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Cupcake a Day

Posted May 14 2009 5:01pm
There's a pathological impulse that leads to excessive complaining about the personal details of one's life on the internet. Somehow, it's a natural forum. I'm bravely attempting to spare you all that. So I'll only mention briefly my recent carpal tunnel surgery, the resulting discomfort, complications and three week limit on activity, moving immediately to a full-on food porn post featuring 21 recent cupcake experiments: one for each day of my projected recovery period.

They say in jail that you only do two days: the day you go in and the day you come out. I kind of feel jailed, or at least sidelined for this period, but they don't get cupcakes in jail. Or maybe they do. Either way, I wanted to go into my confinement on a bang with this Mexican chocolate cupcake made with stone ground Taza chocolate. This is a new offering from Taza and it's the chocolate I was waiting for from them, perfectly spicy with brash vanilla, a hint of citrus and the wonderful rustic texture Taza's getting famous for. Amped up with a little stone ground cornmeal to echo the Taza texture, a little extra cinnamon and a dusting of crushed cocoa bean and shaved chocolate, this is one of my dream cupcakes.

For day two, something more delicate and restorative. I fell in love with the combination of rose and lychee last summer and have been playing with it ever since. Chopped lychees and rose petal jam cupcakes topped with rosewater frosting will do the trick.

Day three is all about comfort and warmth. Turkish Smyrna fig cake with hazelnut coffee buttercream hightop fits the bill.

For four, I need to perk up. A shot of Grand Marnier with the balanced Theo Ivory Coast chocolate makes for a familiar, if fancy, chocolate orange combination that is set off spectacularly with strawberry frosting. During these winter months I've been playing with fruits in their preserved forms more than fresh, trying to honor seasonality while still getting flavor. One thing I discovered was the potential in freeze-dried fruit that I had previously written off for its strange texture. Ground into a powder and incorporated in frostings, creams, chocolates and batters, the fruit flavor comes through with fantastic clarity, fresh and bright tasting.

Day five is time to get some spice back into life. The hints of exotic fruit, tea and spice in this cake really shine with dark brown sugar, sticky with molasses. And the addictive ganache, inspired by Pichet Ong, well that just flat out shines.

Day six belongs to amaretto cream cheese cupcakes with fresh grated cinnamon and toasted almonds. I've been playing with using creamy substances like faux cream cheeses, sour cream, crème fraîche, ricotta and strained yogurt in cake--there is lots of fun potential in it, yielding really tender, rich crumb.

For day seven, I'll continue a four day streak of boozey cupcakes and catch a nip with these black walnut truffle cupcakes with bourbon frosting and chocolate chunks. Black walnuts in and of themselves have a pleasantly rich alcoholic note so it's tricky to find balance with the bourbon, but a little seems to highlight the natural flavors in the nuts.

First day of the second week: blueberry chocolate mousse cupcakes. Again, astronaut-style freeze dried blueberries are powerfully flavorful in this cake batter, accented lightly by a little bit of lavender, dried from my garden last summer. It's nice to be using up the last bits of dried herbs stored from the end of the season as the plants return to life under our mild spring skies.

Day nine goes to the kind of cupcake that got me through the winter. Jaggary (coconut palm sugar) cake with lemongrass frosting and toasted coconut offers flowers and fruit even on the grayest day.

Day ten marks the double digits. Time to celebrate. There's little better than spicy chocolate in my book, but this chili-spiked chocolate cupcake filled with peanut butter mousse, spread with spicy peanut butter frosting and covered in cardamom ganache has the plain old chili and chocolate beat like a dirty rug. It's over the top, sure, but sometimes you need to go there.

Rein it in slightly for eleven, but only just. Super-spiced chocolate pumpkin cupcakes made with heaps of fresh ground cinnamon chips, nutmeg and mace. The pumpkin and liberal quantity of melted chocolate make this a super soft cake that manages to stay airy while still having density in its crumb. The cinnamon chocolate mousse doesn't hurt either.

Day twelve: can't get enough nutmeg. Did you know I grew up nutmeg-less? My dad is allergic to the spice and we never had it in the house. It's only been recently that I've really been gotten into nutmeg and ever since getting a nutmeg grinder I can't be stopped. No more skinning my fingers trying to microplane nutmeg. If you like nutmeg, you need one of these gadgets, they are brilliant. And if you like nutmeg and are using pre-ground, you're in for a major case of love at first sniff when you switch to fresh. Nutmeg looses the majority of its flavor very quickly once ground, so fresh is the way to go. Fresh nutmeg with caramel and chocolate is even better.

Thirteen is a far from unlucky experiment. Making fresh nut milk for baking is easy enough and delicious to boot. Packaged nut milks are so pale in their flavor after you've had fresh. I like cashew milk for baking and it goes really well with South Asian spices like in this garam masala cashew milk chocolate cupcakes with cashew cream coconut frosting.

Two week mark! In addition to playing with "milks," the sugar component to cupcakes is wide open for further exploration. Barley malt has promise, especially in combination with dark, dark chocolate like this Venezulean from Theo. The malt has a more earthy sweetness that can take on the sweet blast of a buttercream and not be overwhelming. A drizzle of cinnamon ganache is just the warm note to top it.

Day fifteen strikes me as a discouraging day. I expect to be feeling really pretty good, but still not quite up to whisking. It's a good day to explore a cupcake I want to work but doesn't quite. I love the scent of cocoa butter and wish there were a really good vegan white chocolate that lots of high quality cocoa butter, real vanilla bean and fair-trade organic sugar. In the absence of this product, I've been making my own, which is not up to snuff and probably never can really be without the proper equipment. Still, I'm exploring the flavors of white chocolate more successfully in forms where it's just a flavor and not an end unto itself. Hence, the white chocolate cupcake.

Sixteen: simple and sweet, with a twist. Chocolate strawberry cupcake with vincotto ganache. I'm enamored of the idea of strawberry and balsamic and it certainly can work, but with vincotto nothing is forced at all. It's a natural affinity that is complex without being demanding.

Day seventeen might be time to take a major shot in the arm. Turkish coffee'll do that trick, so this pistachio cardamom cake with Turkish coffee ganache will be a perfect pick me up.

Keep the healthy fats and protein coming on day eighteen with this lemongrass peanut flour cake with ginger coconut frosting. Peanut flour can be found in many Asian markets, or make your own fresh at home in the food processor, just watch that you don't end up with peanut butter. Gentle pulses and cold nuts help.

Nineteen is so close to the end I can taste it and it tastes like cocoa nibs. After using nut flours in cakes, my thoughts turned to cocoa nibs and I pulverized some to make a course flour, which I used instead of cocoa powder or chocolate. The result is intriguing. It's definitely cacao flavor, not chocolate, but I like that. The sweetness was added back in with hazelnut praline frosting and balance kept by adding a darkly bitter chocolate ganache, hazelnut shards and crushed raw cacao bean.

Day twenty is freedom is on the horizon. Let us welcome it with haiku:

lemon cream cupcakes

raspberry puree frosting

chocolate butterfly

Day twenty-one, three week review and the doctor will release me from my binds! So we end much as we began: guajillo chili chocolate cupcakes with chocolate peanut butter mousse, a final idle decilacy before really getting back to work again.
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