Thursday, 18 September 2014

Chocolate and Salted Caramel Cupcakes

Cupcakes have been getting a bad press lately. Ruby Tandoh, Guardian columnist and finalist of last year’s Great British Bake Off, showed her feelings clearly, when she posted a picture on Twitter of a poor, unsuspecting cupcake moments after she had smashed it to smithereens with a hammer. “What have cupcakes ever done to her?” one might reasonably ask. They might not be fashionable anymore, but neither is Lindsay Lohan and you wouldn’t hit her with a hammer. I think it’s time to take a good, hard look at this irrational backlash and learn to live in harmony alongside cupcakes once again. After all, neither cupcakes nor Lindsay Lohan are going to go away without a fight.

Cupcakes are no longer the cool kids on the patisserie block. They’ve had their status unsettled by everything from whoopie pies and macarons to marshmallows and doughnuts. Everyone and their aunt has been declaring the death of the cupcake for at least the last 10 years, or whenever it was that Sex and the City shut up shop and aired its final episode (and no, I’m not including those post-series’ films they defecated on our cinema screens with). 

The main beef people seem to have about cupcakes, apart from moaning about getting icing on their noses (Christ alive! Just learn to eat properly, will you), is that there is too much topping hiding a dry, flavourless cake. Now, I’m not going to pretend I’ve eaten all the cupcakes out there, but I’d wager actual money that these over-iced dusty sponges are just examples of bad cakes, pure and simple. It’s not the cupcake’s fault that some people can’t bake. I’ve eaten just as many bad Victoria Sponges and bad flapjacks as I’ve eaten bad cupcakes. 

Then you have the, “Whatever happened to fairy cakes?” brigade. As if this apparent cupcake invasion has pushed our smaller indigenous bakes to near extinction. They’re probably the same people who let Spanish bluebells overtake their gardens.  If you’re going to get all patriotic in our faces about something, surely you can do better than getting a bit shirty about the imaginary demise of the fairy cake.

There’s actually very little to separate them. Fairy cakes are just a bit smaller, which is why we ate so many more of them when we were still little enough to get excited about going to birthday parties that included musical bumps and paper cups filled with Tizer.  It’s nostalgia gone mad! Please let’s not pretend anyone ever got excited about the watery sugar icing on top, which added absolutely no flavour, just extra and unnecessary sweetness. It’s not even a matter of buttercream either. What’s a butterfly cake if not a slightly deconstructed cupcake after all? It might be super cool to bang on about how crap cupcakes are at the moment, but I will roll my eyes at you every single time you do, before shutting you up by stuffing one of these straight into your gaping cake hole.

If you like cake, you will like a good cupcake. What’s more, they’re portable and you don’t even need a plate. If you don’t like too much icing, then don’t put so much on. It’s not rocket science. Though I find it genuinely baffling that those who declare a hyper-sensitivity to the buttercream on cupcakes will eat just as much of the stuff, if not more, when it’s in the middle and on top of a slice of sandwich cake.

Aren’t we bored of this sustained attack on cupcakes yet? Why the contempt? There’s really nothing here to get a wasp up your bum over. They’re just little cakes, folks, give them a break.

Chocolate and Salted Caramel Cupcakes

Preheat the oven to 180°C (160°C fan)/350°F/Gas Mark 4 and line a 12-hole muffin tray with cupcake cases

Makes 12

For the cakes

50g dark chocolate
100ml whole milk
115g dark muscovado sugar
40g soft, unsalted butter
1 large egg, beaten
1 tsp. vanilla essence
110g plain flour
1 level tbsp. cocoa
1 tsp. bicarbonate of soda
A pinch of salt

For the salted caramel

200g light muscovado sugar
1 tsp. vanilla essence
80g butter
100ml double cream
1 tsp. salt

For the buttercream

125g soft, unsalted butter
250g icing sugar
Half of the cooled salted caramel (above)

Chocolate covered popping candy to decorate (optional)

To make the cakes, put the chocolate, milk and one-third of the sugar in a saucepan and stir over a gentle heat until the sugar has dissolved and the chocolate has melted. Leave to cool.

Cream together the butter and sugar until pale and fluffy and gradually whisk in the beaten egg and vanilla essence until fully combined. Tip over the cooled chocolate milk and sift over the dry ingredients. Whisk it all together until combined and divide the mixture between the cake cases. Bake for 20 minutes, or until an inserted skewer comes out clean.

In the meantime, make the salted caramel. Simply bung all the ingredients in a saucepan over a gentle heat and stir until the sugar has dissolved and the butter has melted. Increase the heat and let the mixture come to a rolling boil. Reduce to temperature again and leave to simmer for a minute. Taste for saltiness (careful, it’s hot!) and add more if you like. Leave to cool.

Once the cakes are out of the oven, stab them all over with a skewer and spread a spoonful of salted caramel on top. Leave the cakes to cool completely in their tin on top of a wire rack before turning out.

To make the buttercream, put the butter in a large bowl and sift over half of the icing sugar. Whisk together to combine and sift over the remaining half of the icing sugar. Whisk again until fully combined before adding half of the cold salted caramel. Whisk until pale and fluffy and taste, adding more salted caramel if you want.

Spoon the buttercream into a piping bag fitted with a star nozzle and pipe a swirl of buttercream on top of each cake. Flick over some more salted caramel and scatter over some chocolate coated popping candy.

Monday, 1 September 2014

Lemon and Poppy Seed Cupcakes

There is the too soon smell of autumn in the air. On the one hand, this sudden change in weather is making me crave venison stew with dumplings and blackberry crumble, but on the other, it is awakening my contrary and recalcitrant nature. I might be shivering, but I am barefoot and t-shirt clad because it is still officially summer, damn it, and I refuse to give up on this season ungrudgingly. In an effort to keep the sunshine on my plate, if not on my face, I am turning to lemons for their summery citrus flavour and sunshine yellow colour.

But it is still cold and grey outside and a general malaise has overtaken me. This feeling always comes at this time of year because, regardless of how long has past since my school days, I have been conditioned to approach September with a sense of foreboding. Can it really be time for the first term back at school so soon? It’s like an exaggeration of my Pavlovian response to the Antiques Roadshow theme tune – nothing can jolt you into realising the weekend has nearly gone and you haven’t done your homework yet quite like it. If you’re anything like me, in order to cope with the sense of doom created from imaginary homework, you’ll need plenty of cake.

Lemon and poppy seed cake will fill your belly with enough sunshine to help ward off the invading autumn chill.  With nephews and nieces due for a visit over the weekend, I opted to bake cupcakes – small enough for little mouths, but big enough to satisfying the greediest of grown ups too. These cupcakes don’t really need the swirl of buttercream on top, if you don’t want it, but I can assure you, it goes down a treat with the under 10s - especially if you give them back to their parents soon enough after eating that any sugar-induced bouncing off the walls is left for when they get home.

Lemon and Poppy seed Cupcakes

Makes 12

For the cake

150g soft, unsalted butter
150g caster sugar
3 eggs, beaten
150g self-raising flour (or rice flour plus 1 tsp. baking powder for gluten-free)
The grated zest of 2 unwaxed lemons
1 tbsp. poppy seeds
A splash of milk, if needed

For the syrup

50g caster sugar
The juice of 1 lemon

For the buttercream

110g soft, unsalted butter
220g icing sugar, sifted
The juice of 1 lemon

Preheat the oven to 180°C (160°C fan)/350°F/Gas Mark 4. Line a 12-hole muffin tray with cupcake cases.

Cream the butter and sugar together until light and fluffy. Gradually add the egg, whisking between each addition. Sift over the flour and whisk in until combined. If the cake batter is too stiff you can add a splash of milk to slightly slacken it if needed. Fold through the lemon zest and poppy seeds. Divide the mixture between the cupcake cases. The mixture should not fill the cases more than three-quarters. Bake for 20 minutes or until an inserted skewer comes out clean.

While the cakes are baking, make the syrup by simple stirring the lemon juice and sugar together in a jug. Once the cakes come out of the oven, stab them all over with a skewer and pour a little syrup over each of the hot cakes. Leave to cool in the tin for 10 minutes, before transferring the cakes to a wire rack to cool completely.

To make the buttercream, whisk the butter in a large bowl until light and fluffy. Sift over half of the icing sugar and whisk to incorporate. Sift over the remaining icing sugar and continue to whisk until light and fluffy. Add the lemon juice and whisk again to combine. Spoon your lemon buttercream into a piping bag fitted with a star shaped nozzle and pipe in a circular motion over the tops of your cold cakes. Add sprinkles, if you wish, and serve.