I am very late to the cupcake party.
I’ve never understood the appeal. Either the proportion of frosting to cake seemed off – way too much frosting for the cake – or the super-sweet pile of frosting seemed to hide a lackluster cake.
In the end, I’d rather just eat a slice of cake.
Then I had to help host a baby shower for a friend and volunteered to make dessert. Actually, I volunteered to make fun twin-themed desserts since the mother-to-be was pregnant with twins. My original thought was black-and-white cookies or classic flavor pairings, like peanut butter and jelly or strawberries and cream.
As the deadline approached, I realized those were never going to happen.
In the end, I decided if I wasn’t going to pull off what I offered to deliver, then I better serve an excellent version of whatever I decided to bring.
When I settled on cupcakes, I realized it had to be a swoon-worthy version. So I reached for “Cake Love: How to Bake Cakes from Scratch,” by Warren Brown, owner of until recently a small chain of cupcake bakeries in Washington, D.C. (Brown is closing the last of his seven CakeLove stores at the end of 2015, which likely indicates the end of the cupcake craze.)
Brown’s first cookbook is meticulous. It offers both English and metric measurements for those who prefer to use a kitchen scale. The recipe instructions are wordy, but they hold the hand of any beginner or self-doubting experienced baker.
Instead of offering recipes for this cake or that cake, he offers recipes for cake building blocks: pound cake, sponge cake, butter cake, ganache, buttercream frosting and more. The idea, Brown writes, is not for him to dictate flavor combinations but to allow readers to “mix and match the components from different chapters to make your own creative combinations.”
For the shower, I chose to make chocolate butter cupcakes with a chocolate buttercream frosting. They were delicious and received a bunch of compliments.
Better yet, the experience reminded me of why I loved Brown’s cookbook – it will not only help you make a better cake but become a more creative baker.
Chocolate Butter Cake
From “Cake Love: How to Bake Cakes from Scratch,” by Warren Brown (Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 2008).
1 1/2 cups plus 2 tablespoons (7 ounces) all-purpose flour
1/2 cup (2 ounces) cocoa powder
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup half-and-half
2 tablespoons brandy
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
1 1/2 sticks (6 ounces) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 3/4 cups (14 ounces) extra-fine granulated sugar
4 large eggs
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Set racks in the upper-middle and lower-middle positions of the oven.
Set out ingredients and equipment: Sift flour directly into a bowl on a scale for accurate measuring. Measure cocoa powder, baking powder and salt into a separate mixing bowl, add the flour, and whisk for 10 seconds. Set aside. Measure half-and-half, brandy and vanilla extract into a separate bowl. Set aside. Crack eggs into a separate bowl and set aside.
In bowl of a standing mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, cream together butter and sugar on the lowest speed for 3 to 5 minutes.
With the mixer still on the lowest speed, add eggs one at a time, fully incorporating after each addition. Stop mixer and scrape the sides of the bowl.
Add the dry ingredient mixture alternately with the liquid mixture in 3 to 5 additions each, beginning and ending with the dry mixture. Move swiftly through this step to avoid overworking the batter. Don’t wait for the dry or liquid mixtures to be fully incorporated before adding the next. This step should take a total of about 60 seconds.
Stop the mixer and scrape the sides of the bowl all the way down. Mix on medium speed for 15 to 20 seconds.
Prepare the pans: Lightly spray the muffin pan with a nonstick spray. Line the pan with paper liners. Fill the pans two-thirds full.
Bake for 22 minutes. Once the top of the cake doesn’t jiggle in the center, test for doneness by inserting a bamboo skewer in the center of the cake. An even dark brown color should extend from the edge to the center, and the cake’s edges may pull away from the pan. When the skewer shows just a touch of crumbs or comes out clean, the cake is done. Remove pan from the oven and place on a heat-resistant surface or wire rack.
Cool to room temperature, 25 to 30 minutes, before carefully lifting each cupcake from the pan.
Yield: 24 cupcakes.
Recipe tester found potato starch at Harris Teeter stores. Adapted from “Cake Love: How to Bake Cakes from Scratch,” by Warren Brown (Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 2008).
6 large egg yolks
1 3/4 cups (14 ounces) extra-fine granulated sugar, divided
2 tablespoons potato starch
3 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder
2 cups whole milk
1 pound (4 sticks) unsalted butter, chilled
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
2 tablespoons cocoa nibs, optional
Set out ingredients and equipment: Separate yolks into a large bowl. Sift in 1/4 cup sugar, potato starch and cocoa powder and stir to combine. Set aside. Place a damp kitchen towel under the bowl to prevent it from sliding. Measure milk and 1 1/2 cups sugar into a 2-quart, heavy-bottomed saucepan and set aside. Measure vanilla extract and cocoa nibs, if using, in separate bowls and set aside.
Bring milk mixture to a boil over medium-high heat. Once it reaches a boil, slowly pour milk into the yolk mixture, whisking slowly in small circles at first and ending with broad strokes until fully combined. Pour mixture back into saucepan. Return the saucepan to the stove and heat over medium heat, whisking constantly but not rapidly, for about 4 minutes. The key is to keep the pastry cream moving so it won’t scorch the bottom of the saucepan.
When you begin to see lava bubbles – large, slowly forming bubbles that burp steam – reduce the heat to the lowest setting and whisk briskly for 1 minute to pasteurize the pastry cream.
Pour pastry cream into the bowl of a standing mixer fitted with the wire whip attachment. Whip pastry cream on high speed until it has cooled to room temperature, about 4 to 5 minutes.
Reduce the mixer speed to medium-low and add the butter, 1 tablespoon at a time, followed by the cocoa nibs and vanilla extract. Whip on medium speed until smooth, about 3 minutes.
Yield: 4-5 cups, enough for 24 cupcakes.