Monday, March 10, 2008

Cupcake Love

Cupcakes, it would seem, are all the rage. From New York City's celebrated Magnolia Bakery (famous for their Red Velvet Cupcakes) to San Francisco's imaginative Citizen Cake (and now Citizen Cupcake!), cupcakes have captured our hearts. Dozens of cupcake instruction manuals line the baking sections of bookstores such as Dede Wilson's "A Baker's Field Guide to Cupcakes" and "Cupcakes" by Elinor Klivans. There's even a website called "Cool Cupcakes" for all your cupcake decorating needs (see links).

In the past, cupcakes seemed to be reserved for children's parties and casual family gatherings. Now you see them at black-tie events and weddings (I don't know what happens with the traditional "cutting of the cake" but the presentations I have seen are gorgeous and it certainly makes serving effortless). Not only are cupcakes chic, they are often the pièce de résistance of the dessert cart - edging out Crème Brûlée and Flourless Chocolate Cake in popularity.

Baking equipment and supplies designed specifically for cupcakes are selling like ... well, cupcakes. Wilton Industries offers a little kit called "Cupcake Heaven", a 12-piece cupcake decorating set that sells at Target and other stores for under $10. Several manufacturers sell covered cupcake pans, some with extra high tops to protect more elaborate frostings, making portability a snap. Cupcake "tiers" make a dynamite presentation and they can be had for only a few dollars. Cupcake liners are available with every possible decor geared to holidays and special events. In addition to the three pan sizes for conventional cupcakes (mini, regular, and jumbo), Wilton, King Arthur Flour, and other outlets also sell a giant cupcake pan with a 10-cup capacity. This isn't really a cupcake, however, but might be a whimsical alternative to a conventional birthday cake. There are silicone pans and cupcake liners, too - but there's something about those little paper liners that makes cupcakes unique and I prefer conventional pans for baking anyway.

You don't really need a cookbook devoted to cupcakes to make these divine confections (although these volumes offer many decorating ideas). Virtually any recipe for a layer or 13"x9" cake will work for cupcakes (just be sure that the capacity of the pans is the same as that of the recipe and don't fill the individual cups more than 2/3 full). Angel Food and Chiffon Cake recipes work just fine, too. Chiffon cakes work especially well for whipped cream injected cakes, as they have to be refrigerated and Chiffon Cakes, being oil-based, don't get hard in the refrigerator. The flavor possibilities for cupcakes are nearly endless and embellishments can be as easy as a sprinkling of powdered sugar or as elaborate as candied violets and edible gold leaf.

My favorite cupcake? Almond-flavored White Cake injected with a bit of raspberry jam and frosted with white buttercream. Or is it Coconut Cupcakes with tart lemon filling and showered with flaked coconut, or ... I'm reminded of my father when asked what his favorite opera might be - "The last one I heard", he would reply. My favorite cupcake? Probably the last one I ate. What makes a cupcake special is that everyone has their own little cake, and frankly, a freshly baked cupcake just lifts one's spirits

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