"...a delivery system for icing."
Ina Garten, host of the Food Network show The Barefoot Contessa, on cupcakes.
I like cake. What I like best is classic birthday style cake. White, yellow or chocolate, moist, with a dense crumb. Decent frosting, not overpowering. Ice cream. This is, for me, about as good as it gets. One of my favorite cakes is made by Giant Eagle. Giant Eagle is a chain of grocery stores with a bakery. Their bread is indifferent. Their pies are not particularly good. But their cakes are better than any bakery I know. And I know because as I mentioned, I like cake.
I like the idea of cupcakes a lot, but in practice they disappoint. Because they are so small, when they bake they tend to dry out more than a nine inch layer or standard sheet cake. I am not particularly a frosting fan. Frosting, with the exception of a really fine buttercream or Swiss meringue, is usually more about looks than taste. So the result is often a dry little cake with an overpowering mound of overly sweet frosting whose main purpose seems to be to provide a kind of pastry mortor. Giant Eagle cupcakes, despite their usually quite good frosting, is no exception.
I'm not above a box cake. A decent box cake is actually not bad, particularly if you doctor it up a little. Add a box of pudding mix, for example, and some mixes become quite passable. But make cupcakes out of it, and we're back to dry little cakes with a mound of frosting. And if the frosting is out of one of those plastic cans, well, it's just sad.
But cupcakes are fashionable right now. Evidently, Sex & The City made cupcakes at The Magnolia Cafe a Thing. There are articles in the food magazines about cupcakes. There are articles in newspapers about where to find the best cupcakes (and The Magnolia Cafe doesn't fare all that well.)
I was trying to think of what to do for desert for Easter and it struck me that if they tasted good, coconut cupcakes would be just about perfect. If you've ever seen that Easter staple, a lamb cake, you'll instantly know why. A lamb cake is a cake cooked in a mold shaped like a kneeling lamb. The icing is covered in coconut to mimic the lamb's wool. I always thought the result looked kind of scary. And as a cake afficianado, I wondered what the effect of all those differing densities on the bake. Wouldn't the nose and head bake a lot faster than the body? And shouldn't something shaped like a lamb have, well, meat in it?
I went looking for a recipe for coconut cupcakes and found place after place where people commented on how good Ina Garten's coconut cupcakes are. They mentioned the important word 'moist'. The recipe had some promising things--a pound and a half of butter, for one thing. Buttermilk, baking powder and baking soda for another. When you put something acidic, like buttermilk, with baking powder and baking soda, the result is gas. It's like yeast in bread, which also produces gas. Specifically little tiny gas bubbles in the batter that make it rise and lighten. So these cupcakes were moist but light. And the frosting was a butter and cream cheese frosting, like the frosting that goes on a carrot cake. I like the idea of the cream cheese to cut the sweetness of coconut cake. Otherwise, all that sugar could be cloying.
Today I made two dozen of Ina Garten's coconut cupcakes. Adam is home for the weekend, and his friend Brad was here. I took a cupcake, frosted and dipped in coconut to give it that lamb's wool coat appearance, and cut it up for Adam and Brad and me to taste. Adam, who is not a fan of coconut never-the-less said that it was really good. And Brad pronounced it the best cupcake he had ever had, so I gave him another one.
They are fabulous. Moist, sweet, with a good crumb. They taste like a regular piece of cake. If someone had brought these to first grade for a kid's birthday, I might never have made it to second grade.
The recipe is in The Barefoot Contessa Cookbook and available on Martha Stewart's website. Someone who commented on it remarked that when Ina Garten frosts them, instead of sprinkling the coconut on top, she dips the frosted cupcake in a bowl of coconut, which is what I did. It produces an even coat and it's fast and easy. This is not a recipe to take short cuts on. I sifted my flour (the difference between a cup of sifted flour can be as much as 2 ounces, and when you learn that a sifted cup weighs 3 ounces, it's clear that for something like cake, that can be quite a difference.) But if you're requested to bring desert somewhere, even someplace rather fancy, you could do a lot worse than this one.