A Taste of Fall

So this happened to Tristan and I recently:

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Afterwards, Tristan and I got to spend two enjoyable weekends celebrating with our families. Even though the idea was that Tristan and I wouldn’t be responsible for any part of the parties, I just couldn’t help myself – I had to bake some cupcakes!

In honor of the fall season, I made Brown Butter Pumpkin Cupcakes with Salted Caramel Frosting. This was the first time that I ever made caramel from scratch. I have to admit that it required two attempts to get the caramel right; Tristan had to save my first batch – luckily this didn’t affect the final product one bit. These cupcakes were… SCRUMPTIOUS. They were my favorite cupcakes to date. Tristan really liked them, too. He said they reminded him of gingerbread more than pumpkin though, which I didn’t really agree with. Regardless, these cupcakes were to die for.

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Afraid that I didn’t make enough cupcakes for the party, I sent Tristan out for an emergency cupcake-ingredient-shopping spree. I had him buy supplies to make Raspberry Swirl Cupcakes with a vanilla confectioners’ sugar-based frosting. To make these fruity cupcakes, I just added a heaping 1/2 teaspoon of raspberry pie filling to each cupcake, prior to baking, and then I swirled the filling in using a knife. The pie filling worked really well, as opposed to jam or jelly, because the large nearly-whole raspberry pieces were great to bite into when eating the cupcakes.

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Guest Baker & Carrot [Cup]Cakes

This weekend, my mother came for a visit. I think it was equal parts wanting to keep me company while Tristan is in Georgia and wanting to be extremely close to the beach and a large pool! We went to the beach, the VA zoo, a local farmers market/restaurant that was featured on Diners, Drive-Ins, & Dives, and…we baked cupcakes! Last week, my mom emailed me a recipe for Carrot Cake Cupcakes that she found and thought I should try. I figured she should join me in the kitchen and help me make them as my very first guest baker! Fortunately, she agreed (and footed the bill).

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Carrot Cake Cupcakes with Cream Cheese Icing

My mom located this recipe in her Real Simple magazine. You can find the recipe online at Real Simple’s website. I did alter the recipe by using vegetable oil instead of canola oil and by adding 1/4 teaspoon of allspice to the batter (something I had seen in many other carrot cake cupcake recipes, but was not present in the Real Simple recipe).

Carrot Cakes!

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After –> P1200898

Decorations! P1200911

Opinion Breakdown

  • Me — I am pretty sure that this is the best tasting cupcake I (we) have made thus far. The cupcakes were moist and not too dense, which I originally thought might be a problem (as we were converting a traditional cake/loaf dish into cupcakes). The crunch factor, made possible by all the pieces of pecan in the batter, was delightful. The flavor was out of this world and the cream cheese icing didn’t overpower the cake flavor, but complemented it nicely instead. This cream cheese icing was so good that I’m making it my go to cream cheese icing recipe! My only cupcake criticism is that the cupcakes could stand to have more carrot in them. I want to see carrot in every bite I take of a CARROT cake cupcake.
    • On another note, it was super fun teaching my mom how to use our mandolin and stand mixer. I also enjoyed showing her how to pipe icing using professional tips! Not surprisingly, she was a quick study and easily perfected the technique.

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  • Mom — “My favorite part was the crunchy cupcake top. The cupcakes were light and the sweetness was perfect, not overpowering. The cream cheese icing was a great complement to the cupcakes. I agree with Ambre that we could probably add more carrots in the future; I am just concerned how that would affect the moisture or texture. It’s a pretty damn good cupcake.”

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Thanks for your help Mom! I Love You.

Calling All Cupcakes

When my grandmother told me that she found some cupcake recipes I should try, I realized that I should call for submissions from everyone. It would be fun to have all of you researching new recipes, instead of doing it all alone. We can all be contributors.

If you come across an intriguing recipe that you would like to me to try out just provide me with a link and I will take a look. If I like the recipe, I just might bake it and post my findings on the blog!

Send those recipes in! Happy Baking!

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Vanilla Cupcake Remix

The Cakes

I was on a baking binge this week. While randomly searching the internet, I found two new vanilla cupcake recipes that I couldn’t wait to try.

Recipe #1, from Recipe Girl, was absolutely intriguing. It used two unconventional ingredients – boxed cake mix and sour cream. I had to try this recipe out if for no other reason than the fact that it is was so unique.

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Recipe #2, from Cookies & Cups, caught my eye because of its backstory (and because it was m first yellow cake recipe). This baker’s husband has taste-tested all sorts of cupcake recipes that his wife has made, but none of them ever impressed him more than standard box mix. He always had a complaint about the homemade recipes (too dry, too dense, not enough flavor, etc.). However, this particular vanilla cupcake recipe blew him away. After reading that description, I knew that I had to give this recipe a try, too.

The Icing

I have found my perfect buttercream icing. However, for these new cupcake recipes, I didn’t want to make the same old buttercream. So, I found several fun icing recipes online and made small batches of each to taste test.

Icing # 1 – Brown Eyed Baker’s Peanut Butter Frosting

Icing # 2 – Martha Stewart’s Honey Cinnamon Frosting

Icing # 3 – Sally’s Baking Addiction’s  Mint Chocolate Chip Frosting

Icing # 4 – Eat, Run, Read’s Cherry Frosting

Baking Marathon 

Cupcake Recipe # 1 made a batter that was very runny (see below). However, it produced a moist cupcake that rose well. Unfortunately, the texture was too spongy and sticky for my liking and, like my previous vanilla cupcake recipe, the flavor was not prominent enough. Once iced, I couldn’t taste the cupcake flavor at all.

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Cupcake Recipe # 2 turned out to be exactly what I’ve been searching for! I got a super fluffy, moist, medium-crumb cupcake with a wonderful flavor. In the future, I would still add a bit of extra vanilla extract to enhance the flavor even more, but overall I was very impressed with this recipe.

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ICING!

The honey, cinnamon icing was my favorite flavor, without question. However, the honey makes this icing very sweet. If you don’t have a well developed sweet tooth, you might want to try a different flavor. — The peanut butter icing was rich, smooth, and flavorful, as you would expect. However, as you might also expect, the peanut flavor tends to overpower the cupcake flavor, so this should be kept in mind when crafting your cakes. — I love mint chocolate chip anything, so that icing was bound to be a winner. It totally delivered. — Cherry is also one of my favorite flavors. I supplemented the online recipe with a bit of cherry extract to kick up the cherry flavor, but it still fell flat. I liked the color of this icing, but found the taste to be mostly disappointing.

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Icing 101 (With Taste Test) ~ An In-depth Analysis

Overview (Prepare Yourselves for Icing Overload!)

If you read my Battle 1.2: Strawberry Cupcakes post, you will see that we decided not to put frosting on those mouthwatering morsels. Well, that just isn’t acceptable for the masses, since a cupcake is soulless without its icing and decorations. I would be shamed if I showed up to a family gathering with naked cakes. Plus, it ruins the fun of piping my own icing! So, in order to avoid castigation, I am determined to find the perfect icing for strawberry cupcakes. I am doing an icing taste test in order to decide on the best way to ice future batches of these marvels.

The Goal

  • These strawberry cupcakes are so full of berry flavor that you can actually smell it when you open the container that I’ve stored them in; it hits you like a wall! So, I am determined to find an icing recipe to that tastes great, but isn’t overpowering. This will be a mighty battle.

Narrowing the Field

    There are a lot of options when it comes to types of cupcake icings:
    • Whipped cream:
      • Ambre – Not my favorite. It just doesn’t have that classic icing flavor, density, and texture that I love.
      • Tristan – Whipped cream is ~40% fat and 60% water. This large amount of liquid increases the chances of the cupcake getting soggy. In general, whipped cream icing does best when paired with other foods that also have a high liquid content (e.g. fruit, ice cream sundaes, puddings, etc.)
    • Cream cheese:
      • Ambre – We used this on the strawberry cupcakes in Battle One. The flavor totally (and unacceptably) eclipsed the berry flavor.
    • Fudge:
      • Ambre – People love strawberries dipped in chocolate, so chocolate might have some potential, but overall I think this type of icing would be too heavy and thick and risks overpowering the subtle cupcake flavor.
    • Ganache:
      • Ambre – Ganache would probably offer a good alternative to fudge. We explored the idea of a white chocolate ganache, but… (see below)
      • Tristan – To correctly make ganache, you must have the correct chocolate to cream ratio (2:1). Since we can’t easily buy unsweetened white chocolate, we can’t control the sugar content of this recipe. We don’t want an icing that is a lot sweeter than our cupcakes so this isn’t a “safe” option.
    • Meringue/cooked:
      • Ambre – This icing is too delicate for my tastes and requires constant refrigeration to stay food safe. Plus, this is one of the more complicated types of icing to make.
    • Buttercream:
      • Ambre – This is arguable the most popular type of icing and for good reason. You can play with your butter:shortening ratios here to get a specific/personal taste. Plus, you can add or reduce the amount of sugar to make it as sweet as you want it to be. A lot of buttercream recipes call for egg whites, but you can actually cook the eggs before use, in order to improve the flavor and kill salmonella. This is definitely our icing winner. Next we have to decide what buttercream icing recipes to taste test!

The Contenders

  1. Wilton’s Buttercream Icing recipe.
    • I cannot believe that this baking conglomerate actually has recipes and that those recipes are very well reviewed. This buttercream icing has 4.6 out of 5 stars, with almost 1000 reviews!
  2. The Piggly-Wiggly’s adaptation of Cook’s Illustrated’s Easy Vanilla Buttercream Icing.
  3. Cook’s Illustrated’s Classic Vanilla Buttercream Icing, from: The Cook’s Illustrated Cookbook.
  4. Betty Crocker’s Whipped Butter Cream Icing (we had to try out at least one common store brand for comparison’s sake).

The Results

  • I made reduced batches of each icing type (except Betty’s obviously) using Tristan’s microscale. Some of the ingredients I measured were ridiculously small, 2.1 grams of vanilla extract for example.
  • Tristan did a blind taste test of the icings both with and without cupcake.
  • In the picture below:
    • Upper Left is # 2 (Easy Buttercream adapted from Cook’s Illustrated)
    • Upper Right is # 3 (Classic Buttercream from Cook’s Illustrated)
    • Bottom Left is # 4 (Betty Crocker)
    • Bottom Right is # 1 (Wilton’s)

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Tristan’s Ratings

  • Without cupcake, Tristan’s icing preference was (from best to worst): Betty Crocker (#4), Easy Buttercream (#2), Classic Buttercream (#3), and Wilton’s (#1)
  • With cupcake, Tristan’s preference was (best to worst): Classic Buttercream, Easy Buttercream, Betty’s, Wilton’s

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My [Biased] Ratings

  • Without cupcake (best to worst): Easy Buttercream, Classic Buttercream, Wilton’s, Betty’s
  • With cupcake (best to worst): Classic Buttercream, Wilton’s, Easy Buttercream, Betty’s

Clearly, when tasted with cupcake, Cook’s Illustrated’s Classic Vanilla Buttercream Icing is the winner!

In-depth Results Explanation (for those who care)

  1. Wilton’s: Positives – didn’t mask the cupcake flavor / Negatives – Too gritty (Tristan said, “I could polish something with that.”) and sweet, texture of the confectioner’s sugar too prevalent, Tristan said, “You can’t taste the butter or shortening at all; they are just acting as a vehicle to hold the confectioner’s sugar together.”
  2. Cook’s Illustrated’s Easy ButtercreamPositives – Good mouth feel, only slightly gritty, B+ or A flavor / Negatives – Masks the cupcake flavor, flavor is good, but too strong
  3. Cook’s Illustrated Classic ButtercreamPositives – Ultra smooth, fantastic flavor that isn’t too sweet and doesn’t mask the cupcake flavor  / Negatives – Some might think that this icing is almost too buttery in texture and taste
  4. Betty Crocker’s: Positives – Smooth, easy to make: just remove the container’s lid / Negatives – Too sweet, the artificial butter flavor (which is about a C+) is obvious and masks the cupcake flavor

Battle 1.2: Strawberry Cupcake Rematch

I will try to keep this as concise as possible. Here are the results of my second attempt to bake Smitten Kitchen’s Pink Lady Cake recipe.

(SPOILER ALERT) Results

  • Ambre: WINNER!!!
  • Cupcake: KO

Battle One Lessons & Challenges

  • I added the butter and strawberry puree to the dry ingredients before they were room temperature, a mistake that resulted in a huge time penalty.
  • The recipe, as is, does not ask you to foam the eggs, which we think contributed to the denseness of the first cupcake batch.
  • The temperature in the kitchen was well over 80 degrees, which didn’t help the batter remain light and airy, also contributing to the density of the cupcakes.
  • We made the whole recipe, which produced 24 cupcakes (excessive). While the first 12 cakes were baking, the batter sat for 25ish minutes in the hot kitchen (warming up and losing its fluff).

Executing the Revised Battle Plan

  • First I got suited up and started our kitchen cooling device – a massive fan that Tristan bought to ensure proper air circulation. We are 110% committed to getting these cupcakes light and fluffy!

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  • I pureed the heck out of my strawberries and kept checking their temperature to ensure that they were warm enough to add to the dry ingredients. At this point (see below), you can see that I still need the temperature to rise about 40 degrees before I’ve reached optimal conditions.

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  • For this recipe, you add all the dry ingredients and then beat in the butter and strawberries. This is what that looks like before and after.

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  • MOST IMPORTANT CHANGES – In the next step, the recipe tells you to beat some eggs whites and milk (with awesome red food dye for the perfect pink look) and add them to the batter. This is where we tweaked the recipe the most. We dropped the 2/3 cup of milk in this step (instead, we added 2/3 cup extra strawberry puree) since the milk will only serve to mask the taste of the berries. Then, we decided to foam the egg-dye mixture to semi-stiff peaks. There was no way on God’s green earth that these cupcakes were not going to rise. Before foaming the eggs, Tristan added just a pinch of cream of tartar. The acid in the tartar helps prevent the foam from collapsing (a super important safeguard in the event that you accidently over-beat the eggs).

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  • After incorporating the eggs into the batter, we ended up with 12 beautiful cupcakes. The liners were pretty full, so we were worried about the cakes spilling over in the oven, but…

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  • They turned out perfectly! These little gems are light and fluffy just like we were hoping. These cupcakes can hardly even be compared to those produced by Battle One!!!!

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  • And look at this cupcake cross section. I think the pictures speak for themselves (compare to the cupcake from Battle One  on the right).

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Conclusion – Mission Accomplished

  • There does not need to be Strawberry Cupcake Battle 1.3. In our opinion, we have made this recipe as perfectly as we could have hoped for. The extra strawberry we added in place of the milk just makes the berry flavor stand out even more (in a wonderful way). The cakes are so moist and fluffy it is like eating a cloud, but they also are still structurally sound enough to hold icing properly. Truth be told though, we will not be adding icing to these gems, they just taste too freaking good as they are. Bake them yourselves to find out just what I mean!

Done, Done and Onto the Next One. Look for Battle Two Soon! I think I want to try out a vanilla cupcake recipe next time.