It takes a cold-hearted woman, one in complete control of her appetites, to resist the allure of a well-frosted cupcake.
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It takes a cold-hearted woman, one in complete control of her appetites, to resist the allure of a well-frosted cupcake. Though they didn’t play a large part in my Bronx childhood, once I became a mother, providing cupcakes for my children’s bake sales and birthdays felt as important as teaching them how to swim. I wanted my kids to have it all—a carefree childhood complete with birthday parties, summer camps, and sleepovers. Homemade cupcakes were deeply baked into that fantasy for reasons unavailable to me.
Becoming a grandmother in my sixties tapped that nurturing instinct again. Perhaps it was a reaction to my own grandparenting experiences. Both of my grandmothers were the scary, stocky, foreign type known as “European.” Practical women who had fled the Russian pogroms as little girls, they never really adapted to American ways. My favorite, my mother’s mom Yetta, was a slave to the home. Forget about baking together or having a conversation with her grandchildren. This balabusta didn’t even have the time to learn English.
Providing two weekly Shabbat meals for about fourteen, including hand-rolled lokshen for her homemade chicken soup, several boiled meats, and a brick-hard honey cake that terrified me and my cousins, meant that Yetta rarely left the house, except to do the marketing, where bargaining was conducted in Yiddish. Dressed in a simple dress, support hose and sensible black shoes, Grandma rested her elbow on the windowsill and looked out the window if she needed a getaway. Travel back to Europe, or anywhere, was not on the agenda.
When I had my own family, we were more frivolous. We shared many happy cupcake moments together when my sons Joe and Andrew were growing up. Andrew, my youngest, even went semi-professional in his last two years of high school. From 2006 to 2008, he and his friend Sophie would meet at our house on Saturday mornings to bake two dozen perfect cupcakes and make a mess. After baking for a few hours and wrecking my newly remodeled kitchen, they would set up a card table in our Los Feliz driveway and get to work selling cupcakes and lemonade to passersby on their way to brunch.
After baking for a few hours and wrecking my newly remodeled kitchen, they would set up a card table in our Los Feliz driveway and get to work selling cupcakes and lemonade to passersby on their way to brunch.
At the time, our neighborhood was completing its transition from a quiet, old-school residential neighborhood close enough to downtown and the movie studios in the Valley, to a hipster enclave where lattes sold for five dollars. As urban pioneers, our 100-year-old house was now worth more than we had ever dreamed possible, meaning we would be forced to stay forever, transitioning from an adventurous young couple to the stubborn oldies who just won’t leave.
Cupcakes were enjoying a renaissance in the early 2000s, thanks to the enormously popular TV show “Sex and the City.” Grown-ups were standing in line at cute specialty shops like Magnolia and Sprinkles; brides were giving up wedding cakes for cupcake towers; and gimmicky flavors like piña colada were being baked into what had previously been a child’s food.
Cupcake mania hit its apex at our house one hot summer night when a twenty-something couple out on a date rang our doorbell at about 8pm. “Is this the house that sells cupcakes,” they ingenuously asked. With Andrew out at the movies, I did what I had to do. I sold them six cupcakes. Then I turned off the porch lights and hid in a back bedroom with the hubby.
A generation later, upscale cupcakes are just another menu item like chai tea or frappuccino. It’s not unusual for my grandchildren, Piper and Finn, to receive deliveries of a dozen perfect cupcakes at their Austin home. Piper attends cupcake decorating birthday parties, complete with monogrammed aprons and take-home kits. And the kids know exactly where to go in London for the very best cupcakes. Primrose Hill Bakery, please!
I’d be lying if I didn’t say I had concerns regarding their expectations when I suggested we make our own cupcakes from scratch one Sunday morning. They had only known perfectly engineered and frosted cupcakes from upscale bakeries; I knew ours would be different.
They had only known perfectly engineered and frosted cupcakes from upscale bakeries; I knew ours would be different.
“Children don’t really care whether a snack cake is hand-crafted or machine made,” I worried. “It’s all about the sugar to these uncomplicated little humans, isn’t it?”
To be honest, our little homespun cupcakes looked nothing like the perfectly symmetrical fluffy darlings topped with swirls of sugary buttercream frosting that they know. Ours were short, dense and flat. But the rich chocolate flavor was gob-smacking good.
To celebrate our success, I broke the house rules regarding dessert and suggested we do a taste test right then, at 3pm, before dinner. The kids agreed. We all grabbed our favorite accompaniment—an ice-cold glass of milk for Finn, Topo Chico bubbly water for Piper and a strong hot coffee for grandma. Four generations after Yetta’s trip to America, I must admit that dining with family on the weekend is still the best.
Gentrified Chocolate Cupcakes
1 stick butter
4 ounces semisweet chocolate, chopped
3/4 cup sugar
1 tsp vanilla extract
1/2 cup flour
2 tsps. baking powder
pinch of salt
Preheat oven to 325F. Spray muffin cups or line with paper cups.
Combine the butter and chocolate in a saucepan and place over low heat. Stir frequently, just till melted. Set aside to cool.
In the bowl of a mixer, beat together eggs and sugar until light and fluffy. Pour in the melted chocolate mixture and vanilla. Stir to combine.
In another bowl, combine flour, baking powder, and salt. Mix with a fork. Add to the beaten chocolate mixture and mix on low speed less than a minute. Then remove bowl and fold with a rubber spatula until combined. Spoon into prepared cups until half full.
Bake about 25 minutes, until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out dry. Remove from oven and turn out on rack to cool. Then chill about 1 hour.
Glossy Chocolate Frosting
4 ounces semi-sweet chocolate, roughly chopped or broken in squares
½ cup heavy cream
tube of white decorating frosting with fine tip
Make the frosting about 30 minutes before removing the cakes. Place the chopped chocolate in a medium mixing bowl. Pour the cream into a small pot. Bring to a boil. Pour the hot cream over the chocolate, stirring with a rubber spatula until chocolate is smooth. Cool on the counter about 30 minutes, until thick and cooler than body temperature, 80 to 85F on a thermometer.
Remove cold cupcakes and place on a rack over paper towels. Pour a few spoonfuls of frosting over the center of each and quickly spread with a small spatula or butter knife for a smooth, flat surface. Drips over the sides are fine. When the frosting sets, decorate as desired. Makes 12.
Store in a single layer at room temperature.
Los Angeles food writer Helene Siegel is the author of 40 cookbooks, including the “Totally Cookbook” series and “Pure Chocolate.” She runs the Pastry Session blog. During COVID-19, she shared Sunday morning baking lessons over Zoom with her granddaughter, eight-year-old Piper of Austin, Texas.
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Source: Jewish Journal https://jewishjournal.com/commentary/337626/gentrified-chocolate-cupcakes/