The Astute Recorder



Why cupcakes rule, and don't tread on me.

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Photo: American Buttercream and Chocolate Ganache on simple, not overly sweet cupcakes.

Most children in our society grow up with a special relationship with cupcakes, whether it’s through a school potluck, a birthday party or the first moment we press our faces against a bakery case, trying to pick just one. I’m sure we each have a memory dedicated to these treats.

In the past few years, the cupcake fad has exploded across the States, and it is not disappearing any time soon. I remember in 2004, turning my nose up at the notion of pushing cupcakes, remnants of an über-cool, adolescent revulsion for trends and fast fashion. I am man enough to say I was wrong, dead wrong.

In the June 3, 2009 Food section of the Los Angeles Times, Mary MacVean and Noelle Carter dug into these desserts and their appeal with kids and adults alike. And I have since been reminded in a number of ways about these little delights. Sprinkles in Beverly Hills regularly enjoys daily queues for cupcakes and these shops have sprung up all across the southland—Pasadena, Sherman Oaks, even hipsterville Silver Lake. My first baking gig was at Toast Café in West Hollywood in 2003, baking and decorating their cupcakes, which were replicas of those from their New York counterpart, the legendary Magnolia Bakery. Magnolia is largely credited for starting the cupcake craze when it opened in 1996, and their cupcakes are a simple affair: basic cake and sugary, tinted frosting. Now that I’ve reconsidered cupcakes I realize that’s their appeal: simple, individually-sized desserts that can be customized in myriad ways, with crazy flavor combinations and any color you like.

A main reason for bringing up cupcakes this month is the upcoming Independence Day holiday, which is a great opportunity to impress everyone at the barbecue with creative food presentations. Unlike sheet and layer cakes, cupcakes can be held in one hand while the other spreads your frosting. Also, since you’re making a dozen or more at a time, you can get funky with your spatula and piping techniques and quickly improve your decorating skills. I think the most obvious approach would be a red, white and blue color scheme.

I applied white fondant star cut-outs (pre-made rolled fondant can be found in some specialty stores and even art & crafts shops like Michael’s) and tinted my buttercream blue and red. This is a great way to show your love for Old Glory, much classier than those tacky plastic flags that flutter from millions of cars in the U.S. Really, do you think the Founding Fathers and Francis Scott Key would approve of such a tawdry copy of the symbol of the greatest beacon of democracy on the planet? Show your pride and make your mouth happy at the same time.

Vanilla Butter Cupcakes

Yield: 12 cupcakes


6 Tbl. Unsalted Butter

½ cup + 1 Tbl. Sugar

1/3 tsp Salt

1 + 1 yolk Eggs, large

1 ¼ cup Cake Flour

1 ¼ tsp Baking Powder

3 ½ oz Milk

1 tsp Vanilla Extract

Preheat oven to 365-370 F. Lightly grease a muffin tin and insert paper cups. Mix cake flour and baking powder together and set aside; in a separate bowl, add vanilla to milk and set aside. Cream the butter, sugar, and salt until fluffy and light, about 8 minutes. Scrape the sides of the bowl then add eggs and mix for approximately 4 minutes more. Add flour mixture and milk mixture in 3 additions, mixing on medium for 20 seconds and scraping sides each time. Scoop batter into prepared cups, filling them each 2/3-3/4 full. Bake for 15-17 minutes or until a toothpick or tester comes out clean. Due to oven “peculiarities” you’ll have to adjust accordingly and possibly rotate the pan. (Do not open the oven to rotate until at least halfway through baking process!) Cool completely before frosting.

Chocolate Ganache

Yield: enough to cover 18 cupcakes

Note: You can find large bars of “pound plus” chocolate at specialty stores like Trader Joe’s and Fresh and Easy; in fact, the latter uses their own packaging but sells Callebaut chocolate, which is pretty good—especially for the price.


1 lb Dark Chocolate

1 pint Heavy Cream

2 Tbl. Light Corn Syrup

1 tsp Vanilla Extract

Finely chop the chocolate and add to medium-sized mixing bowl (aluminum bowls work best). Meanwhile, heat the cream on low heat until scalding. Pour cream into the chocolate, add corn syrup and vanilla, and whisk to completely melt the chocolate. Place the mixing bowl into a slighly larger bowl half filled with ice and water and continue to whisk until the ganache thickens. The ganache will be fudgy thick or airy depending on how long and how quickly you whisk the mixture; work it to your desired consistency.

Keep in mind that your yield will vary depending on the thickness of the ganache. This can be piped or spread with a spatula onto the cupcakes. Store any remaining ganache in the refridgerator, if you can resist eating it by itself!

American Buttercream

Yield: enough for 18 cupcakes

Note: This is a very neutral buttercream. You can really get creative with this depending on your need, adding colors or flavoring extracts, even liquors.


1 cup (2 sticks) Unsalted Butter

¼ cup Milk

½ tsp Vanilla Extract

5-6 cups Sifted Powdered Sugar

Whip butter in a standing mixer or with a hand-held mixer until light. Add milk and vanilla, mix well. Add powdered sugar slowly, until desired consistency is reached. If desired, add flavors or colors at this point; however, you may need to add sugar to compensate for the change in consistency.

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