(From that title, it’s apparent what is on my reading list lately). Here’s my rather sad little cupcake (the rest have been discarded):
On Friday Kathryn and I were in Starbucks admiring those yummy looking cupcakes they sell. I have yet to go to Sweet in the South End or any of those places in NYC that inspired the craze for the picture perfect, candy colored fanstasy cupcakes, (though Marie had some at her wedding that were delicious so I can see what the buzz is about). Thus I have settled for admiring the Starbucks version, which I am sure, is probably a pale imitation. We both talked about how we should make cupcakes this weekend. I also felt I needed a test run before little E’s birthday (coming up soon!!!). I decided to try to use the rest of my one-year-old vanilla beans–it worked the last time–so I soaked them in water when I got home so that later that evening they’d be hydrated enough to use. I found a recipe on Chowhound that seemed perfect–besides using up the bean, it also called for two egg whites–which I have sitting in the freezer. (I have no idea for how long–in fact there was quite a coating of ice on it when I pulled it out). Because I didn’t want to wait the hours and hours it would take for the whites to unfreeze, I put them on the lowest power in the microwave to defrost. So far so good–there were a few little white curds that I think cooked, but the rest was defrosted while still cool, so I was confident they were undamaged. I also needed cake flour–and only had all purpose. I had seen something about adding cornstarch to regular flour to substitute for cake flour. I couldn’t remember the proportions, but I decided on one teaspoon per cup. (OK, I know most people, including myself, don’t use cake flour even where it’s called for and AP is just fine. But I figured I might as well try the substitution, as it couldn’t hurt).
So I followed the recipe–which called for quite a while spent creaming the butter and then the butter and sugar. I know there’s something about aerating the butter to help give cake a nice soft yet airy texture, so I figured this was just to make sure these cupcakes were truly light. All went well, I filled the muffin tray and hoped that the cupcakes would not be too big–as I realized I had overfilled the wells in the pan.
Well, 18 minutes later, far from bubbling over the side of the tin they hadn’t even risen very much and what’s more were still soupy in the center. How could this be? I added another 5 minutes, and another…then I got suspicious. I put the oven thermometer back in to check and saw that, far from 350 degrees, that the oven was at 260! I was crestfallen–“please, little oven, don’t die on us!” Why was this suddenly happening? I then thought about the fact that I had recently put the rack at the lowest level of the oven, where it sort of presses a bit on the heating coil. I took it out in the hopes that this was the problem, while hot. Probably not the smartest thing to do but I was desperate to see if my “solution” would work. (As it was stuck a bit on the coil it was a bit of an effort and I was a little reticent to depress the coil to get the rack out. Leading my husband to call “what are you DOING?” and “can’t you try to fix it tomorrow”). Anyway, I did get it out and miraculously it seemed to fix the problem. So, I reasoned, the second batch of cupcakes woudl turn out much better. (Let’s not think abuot the next time we try to cook a turkey, on the other hand).
Well, they did cook in the prescribed 18 minutes but otherwise were not much better (though they at least rose a little). First, it seemed like there was a crust of sugar at the top of each muffin, as if I had heavily sprinkled them with sugar before putting them in the oven (heavily sprinkled? Is that an oxymoron?) What’s more, this crusty top reminded me a bit of a meringue. It’s as if the sugar and egg white had separated out of the batter and rose to the top. The rest of the cupcake, while not tough, was almost like soft grains of bread. I know I didn’t overmix the batter, so I’m not sure why the texture was so off…it wasn’t chewy as if the gluten was overdeveloped, but it was kind of dry and overly crumbly, and certainly not tender as a good cupcake should be. Also it seemed like some of the butter had melted out the bottom of the cupcake, rather than staying incorporated into the batter. It looked as if I had poured oil in the bottom of the cupcake mold (yes, because it leaked through the paper cup to some extent).
So was it:
1. The oven? I think not since batch #2 was also less-than-stellar despite the temperature problem being resolved. The only thing I can think of there is that like madeleines, it’s a batter that has to be baked immediately once mixed.
2. The egg whites? I have had success with frozen egg whites in the past, but even those have a freezer shelf life. Considering I don’t even know what they were from and the fact that they looked like they had emerged from some godforsaken winterscape, they might just have been past their prime. Or maybe my microwaving caused some damage some basic level despite the fact that they looked OK.
3. The vanilla bean? I have to admit the vanilla flavor wasn’t particularly strong–but how could they be fine 3 weeks ago and not now?
4. The flour? I know I winged it a bit on the amount of cornstarch, but it was either a teaspoon or a tablespoon, can’t remember which, so I erred on the side of caution. Plus, most people make cupcakes with regular flour and they turn out perfectly fine, and certainly much better than this, so I can’t figure that this was it.
5. The recipe? But several recipes I found called for even more egg whites, and plenty of cakes use egg whites without that weird crustiness I got on the top…Was the butter/sugar combo overcreamed (is that even possible)? But “I was just following the recipe”…In fact I had everything at room temperature which is better than i usually do in those circumstances.
Who knows. At least I know I am not trying that one again for little E’s birthday. Sadly, I will have to attempt more cupcakes in the meantime (horrors!);-).