Sunday, April 16, 2006


"...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.


Blogger Responsible Artist said...

When I get my birthday cake, I savor it and decide whether it's good enough to make up for the year I've had. Usually the answer is no, but now and then it is good enough to make up for anything. And that makes me about as happy as I get.

I feel I can confess this to you without sounding scary, since you have admitted your relationship to cake.

April 16, 2006 2:38 PM  
Blogger Maureen McHugh said...

I feel as if I want to have cake with you.

April 16, 2006 3:11 PM  
Blogger lucette said...

It looks very EAstery to me--a wild-haired cupcake. Our Easter breakfast (celebrated at my Aunt Honey's) was cupcakeless, but we did have kielbasi.

April 16, 2006 3:53 PM  
Blogger Gregory Feeley said...

A feral cupcake, about to be released into the wild!

April 16, 2006 8:51 PM  
Blogger Derryl Murphy said...

The boys (moreso Aidan than Brennan) much prefer their mom's homemade cakes to bakery or out of a box. Which I find odd, considering their ages; heck, they even like her zucchini chocolate cake, but we're not allowed to remind them about the zucchini until they're done.

Me, I'm still searching for the recipe I once heard, chocolate cake made with baked beans (for moisture). Sounded great, but I forgot to write down where I could find it.


April 17, 2006 6:31 PM  
Blogger Erin O'Brien said...

Given the choice between:

1) eating a plate of warm goat dung and

2) visiting Martha Stewart's webpage;

My next three words are, "Pass the fork."

April 18, 2006 5:29 PM  
Blogger Maureen McHugh said...

I'll save you the dung desert. You can also find the recipe here:

I just used Martha's site because it pays or paid for the right to publish the recipe, and none of the other sites do.

April 18, 2006 6:22 PM  
Blogger Karen at Pen in Hand said...

My friend Evelyn and I have discussed cake at length. Of course this was before Evelyn stopped eating stuff like that and lost 45 pounds. It used to be that we agreed that the very word "cake" was erotic, and that good cake is better than what often passes for erotic experience. Now only one of us thinks that, and it is the one of us that still needs to lose 45 pounds, so I will not get the recipe off Martha's website, but you should know that I deeply appreciated this post on a purely vicarious level.

April 19, 2006 8:27 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

How can bread be indifferent? It is inanimate and therefore has no feelings or opinions, indifferent or otherwise...

November 23, 2006 6:35 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

^^ nice blog!! ^@^

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