Real Butter and Clean Milk

Friday, January 26, 2007

Cupcake Challenge

I fell in love with cupcakes around the same time that the rest of the country did, but was not very inspired to make my own until I (one) got the Magnolia Bakery cookbook, and (two) discovered (or rather, learned about from my sister) Chockylit’s Cupcake Blog. Her beautiful photography and inspired flavor combinations led me to try several of her recipes, always with great results. When she recently posted a challenge to her readers to create a new cupcake, I thought it would be a good chance to try a few ideas I had been tossing around. When making desserts, I enjoy experimenting with unusual combinations, especially introducing flavors and herbs usually reserved for savory contexts into sweet ones. I’ve made a great lavender-scented chocolate cake a couple times (from Epicurious), and experimented last summer with a cupcake by pulsing fresh thyme with the sugar I used in the cake batter. The thyme flavor didn’t really come through with that one, perhaps because of the raspberry buttercream I used to frost it.

lime zest

For this cupcake, I liked the idea of using thyme again. I went through many ideas—something Mediterranean? Orange? Tangerine? Eventually, through a thought process too convoluted to remember, I decided that I was going to make a lime-vanilla cupcake with a thyme-cucumber frosting. (The coworkers to whom I told this idea all reacted somewhere along the lines of “you had me until the frosting,” for which I don’t blame them. I wasn’t sure if I had convinced myself even to that point.) To make the cake portion, I decided to travel the familiar route and modify Magnolia’s Traditional Vanilla Birthday Cake recipe by substituting lime juice for part of the milk and adding some lime zest. I was a little worried that the acidic lime juice would interfere with the texture of the cake, or maybe the leavening, but it didn’t turn out to be a problem. After my first batch, I was satisfied with the result but decided I wanted the lime flavor to be more pronounced.

just out of the oven

True to form, I turned again to Magnolia for the frosting recipe (although it’s basically the same buttercream that anyone would make without a recipe). Instead of milk, I added a few tablespoons of pureed English cucumber, and threw in a teaspoon or so of chopped fresh thyme with the butter, and omitted the vanilla. When I tried the finished product out of the bowl, it didn’t taste much different than regular buttercream. When I tried it on one of the previous day’s prototype cupcakes, though, the cucumber flavor came through…and suddenly the cake had a stronger lime flavor! Somehow, through some sensory chemistry that I won’t pretend to understand, the cake and the frosting each made the other taste more like itself. I decided that the cake didn’t need modification after all, and the only change I would make to the frosting would be to remove the thyme—it didn’t add anything to the flavor experience, and it was occasionally distracting and seemed out of place.

cucumber puree

I was pleased with the final result; the flavor was subtle, and not overly sweet. The cucumber buttercream meshed well enough with the lime that I don’t think the flavor seemed out of place. I guess I need to work on my frosting technique…I guess that I just figured my offset spatula would do all the work for me and they’d look effortlessly fabulous. I think I should probably have added more powdered sugar to the frosting, to make it smoother.

Lime-Vanilla Cupcakes with Cucumber Buttercream

makes one dozen cupcakes

Lime Vanilla Cupcakes
-1/2 cup unsalted butter, softened
-zest and juice of one lime
-1 cup sugar
-2 eggs, room temperature
-3/4 cup self-rising flour
-1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
-4-5 tablespoons milk
-1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

1. Preheat the oven to 350
2. Cream butter and zest in the bowl of an electric mixer on medium speed until butter us smooth. Gradually add sugar (while mixer is running) and continue beating until fluffy, about 3 minutes.
3. Add the eggs one at a time, scraping the bowl and beating until smooth after each addition.
4. Squeeze the lime directly into a liquid measuring cup; you should have around 3 tablespoons of juice. Add enough milk to total 1/2 cup of liquid, and then add vanilla extract and whisk to combine. Whisk flours together to combine.
5. Add the flour mixture to the batter in four parts, alternating with thirds of the milk mixture and beating after each addition until incorporated.
6. Divide batter among the 12 cups of a lined standard cupcake pan (I use a large ice cream-style scoop, packed just full, to evenly distribute the batter). Bake without disturbing for 15 minutes, then rotate the pan 180 degrees. Continue baking 5-10 more minutes, until cupcakes are just starting to color and spring back when lightly touched with a fingertip. Remove cupcakes from pan and let cool completely on a wire rack before frosting.

Cucumber Buttercream
-1/2 cup unsalted butter, softened
-4-5 cups powdered sugar
-3 to 4 inches English/Hothouse cucumber, cut into one-inch chunks and pureed in a food processor until the consistency of applesauce
-tiny dash salt

1. Cream the butter with 2 cups of the powdered sugar. Add 3 tablespoons of the cucumber puree and beat until smooth.
2. Gradually add remaining sugar, 1/2 cup at a time, until frosting is creamy, smooth, and thick enough to be spreadable (you may not need to use all of the sugar).
3. Frost cooled cupcakes with a small offset spatula.


Anonymous said...

I see that this cupcake and frosting, who, as you aptly stated made other "taste more like themselves", is another exercise where the whole is greater than the sum of their parts. Can't wait to try these; best wishes in the cupcake challenge.

Aoife said...

What an awesome idea! I don't like actual cucumbers, but I really like the fresh, clean smell. It sounds like the cupcake would be stellar with a mojito or g and t -- you should give it a try.

sher said...

I love the idea of using all these flavors--particularly the cucumber. The cupcakes look fabulous!!!

lucette said...

I like the idea of using unexpected ingredients--and I really like the way this sounds. I've already tagged it for later baking happiness.

Joslyn - Wildspirit Tart said...

Well you tempted me with this recipe, I tried it and darned if it didn't taste awesome! I'm looking forward to surprising the tastebuds of future guests with this zesty and refreshing cupcake. Thank you so much! :)

snq said...

this is a great recipe! i made the cupcakes & frosted them with guava-cream cheese frosting (someone else's recipe:
they were so delicious i couldn't believe i made them myself.

Jenny said...

I can't wait to try these. I am planning to bring them to a "heretical food" potluck next month.

Zero Monroe said...

oh my goodness, I have so much to thank you for! I've been looking for a cucumber-frosting recipe for ages so your blog was a life saver

now if only I can find a watermelon-cupcake recipe to put it on, :D