Awesome Almond Cupcakes

I’m into cupcakes. Not just because they’re cute little mini-cakes (reminiscent of those wider, flatter cakes baked in my Betty Crocker oven of childhood days), but also because they’re easy to serve. No messy slicing. No trying to figure out how many pieces can be cut from a single cake (will there be enough?). And they can be fun to decorate individually if you’re in a creative mood — which I was since it was daughter Kristen’s birthday celebration last night and I’d recently bought one of those cake decorator “kits” that makes stars and fancy shapes and edgings. Well, IT doesn’t make them for you. It takes a little practice for YOU to do it, which this occasion encouraged. Another incentive to use my new gadget was that it’s one of those pink items which, when purchased, benefits breast cancer research and/or those living with this type of cancer. If I bought it, might as well try it out.

For her birthday, Kris had specificallyrequested the almond cupcakes I’d first made last spring after coming across a recipe in my then-newest cookbook acquisition, 500 Cupcakes: The Only Cupcake Compendium You’ll Ever Need by Fergal Connolly (Sellers Publishing Inc., 2005). Both she and her brother Adrian thought they were “the best from-scratch cake” I’d ever baked. Since I happen to love almonds (and they’re good for you, although the sugar in rich buttercream frosting probably offsets a good deal of that rationalization for indulging!), I was more than happy to oblige her specific sweet-tooth desire.

Naturally, I made changes in the recipe. While mixing the ingredients last May, I didn’t like the consistency of the batter. It seemed too dry. It occurred to me that perhaps they’d left out some essential liquid for the recipe by mistake, which could be a publishing error (only moisture was coming from softened butter, eggs and a teaspoon of extract). Or perhaps they were going for more of a muffin texture. I decided to add a bit of heavy cream to my batter, first checking a couple resources to be sure I wouldn’t be screwing up the balance of ingredients. One of the things I’ve learned over years of baking is that it’s more of a science than even cooking can be (albeit both also can be viewed as an art and an essential survival skill). If the ratio between certain elements is off then the baked item will not be at its best (and could be pretty terrible!). Two of my favorite resources for these kinds of issues are BakeWise: The Hows and Whys of Successful Baking by Shirley O. Corriher (Scribner, 2008) and Ratio: The Simple Codes Behind the Craft of Everyday Cooking by Michael Ruhlman (Scribner, 2009).

The recipe also called for 3 tablespoons of “chopped” almonds. I’d bought slivered almonds, which “slivered” through my little handheld chopper without much “chopping.” I wound up using the electric coffee bean grinder. We don’t use if for beans any more since, if Bill desires from-the-bean java, his coffeemaker can also do the grinding as a first step (I drink decaf and have my own 4-cup pot). I ground the almonds to finer texture so they’d mix into the batter almost as another flour, figuring not everyone likes noticeable nuts in their cake. The other thing I did was toast the almonds for a few minutes in a small, dry, stickproof pan, to bring out more flavor.

When I got to the frosting, I consulted a couple books as a starter for the buttercream. Not because I hadn’t made it before — it’s one of the only icings I use on cakes. It’s just that I expected to write this blog entry and I had only a mini-clue about how much confectioners’ sugar, milk, extract, etc. I toss into the bowl. This I got from my mother, whose cakes were always from mixes (preferably Duncan Hines in later years) but whose buttercream frosting was always “scratch.” I didn’t even know it was called buttercream until long after I was married; growing up, it never occurred to me that there was any other kind!

So I scanned my cookbooks and decided that The Magnolia Bakery Cookbook: Old-Fashioned Recipes from New York’s Sweetest Bakery (by Jenifer Appel and Allysa Torey, Simon & Schuster, 1999) was the best candidate for a starting point since their Traditional Vanilla Buttercream read like what Mom and I had been whipping up for years. I cut Magnolia’s recipe in half for my batch of cupcakes. Of course, in this case I was substituting almond extract for vanilla; and I was adding some of those ground almonds too, substituting it for some of the sugar.

As for decoration, I loved my new “star-maker,” although I think I might try making the frosting a bit stiffer next time. Still, it maintained its stars and swirls, making for a lovely batch of cupcakes to tote to Applebee’s Restaurant where we were meeting Kristen and a few of her friends. Early in the decoration process I realized that, if I wanted the frosting to spread on all dozen muffin-sized cupcakes, I’d better not be “starring” the whole cake – an illumination that resulted in a variety of frosted tops. I’d toasted some of the almonds to add to the icing; keeping some as whole slivers, some broken in half, some hand chopped. I thought the ones placed in a complete circle reminded me of Stonehenge and other stone circle at ancient British and Irish sites!

Placed in the cupcake carrier that Kris had given me as a Christmas gift, they made an artful design. In fact, when Bill went out to the car to bring them in for dessert, all of the waitstaff kept coming over to comment on how beautiful and delicious they looked. Our waitress, a cute little blonde who seemed a little shy, asked what flavor they were and replied that almond was her favorite. We gave her one, which she devoured before returning to our table with our coffees. She said it was delicious. It occurred to me that I could’ve replied, jokingly, that it was also her delicious tip too, but I didn’t want her to think I could be serious!

What I learned from this batch of cakes: I thought I’d have to bake them longer than the original batch I’d made last spring (which I’d baked as regular-sized cupcakes rather than muffin-size). In trying to be sure they were baked enough, I think I might’ve dried them out a tad bit. Flavor, however, wasn’t sacrificed. Next time I make them muffin-sized, I’ll only add about 2 or 3 minutes (instead of 5) to baking time before checking for doneness. On the other hand, I might just add a little canola oil to the mix, no more than a tablespoon, to see how that works out… it’s all an experiment for me, just like life!

This recipe makes about 18 cupcakes (fill each container about 2/3 full of batter) or 12 muffin-sized cakes (baking for a few more minutes to ensure doneness).

ALMOND CUPCAKES WITH ALMOND BUTTERCREAM FROSTING

The Cakes

• 1 cup (2 sticks) sweet (unsalted) butter, softened
• 1 cup superfine sugar (note: NOT confectioners’ or granulated sugar; there IS such a thing as superfine)
• 2 cups self-rising flour (NOT all-purpose flour)
• 1 tsp. baking powder
• 4 eggs (best when brought to room temperature)
• 1 tsp. almond extract
• ½ cup heavy cream (a little more would be ok if batter looks too thick)
• 3 tbsp. chopped almonds (or, as I used, ground almonds), previously toasted

1. Pre-heat the oven to 350 degrees F (175 degrees C).
2. Place 18 cupcake paper baking cups in cupcake tins (or 12 muffin-sized paper baking cups in muffin tins).
3. Place all ingredients in a medium bowl and beat with an electric mixer until smooth and pale, about 3 minutes.
4. Spoon mixture into the cups (⅔ full).
5. Bake for 20 minutes or until a toothpick or knife comes out clean when inserted into the cake.
6. Remove pans from oven and cool for 5 minutes.
7. Remove cupcakes from tins and cool completely on a rack.
8. When cool, frost; or store up to 3 days; or freeze (unfrosted) for up to 3 months.

The Frosting

• 1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, very soft (if you run out of unsalted butter, salted is OK to use)
• 3½ cups confectioners’ sugar (have extra available in case you need more)
• ½ cup ground almonds
• ¼ cup milk (I used 2% milk but whole or 1% works just as well; can always add more if too stiff)
• 1 tsp. almond extract
• Food coloring, if desired
• Toasted almonds for decoration- some slivered, some chopped (optional)

1. Place butter in large mixing bowl.
2. Add 2 cups sugar, milk, and extract.
3. Beat until smooth and creamy.
4. Add remaining sugar and ground almonds, gradually, until icing is a good spreading consistency.
5. Mix in food coloring, if using.
6. Decorate cupcakes with icing (also with almonds, if using). Frosting keeps best if eaten within 3 days (which works out well, since cupcakes also keep best for first 3 days).

For a “scratch” recipe, this is pretty easy to pull together. Try it. You’ll like it.

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