For my birthday last year, Keith got me a cupcake baking class at Butter Lane. The East Village bakery is an old favorite on this blog, as they very kindly let me go in and take pictures of a frosting session last year. Their cupcakes are delicious — less sweet than many comparable places, which is a big plus for me, with thick swaths of fluffy frosting in delicious flavors. And I was extra excited to go to the class because (I hope you’re sitting) I’d never baked a cupcake before.
That’s right, she of the trifles and banana bread, the layer cakes and tres leches cakes, had never ever baked a wee little cupcake before — how embarrassing. Sure, I’d baked gigantic Texas-sized muffins before, but we never had a cupcake tray growing up, and truth be told, they weren’t so haute cuisine then. The cupcakes of my childhood were nothing more than a convenient way to celebrate birthdays in grade school, not gourmet luxury items that retail for $3-4 a pop.
And what better way to start my cupcake-baking journey than at Butter Lane? Alas, months and months of conflicting schedules and sold out classes meant that I didn’t actually get to go to the class until mid-June, a good eight months after my birthday. No worries — it was well worth the wait!
In the two-hour class, groups of three or four baked three types of cakes: vanilla, chocolate and banana, and then made three large batches of frosting: vanilla, chocolate and cream cheese. We then split each of the frosting batches in half and made one peanut butter-chocolate frosting (mixing peanut butter into the chocolate base), one raspberry frosting (raspberry preserves in the vanilla base) and one cinnamon frosting (cinnamon in the cream cheese base). It must’ve been my lucky day, since our group got to make both the chocolate cake and the chocolate frosting, much to the chagrin of Keith.
Once the cakes were baked, the class had a frosting contest to see who could frost a cupcake the best. I, um, did not win, as it took me 10 tries to get a passably well-frosted cupcake. My favorite combo was the raspberry frosting on the chocolate cake, seconded closely by the peanut butter-chocolate on the banana cake. I literally ate so much frosting that I couldn’t even look at a cupcake for a good five days without getting queasy.
The most important things I learned:
1) Always add eggs one at a time to a cake batter, and allow them to beat up before adding the next egg. This makes your cake lighter and fluffier than adding all of the eggs at once.
2) Adding a little bit of cream cheese to frosting (even a regular buttercream) helps it reach a fluffy consistency without overloading on sugar. Cream cheese has fat in it, which when whipped, fluffs up. The reason why many frostings are so sweet is because they require a ton of sugar in order to reach the right consistency. By including a little cream cheese in a buttercream, you can cut out a significant amount of sugar and still get the right frosting texture.
3) When making chocolate cake, you should only ever use unsweetened chocolate. This I knew, because sweetened chocolate doesn’t allow you to control the amount of chocolate in your cake, but I didn’t know that the sugars in sweetened chocolate create a crisp crust, which is perfect for brownies, but not so great when you want a moist cake.
4) Overmixing cake batters is bad (which I knew), because it stretches out the gluten strands in the cake flour (did not know). Long gluten strings create dense, chewy baked goods, which is why you knead bread (to elongate the strands) and why you only just barely mix cakes, so that the gluten stays short and the cake comes out moist.
5) A poorly frosted cupcake tastes just as delicious as a purty one. The almost-dozen I came home with disappeared extremely quickly the next morning at work, so apparently people don’t mind an ugly-looking cupcake.
Thanks Keith for the gift, and for taking most of these pictures!