Talk about opportunism. It's not that I wasn't excited to have my youngest sister back in town for a few short weeks, and it's not that I didn't want her to know that we're glad to have her here. It's just that lately I might as well be spring loaded for the speed with which I launch into "bake like there's no tomorrow" mode. If there's an opportunity for me to don my apron and make a mess in the kitchen, I'm there, and making such a mess that it spills out into the living room, with cooling racks on the dining room table and bags of sugar and flour on the table by the front door. Carpe diem indeed. It's more like carpe diem, carpe opportunitatem, and if it's a rather involved project, carpe alterum diem.
But this post isn't about my ever-more-maniacal baking fervor, and it's not a post about Sister #2--who, despite being awesome, is not something you can cook and eat, at least not in what we consider polite society. It's a post about cupcakes. In celebration of her return from Hahvahd Yahd, and in a nod to the fact that she, Sister #1, and I share a passion for cupcakes, I decided to make some for her.
As much as I love full-sized cakes--especially layer cakes, in which you get cake and icing sandwiched together so that each bite sends you undulating from cake to icing to cake and back again... wait, where was I?--there's something fun and, to me, nearly irresistible about cupcakes. They are without question my favorite dessert, and the dessert I have the most difficulty in resisting* should one be placed in front of me--or within a 100 yard radius of me.
First of all, they're cake, which should at least put them in the top five, if not seal the deal altogether. Second, they're miniature versions of their full-sized cousins, often re-imagined and crafted into petite fancies that delight the eyes as well as appealing to the taste buds. Somehow that tiny little canvas lends itself exceptionally well to inventive decoration. Third, they're cake. What's not to love??
Having established that cupcakes were the way to go, the only question was what flavor(s). I toyed with the notion of turning my Mother's Day cake into cupcakes, and will probably return to that idea eventually, but it didn't seem quite right. Then it occurred to me that what with Harvard's school colors being red and white--indeed, their mascot is the Crimson--there was only one kind of cake that would be truly appropriate: red velvet.
This red velvet cake isn't as strikingly (or shockingly) red as many others out there. It owes its darker mahogany shade to a higher amount of cocoa powder. It's not quite a chocolate cake, though; the flavor dances around in the space between a yellow cake and a chocolate cake, neither plain nor overwhelmingly dark and chocolatey. Its hearty color belies its delicate texture--so delicate that extra care is warranted when handling layers of the stuff, and teeth or a fork sink into the cake with virtually no resistance. Although you'll see red velvet described as "tacky" or "vampy," this particular cake tastes and feels refined.
Furthering that refined feeling, the icing takes a traditional cream cheese icing and adds not only mascarpone cheese for richness, but whipped cream for lightness. Icing lovers, rejoice: this one is heaven. I thought that I had found my true love in icing form with Swiss buttercream, and now this mascarpone cream cheese icing just might steal the buttercream's crown. Pipe it atop feather-light and subtly ruddy little cakes like these, and take some to welcome a loved one home. She'll be grinning an icing-laced grin from ear to ear.
Update: fixed the broken link to the original icing recipe.
* Right between my local Sur la Table and the little cantina that sells my favorite chopped salad is a cupcake shop. It's been there for months, and after what seemed like an eternity of "being good," last week I finally caved and bought a vanilla cupcake with chocolate icing. I was psyched, but frankly, and much to my disappointment, it wasn't all that: vaguely stale cake with a not-very-tender crumb and icing that had more acidity than chocolate flavor. Even I can do better than that. Admittedly, one cupcake is a small sample size, but when some two-bit amateur can outdo your professional bake shop, you should probably step it up a notch or two.
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Monday, July 20, 2009