Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Dessert of the Week....EASY / Fancy Cupcakes

MrMartha dares anyone to say a cross word about a cupcake.

They are all at once nostalgic, comforting, and delightful. They can be as unassuming as a simple cake with a basic glaze, or as elaborate as a couture gown. The current rage for the little confections has spawned a whole industry of uber-boutique bakeries who charge as much as four or five dollars each for their intricate gems.

Cupcakes are a fantastic treat any time, for any reason. They can also be a wonderful and unexpected finish to even the most haute dinner party....delighting guests and casting an aura of glory on the clever host or hostess. Just because they appear complicated, however, does not mean they are difficult.....not by any means! A little bit of practice with one simple tool -- a pastry bag fitted with a shell or star tip -- and you too can proudly serve a platter of miraculous little works of art to the oohs and aaahs of friends, family, or guests.

READ MORE for the (fairly) simple How To details, and a great Buttercream frosting recipe.

Make your favorite cake batter, either from your own recipe, or as MrMartha does, from a quality mix. One great hint, if you are making a chocolate batter, use cold brewed coffee for the liquid in the recipe -- it adds just a little complexity without being too assertive. Portion the batter into paper lined tins, and be careful not to over bake.

Making Frosting from scratch is very simple if you keep two things in mind....make sure the butter is fully softened at cool room temperature, but not overly warm.....and beat the ingredients together for a sufficient time to incorporate enough air to get a light and fluffy finished product.

MrMartha uses a slight variation on the famous Wilton Buttercream Icing -- The Recipe is at the end of the post. Your favorite Icing recipe will likely work equally as well, just pay attention to the consistency of the finished should be slightly stiffer than frosting you would spread on a cake, hold its shape well, but not so stiff that it is difficult to get through the pastry tip with ease.

Dont be afraid to adjust the recipe slightly till it seems right to you....put on your alchemist hat (MrMartha knows you have one stashed someplace....) and add a bit of liquid, or a bit more sugar, and fuss with it a bit to get a texture you feel confident with.

Pastry bags can be coated fabric or plastic, and are available at larger grocery, craft, restaurant supply, or specialized baking equipment stores. They cost just a few dollars, and are combined with a plastic coupler which holds the tips and makes them easy to change for different results. One really only needs two or three tips to create a multitude of effects. Cake decorating kits are also available which have all the components packaged together.

Practice with your pastry bag if it is new to you....Fill the bag about half full of Icing, and press down into the bottom of the bag, twist the top of the bag closed, and adjust the package till it feels comfortable in your hand. It is easier to manipulate if you have a bit less icing in the bag, and refill as needed.

On the back side of a baking sheet, make some practice stars, rosettes, and shell shapes till you are comfortable and confident. These can be removed from the sheet with the edge of a rubber spatula and the frosting reused again. Hold the bag at a 90 degree angle for stars and rosettes, and a 45 degree angle for shell shapes, varying the pressure as you manipulate the bag. Your goal here is not perfection, but just to become comfortable with the process.

Put a light base coating of frosting on the cupcakes. This will make the decorations easier to adhere, and give a more finished look to the final product. If you don't like the way a particular cupcake looks after you have decorated it, just use a small spatula to remove the excess icing and try again. Practice does make it easier....but dont get discouraged if you have some that don't look right....just keep at it and you will soon surprise yourself!

MrMartha finds it easiest to hold each cupcake in one hand, while manipulating the pastry bag with the other. You may prefer to have the cupcake sitting on a flat surface and use both hands to control the pastry bag.

The easiest way to decorate is with a series of small stars placed around the edge of the cupcake, with a slightly larger star in the center.

A single spiral of icing starting at the outside edge and working into the center, pulling upwards with a bit of a flourish at the end is also simple and lovely.

Using the shell technique requires a bit more practice, but is gorgeous if you edge the cake with a connected shell border, and finish the center with a rosette. Another option, a bit more elaborate, is to start the shell form at the outside edge of the cake, and pull it into the center. Repeat this going around the perimeter of the cake, and finish the center with a small rosette.

More detailed information about piping with a pastry bag can be found HERE.

MrMartha likes to finish each cupcake with a quick sprinkle of clear, large crystal, baking is subtle and certainly not required, but it does give them just a tiny bit of sparkle and gleam.

The main thing to keep in mind is that even if not exactly perfect, they will still be lovely, and the effort and care you put in to them, will be well appreciated but those who are indulged by your cunning handy work.
No one will ever know that they are actually quite simple to create, compared to the complex effect they exhibit when will be our little secret, MrMartha will never tell!

Buttercream Decorative Frosting

1/4 cup solid vegetable shortening
1/2 cup (1 stick) softened butter
1 teaspoon good vanilla extract
4 cups sifted confectioners' sugar (approximately 1 lb.)
2 tablespoons milk, half and half, or cream

Yield: About 3 cups of icing - for approx 2 dozen cupcakes.

In a deep mixing bowl, cream together shortening and butter with electric mixer. Add vanilla. Gradually add sugar, one cup at a time, beating well on medium speed. Scrape sides and bottom of bowl often. When all sugar is incorporated, icing will appear dry and still. Add milk and beat at medium speed until light and fluffy - this can take up to several minutes depending on your mixer. Thin further with additional liquid if required.

You can also make the recipe using all butter if you prefer.

Keep bowl covered with a damp cloth. Can be stored 2 weeks refrigerated in airtight container. Warm to room temperature and Re-whip before using.