Many of you may recognize Raiuchka as one of the frequent commenters on this site. Raiuchka and I went to the same college and along with two others, spent four months in Simferopol in 1994 studying Russian, dispelling myths about America and Americans, and making friends. Russians believe that the bonds of friendship are forged over glasses of alcohol, and once a bottle is opened it must be finished. To the detriment of our livers, we made a lot of friends, including with each other.
Raiuchka and I have maintained our friendship (now over blog posts instead of warm glasses of vodka) over the years and recently she contacted me looking for help making cupcakes for her son's birthday. I was only too happy to give her a cake recipe and a little bit of advice. I also asked if she would like to guest blog her adventures in cupcake making, which she did!
And now, heeeeeeerrrrrreeeee's Raiuchka!
Name of cake: Salted-Caramel Cupcakes for 28 First-Graders
Occasion: Raiuchka's baby turns seven and Raiuchka has a crisis
Constituents: Rose's White Velvet Butter Cake, salted-caramel Swiss meringue buttercream, caramel, anxiety
My son turned seven last month, and he asked for caramel cupcakes for his class. While I consider myself a good cook, I am not a baker. I approach baking a cake with terror in my heart.
After we sent out invitations for the party, we found out that another kid in my son's class had scheduled his birthday party just an hour before ours at the same public pool, and had sent out his invitations long before. I pictured my son arriving at his own birthday party only to watch many of his friends leave for cake at the other boy's house. I consoled him (and myself) with the fact that he would get to celebrate with all his classmates on his actual birthday.
Suddenly these cupcakes took on epic importance. So now I could worry about making hockey-puck cupcakes and about whether my baby was on the edge of his first heartbreak. Awesome.
I found a yummy-looking recipe for Salted Caramel Cupcakes online, but the cake recipe only yielded a dozen! As a rank amateur I knew that I could not get through it three times without meeting disaster, but I also knew enough not to blithely triple the recipe and expect success. So I turned to my dear friend the Evil Cake Lady, who very kindly gave me the recipe for White Velvet Butter Cake (from Rose Levy Beranbaum's The Cake Bible) and advised me that it would make about 30 cupcakes if I filled the cups two-thirds full, and that the Caramel Swiss Meringue Buttercream frosting in my online recipe could easily be doubled.
So, the afternoon before his birthday, I shook myself out of my panic about the party, put on some Jim Dale reading Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, and pulled the dairy out of the fridge. Much too late. Lots of dairy, and it took an age to come up to room temperature. Luckily I could make some extra caramel while I waited. Caramel cupcakes can't have too much caramel, right?
I thought I would try putting the sugar on a cold burner to start with, and stir it immediately. In the batch I'd made a day ahead, the sugar formed little free-form candies as it melted, which I attributed to having preheated the pan. (Hey, I'm a cook, not a baker! That's what I do with stainless pans!) This change didn't help; perhaps I shouldn’t have stirred the sugar until it started to melt. Because these little sugar rocks needed to melt down, I kept it on the heat. However, even I could intuit that smoke = bad, so I snatched it off and finished melting down the sugar with residual heat. I also added the cream off the heat, which caused an alarming amount of bubbling up and boiling. I was glad I was using a pot that had seemed too big.
As the caramel cooled and the dairy continued to come up to room temperature, I went to the store to get this mysterious baker’s sugar of which I have heard tell. I trust ECL! I know that I need help! When I got back, the dairy and eggs were still too cold, so I decided to measure everything out while I waited. Only a few stupid questions occurred to me while weighing out the flour and sugar. Such as: should I pour the sugar in on top of the flour that I just sifted? Wouldn't that pack down the flour and defeat the purpose of sifting it? I poured the sugar down the side of the mixer bowl just in case. Remember, my little guy's happiness may depend upon these cupcakes. I cannot be too careful.
WOW – more evidence (if Rose's word isn't enough) that you should always weigh your ingredients when you bake. The recipe calls for 1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon baking powder, or 19.5 grams. I wasn’t sure whether the tablespoon/teaspoon measurement was for was packed or sifted. So I mixed the powder up a little bit in the can and measured out 1 T + 1 t. -- it only weighed 14 grams! It took another whole teaspoon to get to the specified 19.5 grams. Yet another reason why my cakes usually come out flat – not enough baking powder. Same with the egg whites. I was so glad that ECL had sent me a note about weighing the egg whites, because if I had only gone by number of eggs, I would have been short.
ANNNNDDDD the milk and butter was still sort of cold. Only an hour and a half was left until the birthday boy would come home from school. Eeek. I love my son dearly, but he has the attention span of a gnat and I just couldn't face baking with him that day. I pulled out my trusty digital thermometer and wasted several minutes obsessing over what constitutes "room temperature". Milk was 61 degrees, eggs were 65 degrees, butter was 63 degrees. These things are the temperature of a rather cold room…. What else could I do while waiting? Check the oven temperature. 410 degrees. Eeek! I want 350! I jiggled the knob a little bit. Stupid oven.
Finally the dairy was at approximately college dorm-room temperature, so I put the batter together. Rose's recipe is very easy to follow, even for this total rube. I love that the recipe includes instructions like "Gradually add the egg mixture in three batches, beating for 20 seconds after each addition to incorporate the ingredients and strengthen the structure." That's the sort of recipe I need: explanations so I don't get neurotic about how long I'm beating the batter. I had no actual emergencies during this portion of the exercise, which is supremely amazing to me. The batter is gorgeous, fluffy, and creamy, and it tastes amazing. I have never made a cake batter like this before. The Cake Bible is going on my Christmas list.
As the cupcakes were going into the cups, I worried about having enough batter, because I figured I needed no fewer than 30 cupcakes if everybody was present. My innate baking idiocy kicked in again when the first pans went into the oven -- I forgot to set the timer. I only realized it afterwards, so I had to estimate how much time I had been faffing around changing the Harry Potter CD. I set the timer for what I thought might be the remaining time and got a toothpick ready. See, I do remember something from middle school home ec!
While waiting, I struggled not to eat any of the the remaining batter, because it is really, really tasty, and then I thought – there’s something missing. It needs some salt! Aaaaarrrgh. I had forgotten to add the salt to the dry ingredients. So I put a little pinch of salt into the batter that’s waiting. Should this be waiting in the fridge, or what? You see, baking-talented peoples? There are SO MANY QUESTIONS. Things you just know and probably never have to wonder about. What do you do when you are baking three dozen cupcakes and only have room for two 12-cup muffin pans in your oven, and your new convection oven will not be arriving for another week? Do you hold the rest of the batter in the fridge? I guessed not, after all that time I spent trying to get the eggs, milk, and butter to warm up.
The smell while the cupcakes were baking was incredible. Like... the Platonic ideal of "cake" incredible. It smells very eggy, a little like warm custard. I wondered whether all the cupcakes would make it to school the next day. With five minutes left on the timer I chanced opening the door to get a photo. They were so cute! See? Little domes!
I know the domes will fall, but still! Cute! When I saw they were browning, I poked one and the toothpick came out clean. Maybe I spent more time changing the CD than I thought. I could have avoided this angst if I had been paying attention, rather than thinking about Hermione Granger's cool beaded bag, with an undetectable extension charm so you can carry all your belongings around with you. How cool would that be? Moms need that to be invented, pronto.
The recipe says to leave the cupcakes in the pan for 5 minutes and then take them out to cool. I headed out to get the little man from school while they cooled. I planned to wait until he was in bed to do the frosting, because, looking at the recipe, I thought that part of the project might involve colorful language.
It turned out, though, that making the Swiss meringue buttercream was pretty easy. Heating the egg whites and sugar on the stove took a bit longer than the recipe said it would. I didn’t want to overheat the egg whites, but I did want to get it right. I finally took it off the heat when it had thickened considerably.
I put it into the KitchenAid and whipped it with the whisk attachment for 6 minutes or so on speed 8. It was room temperature and thick, like the recipe called for, but it was not holding stiff peaks. I put it in for a couple more minutes, until it was like fairly thin Marshmallow Creme, but not as sticky. I added the butter, and the frosting still seemed thin. Perhaps the butter had moved too far past “room temperature”? I added 5 more tablespoons of slightly firmer butter a tablespoon at a time. I whipped that in for a few minutes and checked the consistency again. Now that looks like frosting!
At this point the frosting recipe said to put in the caramel drizzle and whip it in. Having finally arrived at something resembling frosting, I wasn't brave enough to do that, so I gently folded it in. After firming the frosting up in the fridge for a little while, I frosted and decorated the cakes with no further mishap.
The cake was tender, light, fully perfumed with the vanilla, and rich from the egg and butter. The caramel frosting was extremely light and buttery, and really tasted like caramel. The caramel topping was scrumptious; the extra caramel met some very nice Honeycrisp apples and lived happily ever after.
They were an enormous hit -- in fact, the substitute teacher begged for the recipe and the teacher's aide said they were as good as... um, conjugal relations. Well, there you go. Success! The kids liked the All-Important Salted Caramel Cupcakes too. Thanks, ECL!