue: see here if you’re curious how they all compare. Who knew meringues changed as they crossed borders?
When your meringue is lovely and lofty and snow-white and magical, add your soft butter and beat it in–at first it’s clumpy but keep beating and it will get nice and smooth again, and take on a soft cream color thanks to the butter. (Make sure it’s soft. I heard some unhappy stories in my baking class about too cold butter snapping the delicate tines on a whisk. Not fun).
Finally, while one might argue there is never too much frosting, I am compelled to note that I tripled the amount of cupcakes and only doubled the corresponding amount of icing, I was still overwhelmed by extra frosting after decorating all my cupcakes (and sampling). Just to bear in mind, but maybe you like it that way. Despite the name, my frosting never got crispy, but it still was pretty magical, in part because I finally got up the guts to make egg white buttercream. I’m not going to say I’m not going to skip making icing from now on, but as this frosting is so delicious and as the process is not as scary as it initially seemed, I might be easily persuaded.
Flour’s Chocolate Cupcakes with Crispy Magic Frosting (adapted from Flour; available here)
- 2 oz unsweetened chocolate, chopped
- 1/4c Dutch-process cocoa powder
- 1c sugar
- 1/2c (one stick) unsalted butter
- 1/3c water
- 1/2c milk
- 1 egg + 1 yolk
- 1/2t vanilla extract
- 1c flour
- 1t baking powder
- 1/2t baking soda
- 1/2t salt (kosher if you have it)
Prepare your muffin tin by lining with 12 standard liners. In a heatproof bowl, combine chocolate and cocoa powder. In a saucepan over medium heat, heat the granulated sugar, butter, and water, stirring occasionally, until the butter melts and the sugar dissolves. Pour the butter mixture over the chocolate and whisk until the mixture is smooth and all the chocolate is melted. The more evenly and finely you chop the chocolate, the faster you’ll get there. Let cool slightly (just enough so it’s not still hot) and whisk the milk, egg, extra yolk, and vanilla into the chocolate mixture until combined.
In a bowl, stir the flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt until blended. Add the flour mixture to the chocolate mixture and whisk until smooth. Let the batter sit at room temperature for 1 hour or cover and refrigerate for up to 3 days.
When ready to bake, preheat the oven to 350F. Spoon the batter into the muffin tins. (I actually got a few more cupcakes than 12). Bake for 30 minutes or until the tops spring back when pressed lightly with a fingertip. Cool completely on a wire rack.
- 2/3c granulated sugar
- 2 pasteurized egg whites
- 1 1/2c (3 sticks) of room temperature butter, very soft.
- 1 2/3c confectioner’s sugar
- 1/4t kosher salt
- 2T milk
- 1T vanilla extract
In a heatproof bowl, whisk the sugar and egg whites. Fill a saucepan half full with water and bring to a simmer. Set the bowl over the water but do not allow the base of the bowl to touch the water. Whisk for 3 to 5 minutes or until the mixture is hot to the touch. It will thin as the sugar melts, and will also get slightly foamy and lighten as you whisk.
Pour the mixture into a standing mixture and beat at medium-high speed for 6 minutes or until the mixture becomes thick and white like a meringue and is cool to the touch. It will be white and glossy. At medium speed, add the butter a few chunks at a time, beating for 3 to 4 minutes or until it is all incorporated. Add the remaining ingredients, and beat until smooth and satiny. (If not using immediately, transfer to an airtight container and store at room temperature up to 3 days or up to two weeks in the fridge; allow to soften and then beat in the mixer for a few minutes until smooth.) You can try this with a hand mixer, but be aware it will take longer. If using, either add the food coloring and beat it in, or fold it in with a spatula.
Decorate with a pastry bag fitted a star tip or spread with a spatula. Note that “cupcake decorating kits” that seem to be marketed everywhere these days (especially the “kid friendly” ones) do not work well with this type of icing because it is not pourable into the small mouths of the little plastic squeeze bottles; it’s preferable for this reason to use a pastry bag if you want to pipe on frosting.