Thursday, June 17, 2010

Catching Up With Cupcakes

Hellooo? This thing on?

I feel like I have just come off some sort of crafting/hostess marathon; it's been non-stop action since the end of May. I was swamped with birthday projects, then we celebrated the day, my in-laws came the next day and were here for five days, during their visit I ran around non-stop tending to some low-fi business ventures, my in-laws left, and four days later we had a birthday party.  Whew! I am pooped. We have a couple of weeks to get ready for the next round or three of houseguests - our home is going to be a busy place this summer. 

We had a tiny party for Piper on Sunday, and I do mean tiny. We invited a couple of her little friends (and their parents, who are our friends), a couple of our friends, and turned everyone loose in the house. The total count was less than a dozen people including us. I did bake my ass off for the occasion, though (or, considering all the butter that went into those Martha Stewart recipes, perhaps I mean I baked my ass on).

I made these first, Margarita Cupcakes with Tequila-Lime Glaze, from Gail Wagman's Cupcakes Galore. The cupcake part went well enough; I swapped out the white sugar for agave nectar, since I am on a quest to eliminate white granulated sugar from our household and I knew at least one of our adult guests was a diabetic. It went pretty well, resulting in only a slightly denser cake than usual. This recipe is really, really good and contains actual tequila (as does the glaze) so they really tasted like margaritas when they were done! The worst part was grating all that lime rind. The glaze...well, I'll get to that. 

Exhibit number two: I borrowed a friend's copy of Martha Stewart's Cupcakes to make these babies. Strawberry cupcakes with strawberry meringue buttercream frosting. And holy crap, they were good. At least, the second batch were. The first batch nearly defeated me. I was a little afraid of swapping out the white sugar for agave nectar, as I've generally found Martha's recipes do not tolerate substitution very well. During the mixing stage, I added four whole eggs instead of three eggs and one egg white, and while speculating on that extra yolk's possible effects, a long hard look at the batter led me to conclude I'd used too much agave nectar. I didn't want to throw it out, so, buoyed by the spirit of improvisation (and some tequila-soaked strawberries from the punch I was making), I threw in some ground cinnamon and almond extract, dumped it into round cake pans, and baked up a couple of freezer-friendly coffee cakes to serve when we have company next month. I realized while I was measuring ingredients for round two that I had also screwed up the baking powder in the first batch, and the finished cakes were pretty dense, but also buttery and flavorful. They will be great sliced into finger-size pieces and dipped in a cup of coffee.

For the second batch I went back and consulted Heidi, re-reading what she had to say about swapping sweetners. I decided that my mistake was in not following my instincts the first time around; the recipe called for more than two cups of white granulated sugar, and I had doled out the agave in proportion to that number. Normally, even if I were baking with white sugar, I would've cut that amount at least in half, as I do with the sweetners in nearly every recipe I make. The second time around, I used a mere 3/4 cup of agave nectar, double-checked my measured ingredients, and ate some more tequila-soaked strawberries reduced my baking temperature as per Heidi's instructions. The finished products required a double-baking; I had to pop them in for a few minutes the next morning to firm up their middles. I think the combination of liquid agave and disagreeing with Martha about what constitutes "finely chopped" strawberries made the cakes a little mushy, but they (mostly) firmed up during the second, lower-temperature, bake.

After the first pan of 12 cakes went into the oven, I added some lemon extract and grated a little lemon rind into the batter to make strawberry-lemon cupcakes. Strawberries and lemons are two of Piper's favorite things; she will eat both straight-up and right out of the fridge, so I ran with it. Those turned out pretty well, too, lemony without overpowering the strawberry flavor.

The morning of the party, I found myself trying to get a tequila-lime glaze to set at 10:00 a.m., mixing and re-mixing as per the instructions but producing only a runny green syrup that tasted good, even if it refused to stay atop the cupcakes. I don't know if it was the tequila in the glaze, the heat in the kitchen, or some sort of food-photography trickery, but it just ran off the cakes and puddled on the plate. Frustrated, I stuck it in the fridge for a while and moved on to the complicated strawberry-meringue buttercream frosting recipe.

Oh, Martha! Your cupcakes nearly undid me, but this stuff more than made up for it. I did not try any fancy substitutions this time, followed the instructions exactly, and was rewarded with a mixer-bowl brimful of fluffy strawberry goodness. Even my husband, who normally avoids any sort of fruit-flavored baked good was found licking the beaters and muttering "There's three sticks of butter in this...huge bowl...we are so screwed."

We quickly discovered that it's pretty hard to pipe a frosting full of seeds and the occasional chunk of fresh strawberry, and by now we were pressed for time, so I settled for dropping dollops of the stuff on and topping with cut strawberries, which resulted in a picture at least somewhat like the one in the book. The lime glaze, on the other hand, refused to set and look like the thick green layer atop the cupcakes in the recipe's photos, so I just drizzled it on and hoped for the best. I had tried to make candied lime slices the previous night to use on the cupcakes, but it turns out when you boil limes in sugar syrup, they turn a sickly green color that is not at all appetizing.

I put the margarita cupcakes and the tequila punch out of the kids' reach, set snacks, a homemade cheese ball, and sliced fruit on the table, made some unsweetened tea, strawberry lemonade, and put some Izze juices in a bucket of ice, and made little signs for everything. Then I sat down with a cup of punch and enjoyed the party. I think everyone had a pretty good time, Piper played until she was exhausted, and most of the food disappeared, so I called it a success. I made some pretty cool decorations, but those will have to wait until another post. Until then, have another look at these puppies:

Mmmm...I'll leave you with your drool.

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