Anger Burger

Harder than it Looks

Posted by Sunday on Apr 11, 2011 at 11:05 am

For whatever reason, cupcake preferences in America are an explosive subject.  I admit to loving my country possibly only for this reason — where else is there 1,300+ comments that range from enjoying a cupcake or WANTING THE PEOPLE WHO MAKE THEM TO DIE IN A FIERY PLANE CRASH?  The passion!  The indignant righteousness!  I love it, I can’t deny it.

I myself am an equal opportunity cupcake lover.  It’s the truth, and my shame is assuaged only by liberal applications of buttercream.  Grocery store chain cupcakes with primary-color airbrushed frosting?  Sure, I’ll take one.  Or Los Angeles’ beloved Sprinkles cupcakes, who I described as sort of mediocre and subsequently received an concerned email from the company?  What they don’t seem to understand is that I’d buy them again in a second, if I found myself suddenly inside their store.  They’re not my favorite, but in the realm of cupcakery they remain leagues from a deal-breaker.  How about Crumbs, whose offensive heaps of toppings I consider to be the epitome of amateur hour?  I’d like to eat one right now, thank you very much.

The question is, given the choice, which cupcake would I pick?  Most of the time, the answer is a Magnolia vanilla cupcake.   Let me be clear:  Magnolia is not the best bakery in town.  But the simplicity of their vanilla cupcake – petite as a bake-sale cupcake and topped with just a little too much frosting – is an inarguable pleasure.  Sure 50% of humanity disagrees with me, but I don’t mind.  The cake itself is soft and tender, and their classic butter frosting is whipped until any trace of sugar grain is obliterated.  They got the basics down pat, and that is an impressive feat.

Of course I tried to make them at home and was disappointed, but let me explain why.

The cake itself is excellent.  The recipe makes for sturdy, reliable little cupcakes that dome nicely and age well — in fact, I highly encourage anyone making a mess of these to make them a day ahead of time, allowing the cake time to mellow and the frosting time to crust over.  As basic vanilla cupcake recipes go, it’s a good one.  BUT.  As a full cake I think it would be disappointing; the cake intentionally borders on blandness, and the sturdiness that works for a cupcake would quickly become tedious in large slab of cake.  (For my favorite yellow cake recipe, I can’t say enough good things about Shirley Corriher’s “Magnificent Moist Yellow Cake” found in her book BakeWise, but also online at blogs like this one.)

But then there is the small matter of the frosting.  You see, you can’t put enough on.  You really can’t.  And you nearly can’t put enough sugar in it.  Which means that if you hesitate at all it will just not be the same, and this is what happened to me.

The frosting recipe is curious, placing all of the butter and milk in with half of the sugar and beating the thin resulting product until smooth, which at 5 minutes is probably 4 minutes longer than people would normally beat their frosting.  Sugar is then added in small batches (a total of eight cups – eight! – to frost only 24 cupcakes), with subsequent long beat times, until the texture is as creamy as though it were straight butter.  HOWEVER.  I chickened out and stopped adding sugar shy of what it needed, and though plenty sweet, didn’t have that sugary heart-palpitation inducing hit that I love about it.

AND THEN.  I didn’t put nearly enough frosting on the cupcakes.  To give you an idea of the horror that is the quantity of frosting I’m talking about, watch this video with the sound off so you don’t actually have to hear Hoda and Kathie Lee’s harpy screeches.  But I swear to god, my cupcakes just weren’t the same.  They were good, but they weren’t that 5 Year-Old’s Birthday Party perfect that I love about Magnolia’s vanilla cupcakes.

Hopefully you can learn from my mistakes.  Someone should, because I sure don’t.

April 11th, 2011 | Food Rant

13 Responses to Harder than it Looks

  1. Lora says:

    Magnolia vanilla cupcake and buttercream recipe is my go to cupcake recipe because it reminds me of the ones I grew up with. Those recipes are long gone. I totally agree with your full cake theory. For me this cake only works in cupcake form.

    • Sunday says:

      It’s totally a days-of-yore recipe. My mom never even made vanilla-vanilla cupcakes and yet these still remind me of being a kid.

  2. Possum says:

    ….8 as in EIGHT cups of sugar???…CUPS???

    • Sunday says:

      EIGHT. CUPS. To frost 24 cupcakes. I’m serious, it’s too alarming to comprehend. It’s why I have to just buy one at a time from the actual bakery. It’s the only way I can rationalize eating that much sugar.

  3. Papagayita says:

    America’s not the only place that LOVES magnolia cupcakes–a first grader here in Qatar had her family’s private jet bring Magnolia’s vanilla cupcakes to school for her birthday last month. INSANITY?

  4. Ami says:

    I have been thinking about cupcakes non stop since I found out my small town finally got it’s own cupcake shop. Thouht they had a pretty solid product: moist cake, an obscene amount of frosting which, for me is a big selling point. I paid $2.50 per cupcake which I thought a tad high when I bought it but was entirely justified after I crammed it in my food hole. How much is too much? And how do places like Crumbs justify $4 or more for a mere cupcake?

  5. Kristina says:

    I just paid $2.75 each for coconut snowball cupcakes. I crave coconut cupcakes. It wasn’t the right texture. Too much “muffin like” and not enough “cake like.” And too much frosting — actually I think I’d go into shock if I had anything with 8 cups of sugar as the base frosting. That makes the fillings in my teeth hurt just typing it. I’m very much into the “thin schmear” of frosting so like you, I’d have gone under the required amount and then wondered what was wrong. I don’t know why I don’t just make a batch of damn coconut cupcakes for myself. Well first, because I’m just feeling lazy lately and I want to buy just a single pretty cupcake. And second, because I’d eat them all.

  6. Kendra says:

    For me, the cupcake appeal is that it’s something that my OCD nature can quantify–i.e., if I go to a bakery that has cupcakes, I can easily rate it against other bakeries’ cupcakes. Um, also they are easy to eat on the go, and are modifiable. They’ve got a Pokemon appeal–GOTTA EAT ‘EM ALL! CUPCAKEMON!

    But really, if I’m baking something for myself, or actually eating dessert, I go for something like cookies or brownies or dense flourless chocolate cake.

    Also, I’m in the same boat with you where I think that Sprinkles’ cupcakes suck, but if given one I’ll shove it in my maw without a second thought.

  7. Anne says:

    Yay! Cupcakes from Sunday! I’ve made three batches of cupcakes in as many weeks trying to re-create a certain fluffy white cake, so far with minimal success. All tasty – just not quite right. So far Nigella lawson’s faerie cakes were best – fast and delicious little sponge cakes – I recommend for daily use. I will scrounge your online recipe source for ideas.

    I have a cupcake chemistry question for you – what’s up with the milk? Half the recipes I see include a cup or more of milk, while others include almost no milk at all. Do you know how milk affects the consistency of the cupcake? What is it’s purpose?

    • Sunday says:

      First: definitely try the Shirley Corriher “Magnificent Moist Yellow Cake” recipe – it has a texture that is somewhere between what I’d call fluffy and shaggy, and I adore it.

      Milk’s primary role is to merely provide moisture, to thin a batter down. Secondarily, all dairy (milk, yogurt, sour cream) each provide flavor, but also the protein in the milk when it cooks gets solid and soft at the same time (think – the way milk curdles when you accidentally boil it). So in theory, a cake recipe with liquid dairy will be more sturdy, whereas one without will be more tender. But you know, to a certain degree it doesn’t even have an appreciable effect on the cake, other than to thin it so that it puffs nicely and gently when it bakes. A very, very thick batter will result in a texture more similar to a cookie.

      • Anne says:

        That makes sense. The milky cupcakes I made were definitely a little heavier – the less milk was light and spongey but in no way fluffy. I will give the yellow cake a try… I am also drooling over the vanilla bean cupcake and the faux funfetti white cake recipe looks like the sort of texture I’m going for. Back to the Kitchen Aid!

  8. Michelle says:

    Thanks, now I know to beat the tar out of my frosting. I understand now why it was always better when I got it going and left it alone while I did the dishes or whatever.

    If you are ever in Vegas, look up Retro Bakery. (They are in the north end of town, away from the strip.) I dig icing, whatever it comes on from a cupcake to a spoon. So far I have enjoyed their cupcakes and frosting more than any other. Glazed donut, coffee and donuts, and cinnamon toast were my favs.

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