How to make better cupcakes

SlateOctober 15, 2013 


You can make cupcakes with ready-made mixes, but if you make the frosting from scratch, the recipient will appreciate the difference.


I realize that many intelligent people are of the belief that there is no right way to do cupcakes.

It’s true that cupcakes are problematic. Commercially baked cupcakes have severe drawbacks: The icing on the ones from grocery store bakeries often tastes like pure vegetable shortening, and the ones from upscale cupcake bakeries are either gargantuan or the size of a dollar coin, and are consistently overpriced in either case. Even homemade cupcakes can be disappointing. The cake part is often dry, since each cup of a muffin tin acts like a tiny crucible, heating (and usually overcooking) not only the bottom but also the sides of each cupcake. And the frosting portion is usually cloyingly sweet and crusted over.

One cupcake solution put forth by people who claim to know how to do things right: tear off the bottom half of a cupcake and stick it on top to make a frosting sandwich. This sounds great in theory, but in reality it leads to frosting squishing out the sides and getting all over your hands and shirt – not to mention that you’d have to unhinge your jaw to fit an average-height cupcake into your mouth. Besides, dismembering your cupcake does nothing to fix the crumb and frosting problems endemic to the dessert.

The only way to address these fundamental cupcake problems is to pay attention to technique. For the cake, this means stirring the batter as gently as possible to avoid over-developing the gluten in the flour, and closely watching the cupcakes as they’re baking so they don’t overcook.

For the frosting, this means beating the living daylights out of it. If you have a stand mixer, great; turn it on and walk away for 10 or 20 minutes. (Maybe check in occasionally to make sure your mixer hasn’t hurled itself off your countertop.) If you have only a handheld mixer, prepare to maneuver it around the bowl for a long time. (Bring a book.) It takes only a minute or so to combine powdered sugar and softened butter (the core ingredients of buttercream frosting), but it takes much longer than that to produce silky, fluffy, easily spreadable frosting. Making buttercream frosting is a situation in which patience pays off.

As for the issue of overly sugary frosting: Lemon juice cuts the sweetness, minimizing the sensation that you are cultivating a new cavity with every bite. Rose water, often available at Middle Eastern groceries, adds floral elegance, but if you can’t find it or hate the smell of roses, you can omit it.

Lemon Rose-Water Cupcakes 1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour 1 1/4 teaspoon baking powder 1/2 teaspoon plus a pinch of salt, divided 1/4 teaspoon baking soda 1/2 cup whole milk 3 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice, divided 1 cup brown sugar 1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened, divided 2 large eggs 2 teaspoons vanilla extract, divided 2 teaspoons rose water, divided 2 teaspoons grated lemon zest, divided 2 1/2 cups powdered sugar

HEAT oven to 350 degrees and line a 12-cup muffin pan with cupcake liners. Whisk together flour, baking powder, 1/2 teaspoon salt and baking soda in a medium bowl. Stir together milk and 1 tablespoon lemon juice in a separate small bowl. Beat brown sugar and 1/2 cup of the butter with the paddle attachment of a stand mixer (or with a handheld mixer) until light and fluffy. Add eggs, 1 teaspoon vanilla extract, 1 teaspoon rose water and 1 teaspoon lemon zest, and beat until well combined.

GENTLY stir in about 1/3 of the flour mixture, followed by about half of the milk mixture. Repeat, and then add the last of the flour mixture and stir just until combined. Divide batter among the muffin cups and bake until cupcakes are golden brown, 20 to 25 minutes. Cool while you prepare the frosting.

BEAT remaining 1/2 cup butter and powdered sugar with the paddle attachment of a stand mixer (or with a handheld mixer) until well combined. Add remaining 2 tablespoons lemon juice, 1 teaspoon vanilla extract, 1 teaspoon rose water and 1 teaspoon lemon zest along with a pinch of salt. Beat for at least 10 minutes.

REMOVE cupcakes from the pan. Spread frosting on the cupcakes and serve. (Store leftover cupcakes in an airtight container at room temperature for up to a day.)

Yield: 12 cupcakes

News & Observer is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service