October is school carnival time. This means cake walks and bake sales. Moms and dads are put into motion all over the city to procure baked goods, homemade and store bought. Every year, I have a fairly cynical moment when I have purchased 30 dollars worth of ingredients and special boxes and I am about to put in a minimum of 3 hours of baking. Here is what my brain says: “Are we really going to spend 3 hours of our life and $30 to make perfect little confections from which some little kid is going to take one bite and then leave the rest on the bleachers as they run back into the action, because their best buds just got to the super gorilla bounce house?” As you have probably determined, half of the fun of baking is warming the hearts of the people for whom you bake. The average cake walk doesn’t give that feeling to me. Yet, I have a really hard time buying baked goods for cake walks. It just kills me. It makes me feel like a fraud. I know I probably need to deal with that in therapy.
But, this years’ cupcake baking carnival season put me on a mission to create a very easy, but very good, bake sale cupcake. This recipe is the result. The cake is stable. The icing is awesome, and not fragile. Plus, they are still good the next day, which is important because bake sale drop-offs often start the day before. I understand the logistical issues involved but it always bugs me that people won’t taste my super fresh goods. These are still good on day two. The recipe has minimal fuss, except perhaps, chopping the chocolate bar. The result is something you would be proud to serve to anyone at any time…but the effort is not so great as to make you a bitter old fart when you see a fourth grader leave the hand decorated box on the bleachers. I have tried about five iterations between October and now, and this is the pinnacle of my efforts. This is my new go-to chocolate cupcake, regardless of the occasion.
Preparation: (yield approximately 20 cupcakes)
½ cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened
1-½ cups granulated sugar
2 teaspoons vanilla
1-⅔ cups all purpose flour
⅔ cup cocoa
1 teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 cup buttermilk (not low-fat)
½ cup 2% milk
3 ounces semi-sweet bar chocolate, chopped finely
1 cup unsalted butter (2 sticks), softened
3-½ cups confectioners’ sugar
½ cup cocoa
½ teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons vanilla
4-6 tablespoons whipping cream
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Prepare muffin tins by placing cupcake liners in 20 spaces.
In the bowl of an electric mixer, beat the butter until it is light in color. Add the sugar and continue to beat for three minutes. Add the eggs, one at a time, allowing the first one to fully incorporate before adding the next. Beat for one minute. Add the vanilla extract and mix to combine. Scrape the bowl.
Meanwhile, in a small bowl, sift together the flour, cocoa, salt, baking powder and baking soda. Mix it lightly with a whisk if you do not have a sifter. In a measuring glass, combine the buttermilk and the milk. Add the flour mixture and the milks to the batter in several additions with the mixer on low, beginning and ending with the flour mixture (e.g. flour, milk, flour, milk, flour) fully incorporating the flour and milk after each addition. Add the chocolate to the batter and mix until well distributed.
Fill each cupcake liner to approximately ⅔ full. Bake for 17 minutes and check doneness. Bake for up to an additional 2 minutes, if needed. Remove the cupcakes from the oven and allow them to cool completely on a wire rack before frosting.
For the icing: Place the butter in the bowl of an electric mixer and beat it until it is light and fluffy. In a medium-size bowl, sift together the confectioners’ sugar, cocoa, and salt. With the mixer on slow, add the sugar mixture to the butter. When incorporated, add the vanilla and the cream. Whip the icing until it lightens slightly and is of a spreadable consistency. At this point, use the cream to adjust the consistency. If the icing is too stiff, add up to a total of 6 tablespoons.
Spread icing on the cupcakes, or use a pastry bag and a piping tip to ice them.
[My son, Ford, helping me frost the cupcakes. He uses sprinkles...a LOT of sprinkles. I don't like them so much.]
I make a lot of assumptions when I share baking information and I shouldn’t. Here are some thoughts that I had when I was writing this initially. I had the help of a tester for this that brought some of the shortcomings of my first version into focus. Thank you to August Graue (13), an accomplished young baker, for baking one of the recipes to get this going in the right direction. Here are some thoughts we had after working on this recipe. They are just a few general things to consider when you bake. I wish I had a tester for every recipe. It is incredibly instructive, and a whole lot of fun.
1) I use bar chocolate in this application, because it behaves slightly differently than chips. That is not to say that chips won’t work here. But, I didn’t test for that. Here is my theory. Chocolate chips contain stabilizers that allow them to retain their shape somewhat during baking. They also contain less cocoa butter. Some would say that chip chocolate is not quite as high a quality. I can’t speak to that. But, baking is all about the little things. So, know that I used three ounces of Ghiridelli bar chocolate and then chopped it finely with my knife. I don’t like having little bites of chip in my cupcake. I just want a hint that there is something deeper and darker going on in the cupcake. The bar chocolate all but melts into the batter when you chop it finely and you are left with a tiny little hint of solid chocolate but not really a bite that you have to chew. Again, semi-sweet chips might be bonkers good here, I just can’t guarantee that.
2) I use “large” eggs in my recipes. Most recipes are written for large eggs. This is no big deal in many applications, but in baking it can start to make a difference as a medium or extra large egg can deviate by about a teaspoon of liquid from a large egg. This starts adding up, depending on how many eggs a recipe calls for. Just something to consider. Also, allow the eggs to come to room temperature before adding them.
3) Baking powder and baking soda need to be fresh. I go through a lot of both, but I make sure that I buy brand new boxes at least every six months. Don’t let it sit in the back of your pantry with the paprika and uncle Edgar’s proprietary “grill mix” until it is as old as the hills. It won’t work. If you want to test, you can. Take one teaspoon of baking powder and dump it into ½ cup of hot water. It should bubble lot. For baking soda, place ½ teaspoon of baking soda into 2 teaspoons of white vinegar. If it bubbles furiously, it is still good. If they don’t bubble, buy new. Thanks to the Joy of Baking for setting out these easy methods.
4) The first time I made these cupcakes, I used less cocoa and I added chocolate milk to the buttermilk instead of the extra cocoa. I liked the results. When August made the cupcakes his results were different than mine. Upon investigation, I found that my chocolate milk and his chocolate milk were very different. They deviated by a whopping 6 grams of fat per cup. I’m not sure this had an impact, but it wouldn’t surprise me at all. So in this version, I used all cocoa and 2% milk.
5) I should use a scale when I bake. I have a scale and I use it often, but I haven’t warmed up to writing my recipes for weight instead of volume. Suffice to say, there is a significant difference in the weight of a cup of spooned flour and a cup of heavily packed flour. It is a difference that can easily change the result of a recipe. I scoop lightly into my flour container and lightly scrape off the excess with a knife. Technically, a perfect cup of all-purpose flour will weigh around 125 grams. Test yourself sometime with a scale and see how close your cup of flour is to that perfect cup of flour. It is very interesting.
6) This icing recipe made enough for me to pipe modest little hats of icing on my cupcakes. It was perfect, for me. But if you are the sort of baker who makes super tall icing spires…if cupcakes are merely a vehicle for getting icing into your body, consider increasing the recipe by fifty percent.
7) The neat bottle that I use to put batter in my paper liners is called a Tovolo Pancake Pen. I have obtained the cupcake tip from the company, but the pancake tip works fine too. I am wary of kitchen gadgets, but I like this one. It keeps the batter square in the middle of the paper instead of getting drips everywhere.
OK, OK, I’ll be quiet now. Go warm the oven.