The quest for the perfect cupcake
One of the best jobs I ever had was working at SusieCakes bakery in Brentwood, California. The smell of fresh baked sweets wafting through the air every morning is the kind of job perk that gets me excited. And the vanilla cupcakes. Oh my, the vanilla cupcakes.
Since I moved East to Florida and now New York, I long shamelessly for those cupcakes. Moist, dense, with perfectly sweet buttercream frosting and a few sprinkles on top for that textural surprise. Since my days as a SusieCakes’ girl, I have tried repeatedly (and failed) to concoct a similar piece of heaven at home. It has not been easy. Hundreds of my cupcakes only ever saw the bottom of the garbage can (not a stomach). Too domed on top, not moist enough, too crumbly, too airy - the list is exhaustive and the process was exhausting. I now fully understand why bakeries keep their recipes under lock and key. It takes serious effort to achieve perfection.
So for obvious reasons I had lost hope, until recently when I stumbled upon a fellow blogger’s entry about a cupcake recipe in a Nigella Lawson cookbook. It looked surprisingly simple, and the pictures of the batter vaguely familiar. Since I worked the front of the house at the bakery, I only ever watched the magic happen through the frosted glass wall that separated the kitchen from the counter. The way this recipe’s batter appeared in the pictures just looked right, it looked thick, and I always felt our cupcakes were a little more dense to the bite. Light and airy are for wimps I say, except for when it comes to red velvet (which was actually the number one seller at the time).
But vanilla is my ultimate favorite, and this little sparkle of hope led to more internet surfing (and more cupcakes in the garbage). Until I surfed along onto Martha Stewart’s website, and stumbled across a cupcake recipe by someone named Billy. The technique is also different like Lawson’s, and bucks the norm, “cream the butter and sugar, then add eggs, yada yada, yada.” It starts by beating soft butter into the dry ingredients, which to me meant a denser result (the initial creaming in most cake recipes is to incorporate air into the batter). It almost looks like the first step of making pie crust.
Billy uses milk, but I experimented with greek yogurt and found myself almost in heaven. I love sour cream pound cake, and that’s why I love SusieCake’s cupcakes, they just have that something extra you can’t put your pastry tip on. I chalk it up to the fact that the cake gods can’t help but shine on a place called SusieCakes.
I also use vanilla bean paste in my batter to make it a little more interesting. I’m obsessed with this stuff because it’s the glory of fresh vanilla beans without the hassle of scraping them from the pod. The buttercream frosting I make at home is nothing special or complicated, but why mess with the natural tastiness of butter and sugar? If you like you can add a little dairy at the end. I heard from a pastry student at school this helps a buttercream set up nicely, especially when you use it to decorate cakes.
So after a long and drawn out process of baking and failing, scaling and frosting, and measuring and tasting, I have come as close as I believe I can come to my perfect cupcake. I hope you can enjoy the fruit of my labor as much as I do. And on the up side, I still have an excuse for overindulgence when I visit Los Angeles.