I love when things I enjoy fortuitously come together for a greater good, like when there’s a wine bar right next to a yoga studio, or when otters and kittens become friends. While searching for reading material for vacation last week, I happened upon another excellent combination: beach reads and baking. The two meet in The Icing On The Cupcake, a novel as light, fluffy and delicious as the baked good it references. (That might be the cheesiest line I’ve ever written, but it was too good not to use.)
The book chronicles the adventures of Ansley, a Texas debutante who gets dumped by her fiance and then heads to New York to start over and open a cupcake business. It’s standard chick-lit fare – country girl in the big city! shoes! love interests! – but what sets it apart is that in every chapter, Ansley bakes a cupcake to reflect how she’s feeling, and then the book actually gives you the recipes. This solves all the frustrations I had with Waitress, where you got to look at delicious pies but had no idea how to make them.
I don’t know about you, but I typically get all my recipes from cookbooks or the internet, not from novels. So obviously after reading the book, I needed to try out one of the recipes to see how they turned out. There were a lot of tasty sounding cupcake flavors, from spicy chocolate to green tea, but the pile of overripe bananas on my counter made the decision for me, and I went with the banana-caramel cupcakes.
As recipes go, the cupcakes themselves were a bit more complicated than I’m used to. I’m a big fan of recipes that involve the ‘throw everything in a bowl and mix’ method, but Ansley’s a much more precise baker, and the recipes in the book are correspondingly more complicated. I’ve always claimed that baking is really easy as you just have to follow instructions, but my secret is that I usually don’t. I have never used cake flower or Dutch process cocoa when a recipe calls for it. I have the nerve to scoop my flour using the measuring cup, rather than scooping it with something else and then leveling it off. I have not measured out 1/8 of a teaspoon of salt ever; I just sprinkle some in and call it good enough. The recipes in this book, unfortunately, do not allow for my typical sloppiness. I had to actually separate and beat egg whites, there was a step that involved slicing caramels in half that I thought was totally unnecessary but turned out to be quite important. The time consuming nature of the recipe aside, the cupcakes turned out great.
The same cannot, sadly, be said for the frosting. The book introduced me to frostings that I’d never heard of, and I’ve been baking since my mom started allowing to make my own mess in the kitchen. Apparently, there is something called “French Buttercream” which involves whipping egg yolks with sugar and mixing it into some sort of syrup, then adding all of this to butter. In the book, Ansley struggles with mastering the technique, but, as is the nature of chick lit, ultimately triumphs after much perseverance. My own attempt at French buttercream creation started out promisingly enough; I heated up caramels and milk on the stove while whipping egg yolks with powdered sugar, as the recipe requested. I managed to mix the two without cooking the eggs, which felt like a great success. Everything fell apart, literally, when I put that mixture in the fridge to cool; when I returned to it three hours later, the eggs and caramel had separated in a quite unsalvageable manner. Lacking Ansley’s perseverance, and any more egg yolks, I opted to give up. It was late, I was tired, so I resorted to my tried and true fix to any and all baking related issues: Hershey’s chocolate buttercream frosting. It is the Frank’s Red Hot of cupcakes – you can put it on anything and it is pretty much foolproof. Throw some butter, powdered sugar, cocoa, and milk in a bowl, mix, and you’re good.
Lack of correct icing aside, the cupcakes were a hit with my coworkers, so I give credit to Jennifer Ross for combining a cookbook and a novel much more effectively than I was able to combine egg yolks and caramel. If you’d like to take a crack at the recipe yourself, here it is.
- 1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, room temperature
- 2 room temperature eggs, separated
- 3 tablespoons whole milk
- 1/2 cup mashed ripe banana
- 1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar
- 1 cup flour
- 1 teaspoon baking powder
- 2 tablespoons potato starch (I used corn starch)
- 1/2 teaspoon finely ground salt
- 5 pieces of soft caramels
1. Preheat the oven to 350F. Place 10 cupcake papers in pan.
2. Cream the butter and 1/2 cup sugar in an electric mixer until fluffy, about 3 to 5 minutes.
3. Add banana, baking powder, starch, and salt, and beat until smooth.
4. Fold in the flour with a rubber spatula.
5. Add the milk and mix until combined.
6. Beat the egg whites in an electric mixer until soft peaks form. Do not overmix. This takes about three minutes on high speed in an electric mixer. (It took me about 30 seconds) Gradually add 2 tablespoons sugar.
7. Fold the egg white mixture into the batter until combined.
8. Scoop into the cupcake liners, filling them 3/4 full.
9. Cut the caramels in half and submerge one piece in each cupcake.
10. Bake 25 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.
11. Cool for five minutes and then move to baking racks.
- 6 soft caramels
- 1/4 cup milk
- 1/4 cup banana
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
- 2 egg yolks, room temperature
- 1/2 cup powdered sugar
- 1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature
1. Place caramels, milk, banana, and salt in a saucepan over medium heat. Remove from heat when the caramels are melted.
2. In separate bowl, beat egg yolks and powdered sugar until thick, about three minutes.
3. Slowly add the yolk mixture to the slightly cooled caramel mixture. (You want to make sure the caramel is still warm, but not hot enough to cook the egg.
4. Place the combined mixture over medium low heat for one minute, stirring constantly. Transfer to a bowl and refrigerate until cool.
5. Beat the two sticks of butter until light and fluffy, about three to five minutes.
6. With mixer on low speed, slowly add cooled caramel mixture.
7. Once caramel is added, beat at high speed until frosting is fluffy.