Wednesday, August 25, 2010

The Makings of a Great Cupcake

People often ask me, "Melissa, who do you think you are?"

I generally respond with some kind of song, done auto-tune style, describing in great detail my Texan upbringing, the solitude I felt being an only child, and then top it off with a climatic tap number to express how my life wasn't truly complete until I discovered my passion for cupcakes and baking.

This routine is usually followed by a puzzled look, a chuckle and a more stern asking of the original question: "No, but really. Who do you think you are?"

I suppose as the (self-proclaimed) foremost authority on all things cupcakes, it's a fair question. How did I become so omnipotent of all things cupcake? I'll tell you dear readers: from lots of practice. And by practice, I mean eating. And sometimes the occasional baking, but mostly eating. And also from the Barefoot Contessa. In the words of Ina herself, "who wouldn't love that?"

The point is, I know good cupcakes. I know great cupcakes. I know terrible cupcakes too. So I thought I'd impart just some of my wisdom to my fellow cupcake fans. Whether you bake them, buy them, or just like to eat them, here are some of the makings of a great cupcake:

1. They're made from scratch (read: with fresh butter)
Yeah, I'll admit it: I'm a food snob, and damn proud of it. Do you know how much work it takes to develop a refined palate such as mine?! Look, I realize there are occasions for taking short cuts, or ways to "doctor up" cake mixes, but a cupcake from a mix will never compare to a homemade cupcake. Why? Because every cupcake recipe starts with one fundamental ingredient: butter. Cue the angels choir. 


There's no cake mix in the world that's going to replace the rich and creamy flavor and texture that real butter does. Sorry y'all. Moreover, a cupcake from a cake mix is a roundabout way of telling the cupcake recipient, "hey, I don't respect/love you enough to get off my lazy ass to buy some butter, sugar, and flour to make you anything better," and really, is that the message you want to send out upon the world?

2. Quality Ingredients
I don't know much about sports (I find them SO uninteresting), but my best comparison would likely be to that of a pair of running shoes. Like, would an Olympic sprinter wear a pair of $50 New Balances? Despite the fashion faux pas that would likely ensue, I doubt they'd yield the best results. Wow, that analogy was exhausting. So the same is true for cupcakes, or any baking really. Good, fresh flour, eggs, Madagascar vanilla, and Valrhona chocolate are always going to yield superior baked goods to those made with lesser ingredients. Don't skimp, y'all!

3. Frosting/Cupcake Ratio (The rule of thirds)
If I haven't lost you after the first two criteria, I may now. Frosting is where you can really lose your fan base. I believe in the rule of thirds; essentially, 1/3 frosting to 2/3 cupcake. Yes, what I'm saying is 33.333% of any great cupcake should be frosting. There are a few reasons for this. First of all, you need to be able to get your mouth around the cupcake. If a cupcake is piled too high with frosting, you'll have to unhinge your jaw to get it all in.

Too much (albeit delicious-looking) frosting:

Does this look delicious? Absolutely! But is it practical for human cupcake consumption? Not so much.

On the other hand, you don't want to feel jipped with a quick shmear of icing either:

What the crap?!?! It's like someone already got to the cupcake before me, licked off the icing and covered it with sprinkles hoping I wouldn't notice--it's just like that time on The Cosby Show, where Cliff took a piece of cake and tried to cover up the hole with a paper towel covered in frosting so Claire wouldn't notice. It's JUST like that. I bet this cupcake is delicious...but what if I wanted more frosting than that?? I don't care if you don't like a lot of frosting. People that don't like frosting should just be shipped off somewhere and never heard from again. If you don't like that much frosting, just take your index finger and shove some off onto a napkin or a nearby homeless person's mouth. I'm basically a genius for coming up with that one. (Interestingly, thin layers of frosting are generally the result of canned frosting, as they don't give you very much. Just another reason to refer back to point number 1.)

Yes, indeed the rule of thirds is truly one to live by:

Can you see the teeth marks in this fella? That means the taster was successfully able to take a bite from the entire cupcake without the frosting ending up on his/her nose. And do you notice that it's enough frosting to eat with the entirety of the cupcake?! Do you also notice that in the event you suffered some horrible frosting-related accident as a child that you could, indeed, remove some of the frosting to your desired "thinness"? Yes, this cupcake (incidentally from Georgetown Cupcake) follows the rules of thirds perfectly.

4. They look good enough to...well...eat
I minored in Art History in college, did you know that? Yeah, between my refined palate and knowledge of mid-century classicism, it's a wonder I don't work at Sotheby's or as a sommelier in France. Instead, my interest in art has parlayed itself into the culinary world. In fact, it was the artistry of cupcakes that first captivated me. Just look at some of the creations trolling around the cupcake-verse:

That's a gumpaste flower y'all!
Photo via Flickr user abbietabbie

The things Bakerella does with cupcakes never ceases to amaze me!

Yeah, that IS a cupcake!!!
Another fondant masterpiece by Flickr user abbietabbie

I don't mean to suggest you need to be a master fondant sculptor, but when making cupcakes, they should be decorated with some level of thoughtfulness. Try using a pastry bag, or even a ziploc bag, with any shape frosting tip that tickles your fancy to apply your frosting. You'll get lovely applications like this:

 Made by me! Recipe here

Can you hear it? It's like the cupcake is saying "Aren't I pretty? Eat me now or regret it forever!"

And for all you non-bakers out there, when someone brings cupcakes like this to a party, and you don't have to shell out $3 a piece for them, take note of their beauty. Complimenting the baker for their (unpaid) time and effort never hurt anyone dammit!

5. Flavor Combination
Would it be over-the-top to suggest that I've been personally offended by some of the cupcakeries I've been to that tout inventive flavors like Blackberry, Key Lime Pie, or Salted Caramel only to find out that the only flavor is in the icing?! Because I have!! 

There's nothing more disappointing than buying a Key Lime Pie cupcake and taking a bite and then realizing that there's nothing Key Lime about the cake whatsoever. 

I don't know who started this trend of taking vanilla and chocolate cupcakes and topping them with flavored buttercreams and calling it a day, but it has GOT. TO. STOP. If you're going to be inventive, go for it! To quote Madonna, "if you've got imagination, use it, that's what it's for". You've already gone through the trouble of grating and juicing key limes for the icing--why wouldn't you add it to the batter? I'm talking to you Cake Love and Red Velvet!!

The folks that take the time to make truly unique flavor combinations...well, those are the real heros:
Matcha cupcakes filled with Strawberry Preserves, topped
with Strawberry Buttercream, drizzled with Strawberry Preserves
Photo via C&C Cakery

5 comments:

Claudia said...

Hail to food snobs who know what they're doing! Your rules work for me.

C&C Cakery said...

Well, hey, I'm glad we're cupcake heroes! Totally agree with your snubbing of bakeries who tout special flavours, only to have said flavours in the icing on a vanilla cake. Boring beyond belief. A true cupcake must have flavour through and through.

Also, totally lovin' that 1/3 icing rule.

TheChocolatePriestess said...

I think that each person has to do what they can do. Someone who makes something from a mix isn't less than someone who makes from scratch. Honestly we have busy lives most of us. And if we really wanted to save time, we'd just go buy store made cupcakes wouldn't we?

Mary said...

Oh, I think I'm in heaven! LOVE this post and I love your blog! Just found you and I'm soooo happy I did!

Mary xo
Delightful Bitefuls

Melissa said...

Thanks for the comments y'all!

ChocolatePriestess--I'm not doggin' on people who make cupcakes from a mix...well, okay, I am...but the point of my post was to outline what makes a GREAT cupcake. Not a decent cupcake, not an edible cupcake, a great cupcake. I totally understand that some people aren't blessed with my baking talent or simply don't want to wait to gorge on cupcakes, but the idea here is to help those people understand what goes into one that is really worth their time, whether they bake it or buy it!

Mary--so glad you found the blog! :) I visited yours and enjoyed it very much! Come on back now!

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