What can I say about cupcakes: They are small cups of cake. By now everyone knows that cupcakes, like donuts, have been absolutely done to death: filled, topped, swirled, glazed, drizzled, sprinkled.
I, for one, am over it. They’re only small cakes, Darryl, they can’t be expected to carry all that extra foofaraw and still taste good. If you want to make six caramels, a streusel, and a swirled marshmallow filling, you totally should do that, but you should do it Somewhere Else.
What I want is a small buttery cake with a lively, fresh icing, about the size of the cup of very good tea. That’s it. Make Cupcakes About Cake Again 2021.
Cupcakes are not mysterious. Cupcakes are a matter of ratios: for a good, simple sponge, you need the weight of a large egg in sugar, butter, and self-raising flour. That’s it. This is basic, home-ec level baking, but the results will get you rave reviews and the respect of friends and enemies alike.
One egg gets you six cupcakes, two eggs gets you twelve, and so on basically forever. The most I’ve ever made at once was 48, for my sister’s baby shower. I then immediately shattered a Pyrex onto half of them and lost the dog for half a morning, but the 24 that survived were a big hit. What I’m saying is, if my inept Mr. Bean ass can make these successfully, so can you.
The less you do to these cupcakes the more they reward you. I don’t even add vanilla, because they just don’t need it. The soft, pillowy crumb bakes up under a crispy, buttery lid that’s deliciously satisfying in a way that a moist, sweaty American-style cupcake can’t compare to. It’s just butter, eggs, and a dream, baby. Sometimes I don’t even bother with frosting.
Just kidding. These are delicious nude, but I’m not advising you get rid of frosting ENTIRELY. This may be my 95 Theses-style screed against the indulgent excesses of cupcake culture but we don’t need to go full Puritan. We are not sinners in the hands of an angry Cupcake God. We can have a little frosting.
Our family go-tos for frosting flavor are a little unorthodox, but they are, in my humble opinion, absolutely killer. Because the cakes themselves are so buttery and delicious, I really don’t recommend chocolate or vanilla frosting here. I love a vanilla cupcake as much as the next person, but this is not that recipe.
Coffee icing is, as I believe I’ve mentioned before, the best thing in the entire damn world. It’s bright and lively and sweet without being cloying, and brings out the lovely buttery egginess of the cake. Sophisticated, classy, 10/10 would bring to a frenemy’s garden party.
Orange icing, though, is a revelation. I know you’re probably thinking of Dreamsicles or orange soda or other fake-orange favorites. Believe me, I love orange soda as much as the next child of the 90’s, but this is not that.
The key is using orange zest as the primary flavoring, with only a little bit of juice added in to help. The oils in the zest give off tons of orange flavor without adding sweetness, which brings a fresh, juicy zinginess to the buttercream that complements the cake perfectly. I know lemon is the go-to citrus for desserts, but oranges have a friendly complexity that makes this particular icing taste like sunshine on a spoon.
These cupcakes were my bring-to-school treat for my birthday every year, and are a staple of every springtime tea party or Mother’s Day I’ve been in charge of catering. This is the cake equivalent of walking into a sunlit grove of orange trees. They’d be perfect for Easter, if you’re an Easter person. They’re perfect anytime, anywhere.
CUPCAKES WITH ORANGE ICING
Makes 12 cupcakes, but you can add another egg and that egg’s weight in ingredients to increase the yield in increments of 6
FOR THE CAKES:
Weight of 2 large eggs = 4oz = ½ cup = 130g IN:
Soft, unsalted butter
Even though I’ve given you the basic amounts up there, it’s always best to weigh out the eggs you have, in their shells, and then match everything up to those eggs. Bespoke cakes!
FOR THE ICING:
100g unsalted butter, softened at room temperature
200g icing sugar
The zest of one large orange (make sure it’s big – you don’t want to skimp on the zest)
1 tablespoon fresh-squeezed orange juice
Or, a half-recipe of the icing from coffee walnut cake
Don’t be shy, sing along if you know the lyrics:
- Preheat your oven to 350f/180c
- Line a muffin tin with cupcake liners
- Cream together the butter and sugar
- Add eggs one at a time and mix well after each one (don’t worry if it’s a little sloppy and lumpy. Aren’t we all, at some point in our lives?)
- Add flour and mix until just combined
- Spoon cupcake batter by the tablespoonful into your lined cupcake tin – it shouldn’t totally fill the casing, maybe like ½ to 2/3 full
- Bake in the center of the oven for 12-14 minutes – keep an eye on them, if it’s your first time baking them set a timer for 10 minutes and then check every 2 until they’re done
- When they’re done, they’ll be lightly golden and domed, and will bounce back when you tap with a finger
- Cool completely on a wire rack
Meanwhile, make the frosting:
- Zest the orange – make sure you wash and dry it well first. You can use the fine side of a box grater, and make sure you stop before you get to the white pith, which is bitter. You just want the very top layer of skin
- Cut the now-bald orange in half and juice it, set aside.
- Cream your room-temperature butter until soft
- Add half the icing sugar and whip until smooth
- Add your orange zest and juice, and mix to blend everything together well
- Add the rest of the icing sugar and whip the heck out of it – it should go from being yellow and sticky to being white and fluffy
The joy of eating these, for me, is getting the frosting-to-cake ratio just right. Some days you want to be a classy lady taking a decorous bite of cake with a just a refined, grown-up swipe of frosting on top, and some days you want to be a sugar-high toddler sucking the cupcake wrapper for every last scrap of goodness you can get out of it. These are both good and right, and there are frosting methods for every mood.
If you want a big bouquet of American-style cupcake roses, floof a hefty couple of tablespoons of frosting on top of your cake, smooth it into a dome, and then dig a little crescent into the top with a butter knife to create a swirl effect. This is the cupcake hairdo equivalent of the beehive, and it will make everyone else at the bake sale look like a rank amateur. “Oh, this old thing?”, etc.
If you want to impress some children (and have more fun playing with your food), make these into fairy cakes. Take a sharp paring knife and, at a 45 degree angle, dig a circle out of the top of the cupcake to excavate a little cone of cake. Set this aside, and fill your cake hole with frosting. Then, cut your cone in half to create two little wings, and set them in the frosting at an angle. If you’re really feeling it, glue two M&Ms to the front for eyes and make them into butterfly cakes.
If you just can’t be bothered/want the best cake-to-frosting ratio per bite, just spread a clean, flat layer of icing over the top of the cake. Buttercream dries to a crackly finish, which I love, and which will keep the cake underneath moist for longer. Not that these ever last that long.
SELF-RAISING FLOUR: YEAH, YOU SHOULD PROBABLY GO BUY SOME
Self-raising flour is an annoying ingredient that it is absolutely worth having on hand simply because it gets all of the tricky bits done for you: the leavening agents are all mixed in, and the added salt makes this batter one of the most addictive substances known to humankind. However, if you don’t have it, here’s a quick substitute:
1 cup all-purpose flour + 1 ½ tsps baking powder + ½ tsp salt. Make sure you whisk everything well so that it’s all distributed evenly.