Yellow Cupcakes with Chocolate Frosting

Every baker has their own arsenal of classic recipes. They all have their preferred versions of almost anything, but not many discuss how long it took them to get to that choice of a recipe. I’m still very much a beginner baker, and as I try to build my own arsenal, there’s tons of trial and error in choosing recipes, testing, and tasting.

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I’ve been searching for the perfect yellow cake recipe for a couple of years now. It’s complicated because the recipe stratosphere is crowded with hundreds of variations of the same thing. There’s no way to test them all, and there’s no way to tell which one’s the best. As I go through many of these recipes, I ask myself what it is I’m looking for exactly. Criteria is important because how else will you know if a certain recipe is “it?” For me, it has to do with what I grew up with.

As a kid, I grew up with Dominican cakes; which consist of two yellow cake layers, a middle layer of some sort of filling, all covered in meringue frosting (similar to 7 minute frosting). My entire cake life revolved around this style of cake, and still kind of does. There’s only one bakery that does these cakes the “right” way (according to my mom, and everyone else we’ve introduced those cakes to),  but I have yet to find a recipe that resembles their yellow cake.

SO MANY

SO MANY

While that still haunts me from time to time, I set out on looking for a different kind of cake that still reminded me of my childhood. I’ve mentioned here before how my dad was the resident baker in my house way back in the day. I inherited his hand mixer, which we got at a garage sale, and consequently killed it last year (RIP green Presto mixer; you lived a long and productive life). He used it to make boxed cake mix for us every now and then. I watched him in the kitchen (obviously) when he made it because mixing powder with some eggs, oil, and milk into a real cake was mind blowing. It actually still is, more because I know how to make them from scratch now. He used to make them in a 9×13″ pan, which produced a golden brown pillow sized cake. I remember fighting with my sister over the who got the corner pieces, and arguing with my dad that cakes taste best warm so he’d let us eat it straight out of the oven.

Besides the awesome memories, I remember how the cake tasted. It was box mix, so it tasted exactly the same each and every time. It still tastes the same today, but I haven’t had box mix in forever. It tasted like perfection; like how all cakes should taste. There’s no other way to describe it. When I’m not trying to resemble those Dominican cakes, this is my standard. What cake recipe can resemble a box mix, without the box mix, and taste like what I remembered from when I was a kid?

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I had planned on making cupcakes a couple weeks ago for my class. I’m not back in school but am part of a program that requires a month of class. So, me and 11 other awesome grads hang out every night and learn about digital marketing, and other business skills we need to know. Since before classes started, I knew I wanted to use them as my guinea pigs for testing recipes. Sounds bad saying it like that, but I mean no harm! Anyway, I wanted to take some cupcakes in for two reasons; I hadn’t made any cupcakes in forever and because who doesn’t love cupcakes?! I thought about what flavor combinations I could use and came up with the classic yellow cake and chocolate frosting. I know most people grew up with this kind of cake for their birthdays. None of us are those people but the combo is such a classic, I wanted to go for it anyway.

Trust me when I tell you that this cake tastes like my childhood. It was ridiculously amazing. I’m still perplexed as to how I can bake a cake from scratch that tastes so similar to box mix! The cakes came out super soft and fluffy, with a hint of a golden brown hue from the oven. It was like a melt in your mouth kind of experience. Then coupled with chocolate frosting, it was just great. The frosting had a slight tang from the cream cheese and sour cream but still packed a chocolatey punch; thanks to the cocoa powder and semisweet chocolate in there. It also wasn’t overwhelmingly sweet, which happens with most frostings. I loved them, my folks loved them, and my class loved them too!

While this isn’t the recipe that resembles the cakes from birthdays past, it does take me back to being in the kitchen with my dad as I watched him transform a cake mix into a real cake. That right there is reason enough to put this one in my arsenal.

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Classic Yellow Cupcakes – adapted from Smitten Kitchen

Makes 30 cupcakes

  • 4 cups plus 2 tablespoons cake flour (sifted before measuring!)
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
  • 1 teaspoon table salt
  • 2 sticks unsalted butter, softened
  • 2 cups sugar
  • 2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
  • 4 large eggs, at room temperature
  • 2 cups buttermilk, well-shaken

Directions:

  1. Preheat oven to 350°F. Place cupcake liners into your cupcake/muffin tins.
  2. Sift together flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt in a medium bowl. In a large mixing bowl, beat butter and sugar with an electric mixer until pale and fluffy. Incorporate the vanilla, and add eggs 1 at a time, beating well and scraping down the bowl after each addition.
  3. At low speed, beat in buttermilk until just combined (mixture will look curdled and gross; do not be deterred!). Add flour mixture in three batches, mixing until each addition is just incorporated.
  4. Spoon batter into lined cups, 3/4 of the way up, then rap pan on counter several times to eliminate air bubbles. Bake until golden and a wooden pick inserted in center of cake comes out clean, 22 to 24 minutes. Cool in pan on a rack 10 minutes, then remove cupcakes from the pan to finish cooling on the racks. Cool completely before frosting.

Cream Cheese Sour Cream Chocolate Frosting – adapted from Martha Stewart

Makes enough to frost those 30 cupcakes (4 cups)

  • 2 1/4 cups powdered sugar
  • 1/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
  • Pinch of salt
  • 6oz softened cream cheese, room temperature
  • 1 1/2 sticks of unsalted butter, softened
  • 9oz bittersweet or semisweet chocolate, melted and slightly cooled
  • 3/4 cups sour cream
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract

Directions:

  1. Over a double boiler, carefully melt the chocolate. Remove from heat and set aside.
  2. In a medium sized bowl, sift together the powdered sugar, cocoa powder, and salt.
  3. In a large bowl, cream together the softened butter and cream cheese until smooth. Gradually add the sugar/cocoa mix, scraping down the bowl after each addition.
  4. Pour in the melted chocolate until incorporated. Finally, beat in the sour cream and vanilla until combined.
  5. Frost cupcakes!

Lucy’s Tips:

  • Always, always, ALWAYS, sift your cake flour before measuring. Sift, and gently spoon into your measuring cups. Sift once more after measuring for added security. I know, it seems like a ton of work but trust me, it’s worth it!
  • The recipe calls for large eggs (as all recipes do; it’s the standard in baking) but I got away with using three jumbo eggs (my folks don’t believe in eggs that are smaller). Use what you have, just be mindful of the amount of moisture you’re adding vs. what’s needed. 
  • The frosting is pretty good but I feel like the sour cream can almost be optional. 
  • Deb lied to me in telling me this recipe made 22 to 24 cupcakes. I expected that many but ended up with 30. I usually have the opposite of that problem but just a heads up (not that 30 cupcakes is a bad thing; I’m happy I got more it’s just that I wasn’t ready to have my kitchen overtaken by cupcakes!)
  • To ensure the same amount of batter goes into every cupcake, use an ice cream scoop/disher to distribute the batter. 
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Fluffy Vanilla Cake with Whipped Strawberry Frosting

We celebrated my sister’s birthday last Monday, and of course there was cake. Every special occasion is a chance for me to practice my baker skillz, so there’s no doubt I took advantage of my sister’s birthday and made her something super special.

These days, I tend to make something for any occasion; my own birthday, Valentine’s Day, even Easter but I try my best to make something new. For my sister’s birthday last year, I put my no bake skillz to the test and made her a vegan icebox cake consisting of Oreos (which are surprisingly vegan), coconut whipped cream, and toasted unsweetened coconut. We kept it dairy free because she is lactose intolerant. It was a delicious hit, despite the fact there was no actual cake or any dairy. So delicious, it helped land my sister in the hospital several days later! We spent the remainder of her birthday week couped up in the hospital, while she had her gallbladder removed. It wasn’t very glamorous but it was definitely memorable. To my defense, it wasn’t necessarily my cake that was the “final straw” but an influx of sugar and high fats consumed over the days revolving around her birthday was definitely part of it.

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We made deal that for this year, we were not going to try and end up in the hospital again, because she doesn’t have anymore organs ready for removal. This was after we decided we were aiming for her liver this year (which we may or may not have hit). I kid, I kid; no more hospital trips for anyone’s birthday this year. Anyway, for this birthday, she knew she wanted a Sweetapolita cake. If any of you can recall, I made her funfetti birthday cake for my birthday this year, and it was amazing. High off of that sugar rush, she wanted something similar. We chose Rosie’s Fluffy Vanilla Cake, which was basically the same thing I had sans sprinkles (blasphemy, tbh). She did want some flavor somewhere, so we also picked her Whipped Strawberry Frosting.

Looking at the recipe that accompanied the strawberry frosting gave me an idea. I have never attempted to make more than two layers for a cake, so why not give it a try this year? I aimed high and decided I wanted to make my sister’s cake four layers. For this, I baked the cake in two cake pans, and split each cake in half. Easy, right? Well, no. My oven (and kitchen, actually) appears to be on an angle. One of my cakes came out really lopsided. It was kind of sad but I ran with it. My only concern with halving these cakes was to make sure they were even. I am a huge stickler for accuracy; more when there are numbers involved. I had a ruler, tape measures, toothpicks, and a calculator nearby to make sure I was as accurate as possible. This lopsided cake threw me for a bit of a loop but I wasn’t about to give up. I used this creative and unique method to halve the cakes, which as you may recall I used something similar to slice these cinnamon rolls a while back. I just never thought it would work on a cake! Despite this ingenious method, I still ended up with a slightly uneven layer because the of the lopsided cake. Thinking on my feet, I used the scraps to help me level out that layer. It didn’t look too good but it did even things out enough that the cake wasn’t lopsided at all.

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Now, the buttercream also proved to be tricky. We had a giant container of fresh strawberries in the fridge, which partly influenced the flavor of this buttercream way before we’d even planned it. The problem was that these strawberries, while pretty, were virtually tasteless. We live in New York, which is nothing close to warm during this time of year. It wasn’t surprising that they didn’t taste right, as they’re not in season yet. Even with that in mind, I decided to roll with that too. I cooked the strawberries a bit with some sugar and a squeeze of lemon, cooled it, blended it, and then passed it through a sieve. It was beautiful and thick but still sort of tasteless. I held back on the sugar because I didn’t want sugar overkill in the buttercream; we wanted the contrasting flavors of the sweet buttercream against the fruity strawberry. I added almost a cup’s worth of puree to the buttercream, which gave me a pretty pink frosting with the slightest taste of strawberry ever to grace a cake. I ended up with some frosting left over after covering the entire cake, so I got creative with my piping tips and decorated the cake with some rosettes and a pathetic attempt at a buttercream rose.

I was so proud of the fact that I was able to pull together a four layer cake, that came out almost flawless. My sister was super happy with the result, which in turn made me happy; despite the fact that a ton of things went wrong (which I honestly just noticed as I was writing all of this). The cake was truly fluffy and reminded me a lot of box cake mix, except that this tasted eons better than the boxed stuff. Although this cake’s method was strange, it was important for the awesome taste and texture it provided. The frosting’s pretty pink tint was a lovely visual contrast against the white cake. It was definitely sweet and airy, with the slightest hint of tangy strawberry. The fact remains that buttercream tastes like ice cream, and this was no exception.

If anything, all these minor (hah) mishaps left me wondering when I’ll make my next layer cake. I had fun making this cake, and reveled at the fact that it looked like the real deal; like something you’d find in a real bakery. I’m extremely pleased that I helped make my sister’s special day a success, and hope that this year is her greatest yet.

My lovely (and old) sister with her cake. Cameo from my mom in the back

My lovely (and old) sister with her cake. Cameo from my mom in the back

For the Fluffy Vanilla Cake and Whipped Strawberry Frosting recipes, please visit Rosie’s amazing blog, Sweetapolita by clicking on these links.

Lucy’s Tips:

  • Follow the cake recipe verbatim! Although the process may seem strange (read: like no other way you’ve ever mixed a cake), it really does work. Also, use a large bowl; flying pieces of floured butter are NOT a good time. 
  • Weigh everything. I know it’s a pain but accuracy is definitely required to make Rosie’s cakes successfully. This is especially helpful if you tend to buy extra large eggs!
  • Use frozen strawberries for the puree, unless the fresh ones near you actually taste like strawberries. Also, no need to cook them if frozen. Have extra puree? Make bellinis
  • Keep cake chilled if you’re not serving it immediately or if you have a warm house, but remove from the fridge at least 20-30 minutes before serving. The buttercream hardens in the fridge and needs a chance to soften up for slicing. 

Cinnamon Rolls

A couple of weeks ago, I had a dream with some cinnamon rolls. In the dream, I baked a batch of rolls that iced themselves. Like, they came out of the oven with a layer of creamy, and melty cream cheese icing. I woke up determined to make something like that, and finally got to it yesterday. These aren’t self icing cinnamon rolls but they are extremely delicious!

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This was my second attempt at making cinnamon rolls and the process went so smoothly. My first attempt, with a different recipe, was a sticky mess. The filling was supposed to be mixed with margarine; which made the filling/rolling very messy, the dough was ridiculously sticky, and the rolls unrolled before they even made it to the pan. Since this experience, and my dream, I set out to try again.

The recipe, from the lovely Lynna at Hearts in My Oven, is a simple but lengthy project. These rolls require two rises, one after making the dough, and the other after the rolls have been formed. Each rise is for two hours. I know, such a long wait! Trust me, it is definitely worth it.

The dough is simple and comes together quickly, even faster if you’re armed with a stand mixer. I am not, so I kneaded this dough by hand. I have to say, this is one of the parts I am most proud of. When I usually make any yeasted dough, I give in and add more flour while kneading to get to the desired result faster. This always ends up backfiring on me because there’s a reason why yeasted dough recipes call for a certain amount and only that amount of flour. Kneading helps develop the gluten that make bread deliciously airy and fluffy. Adding more flour while kneading can lead to a tough end result. Believe me, I know. While I was tempted to add more flour, I restrained and kept kneading. I kept going and going, until the dough became a smooth, lump free, unsticky mass. It happened right before my eyes!

After resting for two hours, it was time to roll out. At this point, I was kind of nervous. I kept remembering the sticky mess I had the last time I attempted something like this, but I knew this time was different. I laid out my dough and begin to roll. For the first time ever, the dough rolled out with zero stickiness and cooperated with me! So much so, I rolled it out a lot bigger than what the recipe called for!

After laying out the cinnamon sugar filling, it was time for the next nerve wracking part: rolling. This was where things usually got messy but it came together pretty cleanly! Now, I was just internally screaming with excitement. To cut the rolls, you need unflavored floss. I was a little skeptical at first but this is key to this recipe. Sliding the floss under the roll, you cross and yank the floss at the top to cut out a roll. This method results in a clean cut that does not smush your rolls into oblivion, and keeps the sugar filling in place.

Now, the original recipe yielded a dozen. I got 20. I rolled out the dough into a bigger rectangle, which resulted in more rolls. No matter how big you roll this dough, the result is a very fluffy, lightly sweetened roll with a huge punch of cinnamon flavor. I used Martha Stewart’s classic cream cheese frosting to ice a few of these, which really set it over the top. The tangy sweetness of the frosting hits the airy cinnamon roll just right. Make these rolls for this long weekend, I swear you won’t regret it!

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Cinnamon Rolls – Adapted from Hearts in My Oven

Makes about 12 rolls (more if you roll you dough into a larger rectangle)

Dough:

  • ½ cup of milk
  • 8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter
  • ½ cup of warm water (110°F)
  • 2 ¼ teaspoons (one packet) Active dry yeast
  • ¼ cup of granulated sugar
  • 1 large egg
  • 2 large egg yolks
  • 1 ½ teaspoon of salt
  • 4 ¼ cup of all purpose flour , divided

Filling:

  • ¾ cup of brown sugar, packed
  • 3 tablespoons of ground cinnamon
  • 1/8 teaspoonof  ground nutmeg
  • 1/8 teaspoon of salt
  • ½ tablespoon of unsalted butter, melted

Directions:

  1. Proof the yeast: sprinkle the packet of yeast over the half cup of warm water and set aside for 10 minutes, or until foamy.
  2. In a small saucepan, heat milk and butter until the butter is completed melted. Remove from heat and let the it cool down until about 100°F.
  3. In a large bowl, whisk together the water, yeast, sugar, egg, egg yolk until combined. Alternatively, you can use your stand mixer with the paddle attachment.
  4. Next, add the salt, milk mixture, and 2 cups of flour into the mixture until blended.
  5. Switch to a rubber spatula or wooden spoon, and add 2 cups of flour. Knead by hand until its smooth and not sticking to the sides of the bowl anymore, for about 15-20 minutes. Switch to your dough hook at this step, if using a stand mixer.
  6. In a large metal bowl, lightly oil bottom and sides of the bowl. Make the dough into a ball and transfer to bowl. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and set it in a draft-free spot (such as your unheated oven), until dough doubles (90-120 minutes).
  7. While the dough rests, make the filling. In a medium sized bowl, mix the lightly packed brown sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg, and salt. Set aside.
  8. When the dough is doubled, lightly flour a clean work surface.  Transfer dough and press it down. Roll the dough into a 16x12inch rectangle with a lightly floured rolling pin, with the long side of the rectangle facing you.
  9. Lightly brush the dough with melted butter. Evenly sprinkle the filling on top and pat down gently into the dough with the palm of your hand.
  10. Starting from the long side closest to you, roll towards the opposite end as tightly as you can. Use either a little bit of water or melted butter to seal the ends. Pinch edges to seal.
  11. Line the bottom of a 13x9inch baking pan with parchment paper. Using a unflavored string of floss, cut the rolls into 12 equal pieces. (Slide the floss under the roll and wrap it around the roll to cut/slice.)
  12. Place rolls, cut side up in baking pan. Cover pan with plastic wrap and set it in a draft-free spot, until dough doubles in size (90-120 minutes).
  13. Once rolls are doubled in size, preheat your oven to 350°F. Bake rolls for 25-30 minutes, or until tops are lightly golden brown.
  14. Let rolls sit in pan for about 5 minutes before removing to a cooling rack to cool down. Spread cream cheese icing on top after cinnamon rolls have cooled for at least 15 minutes.

Cream Cheese Frosting – adapted from Martha Stewart

Makes about 2 cups

  • 8 ounces cream cheese, room temperature
  • 8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, cut into pieces, room temperature
  • 1 cup confectioners’ sugar, sifted
  • 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

Directions:

  1. Place your softened cream cheese and butter into a medium mixing bowl. Using an electric hand mixer, beat together the butter and cream cheese until smooth and fluffy.  Add in your sifted confectioners’ sugar in stages, to avoid lumps, until completely incorporated. Add the vanilla extract, and stir to combine.

Lucy’s Tips:

  • I made about half of the frosting recipe, as I did not frost all of the rolls.
  • The ends of the rolls may not have any sugar filling. You can discard these or bake them anyway.  Make sure the filling is spread out completely before rolling to avoid empty end rolls. 
  • Store your cooled rolls in an airtight container. For the frosted rolls, I recommend you stick them in the fridge because of the cream cheese in the frosting (it can possibly go bad if left outside). They taste awesome microwaved for about 30s on high the next day!