With no end to their rainbow combinations and distinctive flavours from coffee to passionfruit to green tea these days, you’ve gotta love cupcakes. There was a time when macarons and cake pops with their perfect mouthful sizes replaced cupcakes on cake stands as the ‘sweets of our moment’, but even then, they were at best the flavour of the month. Like the end of any day, I always return to my classic comfort fave, dontchajustknow, the cupcake is always, HOME.
I don’t know what else is easier, quicker, more inviting, more versatile, less fussy or any more reliable in terms of baking results than the humble cupcake. If you find it boring, then it’s because you haven’t begun to exploit the glorious powers of the cupcake. Get adventurous. Try hollowing the heart of your cupcakes with a melon baller and pipe in a frosting in a different flavour from your swirl of buttercream frosting at the top. You could try using different jams too. Don’t forget to spruce up the frosting with different textures like sprinkles, candies, nuts, chocolate shavings, toffee bits, bits of fruit and even crumbled meringue or crushed cookies. There is no limit to what you can dream up with cupcakes, just remember that the best ones have an element of surprise!
I’ve probably gotten more calls and messages regarding cupcake fixes than any other baking catastrophes, well—other than the usual fondant decorating crises. A friend of mine asked me the other day, “How do I NOT screw up my cupcakes?” I reckon there are a few iron rules I can swear by in all my years of learning how to master the perfect cupcake. Very rarely do I ever ‘screw mine up’ as my friend calls it and if I do, it’s usually inattention, forgetting some of these iron rules, or, if I’m just…feeling blue and shouldn’t be baking! My number one rule? Never bake when you are sad. Not unless it cheers you up again and you’ll be eating all of that yourself!
#Number 1: Read through the entire recipe!
Have you got, in your possession, ALL ingredients ready to go? Not just the ingredients, but the tools and knick knacks like cupcake baking tins, cupcake patty liners(those pleated paper thin cups to spoon your batter into) and electric beaters if required.
If you’re a Type A personality, it would do well to note that nothing is quite worse than not reading through your recipe thoroughly just to ensure that you have all the baking tools, equipment and sufficient ingredients for your cupcake. Some frosting recipes have things like double cream or unsalted butter which you may not stock readily in your stash of refrigerated dairy supplies. Or, if you needed half a cup of milk but have less than that left from this morning’s cereal for breakfast!
There are recipes that use self-raising flour or brown sugar that you may not have in your pantry if you don’t bake regularly. I can’t stress this number one rule enough. REEEEEAAAAD your recipe.
#Number 2: Let all refrigerated ingredients come to room temperature.
One of the things I don’t do is refrigerate my eggs as I frequently bake, and find it a hassle to have my eggs thawed to room temperature. I prefer to do frequent shopping, but if you do refrigerate your eggs, ensure you take the vital step to let them come to room temperature before baking. Let butter soften and let milk sit for a bit (not too long though) before you commence. Why is this crucial to perfect cupcakes? The last thing you need is batter that is clumpy or tough due to contraction of ingredients that are too cold.
#Number 3: Measure once, measure twice, measure again.
If you want perfect cupcakes, I recommend an electronic scale. Not only will you end up with the exact weight of flours rather than struggle with recipe conversions (who needs to tear their hair out wondering what is the imperial to metric for such and such), you will be able to more accurately ascertain quantities of wet ingredients such as oil, water and milk. Using measuring cups are ok, but often not the most accurate.
#Number 4: Sift the dry ingredients.
My rule is, sift, sift and sift again. Get rid of all lumps and aerate the flours, not forgetting that baking cocoa, cream of tar tar, icing sugar, bi-carbonate or baking powders should also be sifted if possible. Lumps of dry flour and powdered ingredients in the early stages can cause lumps in the batter.
#Number 5: Don’t over-mix or over-work your cupcake batter.
Over-mixed batter coagulate the proteins in the flour(which is the gluten portion of it) and cause the batter to get sticky or grainy, affecting the rise of your cupcakes. The final consistency of your cupcake batter should be light with adequate aeration and just enough mixing. I find that using handheld electric beaters help me to administer better control with my mixing than using my Kitchen Aid that I tend to leave to leave whisking as I work on other tasks. If you’re using a stand mixer like the Kitchen Aid, ensure you pay full attention and beat on a lower speed till just well-mixed.
#Number 6: Take it easy with the extra fillings.
Mix in the extras like nuts, dried fruit or chocolate chips only after the dry ingredients have been mixed into a batter with the liquid ingredients like milk or oil. Mixing the extra fillings too prematurely into the dry ingredients will cause cupcakes to sink, affecting your overall baking result. Take care not to ‘overload’ your cupcake batter. Also, I used a folding spatula to mix in the extra fillings rather than beat them into the batter with mixers.
#Number 7: Equal amounts of batter=Equal cupcake sizes
One rule of perfecting cupcakes is to ensure you pour equal amounts of batter into your patty tins. Eliminate once and for all, unsightly, uneven heights of cupcakes with varying degrees of taste. The small ones are overdone and the overflowing ones may be undercooked inside. I use an ice-cream scoop or pipe mine using a Large-sized round tip to ensure I get them perfect. Fill them to a maximum of one thirds the height of your baking cups if you want the tops slightly curved or rounded. If you prefer ‘level’ tops, fill to just half full before baking.
#Number 8: Not all ovens are created the same.
Remember that the baking times and oven temperatures for cupcakes vary from one recipe to the next and so does the temperature of different ovens. Try to use the fan-forced function on your oven if you have one as I find this function will give the most consistent reliable results. If using a conventional oven, the cupcakes on the inside may take slightly longer to cook than the ones nearer to the outer edge. Use a wooden, steel skewer or an uncooked stick of spaghetti to test for ‘doneness’ by piercing it into the centre. If the skewer comes out ‘clean’, the cupcake is done.
#Number 9: Do not open the oven door no matter how tempted you are!
Try not to ‘peek’ at your cupcakes (or anything else for that matter) by opening the oven door before it beeps. The sudden temperature plunge may sink the centres of your cupcakes. If you worry about burning them, your safer bet would be to lower your temperature slightly by 10 degrees from the recipe just to see if they will be perfect for your oven. Trial and error with temperature adjustments is the best way to ensure what’s perfect in the case of your particular oven.
#Number 10: Cool down your cupcakes completely on a wire rack before frosting them.
Also, if you are not intending to eat them or display them for your event yet, store them in an airtight container at room temperature for a maximum of three days, then frost them just before your event starts. Do not freeze them if possible, and consume them fresh. If you must freeze them to save time, ensure they are frozen plain without frosting, and thaw them completely to room temperature before you start frosting them. Do not leave cupcakes with buttercream frosting or meringue frosting at room temperature in hot weather for more than a few hours, or risk food poisoning.
My last tip? Decorate your cupcakes beautifully and with as much imagination as you can muster!
The best cupcakes are those that just beckon to guests to be picked up and bitten into!