Friday, June 25, 2010

Let me entertain you

One night when I was about the age that Isabel is now, my mother marched downstairs and unplugged the TV while I was watching Gypsy because it was past my bedtime and she disapproved of television. This was the pre-VCR era when, if you wanted to see a movie after it left the theaters, you had to catch it on TV at 6:30 a.m. on Saturday or Tuesday night at 10 and you had to watch it right then, start to finish, or you might wait years to find out what happened to Natalie Wood after Rosalind Russell forced her to strip. I still don't know. As a teenager, I felt the same devotion to pop culture that I've recently heard several gay men (Glee producer Ryan Murphy, John Waters) describe on Fresh Air, which is to say, I lived for Dallas, ad-interrupted airings of Rosemary's Baby, the West Side Story soundtrack and Sidney Sheldon novels. That I am not a nattily dressed Hollywood "creative" chuckling with Terry on NPR is a both a mystery and a crime. 

I will draw a curtain over what happened after my mother unplugged the TV. Suffice it to say, we did not speak for days. It was one of our six worst fights ever. She used say to me, I can't wait until YOU have a daughter of your own and I hope she's as blah blah blah and blah blah blah as you are! Furiously. Perhaps while brandishing a wooden spoon and chasing me out the front door. 

You're wondering if I'm kidding. I'll leave you to wonder. But I can assure you, if my mother did chase me out the door with a wooden spoon, and I'm not saying she did, I fully deserved it. We were very different people. She was (then) stern, judgmental, and baffled by me. I was (then) resentful, rebellious, and baffled by her.
 
In recent decades we both softened and grew very, very close. I miss my mother more than I can say, and think of her hourly. But I have spent the last 13 years waiting for her curse to come true, for the epic battles between Isabel and me to commence.

Recently, though, it dawned on me that while various misfortunes lie in store for me, as they do for all of us, a dysfunctional relationship with my daughter is unlikely to be among them. Isabel is well into the Abercrombie/eye shadow/Gossip Girl phase but there's still this rainbow over the two of us that's been there since she was seven or eight. I had no idea this was even possible.

Anyway, that's my long way of introducing the cupcake bake-off we held the other afternoon, during the brief hiatus between the end of the school year and camp. A cupcake bake-off is my idea of a good time and it turns out Isabel feels exactly the same way. We're trying to find the perfect cupcake recipe and we were sure we'd do so by the end of the escapade. 
We did not. Although we had a very august tasting panel, it reached no firm conclusions except that we must work harder to achieve a cupcake that tastes like Thomas Keller's but has the texture of Duncan Hines.

Ranked from best to worst cupcake:

1. Thomas Keller's vanilla cupcake from Ad Hoc At Home. This estimable cupcake, which calls for the whites of the eggs rather than whole eggs, was a bit dry. But the vanilla flavor was intense and perfectly articulated.

2. 1-2-3-4 cupcakes. This is the formula underlying many butter cake recipes: 1 cup butter, 2 cups sugar, 3 cups flour, 4 eggs -- plus 1 cup of milk, 2 teaspoons baking powder, and some vanilla. The resulting cupcakes were richer and moister (more moist?) than the Keller cakes, but lacked the purity of flavor.

3. Susan Purdy's yellow cake from The Perfect Cake. This is a modified 1-2-3-4 cake, and was hard to distinguish from 1-2-3-4, but everyone liked it slightly less.

4. Duncan Hines mix. My husband's favorite. All other tasters were put off by the 
factory fragrance, including two 9-year-old boys. On the plus side, these were fluffy and incredibly light. Placed on a scale, the mix cupcakes weigh about a third less than any of the others. So how do you get the airiness of mix with the flavor of homemade? Ideas?
 

32 comments:

  1. That is fascinating! I'm wondering if it has to do with the eggs, or the flour. In the Keller cupcakes, were the whites beaten separately? How about in the 1-2-3-4? I'm baffled about the idea of flour, too. I mean, flour is flour, unless you're using whole wheat, and I know you didn't. I wonder if it has to do with prodigious amounts of baking powder in the Duncan Hines mix, leading to a "factory" taste. Just some ideas. I can't wait to see if someone else knows!

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  2. This intrigues me. I'm insanely curious about what perfectly articulated vanilla in a cupcake tastes like, though I don't think I'm willing to go out and buy the book to find out...

    Also? I'm jealous of your rainbow. My 13 year old and I don't live under a perpetual tornado watch, but we don't have rainbows, either...

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  3. My mom used to say the exact same thing to me, until the day when I was about 15 and I replied back "Why not, you did". She actually never said that again. I have no daughters, only sons, and I probably would not say that anyway. Offspring have a way of doing newly annoying things that you never would have forseen...

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  4. Moister is fine by me.

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  5. I recently made Golden Cupcakes from Food and Wine Magazine. Easy to make even when your toddler is running around like crazy and a picture frame falls to the ground and the glass shatters, but I digress. The flavor is how I think a cupcake mix should taste. Simple flavors, moist texture but without any chemical overtones.

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  6. mmm, a pound cake 1:1:1 ratio is really nice -- 0.5cup each butter/sugar/flour + an egg + some milk -- fluffy and moist because there isn't too much flour (Nigella Lawson's How To Be A Domestic Goddess). does the keller cupcake use vanilla beans, vanilla extract or both? is that why it's so perfectly vanilla'd?

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  7. I know this is maybe creepy, but maybe try a cupcake with oil in it.

    I have been trying to make butter cakes for YEARS. And they tend to be dry or flavorless or way too much work. Seriously, I do not need to separate eggs,and wash that many bowls. I just want a cake.

    SO recently I started baking on a small scale for a local sandwich shop and they use oil recipes similar to those used by Ina Garten. Those puppies are good. However, they are maybe not for purists.

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  8. May I ask a stupid question - is there a difference between cupcakes and muffins? And if yes, what is it? Enquiring (european) minds want to know.
    I bake quite a few muffins and often substitute oil for butter, if I have none to spare. Usually the result is quite good. I also don't like to use milk but often use sour cream or jogurt instead...

    Finally, flour can be finer grained or less so - which affects the baking result. Generally speaking, I am just puzzled by the idea of a ready bought baking mix, but that is the oldfashioned European in me. These packages make slow inroads into our supermarkets so not everyone seems to feel like me, but most people are still able to mix up some flour and suger themselves.

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  9. I agree about the sour cream or yogurt...it always works well in my pancake recipes.

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  10. as you already know, i second the oil suggestion! that's the vegan recipe way, and i swear by it.

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  11. "It was one of our six worst fights ever."

    That precise number is one of the many things that makes your blog so enjoyable and, you know, book worthy.

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  12. I've been making Rose Levy Beranbaum's yellow cake cupcakes from Rose's Heavenly Cakes lately. Like all her recipes, they're finicky, but pretty good.

    Also, the sleeper hit of the cupcake bonanza that I made for my cousin's wedding last summer was a Martha Stewart recipe that is meant as a coconut cake base. All egg yolks, which leaves more whites for the 7-minute frosting.

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  13. I agree with those who name oil as the key to a cake-mix-like airy cupcake since oil is the fat in cake made from a mix. (Did Gertrude Stein write that sentence?) And bleached cake flour.

    I've never attempted it myself, but I suspect that a chiffon cake recipe would give you the texture you're seeking. I Googled "chiffon cupcake" and Alton Brown's Chiffon Cupcakes is the No. 1 hit. It has somewhat mixed reviews, but I suspect the negative votes are from those who don't measure the flour, or who simply lack the chops of a tipsy baker. The Tartine cookbook also has a good, basic chiffon cake recipe, with several variations (orange, coconut, chocolate, etc.).

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  14. Thank-you for all your ideas! I am going to do some experimenting this week with Alton Brown's recipe, Rose B., Martha S., oil, yogurt, and cake flour. Will report back.
    To LizA -- I have always wondered about the difference between muffins and cupcakes. Here's a funny, somewhat informative blog item: http://www.cakespy.com/blog-old/2008/6/1/cupcakes-vs-muffins-an-epic-battle-and-some-big-questions.html

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  15. Martha Stewart's (I know, I know) cupcake book has a recipe for buttermilk cupcakes that are so soft and moist...mmmmmm. They might solve your dryness dilemma.

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  16. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  17. My daughter is a month old today and it breaks my heart to think she might ever think of me the way I think of my own mother. I'm so hopeful for that rainbow of yours.

    As for cupcakes, since the new grocery down the street sells Cupcake Royale cupcakes, I have no need to make my own.

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  18. Yeah, it makes sense that the Keller cupcakes would be dry - like, egg whites add structure to cakes and dries them outs, while the yolks add fat and moisture. You can also try to cut the bake time to see if they'll turn out better - like, start checking them 5-10 minutes before the recipe says they'll be done to see if they're done. Bake time is so crazy - like, if your oven is running a little hotter that day then stuff will totally get done early.

    I second the comments on trying a cake with oil - it's the oil (and, probably horrible chemicals) that give those cake mixes that light and fluffy texture. Also, what about buttermilk? I make a chocolate cupcake that uses buttermilk and I subbed in melted butter for the oil, and they have that nice fluffy texture that I like. I've made this vanilla cupcake recipe from the Washington Post and, while it's a little finicky, it came out with that super-light texture that reminded me of boxed cake: http://projects.washingtonpost.com/recipes/2008/11/05/best-buns-vanilla-cupcakes/?s_pos=list

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