Cupcakes: a contemporary camp classic!

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As with macarons, there is nothing butch about a cupcake, but it revels in its campery – and rightly so! They flounced onto the baking scene with great style several years ago, demanding to be noticed, and all of a sudden the shops started featuring them and everyone started making them.

A good cupcake is indeed a gorgeous affair. And by a good cupcake, I mean a light, well-flavoured sponge matched, but not dominated, by a well-flavoured and well-balanced topping.

Sadly, as with many things,  the cupcake craze has suffered somewhat from ubiquity, and all too often the commercial ones are gigantic affairs that tend to be just dry cake with a sickly-sweet icing, with little flavour-wise to link it to its sponge: after a couple of bites you feel as though you have had enough!

The sponge:

For me, I prefer a moist, nicely flavoured sponge. A Victoria Sandwich mixture works well, but I go for the recipe below which can be made up in moments and gives a very light, yet substantial enough, sponge. When made you get a thick batter that you pour into the cases. The sponge recipe is a slight variant on the Hummingbird Bakery recipe.

I like to add grated zest of an orange or lemon to the mixture, depending on the overall cupcake flavour I am aiming for, but a few pieces of finely chopped dried fruit (dusted very lightly in flour to prevent them sinking!), chocolate chips or even small pieces of fudge work well, giving added excitment as you bite into them.

The topping(s):

The icing needs to be generous enough not to feel short-changed, yet not too much that it towers too high, making it all a challenge to eat!

For me, it should be very light and melt-in-the-mouth that packs flavour rather than just being buttery sweet: usually a fruit buttercream does it for me, as the combination of sharpness and sweetness ticks my boxes!

If I am going for a fruity cupcake, I often cut out a little of the sponge from the top, dollop a little fresh fruit curd or purée into the hole, before piping on the buttercream. However, one of my current favourite enhancements with fruity cupcakes is to spoon a little drizzle topping over the still-warm cupcakes, let them cool and then top with a little buttercream. The easiest drizzle topping is made by mixing the freshly squeezed juice from the fruit (lemon, lime or passionfruit are real stars here!) with a little granulated sugar: the sugar really doesn’t need to dissolve, as a little crunch from the sugar adds great texture.

More often than not a simple buttercream made by whisking together equal quantities of very soft unsalted butter and icing sugar until the buttercream is very light and soft works a treat. If you whisk it for about 10 minutes in a free-standing mixer, it becomes almost mousse-like.

NB: using equal quanties of butter and icing sugar gives a less sweet buttercream than is typical but it has a more luxurious flavour and a much lighter texture.

The buttercream can then be flavoured.

Flavouring a buttercream:

For a fruit buttercream, simply add enough fresh fruit purée to the buttercream to get the level of flavour you want, whisking in a little at a time to stop it curdling. I try to add as much as I can to get a real tangy flavour.

If it does curdle (and I have lost count of the number of times a buttercream has done this to me!), whisk in a little cooled melted white chocolate, using about 50g chocolate to every 200g of buttercream: the buttercream will come back together perfectly.

I also use fruit powders a lot: they can be bought online as well as in several specialist cook shops and have a great intensity of flavour. A few teaspoons beaten into a buttercream will enhance it no end, and it is also great dusted lightly on top of the cupcakes.

Some of my other favourite ways to flavour a buttercream are:

  • coffee (use granules and dissolve them in hot water, leaving the solution to cool before using),
  • melted and cooled chocolate (any flavour)
  • fruit curd
  • salted caramel

And the tip above to rescue a curdled buttercream with whatever other flavours have been added has yet to fail me!

Cupcakes (makes 12 cupcakes)

Standard cupcake sponge:

  • 120g plain flour
  • 1½ teaspoons baking powder
  • 120g golden caster sugar
  • 120ml full-fat milk
  • 30g unsalted butter, melted
  • 1 large egg, at room temperature
  • a pinch of salt
  • grated zest of one lemon or orange, optional

you will also need:

  • buttercream (any flavour): recipes for different buttercreams can be found on my cake tips page
  • raspberry powder, edible glitter, popping candy etc…to finish (optional)
  • cupcake cases
  • cupcake or muffin trays

(1) Preheat the oven to 160C(fan).

(2) Sift the flour and baking powder into a large mixing bowl. Add the sugar, salt and lemon zest and mix well.

(3) Whisk the egg, milk and melted butter together and pour over the rest of the mix, stirring well until there are no lumps without over-beating (which will result in heavier, more dense cupcakes). You should have a fairly thick batter at this point.

(4) Pour or spoon the mixture into cupcake cases, coming to just under half-full and bake for 15-20 minutes until well risen and golden-brown on top.  They should feel springy to the touch. Leave to cool in their tins.

(5) When the buttercream has been made, leave to chill for about 20 minutes in the fridge so that it is easier to pipe. Pipe buttercream on top of each cupcake and dust with raspberry powder, edible glitter or sprinkle with chocolate popping candy, if using.

(6) Chill the cupcakes until an hour or so before eating, at which stage the buttercream should be gorgeously soft and silky as you bite into it.

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