I know I haven’t posted anything in quite a long time, but I’ve been fiddling with cupcake recipes all week and have something I think is worth posting about. But first, my inspiration:
Nigella Lawson has long embodied all the major qualities that I feel a woman should have; she’s smart, funny, gorgeous, a great cook, radiates kindness, doesn’t take herself too seriously, and quite obviously takes pleasure in living.
Comfort food has been both my passion and forte since childhood, so when I spotted How to be a Domestic Goddess on the shelves at Bear Pond Books in August of 2002, I was instantly smitten. A single white cupcake shone on the cover, stark against the black background, and the bronze and white lettering, as well as the bronze peeking out from under the dust jacket, all gave me the sense that this book had an underlying theme of pleasure. I had never heard of Nigella before, so I opened it and read the mini-bio on the dust jacket and flipped through the recipes, marveling at their diversity and appreciating that some of the savory ones were either vegetarian or modifiable to be so.
Having spent many years, especially during my formative ones, thinking about the type of person—and more importantly, parent—I want to be, when my 17-year-old-self closed Goddess after skimming the recipes and saw a the photo of Nigella on the back, looking relaxed and casual and beautiful in a simple-yet-classy black shift dress, I thought this—THIS—is my bible.
Twelve years later, Nigella is still my cooking spirit animal, and Goddess is still my favorite cookbook. Cooking from it is always comforting, and twelve years of batter and spatter only adds character to its glossy pages. To me, her books and recipes are about bringing people together through food, in all its simplicity and wonder, and enjoying yourself in the process. I’ve never had a ‘bad’ recipe from Nigella. Her recipes range from good to amazing, and the things that are merely ‘good’ are easily tweaked to outstanding; this also reinforces one of the central philosophies of her books, which is that cooking should be enjoyable and you need to relax in order to find your own perfection. This approach has helped me to grow as both a baker and a cook, because the ‘good’ things give me a solid launching point to exercise my creativity and the amazing things give me another ace to pocket in my recipe repertoire.
So, below is my current modified version of Nigella’s Fairy Cake recipe from Goddess. After making multiple batches, I finally broke down and got a $20-something food scale from Target, because I bought an enormous roll of amish butter to use for this (I figured I would probably save money), wanted to be precise, and making multiple batches of cupcakes while only owning one set of measuring cups isn’t easy.
Makes 24 very finely crumbed mini-cupcakes, baked for 12 minutes at 400 degrees. If you can manage it, try to have all your ingredients (namely butter and eggs) at room temp before baking.
4 oz unsalted butter (1 stick/8 Tbsp)
7 Tbsp organic cane sugar
1/2 tsp salt (I use coarse french grey sea salt)
1 tsp Vanilla
3 Tbsp Grapeseed oil
3.5 oz cake flour (King Arthur Flour, Unbleached)
1/2 tsp Baking Powder
Step 1. In a stand mixer (e.g.: KitchenAid Artisan), beat the Part 1 ingredients until white and fluffy; start on a low speed and increase to high once the sugar is worked in enough to not go flying everywhere. The sugar will be almost completely dissolved by the time it’s done. This generally takes at least a few minutes and the only way to screw this step up is by not beating it until it’s white and fluffy, so feel free to vacuum a room or something and come back and check on it. If you’re using a finer sugar (like white granulated), your sugar may completely dissolve before it’s properly white and fluffy.
Step 2. Add the vanilla. While beating at low-medium or medium speed, add your (room temp) eggs, one at a time, making sure that the first one is fully incorporated before adding the second. I keep the speed between medium and high until it’s a homogenous and even fluffier, yet slightly yellow, mixture that looks like good buttercream.
Step 3. While running the mixture on medium speed, slowly stream in your Grapeseed oil. What you’re doing at this point is more or less making mayonnaise, so you don’t want to dump in all three tablespoons at once and risk messing up the emulsification. Continue to beat it at medium or medium-high; the whole mixture should take on a new sort of glossiness. If it breaks a little, it could be that you added the oil too quickly or even something like your butter is too warm, don’t get too bent out of shape about it because your cupcakes should still turn out fine as long as you don’t let the batter sit and completely separate..
note: you can probably substitute another mild oil (e.g.: coconut), but stay away from any medium or strongly flavored oils (e.g.: avocado, olive)
Step 4. Mix your flour and baking powder together, and dump them on the batter. Turn on the mixture to a stir speed, turning it up to medium once it’s mixed together enough that flour won’t fly everywhere when the speed is increased. Then I scrape down the edges and give it a little more mixing at medium, just to make sure everything is incorporated. I would say that during this step, it gets mixed for 60-90 seconds. Because I’m using cake flour, it’s really difficult to ‘over mix’ this batter.
A few notes on flour:
- if you’re not using something labeled as cake flour, I accept no responsibility for how your cupcakes turn out. Cake flour has less to much less protein in it than Pastry, All-Purpose, or Bread flours, respectively, and cake flour is what is going to give you a super-super-fine crumb on this.
Pastry flour will likely be an OK substitution, however most of the pastry flour I see in stores is wheat pastry flour (especially the organic stuff) and that stuff will result in dry cake.
Because I did the flour by weight you might be OK with All Purpose as long as you gently fold in the flour with a spatula instead of using the mixer (like when making muffins). AP flour will also result in a texturally different cake. A lot of websites say to swap out about a Tbsp of your AP flour with corn starch to approximate the protein content of cake flour, but this is not something I’ve tried.
- If you are using self-rising cake flour, DO NOT ADD THE BAKING POWDER. Self-rising flour is pretty much just flour with baking powder in it, so I personally view it as a waste of money.
- I’ve tried many different types of flour, and KAF always gives me the best, most consistent results.
Variation: For lemon cupcakes, zest a lemon into your sugar before starting your batter. Use a spoon or other utensil to work the zest into the sugar for maybe 2 minutes; this works the oils into the sugar and will make the flavor uniform. I recommend organic lemons, so you aren’t zesting pesticide residue into your cake; use a Meyer lemon if you can find one, otherwise you can use 2 standard yellow lemons.
This is a mildly flavored cake with a lovely, fine crumb. It’s not a super-sugar shock, because it’s meant to be topped with some sort of icing or frosting (I. Love. Buttercream).
For an easy lemon buttercream, whip a stick of butter (4 oz; add up to 1/2 tsp salt if your butter is unsalted) using the paddle attachment. Sift in 1.5 cups of powdered sugar, a half a cup at a time, until it’s light and fluffy. Add a splash of vanilla (a teaspoon?). Roll the lemon you zested for your cake on the counter and then puncture it with a fork; juice the lemon straight into your buttercream (fork puncture should be too small for seeds); this serves the dual purpose of both making your buttercream taste like lemon AND it thins out your buttercream to a creamier consistency. The biggest rule in cooking is to taste anything you can as you’re cooking it; buttercream is no exception! Every time you add a little lemon juice, taste the buttercream to see if the flavor is where you want it to be!
If you didn’t make lemon cupcakes and just want to make lemon buttercream, I recommend you zest the lemon and add it to your buttercream for an extra kick. If you want to intensify the lemon flavor you can use some spice-rack lemon zest, but it’s going to taste like garbage unless you have some FRESH (not bottled!) lemon juice to hide the processed taste; spice-rack lemon zest also doesn’t have the flavorful oils in it that fresh lemon zest or even lemon extracts have. If you’re using extract instead of fresh juice, you will need to thin out your buttercream with a few tablespoons of heavy cream.
note on sifting: I never use those stupid can sifters, which are not only painful/tedious to use but impossible to properly clean. I dump anything I need to sift into a strainer sifter and tap the side until everything sifts down. Strainer sifters are also really nice because the little nub on the far side of the handle can be rested on top of your mixing bowl while you’re dumping stuff into the strainer sifter (less mess), and they are also great for cleaning and straining tiny grains (like quinoa). I force any clumps through my strainer sifter using the underside of a spoon or measuring cup.