Picture a plateful of little lemon and vanilla cakes, perfectly risen, and frosted with buttercream swirls strewn with sparkling sanding sugar. How can cupcakes not be the dessert of this (still cautiously) celebratory moment?
We have made it to the season of cookouts and maybe even family reunions and weddings. That, and the fact that I stumbled on photos of a King Arthur Flour class I took years ago with my niece, Kery, sparked my most recent search for the perfect cupcake recipe.
I remember the day I realized Kery was growing up. She had, of course, been growing up the entire time I’d known her, but somehow, in my mind, she would always be more or less the same age: little. Christopher and I were on Long Island for the holidays. Next to a sparkling tree, I sat listening to Kery as she talked at length, the way kids do, about soccer and upcoming musicals, when it came to me all at once: “Wait! This does not go on forever.”
The exuberant kid hugs and the wide-eyed kid fascination with the adults who have always loved them would soon begin to taper off. This must be just a sliver of what parents feel as they lie awake at night contemplating their kids becoming more nuanced, more separate, more themselves.
I don’t know why, exactly, but, in my own family, relationships with cousins and uncles hardly existed. I’ve longed for them all my life. When I fell head over heels for Christopher, I also fell hard for his family, which appeared to understand the art and craft of the extended family. So, as my increasingly not-so-little niece grew up, I was determined not to let our connection fade. But I needed a strategy. Hence, Operation Cupcake.
I’m much more of a cook than a baker, but I took an interest in baking because it was my niece’s newfound hobby. I requested scones and blondies and lemon bars each time we visited. And I signed us up for classes at the King Arthur Baking School. For a few years, we took a drive up to Norwich, Vt. for classes in bread baking and European pastries and Cakes 101.
The thing about a long car ride is that it gives you time to settle into a really good conversation. You can learn so much more than is possible at a holiday dinner or beach picnic. A car conversation is spacious, with room for dating disclosures and career doubts, alongside companionable silences — the warp and woof that bind relationships together.
My most fondly remembered King Arthur trip was one we took for a cupcake class. My dear niece, it turned out, is a bit of a perfectionist. Those pastry strips we wove together to top off a Linzer torte in the European pastry class nearly drove her over the edge. But, ah, the cupcakes! They were stress-free, and so gorgeous. We left the test kitchen with neatly tied jewel boxes filled with our little frosted cakes and a sense of accomplishment.
That was the last baking trip we made. Kery’s all grown up now, with a job and a serious boyfriend, and the Chicago marathon in her future once the world opens up. We probably won’t go to Vermont together again, but that’s OK. I feel connected to my grown-up niece as she makes her way through the world. Operation Cupcake was a success.
Back to this week’s search for the right cupcake recipe. Somehow, in the flurry of our move from Boston to Truro last year, my King Arthur recipe folder was mislaid. I’d have to experiment. I really liked the ones King Arthur contributor P.J. Hamel makes. They’re based on a “hot milk cake” recipe, and just the ticket if you want a plain, moist, and spongy cupcake. Hamel lives on the Cape, in Sandwich, where she bakes these, she says, “simply to brighten someone’s day.” She is known to drive them over to the staff at Titcomb’s Books, or the folks at Crow’s Farm, or the library ladies, or her mechanic.
But the closest match to the ones I made with Kery were in New York’s The Magnolia Bakery Cookbook. They are light and somehow suited my mood for something fancy.
The original recipe calls for half all-purpose and half self-rising flour, which I don’t normally use and so didn’t have on hand. A little research yielded the following work-around: to convert a cup of all-purpose flour into an approximation of self-rising, whisk in one and a half teaspoons of baking powder and a quarter teaspoon of fine salt. I’ve gone with all-purpose for this version and adjusted accordingly. All of the ingredients should be at room temperature, and the butter softened, before you start. You need an electric mixer to make these.
Vanilla Cupcakes With Lemon Frosting
Yields 24 cupcakes
For the cupcakes
2¾ cups all-purpose flour
2¼ tsp. baking powder
½ tsp. fine salt
8 oz. (2 sticks) unsalted butter
2 cups sugar
4 large eggs
1 cup whole milk
1 tsp. vanilla extract
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F and line 2 cupcake tins with paper liners. Mix together the milk and vanilla extract. Whisk together the flour, baking powder, and salt, and pour the mixture onto a sheet of parchment paper (this will make it easier to add in the flour if you’re using a standing mixer).
In a deep bowl, cream the butter at medium speed until pale yellow and smooth. Add the sugar gradually and beat until light and fluffy, about 3 minutes. Add the eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Add the dry ingredients in 3 parts, alternating with the milk and vanilla extract. With each addition, beat the ingredients until just mixed, but resist the urge to overbeat, which will result in dry cakes with large air holes. Use a rubber spatula to scrape down the sides and the bottom of the bowl to make sure everything is incorporated.
Spoon the batter into the cupcake liners, filling them about ¾ full and bake for about 25 minutes until a cake tester comes out clean and the tops of the cakes spring back when you touch them lightly. Cool for about 15 minutes in the tins, remove and cool completely on a wire rack before frosting. The cakes may be stored in an airtight container for a day or so; they tend to dry out after that.
For the frosting
8 oz. (2 sticks) unsalted butter
4 cups confectioners’ (powdered) sugar
2-3 Tbsp. whole milk
1¼ tsp. lemon extract
A few drops yellow food coloring
A few Tbsp. of sparkling white sugar for tops, optional
While the cupcakes are cooling, prepare the frosting. Cream the butter, then add the lemon extract and gradually add the powdered sugar about one cup at a time. Scrape the sides of the mixing bowl frequently with a rubber spatula. Once the frosting begins to thicken and appears to dry out, add 2 Tbsp. of milk and a few drops of yellow food coloring.
Beat the frosting on medium until smooth and creamy, about 4 minutes. If the frosting seems too thick, thin with a little more milk, adding a teaspoon at a time until the consistency seems right for spreading. Once the cakes are cool, frost them using a long spatula. Dust the tops with sparkling sugar, to dress the cupcakes up, if desired.
If you’re not using the frosting immediately, it can be stored at room temperature in an airtight container for up to 3 days.