Red Velvet Cake Redux

Posted in Cupcakes, Dessert, Uncategorized on September 14th, 2011 by admin – 1 Comment

So I (totally cheated) bought some store-bought red velvet cupcakes on a whim. After being thrown in my shopping bag, this is how they made it home.

Apparently I’m not the only one having trouble with slippery frosting.

I’ll forgive them for that since I couldn’t do better, not to mention my haphazard self-check-out bagging, but let’s see…

Texture: kind of dry, definitely not moist
Taste: A little off, chemically… red dye taste?

An expensive reminder of why I have the rule I can only eat junk food I make myself. It’s easy to resist store-bought when I know I can bake better.

(Except for Starbucks’ mini peanut butter cupcakes… so, so, so good… and less calories than a slice of banana bread.)

Inappropriate cupcakes

Posted in Cupcakes, Dessert on September 5th, 2011 by admin – Be the first to comment

People got a little too excited when I mentioned that I was going to make inappropriate cupcakes for my next baking project. I think they imagined something intended for a bachelor/bachelorette party and I just don’t have those kind of molds or sculpting skills. The cupcakes themselves are completely normal – it’s just the story behind them.

If girl stuff (you know, girl stuff) bothers you – or you’re one of my coworkers who ate them – then skip ahead to the recipe while I tell the story.

It occurred to me recently that, while I don’t know the exact date (I just remember it was the first day of school 8th grade) I’m coming up on the 20 year anniversary of my first period. Or in other words, the beginning of my fertility, which itself didn’t mean much to me as a 13 year-old but much more so as a 30-something. So I decided to mark the occasion (because what’s wrong with an excuse to celebrate?) with red velvet cupcakes – both perfectly appropriate and inappropriate at the same time.

In fact I think it has just the right level of appropriate inappropriateness when I told Andrew the story and he had to think for a second, and then it hit him.

I originally made these cupcakes for Christmas a couple years ago. I remember they were good, but cupcakes don’t mail well, especially when you add in frosting and perishability. The recipe, like every red velvet recipe, also uses an absurd amount of red dye. I cut it in half originally and then decided that the next time I made these I’d leave out the dye altogether and they could just be ‘velvet cupcakes’. However since this time the color was important I at least went for quality – the main reason I’ve heard people say they don’t like red velvet is the artificial dye taste.

This set of India Tree Natural Decorating Colors claims no corn syrup or synthetic dyes, and at $15 – that’s $5 a color! – was the single most expensive thing I bought at the grocery store.

I’ve already dyed the packaging… that’s how you know it’s loved.

I decided to make them, right then that night, pretty spontaneously so that grocery store trip I just mentioned didn’t take into account things like frosting. It turns out from a little research that cream cheese frosting typically used on red velvet cup/cakes isn’t actually traditional. The “real” red velvet cake frosting used (nearly) all ingredients I already had at home.


  • 1 c. sugar
  • 1 tsp. vanilla
  • 3 tbsp. flour
  • 1 c. butter
  • 1 c. vitamin D whole milk (too runny if you use other)

I say nearly all of the ingredients because the closest I had is 2% milk, so I tried to substitute by adding a 2 tablespoon frozen cube of cream to 2 tablespoons less of milk to increase the fat content.


  • Cook flour and milk in double boiler until thick, stirring constantly.

They mean that, stir constantly. Otherwise you’ll come back to a thickened white goop and panic until you remember that the recipe you just stepped away from the stove to check said “until thick”.

It is done.

  • Cool.

No problem.

  • Cream sugar, butter and vanilla until as fluffy as possible. Blend cooked mixture with creamed.

A bit of a problem… Even though the recipe warned that it would fall apart at room temperature, I wasn’t getting anything frosting consistency to start with. I added about half a cup of powdered sugar (maybe overkill – suggestions say to add a tablespoon at a time to thicken frosting) and the put it in the freezer to harden.

My plan was to make the frosting first, and then if it turned out, to make the cupcakes. While I was iffy on the frosting texture, it tasted good at least so I kept going.


  • 1/2 cup butter
  • 1 1/2 cups white sugar
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 cup buttermilk
  • 1 fluid ounce red food coloring
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
  • 1 tablespoon distilled white vinegar
  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1/3 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
  • 1 teaspoon salt

I decided to cut the recipe in half this time so it wouldn’t be cupcake overload.


  • Preheat oven to 350 degrees F (175 degrees C). Grease two 12 cup muffin pans or line with 20 paper baking cups.

I pulled out my mini cupcake pan because it was on top and considered it… Andrew asked, didn’t I learn my lesson with that already? Yes, that it ends up too much work. but the next cupcake pan I found was only a 6-cup so I decided to make half normal and half mini sized.

  • In a large bowl, beat the butter and sugar with an electric mixer until light and fluffy. Mix in the eggs, buttermilk, red food coloring and vanilla.

I still cut back the amount of dye to a teaspoon, and added a couple drops of blue to deepen the color. Still, it was pretty…

  • Stir in the baking soda and vinegar. Combine the flour, cocoa powder and salt; stir into the batter just until blended.

It seemed like a good idea to do step 2, the combining part, before step 1 because I’m pretty sure step 1 involves a chemical reaction that doesn’t want to wait five minutes while you look for the which cupboard you put the cocoa powder in this time.

I’m totally cheating in this picture. Not only did I not bother to use a real mixing bowl, that’s Ghirardelli in the background while I actually used up the end of my old Hershey’s powder.

  • Spoon the batter into the prepared cups, dividing evenly.

“Evenly” gets a little difficult when dealing with different sized pans. In the end I think I came out with three or four sizes of cupcakes, depending on the amount of muffin-top.

Those still look on the brown side, although the red would probably show more if they were next to some actual chocolate cupcakes for comparison. However a little Photoshop work will give that real red look people expect:

Personally I’d rather have purple velvet cupcakes:

Now back to the frosting… cold it was too stiff to spread and warm it was too soft… and either way the frosting didn’t actually stick but slid around the top of the cupcakes as I tried to frost them.

Way too much frosting as always.

I have a new appreciation for people who make pretty, fancy cupcakes. While I still think taste is more important than looks (especially with frosting – if you have to make it into glue to keep its shape then it’s not going to be edible) I was kind of embarrassed to bring these into work, especially when they’d be one coworker’s first impression of my baking. I can make pretty cupcakes, I swear.

Oh, and it only got worse from there. I put them in my new brownie pan because it came with a cover, and in the fridge overnight. However in the morning I forgot about the cover, and put the pan on the passenger’s seat of my car – not a problem except for my backpack precariously propped up in front of them, which of course fell backwards while driving to work… at least twice. The backpack was covered in frosting, but I don’t think the cupcakes could look any worse than they started.

People ate with closed eyes and open minds I think. My frosting kept being complimented especially. I’d really like to find a way to package, preserve and sell frosting along with baked goods – I imagine little canning jars with petty ribbons and labels of artisan frostings. However I’ve found out the canning process itself won’t work on frosting because of the heat involved. It sadly looks like there’s a reason the only options are store bought Betty Crocker variety, full of preservatives, or making it homemade. If someone knows how to pull this off, I’d love to know, and would happily trade a cupcake or twelve for the secret.

The cupcakes are not a lie

Posted in Cupcakes, Dessert on May 6th, 2011 by admin – Be the first to comment

I had planned to make a Portal cake in honor of the release of Portal 2 but Valve threw off my timing by releasing the game a day early. The idea morphed into cupcakes, and ultimately the timing worked out better for me to wait a couple weeks so that I could make for Andrew to take to his D&D game because Portal cupcakes deserved to be appreciated by people who get the reference.

This means that for about two weeks there was a box of cake mix in my kitchen. This felt very wrong to me now that I know how to bake from scratch. I came close to going all out and using a homemade German chocolate cake recipe, but even the official recipe mentions a cake mix.

Justified, but still hid in the cupboard.

The recipe(s) that seem to be generally accepted as the true Portal cake are essentially a cake mix with an entire second cake’s worth of ingredients added, and have warnings about being extremely rich. I found a more reasonable version that seemed to be focusing more on authenticity in appearance without being overly complicated.


  • 1 (18.25 oz) package German chocolate cake mix
  • 1 package (3.4oz) Chocolate Instant Pudding Mix
  • 1 cup sour cream
  • 1 cup water
  • 1/2 cup vegetable oil
  • 4 large eggs
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1 cup chocolate chips

I’m not actually bothered by the instant pudding the way I am with by the cake mix – I even use it as an ingredient in an amazing chocolate chip cookie recipe – but I grew up eating instant pudding and haven’t actually come to terms with the idea that pudding is supposed to be cooked at some point.


  • Preheat oven to 350 degrees and grease/pam two 9 inch cake pans.

Being cupcakes instead of cake, I lined my cupcake pans with the brown, unbleached, environmentally friendly liners I was lucky enough to find at Whole Foods. I explicitly wanted brown liners to mimic the look of the cake, while the regular grocery stores only offer a variety of pastel, patterns, and metallic.

In this case I really just wanted the color and environmentally friendly was a bonus.

  • Combine the cake mix, pudding, sour cream, water, vegetable oil, eggs, and vanilla extract in a bowl and beat it with an egg beater for about two minutes. Don’t beat the cake too hard or too long, just enough so the batter is mixed.

That’s still a crazy looking amount of stuff in that bowl.

  • For extra chocolately goodness, mix some chocolate chips into the batter. This will give the cake a weird chocolate chip cookie feel to it.

I’m not a big chocolate chip person myself, and here I am forcing my anti-chip views on my recipients, but I imagined something more along the lines of flaked chocolate pieces like you find in the really good (in my opinion) kinds of ice cream. I put half a cup of chips to start in my mini food processor and…

The chips seemed to disintegrate from the outside in, so I ended up with chocolate powder covered, smaller chocolate chips. So then I tried a quarter cup in my smoothie maker which came out a little closer but not quite.

This looks about the same as what’s left at the bottom when I make a milkshake in this thing.

I just dumped the whole 3/4 cup from the experiments into the bowl and left it at that.

Last time I made cupcakes I said there has to be a secret to getting the batter into the cups without making a mess. This time I decided to look that issue up and there are – mostly involving excuses to buy more fancy kitchen utensils, but also one ingenious idea I wish I had realized before, using a Ziploc bag as a pseudo-pastry bag.

Notice the bottom left tip I kept clear to cut the spout.

Now getting a bowl of cupcake batter into a gallon sized Ziploc bag isn’t without its own mess, but once it was done it worked like a charm. The only downsides are,

1. Not being able to squeeze every last bit of batter out.
2. Keeping your inner child from wanting to make poop jokes.

These went into the oven for about 30 minutes.

This recipe also uses a can of premade coconut pecan frosting which must be the traditional frosting for German chocolate cake, but the ingredients in canned frosting scare me. So this I made homemade following How to Make an Awesome Coconut-Pecan Frosting for German Chocolate Cake.


  • 1 cup evaporated milk
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 3 egg yolks, beaten
  • 1/2 cup butter
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1 1/3 cups flaked coconut
  • 1 cup chopped pecans

I noticed too late that my little bag was only half a cup but those little bags are expensive and I wasn’t going to bother with a second. I also bought pieces because pieces were cheaper than chopped, and then smashed the bag before opening with my “chicken pounder”.

Smashed pecans are as good as chopped for the cost difference.


  • Put the evaporated milk, sugar, egg yolks, and butter in a medium-sized saucepan.
  • Turn heat on to medium.
  • Cook, stirring constantly, until the mixture has thickened, about 12 to 15 minutes. Keep stirring and don’t walk away from the stove while you are waiting for it to thicken.

Yes, don’t walk away from the stove to check the recipe on your computer, grab the camera to take pictures, get a chair to sit on, or reply to messages. These are all things I didn’t walk away from the stove to do of course.

The problem is it doesn’t say how thick is “thick” and that’s probably something that needs to be known from experience and can’t be taught from a web site. When it wanted to start bubbling up every time I looked away for a second I decided that this step was done.

  • Remove the saucepan from the heat.
  • Stir in vanilla extract, coconut, and pecans.
  • Let the frosting cool to spreading consistency, beating every now and then while it cools down. The frosting will continue to thicken as it cools.

Because the frosting in the picture is darker than you get out of either this recipe or a can, the cake recipe author added chocolate syrup to darken it. I used a couple tablespoons unsweetened Ghirardelli cocoa powder which didn’t just “fix” the color but made it taste amazingly good.

In retrospect, for making cupcake frosting I would have ran the chunky bits (pecans and coconut) through the food processor first to make smaller chunks. It was appropriate for a cake but little difficult to work with on small areas.

Now for the decorating, the part that would make or break my theme. I was already taking some artistic liberties by making cupcakes to begin with, and did again with the icing. The cherries are supposed to be circled by white but I found some sparkly black icing that I felt like I would be able to find more use for in the future. In retrospect again, especially since the sparkliness doesn’t even show, I should have gone for the white to be authentic, or better yet, the clear sparkly icing.


  • Frost the cooled cupcakes.
  • Cut maraschino cherries in half and dry off excess liquid on a paper tower.
  • Don’t eat the maraschino cherries before they make it on to the cupcakes.
  • Oops, that one got messed up. You can eat it.
  • Place three cherry halves in an equilateral triangle shape around the top of each.
  • Circle the cherries with icing.
  • Place a candle in the center of the cupcake.
  • Don’t forget garnishes, such as:
    fish shaped crackers
    fish shaped candies
    fish shaped dirt
    fish shaped solid waste
    fish shaped ethyl benzene
    pull and peel licorice
    fish shaped volatile organic compounds
    sediment shaped sediment

I really wanted that sediment shaped sediment to be authentic, but I did pull off the fish shaped candies as a bonus. (“Fish & chip” chocolates from Chocolatti.)

  • Light and pose dramatically.

The final question – how did they taste?

I hate sending my food out into the world without knowing first, so I decided that the ugliest “reject” cupcake would get sacrificed and cut in half so Andrew and I could taste-test. They all looked pretty good so I picked the one that my arm kept bumping while I was frosting the batch.

The only thing keeping me from saying I’d make these again is feeling like I’m cheating with that box mix. And of course the painstaking decorative work, so if there’s a “next time” they’ll just be German chocolate cupcakes unless I get invited to a Portal-themed party. But if I do get invited to a Portal-themed party, I have to say I’m pretty proud of my creation.

Mini Snickerdoodle Cupcakes

Posted in Cupcakes, Dessert on March 13th, 2011 by admin – 1 Comment

The best cookie ever invented, in cupcake form – this is something I had to try.

Since my homemade snickerdoodles cookies are small compared to the ones you’d buy, I imagined the cupcakes in mini form as well. Going by the cute little Easter motif, I must have impulse bought these mini cupcake cups around a year ago, despite not owning a mini cupcake pan to use them in. I solved that problem at the grocery store while stocking up on baking supplies this week.

The recipe I followed says it was adapted from a Martha Stewart recipe. Without going through a full side-by-side comparison I don’t see the difference other than the frosting, but I agree that the blogger’s cinnamon cream cheese frosting is a much better choice than Martha’s which uses corn syrup and warns to use right away because it hardens quickly. That’s frosting for photos, not for eating.


  • 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
  • 3/4 cups cake flour (not self-rising), sifted

I don’t know why I had to go out of my way to buy cake flour, or what the difference is, but since the recipe explicitly states both I thought I’d better comply. This was the only not-self-rising cake flour I saw and the ingredients look pretty standard for flour.

  • 1/2 tablespoon baking powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 tablespoon ground cinnamon, plus 1/2 teaspoon for dusting
  • 1/2 cup (1 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature

Real cooks, I know, read their recipes all the way through and plan ahead. For the rest of us, I sometimes wish there was a warning that popped up a couple hours before we decide to start baking, “by the way, you’re going to need to take your butter out of the fridge.” I think I should start marking my personal cookbook that way.

  • 1 cups sugar, plus 2 tablespoons for dusting
  • 2 large eggs, room temperature
  • 1 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
  • 3/4 cups milk

Of course I don’t see the room temperature eggs either until the butter is ready… oh well, they got to sit out until needed.


  • Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line standard muffin tins with paper liners. Sift together both flours, baking powder, salt, and 1/2 tablespoon cinnamon.

Well when I opened that box of cake flour, it smelled like… a pastry kitchen. There must be something to this special flour after all, I decided. The box said it was pre-sifted so I skipped that step at least.

  • With an electric mixer on medium-high speed, cream butter and sugar until pale and fluffy. Add eggs, one at a time, beating until each is incorporated, scraping down sides of bowl as needed. Beat in vanilla. Reduce speed to low.

I feel guilty saying that it took this long to use a gift, but it was waiting for the perfect time… well this was the time. I made cupcakes in our new KitchenAid mixer and I’m in love. I’ve been doing most of my mixing by hand, and have only used electric hand-held mixers in the past. This thing really does the work for you. The manual warned that the mixing time will be shorter than most recipes give, and I haven’t yet turned the speed higher than 2 (the one higher than ‘stir’).

  • Add flour mixture in three batches, alternating with two additions of milk, and beating until combined after each.

Our mixer came with this plastic shield that looks like it was meant exactly for this kind of thing.

  • Divide batter evenly among lined cups, filling each three-quarters full.

    The last time I made cupcakes I was told I filled them too full and came out with more muffin-cupcakes. I don’t see what’s wrong with muffin-cupcakes to begin with, but with the mini ones you really need to fill them close to the top or you’ll have practically nothing when they’re cooked.

    This was my first set so I was still learning. Some of these should have been filled higher. There also must be a secret to getting cupcake batter into the pan without making a mess… I’d like to learn it.

    • Bake, rotating tins halfway through, until a cake tester inserted in centers comes out clean, about 20 minutes.

    Again because of the size I started the timer on 10 minutes. My toothpick.. er… “cake tester” came out clean but I wanted to be sure I was cooking them long enough so I kept putting them back in the oven until I hit the full 20 minutes. They seemed to be a little gooey no matter how long they were cooked, wanting to stick to the paper when peeled (something that was partially resolved by not being so impatient and waiting for them to cool overnight first.)

    They were being especially weird by my last batch. These aren’t toothpick holes but how they baked.

    In the end this is mishmash of cupcakes I came out with. I put them in airtight containers overnight before making the frosting since they are intended to go to work for my coworker’s birthday (and some semi-biased taste-testing).

    She gives the frosting recipe on the page as well. Again note the ‘softened’ parts ahead of time. I made this in the KitchenAid as well and then had to put the bowl in the fridge to frost later because I think I let my cream cheese and butter get too softened.

    • To finish, combine remaining 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon and 2 tablespoons sugar. Pipe frosting on each cupcake. Using a small, fine sieve, dust peaks with cinnamon-sugar.

    I had to make due with a plain old knife for frosting, and my cinnamon-sugar shaker to dust with. Someday I’ll invest in piping bags and the like but I’m still not bothered by the homemade look on cupcakes. Ultimately I decided it would be a better idea to take them out of the paper before frosting so they could be grabbed and eaten instead of making a mess at that size.

    I think I’m waiting on some other opinions before I can say for sure what I think of this one. The snickerdoodley-ness and that frosting are both amazing, but they are strangely textured for cupcakes. I probably should have stuck to the original before changing things because I don’t know if that’s a side effect of mini size or just how they were meant to be.