Is It Possible to Make Cupcakes That Taste Good?

Slate's Culture Blog
Sept. 25 2013 9:02 AM

You’re Doing It Wrong: Cupcakes

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We did not have the chance to sample these 18-carat Sapphire cupcakes made by Daniel Mangione for a Prince William-Kate Middleton wedding-viewing party at the Ritz Carlton. But we thinks ours are probably better.

Photo by JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images

This is the 100th installment of Brow Beat’s recipe series. (I am counting Crabby Snacks and Homemades as a single recipe, because what is a homemade without a crabby snack, or a crabby snack without a homemade?) For its 100th recipe, I decided to make You’re Doing It Wrong cupcakes. This decision may raise eyebrows, I realize, for many intelligent people are of the belief that there is no right way to do cupcakes.

L.V. Anderson L.V. Anderson

L.V. Anderson is a Slate assistant editor. She edits Slate's food and drink sections and writes Brow Beat's recipe column, You're Doing It Wrong. 

It’s true that cupcakes are problematic. Commercially baked cupcakes have severe drawbacks: The icing on the ones from grocery store bakeries often tastes like pure vegetable shortening, and the ones from upscale cupcake bakeries are either gargantuan or the size of a dollar coin, and are consistently overpriced in either case. Even homemade cupcakes can be disappointing. The cake part is often dry, since each cup of a muffin tin acts like a tiny crucible, heating (and usually overcooking) not only the bottom but also the sides of each cupcake. And the frosting portion is usually cloyingly sweet and crusted over.

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One cupcake solution put forth by people who claim to know how to do things right: tear off the bottom half of a cupcake and stick it on top to make a frosting sandwich. This sounds great in theory, but in reality it leads to frosting squishing out the sides and getting all over your hands and shirt—not to mention the fact that you’d have to unhinge your jaw to fit an average-height cupcake into your mouth. Besides, dismembering your cupcake does nothing to fix the crumb and frosting problems endemic to the dessert.

The only way to address these fundamental cupcake problems is to pay attention to technique. For the cake, this means stirring the batter as gently as possible to avoid over-developing the gluten in the flour, and closely watching the cupcakes as they’re baking so they don’t overcook.

For the frosting, this means beating the living daylights out of it. If you have a stand mixer, great; turn it on and walk away for 10 or 20 minutes. (Maybe check in occasionally to make sure your mixer hasn’t hurled itself off your countertop.) If you have only a handheld mixer, prepare to maneuver it around the bowl for a long time. (Bring a book.) It takes only a minute or so to combine powdered sugar and softened butter (the core ingredients of buttercream frosting), but it takes much longer than that to produce silky, fluffy, easily spreadable frosting. Making buttercream frosting, like listening to The Decemberists’ The Tain, is a situation in which patience pays off.

As for the issue of overly sugary frosting: Lemon juice cuts through the sweetness, minimizing the sensation that you are cultivating a new cavity with every bite. Rose water, often available at Middle Eastern groceries, adds floral elegance, but if you can’t find it or hate the smell of roses, you can omit it.

Lemon Rose-Water Cupcakes
Yield: 12 cupcakes
Time: About 1¼ hours, partially unattended

1½ cups all-purpose flour
1¼ teaspoon baking powder
½ teaspoon plus a pinch of salt
¼ teaspoon baking soda
½ cup whole milk
3 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
1 cup brown sugar
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
2 large eggs
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
2 teaspoons rose water
2 teaspoons grated lemon zest
2½ cups powdered sugar

1. Heat the oven to 350°F and line a 12-cup muffin pan with cupcake liners. Whisk together the flour, the baking powder, ½ teaspoon of the salt, and the baking soda in a medium bowl. Stir together the milk and 1 tablespoon of the lemon juice in a separate small bowl. Beat the brown sugar and ½ cup of the butter with the paddle attachment of a stand mixer (or with a handheld mixer) until light and fluffy. Add the eggs, 1 teaspoon of the vanilla extract, 1 teaspoon of the rose water, and 1 teaspoon of the lemon zest, and beat until well combined.

2. Gently stir in about ⅓ of the flour mixture, followed by about half of the milk mixture. Repeat, and then add the last of the flour mixture and stir just until combined. Divide the batter among the muffin cups, and bake until the cupcakes are golden brown, 20 to 25 minutes. Cool while you prepare the frosting.

3. Beat the remaining ½ cup butter and the powdered sugar with the paddle attachment of a stand mixer (or with a handheld mixer) until well combined. Add the remaining 2 tablespoons lemon juice, 1 teaspoon vanilla extract, 1 teaspoon rose water, and 1 teaspoon lemon zest along with a pinch of salt. Beat for at least 10 minutes.

4. Remove the cupcakes from the pan. Spread the frosting on the cupcakes and serve. (Store leftover cupcakes in an airtight container at room temperature for up to a day.)