Side Dish: Red Velvet Cupcakes (November 30, 2009)

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I see gourmet cupcake shops everywhere these days and feel like I’m always hearing from one friend or another about some insanely good cupcake they’ve just eaten. It seems that the cake in its classic sliced form has been demoted; the cupcake is the confection of our time.

Cake is more stuffy, formal and reserved for “functions.” Unencumbered by the fork and plate, the cupcake is really another expression of our freedom. It is the desert of the masses, offering something for all occasions and people. Today, you’re as likely to find the ubiquitous treat at a wedding as you are at a child’s birthday party, as the energy-boosting study group snack or the forbidden sweet that derails a diet, eaten in secret behind the boiler in the basement.

And flavors? Vanilla and chocolate are so 1983. How about a cupcake that tastes like a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup? Why drink a Pina Colada when you can eat a pineapple cupcake with a rum/coconut cream cheese frosting? I even saw a $4 cupcake meant to look and taste like a Hostess cupcake. This is what we’ve come to: Cupcake-flavored cupcakes. How meta.

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Don’t get me wrong. I love eating cupcakes almost as much as I love making them. And as some of you know, I bake a mean cupcake. Back when I had that toucan hairdo, I even toyed with the idea of opening an overpriced (I mean “gourmet”) cupcake shop of my very own. When I first met Kevin, his sister invited me to a party at their house and did I bring flowers or wine? No. I brought the one thing that I knew would win him over if my charm and good looks failed: red velvet cupcakes. They were both rich and sweet. I, on the other hand, was just sweet.

Sure when I first bit into a Creamsicle Cupcake or a Grape Bubble Gum Cupcake or even a Chipotle Chocolate Cupcake with Maple Glazed Bacon I knew I was tasting something special. But (and I never say this about things with bacon in them) I couldn’t help but feel like something was missing. It’s hard to believe that a cupcake the size of a softball could be missing anything, but after the initial excitement faded and my blood sugar levels returned to normal I was left feeling like they were all show and no substance. The Paris Hilton of desserts.

I’ll take one of my mom’s cupcakes – which she made from a box – any day. I envy pastry chefs’ patience and their eye towards precision and perfection, but when my mom made cupcakes she had to find the time in her busy day to do it. She did it out of love. So maybe that’s what’s missing. Maybe that’s why I made red velvet cupcakes for Kevin rather than buying a dozen at Crumbs. My cupcake might, at first glance, have seemed like one I could get at a store; they both would have had the same colors, textures and taste. Maybe the difference, as corny as it sounds, is love. I guess you could say I was looking for love at first bite.

Red Velvet Cupcakes Recipe

Cupcakes
2 1/2 cups sifted cake flour
2 tablespoons cocoa powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup vegetable oil
1 1/2 cups granulated sugar
2 tablespoons red food coloring*
2 large eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon vinegar
1 cup buttermilk**
* You can also substitute beet juice or beet puree to achieve the red color and retain some moisture.
**If you don’t have buttermilk you can add a tablespoon of distilled white vinegar to milk and let it stand for 10-12 minutes.

Cream-Cheese Frosting
8 ounces cream cheese (one bar)
1/2 pound unsalted butter, room temperature
2 cups confectioner’s sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
(Optional) Cupcake toppers or colored sugar

Cupcakes
Preheat oven to 325° F. Line muffin tins with wrappers. Mix all dry ingredients together. Mix all the wet ingredients together. Combine the wet and dry mixtures together thoroughly. Fill each wrapper about two-thirds full will batter. Bake 15 to 20 minutes. Let them cool completely. (This is hard for Kevin!)

Frosting
Mix all the butter and cream cheese until smooth. Slowly add confectioner’s sugar, mixing as you go. Next, add the vanilla extract. Frost cupcakes the cupcakes and sprinkle with colored sugar or cupcake toppers.

Makes about 24.