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Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Cupcakes

I don't really like cupcakes all that much. Really, I don't. (And for someone with a sweets obsession, that's saying something).

I've moved to New York twice in my life: once at age nine (Cathedral School of St. John the Divine! Holla!) and once at age 22. Neither time was a conspicuous success (read: conspicuous non-success. Conspicuous!).

But both experiences left a few indelible imprints. And at age 22, it was the Magnolia bakery, which made me fall in love with their cupcakes. Which I am fully aware is a cliché at this point, but I don't care, as I am not very cool.

I went to the Magnolia bakery with my friend Serena, who has an unearthly ability to find both cute British teashops and awesome bakeries in any place she lives, from the Midwest to the Northeast to the Southeast. We went and dutifully stood in line (this was 2004, pre the SNL digital short paean to the Magnolia bakery but after the Sex and the City mention). I got a box of cupcakes and followed Serena, zombie-like, to a little park in the West Village (I was not functioning at the tip-top of my mental capacities at the time. See: conspicuous non-success). And, oh man. Those cupcakes. So amazing. With none of the cloying sweetness of supermarket cupcakes. Delicate and amazing. I munched on a few and felt that maybe life was worth living after all.

"Hey Laura," said Serena. "Is Liv Tyler pregnant?"

"Yes," I answered.

I was at the time reading gossip magazines on the regular, as I'd buy them to read on the subway. Serena was aware of this.

"Then I think that's Liv Tyler," she said. And I turned around and, indeed, there was Liv Tyler.

It's a very random memory and full of every New York cliché groaner (cupcakes! celebrity sightings!) but it was a nice memory in the midst of a very bleak time, and I feel correspondingly affectionate about it. It was gentle moment: things were what they were supposed to be. The cupcakes that were so famous were actually good. Think that's Liz Tyler? It IS Liz Tyler. Life is simple!

And since then, I've made the Magnolia cupcakes whenever I can. I don't really like cupcakes. I like these cupcakes.

Here's the recipe, which I ganked from the Magnolia cookbook (which I gave to Serena at one point) and which is available online.

If you follow that link, you'll see that several comments complain bitterly that this is not the actual Magnolia bakery recipe (the texture is slightly off, etc.). To which I say: duh. Obviously. Also, you know that Santa Claus person your parents told you about when you were a kid? That was them. Why would the bakery make their secret public property?

But what's available is still a great recipe, and I recommend it. The texture in the icing is a bit off, a little grainy and little too sweet, but I think the recipe for the base is amazing and the icing is still good, it just may not look as pretty.

I made cupcakes for Fourth of July (making this another installment of Really Old Pictures of Food). I find that red food coloring never works out, however. Blue and white was fine, but the red just looked like sludgy pink, no matter how much red coloring I put in, so I minimized the red I used. My attempts to make designs in blue and white didn't go over very, well either, though, and the cupcakes ended up looking diseased:
The next day, I found that the red icing had settled and looked more actually red; going with a simpler concept produced cupcakes that looked more "fourth of July":

Then, I made another large batch of cupcakes. Feeling ambitious, I decided to make the chocolate version and ALSO the vanilla cream version that the Magnolia bakery lady explains online.

Making three different kinds of icing was probably a little ambitious. I ended up essentially destroying the entire kitchen. I will say, however, that the results were edifying. I recommend the youtube vanilla cream version; the milk and flour base produces a creamy texture closer to the ideal texture of your dreams (a lot of the comments online were flipping out about the lack of confectioner's sugar, which also concerned me. I'll say that you don't strictly need it in this version, but also that it doesn't hurt to add up some when the frosting is done. I'd recommend it, actually).

I made A LOT of cupcakes this round. Some were decorated:

What's the theme of the decorations, you ask? Why all the crosses? Well...the each cupcakes is actually inspired by Spenser's The Faerie Queen. Yes, the poem. The epic poem. It's a long story. Yes, I'm a nerd. We know this. Why ask?

The chocolate icing looks aesthetically the best, I feel. In all the Magnolia bakery cupcake pictures, the icing has this lovely, smooth, swoopy texture. I can't quite seem to emulate it in my cupcakes, no matter how much I try. I've gotten better, in some fairly common-sense ways: using a knife is better than a spoon; put the icing in the fridge, but not for too long, etc. But...it's still not as pretty as I'd like.

I had leftovers after my Faerie Queen batch; I made some Big Cupcakes, to threaten their smaller brothers:
Here's wot I've learned from the cupcakes-baking. Some details do matter:
1) Sifting flour. It's easily done and it's making a difference. You don't need a special flour-sifter. Any strainer will do.
2) Make sure your butter and eggs are room temperature. You can cheat by running the eggs under water. But it makes a difference.
3) Beating the butter for the recommended three minutes matters, too. It releases the lipids or whatever. I swear, it matters. Beat all the ingredients a lot, actually, and scrape the bowl a lot.
4) Don't fret about the cupcakes not being done. The recommended time in the recipe is fine. Don't give into temptation because a few of the cupcakes look like they have a bubbly center. They'll be fine.

Even if you fuck up all of this, it won't matter. Even if your cupcakes look sludgy pink and runny, people will still ask for more, even if they claim they don't like cupcakes. Because this recipe fucking rocks. You seriously can't lose. No, it's not the same as going to the Magnolia bakery and seeing Liv Tyler. But it's close.

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