Last week, when I posted my latest book review, I looked up and realized that was our 99th post.
We started this little blog as a whim, not sure if we’d keep the momentum up past the first week, but here we are, with a blog 100 posts strong, and we couldn’t be more excited! Celebration was in order. And so last Wednesday night (yes, it takes this long to get six people to write a post together), the Rampant Readers piled into Princess Consuela’s living room to participate in our first every cupcake night!
(You can just assume that there was more flailing when we first came up with that idea.)
To keep it somewhat on the topic of books, and to justify making a meal out of six different kinds of cupcake, we decided to each grab a different cookbook, make a different type of cupcake, and then see who had the best recipe. You know, for the education of others. And science. We’re givers around here.
(Also, as it turned out, we brought our total cupcake count down from a gluttonous six types to a ladylike five, because Captain Awesome went rogue and made pie instead. There were no complaints from the rest of us.)
Our initial idea was to have a cupcake-off, presumably with fancy prizes and whatnot. I was looking forward to making someone carefully walk their cupcake from the kitchen to the table without dropping it like they do in those fancy cake competitions. This… didn’t so much happen. Instead, we just sat around and ate a lot and talked a lot and generally had a grand time. And really, isn’t that a better outcome? We didn’t want to have to come back on here in post 101 and update you that due to unforeseen cupcake competition shenanigans, one or more RR writers would no longer be able to read/write/walk upright. So instead of having a big unveiling of the winner, we are placing that crown on all our heads and instead telling you about the long, hard road to cupcake night. As anyone who has seen Cupcake Wars can attest, baking is serious business, and only the strong survive.
It was the perfect plan. My mom gave me What’s New, Cupcake? by Karen Tack and Alan Richardson for Christmas. So when the Rampant Reads crew announced our cupcake party, I was thinking, “Swell, I can use my special cupcake book. It will be a gift from my mom that actually gets some use. Unlike the Popcorn Cookbook I got last year. Which is confusing, because how many recipes for popcorn can there be? 1) Unwrap popcorn package 2) put in microwave 3) enjoy.” And as you can see from the cover, the cupcake book is pretty cheery looking, with adorable ducks on it.
“Oh, look how easy it is to create cupcakes disguised as squirrels!” I imagine Alan trilling.
“Darling, you can just whip up a batch of cupcakes festooned with lifelike flamingos in the afternoon before your children are home from soccer practice!” Karen probably replies.
Even Amazon is filled with smug bastards talking about how ‘easy’ the recipes are and how they just love to make these everyday, to greet their children as they skip off the schoolbus. These moms must be hitting their kid’s adderall supply on the sly, because this was the most labor intensive dessert I have ever made.
First off, I picked the Apple Cupcake recipe. It has some nauseatingly adorable name, but I refuse to go look it up. It looks pretty easy, I mean apples are basically round, cupcake tops are roundish, not rocket science. What’s New, Cupcake isn’t concerned so much with how your cupcakes taste, as much as they are about your cupcakes looking like friendly woodland creatures, so the actual cupcake recipe read something like this:
“Dump some cake mix together and make cupcakes. Or whatever.”
Then you get to decorate them, which is where Alan and Karen get their jollies apparently. I flip the page to discover that the decorating involves adding an entire donut to the top of the cupcake. Because regular cupcakes aren’t fattening enough. Then you cover that diabetic coma with icing, roll it in red sugar crystal sprinkles, and add a cheeky stem and leaves made out of tootsie rolls (which I couldn’t find so I used pretzel rods and green fruit chews), and do a line of coke, probably. I infer.
I made exactly two cupcakes before I started reevaluating my life choices and had to stop. I never got to the point where you cut out a divot into the donut to make it look like someone took a bite out of a real apple, then artfully ply said divot with white icing and a few carefully placed chocolate sunflower seeds. My boyfriend helpfully pointed out that I could just actually bite the cupcake, and then it would look really realistic. Boys are so stupid. What’s the fun in that? I could just serve real apples then, but how would that impress the PTA?! Eh? EH?!?
When I started muttering things like this to myself, I realized cupcake decorating probably isn’t for me. That’s when I just slapped some icing on the rest of the cupcakes, opened the bottle of wine we bought to marinate steak, and gave up my dream of my cupcake franchise forever.
I am always excited about baked goods, so when we were talking about how to celebrate the big 100, I immediately suggested CAKE. I try to incorporate cake into as many life events as possible. Wednesday, for example, is an excellent occasion for cake. And then we decided it would be a cupcake OFF, and the stakes were suddenly MUCH HIGHER. The flaw in this plan is that I am not a cook. I don’t have the patience for it, and I usually make a giant mess that I don’t want to clean up because I’m exhausted from all the baking but I can’t just leave it there because I have a paranoia about attracting bugs that may be edging in on crazytown, so then I get cranky about the necessary cleaning up, which negates the sheer joy of eating. IT IS A VICIOUS CYCLE. Anyway, my love of baked goods prompted my aunt to give me The Ultimate Cake Mix Book for Christmas a few years ago, and this became its maiden voyage. (I don’t have a lot of occasions where I need an entire cake, more’s the pity.) I was having the kind of chocolate craving that drives you to put chocolate syrup on graham crackers to make a poor man’s s’more on the day I selected my recipe, so I took myself to the Chocolate Obsession chapter and settled on Fudgy Mocha Cupcakes with Chocolate Coffee Ganache. Coffee is probably the only thing I love more than chocolate, AND I don’t really like icing, so this recipe could have been written for me. The cupcakes were easy, and even though Publix uselessly doesn’t carry fudge flavored instant pudding and I had to substitute regular chocolate, they turned out quite tasty. Ugly because I overfilled the cups so as not to waste perfectly good batter and knowing that I wasn’t going to bother baking a second batch, but still tasty. I checked several of them to be sure. I take quality control very seriously.
Then we got to the ganache. It’s possible that I should not have ignored the direction to finely chop the chocolate in favor of using chocolate chips. It seemed like such a good shortcut, but in hindsight I realize that “finely chop” probably calls for smaller pieces than your standard chocolate chip. I was also so paranoid about burning the cream that I may not have heated it properly. I was watching it like a hawk for the bubbles to appear around the edges of the pan, as directed, and stirring it relentlessly because I was so afraid of burning it. It had instant coffee mixed in, so you couldn’t be sure if you were smelling coffee or the beginnings of scorched cream. The whole thing was very stressful, so I had to put Cougar Town on to calm my frazzled nerves. Jules and Ellie inspired me to fill my wine glass to the brim so that you have to suck a little wine out of the top while the glass sits on the counter before you can pick it up properly, and suddenly I realized that I was a tablescape away from turning into Sandra Lee. Fortunately, I don’t have a table, but if you see me decorating my kitchen to match my dinner selection, STAGE AN INTERVENTION. Anyway, the whole Sandra Lee thing drove me to slurp some more wine out of my glass, and then I noticed that the long-awaited bubbles had started to form in the cream, so I whisked that off the stove and into the waiting chocolate chips. You’d think that I’d relax now that I hadn’t burned the cream, but the ganache wasn’t coming together like it said, and a whole new wave of paranoia started up about whether I had taken it off of the stove TOO SOON. Maybe I should have waited for more bubbles. I had snatched it off the heat at the first sign of bubbles around the edge, but maybe they meant bubbles ALL AROUND THE EDGES and not just a few starting to pop up. WHY AREN’T THESE DIRECTIONS CLEARER ABOUT THE VOLUME OF BUBBLES THAT THE CREAM SHOULD BE PRODUCING?? Gah. And then, at long last, it started to come together into smooth mocha goodness. Whew. Obviously I had to taste it to be sure that it hadn’t actually burned (I might have a problem vis a vis burned cream), and it was pretty good. SUCCESS. Now I just had to wait for it to cool to room temp so that I could dip the tops of the cupcakes in the ganache, and I’d be well on my way to winning the cupcake off.
This is why you shouldn’t get cocky. Instead of the smooth, shiny, pretty ganache in the picture, I ended up with grainy-ish ganache that wasn’t thick enough to mask the texture of the cupcakes even a little bit. And since I’d already chosen NOT to decorate the tops with white icing as instructed (I am not known for my artistic skills, nor do I own cake icing tips), there was no disguising it. Ah, well. At least they still tasted good. I took a final quality control sample – this is a contest, after all – and the rest of my tempranillo to the couch to celebrate being finished baking for the night with Jules and Big Joe.
As Robin Sparkles mentioned, I went rogue. I’m not going to be held to your silly little cupcake rules. I don’t accept such culinary limitations. I’ll make whatever the hell I want to make and you will like it! Or not. Because honestly, I really, really suck at cooking. Take what Princess Consuela said above and times it by like a thousand. I really wish that I was a good cook because I loooove to eat, but usually the final result hardly seems worth the effort. And then you have to clean a kitchen. Boo. And it’s genetic! My mother has been getting on me for years about learning how to cook, so I was gratified when she confessed earlier this year that she too hates to cook. I had suspected as much since the “Chicken Spaghetti Incident of ’97,” but it was nice to have confirmation.
So when this whole cupcake off was proposed I was excited because, hey, I’d get to eat cupcakes, but I was also really worried. I’ve never made a cupcake in my life and I own exactly two (never used) cookbooks. Flipping through those pages, I didn’t find one recipe that seemed doable. They all seemed to require fancy ingredients or a fancy mixer and my kitchen equipment is pretty much limited to a few pots and pans and some spoons. So I quickly settled on the idea of making a pie. I’ve actually made a pie before. Successfully! And everyone loves pie. Well, except for my friend Sean who thinks they’re evil ever since he threw up after a pie-eating contest, but he wasn’t going to be there, so whatever. I even decided to push myself by making something that I’d never made before: a pecan chocolate chess pie from Southern Living (aka my mother’s bible) that my brother had made for Thanksgiving. He comes from the same doomed culinary gene pool that I do, so surely if he could do it, then I could too. Yeah, what I’d forgotten is that he made that pie under close supervision. Since I was all on my own, my pie turned out a lot more… brown sugary than I remember the original pie being. I was devastated.
I panicked a little, I’m not going to lie.
I know she takes a lot of crap from all sorts of people, but whatever. I love her. Her food is delicious and relatively easy to make. Just don’t eat it every day and you’ll be fine. The evening of our competition, I came home from work and quickly whipped up the chocolate pecan pie. I got the recipe off of Paula’s website, but surely it’s in one of her bajillion cookbooks. It wasn’t the prettiest pie ever, but it was super easy to make and very delicious, if I do say so myself. I used a lot more chocolate than the recipe called for, but I think Paula would approve. And I think this fills my cooking quota for quite some time. Hallelujah.
Yes, I know that she’s a little elitist and over-complicates things, making every recipe seem like if you don’t fly to Belgium to pick up the chocolate for her chocolate chip cookies then JUST DON’T BOTHER YOU’LL RUIN EVERYTHING OMG. I don’t care. I love her and her crafts and her recipes. I love Martha Stewart Living and Whole Living and her old show from Martha’s home. I love Good Things. I know it’s a sickness, but I drank the Kool-Aid long ago and there’s no going back now.
My dear best friend knows about my Martha Stewart worship and loves me anyway. She also knows that I adore cupcakes, and so for my birthday, she got me this book. When the idea came up for a RR cupcake-off, I laughed my evil laugh and grabbed the book. I was on team Martha, nothing could go wrong.
You know, until I actually looked at the recipes.
Truth be told, many of them looked relatively simple, but they were also the boring ones. The ones I wanted to make had things like freshly brewed espresso in the batter and mascarpone frosting. The mint chocolate cupcakes required you to steep fresh mint leaves in milk in order to make the frosting. I’ll repeat that. STEEP FRESH MINT LEAVES IN MILK. TO MAKE FROSTING. I love these guys, but there was no way I was steeping anything after work on a Tuesday night unless it was myself in a giant bubble bath.
I finally found a recipe that looked fairly simple and tasty, the Snickerdoodle cupcakes. I love snickerdoodles, so I could only imagine that their cupcake form would be equally delicious. I skipped right over the more labor intensive seven minute frosting Martha suggested (if I wasn’t steeping mint leaves, I certainly wasn’t standing over a concoction of bubbling sugar and corn syrup anxiously watching a candy thermometer) and decided that the easy-peasy vanilla icing would work just as well (three ingredients whipped together = a frosting I can get behind).
A quick trip to the grocery store and I was in business. I could not find the cake flour that Martha promised me would make my cupcakes light and fluffy, but I figured that what Martha didn’t know wouldn’t hurt her and just used plain old all-purpose instead. I assembled my ingredients together in front of my red Kitchenaid mixer and took their picture, because I am a nerd. I also poured myself a glass of my label-appropriate wine and got to work. Team Martha was on a roll!
The cupcakes came together easily and emerged from the oven in all their golden-brown deliciousness. I test the runt of the batch for quality control purposes and determined that they were indeed yummy. The next night, I threw caution to the wind and just dumped the butter, sugar, and vanilla into the mixer to make the frosting even though this was not the approved Martha method. A quick whirl in the mixer and I was loading the frosting into my decorating bag with a giant pastry tip (yes, I own all of these things) (stop that judging!) and gleefully decorating the tops with giant swirls of deliciousness. A quick sprinkling of cinnamon sugar on the top and they were ready for their closeup.
Were they the best cupcakes I’ve ever had in my life? No, but they were damn tasty, easy to make, and looked very pretty when finished. And despite a few short cuts on my part, I think Martha would approve.
My sister bought me The Boozy Baker for my birthday last year, and I’ve been dying to try a recipe from it since. Baking/cooking with booze is one of my favorite ideas, mostly because you can drink WHILE you bake/cook and that can lead to an insanely popular YouTube show. Unless the booze leads you astray: I totally haven’t accidentally added twice as much wine to a sauce because I couldn’t be bothered to read the recipe again before I added it after a few glasses of said wine. Ahem.
ANYWAY. Boozy cupcakes sounded like a fantastic addition to our event, so I happily went out to buy ingredients. Now, maybe it was just the recipe I picked, but this turned out to be an expensive enterprise. The cupcakes were supposed to be Lavender Honey Nut. I nixed the lavender (mostly because I had had some, but after making a sachet with it I realized it smelled like old lady and I already have one cat and live alone and am convinced I’m going to die and said cat is going to have to snack on my corpse and OMG NOT THE POINT), so now it became plain honey nut. I bought a tiny bottle of amaretto, which was $9 for not very much but amaretto is one of my favorite liquors, so I didn’t mind that expense too much. However, the recipe also called for almond flour, which is finely ground almonds. Apparently the almonds are finely ground by fairies or elves or something equally rare and tiny, because a 1/2 pound bag ran me $11. 11 DOLLARS. Yeesh.
This baking experiment became more stressful when we arranged to have our meetup on Wednesday, the week of auditions for my theater company’s next show. I didn’t end up getting home until 11:30 Tuesday night. I figured I’d throw the batter and frosting together quickly, then bake the cupcakes in the morning, thinking it wouldn’t take me more than a half-hour to put the stuff together. WRONG. An hour later, I was practically sobbing into my batter. Not because it was hard to put together, per say, it was just a LOT of stuff, with slow additions of dry ingredients to wet and so forth. And the icing kept calling for MOAR POWDERED SUGAR and I was covered in butter and I just wanted to SLEEEEEP.
Happily, my shower and general getting ready time in the morning perfectly coincided with the bake time for the cupcakes. Have I mentioned that I’m not super fond of baking? It’s too precise – I’m the kind of cook who just throws things in until it looks/smells right. If you do that with a cake, you are gonna end up with a hot mess. Also, my oven is totally out of whack, so I have to add on a good 10 minutes to anything I bake. This meant me running into the kitchen clad in only a towel and eyeliner on one eye. I hope my neighbors weren’t scandalized.
The icing definitely didn’t turn out looking like Robert Pattinson’s hair like it did in the book and the cupcakes were a tad on the dry side, but overall I think they tasted pretty darn good. I’m gonna try them again, mostly because I need to use the rest of that almond flour. My depression-era frugality is screaming at me over that stuff.
Sword Mistress of Melee Island:
Here I am, late to the party again! I for real thought that I was going to write this the other day, but my grandmother had other plans that involved the Mercado del Pueblo and the local Christian bookstore. ANYWAYS… cupcakes.
I love baking and cooking. The cabinets in my kitchen are lined across the top with every kind of cookbook imaginable. When it came to making cupcakes though, I went to one of my favorite cooks, Nigella Lawson. I love her. I took an extra long lunch at work one day so that I could meet her at a book signing. Totally worth it. Everything I have ever made out of her cookbooks has turned out delicious, and to top it off, she saved me from a serious Victoria Sponge Cake disaster last year. Here is a hint. Don’t ask your sister what kind of cake she wants for her birthday, because she will inevitable say “I want a Victoria Sponge Cake with Apple Compote” and you will make 3 from sub-par recipes before thinking of Nigella (who will thankfully make everything ok), but you will still have made more sponge cakes in a day than you have in the whole rest of your life.
The beauty of her her cookbooks is that yes, she has some more complicated ones, but she has ones
that are easy and just make you look good. I went for her How to Be a Domestic Goddess cookbook and chose to try the Burnt Butter & Brown Sugar cupcakes because it sounded delicious and the recipe went something like this, “lightly burn the butter, skim the top, throw everything into a food processor, add to pan, cook and DONE!” The only tricky part that I didn’t notice ahead of time is that after you burn the butter (for the cupcakes and icing) they need to cool to room temperature before adding to the recipe, so it all took longer than I thought it would.
Fortunately I had time on my side and a desire to use my mini-cupcake pan that would not be thwarted. Everything tastes better in miniature. Unlike Martha Stewart, Nigella says to sloppily add the icing on top and EAT, which is exactly what I did. When you make mini-cupcakes, no one notices if a few are missing. I missed the wine memo that everyone else apparently got, but the coffee went nicely with it all just the same and I was very proud of my cupcakes. They were so good, I may have spent a good part of the night by myself licking the batter out of the bowl.
So there you have it, the 100 Post Rampant Reads Cupcake/Pie Celebration. If you are thinking gathering your friends together to eat nothing but desserts for the night, may we strongly suggest that you do so, because despite our long road to get those things baked, we had a marvelous time eating them. Bon appetit, and we’ll see you in post 101!