As much as I wish this post was going to involve George Clooney (or even, at a push, Ewan McGregor), I’m afraid it’s mainly based around my largest bulk baking venture to date… and a couple of very confused goats.
Some of you may have heard of the annual Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race, a very traditional tradition, in a posh kids and Pimms sort of way. In East London, there’s a slightly more obscure take on this race, still involving a few posh kids (it’s Shoreditch, come on), but instead of loads of them packed into glorified canoes, shouting at each other, they’re on a city farm, lined up along a cobbled path and shouting at a pair of goats (each, ‘representing’ one of the Universities) who, in theory, run a race.
Loads of people come to the farm for this event, some of whom go so far as to dress in the spirit of the occasion, sporting straw boaters, cricket whites, tweed jackets (complete with elbow patches) etc. There are also a variety of art and craft tables and some food stalls – now, I have it on good authority that last year some lucky cupcake-selling thing made herself roughly £170… As if that weren’t motivation enough for me to get involved this year, I think we’ve established my steadfast cupcake baking mantra: Any Excuse.
Besides, I’m still on a mission for a perfected go-to vanilla cupcake, a vanilla frosting recipe I actually like, a chocolate cake recipe that bloody well tastes like chocolate, and a chocolate frosting recipe that is über chocolately but stops short of becoming a ganache.
I reckon the general public would appreciate a few staple flavours – vanilla and chocolate – the better for me to do some tinkering, and then maybe I’ll for two slightly more interesting options. Maybe three… Yes, I really would like an oven big enough to fit more than one flippin’ baking tin!
A note about the Interesting Options: I have to admit that while I would love to be the kind of person that uses more natural ingredients – i.e. raspberry purée instead of a bottle of raspberry flavouring – I also like to experiment with random grocery shop finds, like peanut butter chips, chocolate essence, Christmas Edition thick cream (boozy), and any peculiar colours, flavours and cutesy decorations I can get my mad alchemist paws on. NB: I do not EVER use cake mix, or frosting from a tub (mainly because that stuff is like crack to me and I’ve been known to eat it with a spoon – all of it, in one sitting, watching Come Dine With Me, in my pyjamas… Now you know.)
One of my quite successful Weird Synthetic Ingredient experiments (yes, there has been more than one success) involved a jar of something claiming to be granulated apple flavoured tea. While it apparently does have some tea in it, for my money it’s really just insanely sugary powdered apple juice. So, while the better behaved baker would reduce apple juice in a pan for cake flavouring, I just substituted some of my sugar with this Lift stuff, and the results were utterly delicious. Ithankyou. AND, it gets better: While I was only aware of the usual lemon flavour and the odd apple flavour spotting, I have just noticed, lurking on the bottom shelf at Tesco (these things always seem to skulk around at ankle-level) another flavour… Berry. What kind of berry, you may ask… What ever kind of berry you want, darlin.
I still have some apple powder (lurking) somewhere, so there are my two Interesting cake flavours – apple and ‘berry’ – and am thinking the former wants caramel frosting, while the latter might benefit from a lemony cream cheese encounter. And if I’m feeling brave, one of these should be vegan…
I can totally do this. *twitch*
Just phone for the ambulance now, okay?
Soooo…. Vanilla. I decided to try a recipe on the Guardian website, which looked very similar to my usual go-to, but didn’t involve milk and had extra flour – for height, apparently. Luckily, the first batch burned. I say luckily because lazy me decided to nibble one to see if I could get away with it (no I couldn’t, and yes, I just established that I am lazy, so stop looking at me like that) and I found the cake too dry, virtually flavourless, and far too fluffy, as if the centre were made more of air than cake. So the alchemist in me decided to do some adjustments (not so lazy now, eh?) adding milk for moisture and sticking to self-raising flour rather than piss about with plain flour and bicarb of soda (okay, fine, lazy).
For the frosting, I hit Google up for a recipe that would achieve something as close to the crack – um, frosting – that comes in those tubs. It’s pretty delish, but TALK about time consuming… (lazy). Me likey, but this will never be a go-to because the world does not stop on its axis for me while I strain boiled flour goo that took over an hour to cool. The search continues. The recipe follows.
Vanilla Cupcakes (adapted from Dan Lepard’s recipe)
Ingredients for the cake
- 125g Caster sugar
- 125g Unsalted butter (very soft)
- 2 Eggs
- 2 tsp Vanilla essence
- 150g Self-raising flour
- 3 tbsp Milk
Preheat the oven to 18o˚C.
Beat the sugar, butter, and vanilla until light and fluffy, add the eggs and beat until smooth and combined.
Add the flour (all at once is fine) and mix until combined.
Spoon into a cupcake tin, and bake for 20-25 minutes until golden.
Leave to cool.
- 1 1/3 cups Milk
- 1/4 cup Plain flour
- 1/2 tsp Salt
- 1 1/3 cups Caster sugar
- 1 1/3 cups butter, softened
- 2 tsps Vanilla extract
Combine the milk, flour, and salt in a saucepan and whisk until smooth.
Cook over a medium-high heat, whisking constantly, until the mixture thickens and comes to a boil.
Boil for one minute and remove from the hob.
Strain into a bowl and cover with cling film (to prevent a ‘skin’ forming… eww…).
Leave to cool to room temperature. Hope you’ve got a good way to kill an hour and a half.
** In fact, it might be an idea to do all of the above, THEN start on your cupcakes – by the time the cakes are out of the oven, you should have just enough time for a cup of tea and an episode of ‘Jamie’s Irritating Kitchen Behaviour’ or what ever he’s up to now.**
When the flour mixture has cooled, in another bowl, beat together the sugar, butter, and vanilla until creamy.
Add the (let’s face it) floury glop, a blob at a time, mixing after each addition, and beat until the frosting is creamy and light.
Total pain in the wotsit. Totally scrumptious.
I’ll take this moment to announce that the chocolate cupcake experimentation was postponed. I only had so much time (off work, at that) and so many Aerosmith albums (mainly listening to ‘Nine Lives’ on repeat, when not miming to Dream On… I did not just admit that) and I thought I’d stick to less melted-chocolate-disaster-prone territory. The lazy factor doesn’t enter into it. IT DOESN’T.
Besides, I made some Earl Grey and Parma Violet cupcakes instead. These were initially conceived for Cupcake Camp London, back in October. One of the categories in the competition was ‘Taste of London’ and since, to me, London tastes of chip shops, stale beer, and pollution, I decided to get specific with violets as the flavour of Covent Garden – think ‘My Fair Lady’ – and Earl Grey as a nod to posh shops like Fortnum & Mason or Harrods. I didn’t win anything at Cupcake Camp, but when Jude Law’s daughter is in the running, who do you think is going to get all the attention (that’s right: her dad). What ever with little Iris Law – these cakes are light, delicately flavoured, and practically melt in your mouth. It’s an alchemised version of my go-to, and I can’t recommend it enough.
Earl Grey Cupcakes with Parma Violet Frosting
Ingredients for the cake
- 125g Confectioners (granulated/caster) sugar
- 125g Butter (room temperature)
- 125g Self-rising flour
- 3 Earl Grey tea bags
- 2 Eggs
- 3 tbsp Milk
- 1/8 tsp Vanilla essence
Preheat oven to 200˚C
In a pan, heat the milk and one tea bag so that the tea infuses the milk and turns it a rich brown colour. Set aside to cool. (NB: You could also put the milk and tea bag in a mug in the microwave for about 20 seconds – I just don’t have a microwave. Sad face.)
*Open the two remaining tea bags and empty into a mortar, grinding until the tea is more of a fine powder – this doesn’t take more than a minute. *This step is optional, but I personally don’t want to get tea stuck in my teeth when I’m trying to enjoy my cupcake, and the grinding seems to release a bit more of the citrusy notes from the tea mix. Mmm.
(Can I stop writing the phrase ‘tea bag’ now? Ta.)
In a large mixing bowl, cream sugar and butter until light and fluffy.
Whisk the flour and tea together and gradually add the flour/tea and eggs, alternating, beginning and finishing with the flour, mixing between each addition until fully incorporated.
Add vanilla essence and mix.
Add the tea-infused milk in three pours, mixing after each.
Grease or place paper liners in the cups of a 12-hole muffin tin.
Divide the mixture between the cups/cases evenly – roughly 2/3 full.
Place the tin on the middle rack of the oven and do not disturb for at least 15 minutes.
The cakes are done when an inserted toothpick comes out clean.
Set the cupcakes aside to cool, turning out onto a wire rack after five minutes, to cool completely.
Parma Violet Buttercream ingredients
- 1 cup Butter, softened
- 3 cups Icing sugar
- 1 cup Parma Violets, powdered
- 4 tbsps Milk
- 1 tsp vanilla extract
The first step involves a lot of elbow grease – break out the mortar and pestle, you’ll have to grind about 15 rolls of Parma Violets to a fine powder that will mix easily with the icing sugar.
In a large bowl, whisk the sugar and violet powder to combine, add the butter and cream until light and fluffy.
Add the vanilla and the milk, one tablespoon at a time, mixing between each tablespoon.
Beat on a low speed until smooth and firm.
Optional: Add food colouring (liquid or gel – I used liquid) to achieve desired shade of purple. The frosting will have a very pale lilac tint to it if you decide not to colour it.
Now then. Here is where I get to moan about how NO cream cheese frosting EVER behaves for me. It’s true. Runny as anything and far too sweet. Boo, and indeed, hiss. This one, admittedly, got much worse as soon as I added the lemon curd, despite adding more c’cheese and icing sugar. I won’t even bother with the recipe since at some point I stopped measuring and just kept adding a bit of this or that and using language that would make Gordon Ramsay look like Sister Wendy.
The cakes were the same as the recipe I used for the vanilla guys, but with 1/2 a cup of Berry Tea granules mixed in. They sank rather pathetically, I’m sure because of all the sugar in the tea. Next time I will replace some of the sugar in the recipe with the ‘tea’.
Now comes the scary bit. Vegan cupcakes. I’m not suggesting vegans are scary (not all of them anyway, and it’s entirely possible that I’m the only one in the world who finds Morrissey frightening… yeah, so he’s not a complete vegan, but he is pretty disturbing…) however, lots of vegan cake I’ve tried is scary, and catering to a dietary requirement I myself do not have is a bit nerve wracking. But Google and I had another tête–à-tête, and not only did I turn up a moist, dense, fun to make cupcake recipe – to which I added the Apple Tea – I now know how to make vegan caramel buttercream. Yes. Way. Check it out:
Vegan Apple Cupcakes with Vegan Caramel Buttercream
Ingredients for the cake
- 1 cup Soya milk
- 1 tsp Apple cider vinegar
- 1 3/4 cups Plain flour
- 2 tbsps Cornflour
- 3/4 tsp Baking powder
- 1/2 tsp Bicarbonate of soda
- 1/2 tsp Salt
- 1/3 cup Sunflower oil
- 3/4 cups Caster sugar
- 3/4 cups Apple tea granules
- 2 1/4 tsps Vanilla extract
Preheat the oven to 175˚C and prepare the cupcake tin by spraying the liners with some light cooking oil.
Whisk the soya milk and vinegar together in a measuring cup and set aside to curdle – this should take about five minutes.
In a bowl, sift together the flour, corn flour, baking powder, bicarb of soda and salt.
To the curdled soya milk, add the oil, sugar, tea granules, and vanilla and mix until completely blended.
Pour the wet mixture into the dry ingredients and beat until smooth and combined. Fill the cupcake liners two-thirds full and bake for 20-22 minutes until a toothpick comes out clean (they won’t be golden on top in the way ‘normal’ cupcakes get, but they will look completely cooked).
Cool completely before frosting….
Ingredients for the frosting
- 1/4 cup Vegan margarine
- 1/2 cup Brown sugar, not packed
- 1/8 cup Soya milk
- 1/2 tsp vanilla extract
- 1/4 cup Solid vegetable oil (I used Crisn N Dry)
- 3 cups Icing sugar
Put the margarine and brown sugar together in a pan. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, stirring constantly, and cook for 1 minute until dark brown (my sugar was already quite dark, so I just let it cook for 1 minute as soon as it came to a boil).
Remove from heat, and whisk in the soya milk and vanilla extract until smooth.
In a bowl, beat the solid vegetable oil together with 2 cups icing sugar in a mixing bowl until smooth.
Continue beating, and gradually add the caramel mixture, alternating with the remaining confectioners’ sugar. Add more sugar if the mixture is still to runny for your purposes.
Back to the Goat Race. I dragged myself to Spitalfields Farm for 12.15pm, with a hangover NO ONE deserves (unless they’ve had two glasses of wine, two shots of tequila, a shot of what might have been sambuca, and at least one pint of lager… not that I know anyone who would do that… please go away) still using the Gordon Ramsay/Sister Wendy language, wearing sunglasses despite the sky being absurdly overcast, and punctuating every movement of my body with ‘ow’. I set up my table, spread out the business cards, anchored everything with some random forks I had with me (freezing cold, viciously windy, lovely weather for five hours of hanging out at a farm), and arranged my cakes. I don’t mean to brag but, HOW GORGEOUS ARE MY BABIES??
Pleased to announce that the Cambridge goat won the race, no idea who won the Stoat Race (there was one of those too), and I am eternally grateful to the lovely farm volunteer who plied me with mugs of steaming hot black coffee when I started shivering uncontrollably (me and cold weather don’t like standing still together for hours on end) and to the young lady who set up a stall next to me selling her beautiful jewellery – she let me talk her ear off and was nice to all the little kids my headache and I simply couldn’t deal with.
I’m so glad I dragged myself to Spitalfields Farm to sell cupcakes. I want to spend more time at city farms anyway – they’re so surreal. Look at that view.
We’ll address the Chocolate Cupcake Issue soon… I’ve got 5 bars of the dark stuff just waiting to hurl themselves at a double boiler.