Monday, November 10, 2008

Those Cupcakes....

If you were in rehearsals with me this past Tuesday, you most likely experienced the cupcakes which I brought in honor of Cenovia’s and Lorra’s birthdays. I would like to write about Those Cupcakes tonight. After all, you’ve been talking about them for the past five days. You’ve sent me texts and Facebook messages about them. Every time I see you at gigs, you keep asking me if I have any more of Those Cupcakes. I am thoroughly delighted that you responded to them so enthusiastically, more than I can even say. And so it would give me great pleasure to share the recipe for Those Cupcakes with you. Yes, I'll tell you how to make those Chocolate Cupcakes with Mascarpone and Almond-Pinenut Praline, which are also known as the Oh-my-GOD Cupcakes!

Most of you know that I LOVE celebrating birthdays. I celebrate my own birthday extensively, not only on the actual day or even just the week, but the entire month of August is declared Birthday Month! However, lest you think that I am a narcissist who wants it to be all about her, I honestly get just as excited about my friends’ birthdays as I do my own. This is a particularly happy time of year since I have many Scorpios in my life, many of whom were born within a 12-day stretch. The first week+ of November is the time of celebrating Alissa, Joyce, Cenovia, Lorra, Belinda, Stephanie and Kristina. Even Kristina’s baby, who is due to make her appearance in the world any day now, is going to join this list of fabulous Scorpio women!

My dear friends Cenovia and Lorra share their birthday on November 4th. I knew I would be seeing a lot of them that day, since we were scheduled for multiple rehearsals together on Tuesday in addition to having a birthday dinner with several of our other friends. As a Leo who never had to go to school on her summer birthday, the concept of being stuck in school or at work on one’s birthday has always felt wrong to me. And because this was such an intense work week for all of us, I felt compelled to cushion the indignity of my Scorpio friends having to spend their birthdays in long rehearsals for various concerts we were playing together this week.

Champagne and chocolate immediately spring to my mind whenever I’m trying to conjure up a celebration. However, as fun as it might have been, I knew that sparkling wine was probably not the best choice for our 10 a.m. rehearsal. I had just finished a round of CocoaRoar truffles for Halloween, so after hand-shaping hundreds of truffles and individually dipping each one in melted chocolate, I was eager to work in slightly broader strokes. Rather than schlepping a big cake all over town, cupcakes seemed to be the natural solution.

Honestly, who doesn’t love cupcakes?! A multi-layered cake can feel very grown-up and serious, but cupcakes are fun and whimsical, often evoking memories of being a child when life was simpler and more calorie-free. Savoring a little cupcake somehow seems less indulgent than chowing down on a big slice of birthday cake. On a purely practical level, cupcakes are easy to transport and require no plates or serving utensils, which is an important detail to consider when you have to get around by subway and set up your mini party in a bare-bones rehearsal space.

If you’re anything like me, you wouldn’t seriously consider most of the local cupcake bakeries as a viable option. I often complain about many of the overrated cupcakeries around the city which serve dry cake heaped with a mound of icing so cloyingly sweet that it makes my teeth itch. Could somebody please explain to me why those overpriced tasteless cakes are so popular?!? Life is simply too short to eat cupcakes without nuance!

I wanted to make something that would honor these two sensational birthday women, both of whom are not only terrific violinists but are also huge-hearted, fabulously talented in so many ways, and incredibly fun to be around. Cenovia and Lorra are also my frequent partners in all sorts of culinary adventures, so I wanted to make something that would appeal to their excellent palates.

Imagine a tender chocolate cake with a fine crumb and a deep chocolate flavor without being overly sweet. Instead of veering off into diabetic-coma-inducing sugary icing territory, I made two different toppings for these velvety chocolate cupcakes. The first was a cardamom icing perfumed with a bit of rosewater and rose petal sugar, as a nod to Cenovia’s and Lorra’s fondness for that flavor combination. Yum. But I would like to talk about the second version, in which the perfect little chocolate beauty was topped with amaretto-laced mascarpone cheese. And as if that weren’t delightful enough on its own, would you please imagine a little sprinkling of a crunchy almond-pinenut praline on top?!

Whoa! Skyrockets in flight!...AFTERNOON DELIGHT!!!!!!

We had the cardamom rose cupcakes at our Riverside Symphony rehearsal in the morning, and then the praline cupcakes in the afternoon at St Ignatius Loyola while rehearsing for a different concert. There was such excitement in the air since it was Election Day, and all of my friends and colleagues were buzzing with choruses of, “Did you vote? Did you see how many people were lined up around the block to vote?! Have you ever seen anything like it?!” And throughout all of these animated conversations, the cupcakes were absolutely devoured.

This has been my favorite cupcake recipe for a long time, but now it has special resonance for me as they will always be associated with Election Day 2008! It would have been a memorable day just to play great music as we did, and the day was extra special since I got to celebrate with these two fabulous friends of mine on their birthdays, both in rehearsals and then at an especially lovely birthday dinner later on. But there are no words to describe the elation that so many of us felt shortly after 11 pm when the election results came flooding over our television screens and computer monitors. I had saved one chocolate praline cupcake for myself which I ate in a spirit of great celebration that night, and these are now forever sealed in my mind as the Obama victory cupcakes!

Now I know I just gave you a chocolate cupcake recipe a few weeks ago, but somehow I don’t think you’ll mind my inclusion of this one as well. The October 17th chocolate cupcake recipe that I make with my nephew Mac is a little more kid-friendly, both in taste and in the preparation, which is perfect when you are baking with a very young friend. But these beauties are more sophisticated, mainly because of the mascarpone and praline topping. Whereas the other cupcake recipe uses just butter, this particular recipe uses a combination of butter and oil which creates a beautiful cake with a velvet texture. The inclusion of both unsweetened cocoa and melted bittersweet chocolate in the batter lends a chocolatey depth that I find intensely appealing.

You don't even need a mixer for these cupcakes. After the flour and baking powder are sifted into the chocolate mixture, buttermilk is whisked in. This adds moisture and tempers the sweetness, intensifying the chocolate flavor of the cake.

The praline is made by cooking a simple sugar and water mixture until it caramelizes and turns a deep amber color. Quickly stir in toasted almonds and pinenuts, and spread the mixture out on a piece of foil to let it harden.

When the praline has hardened and cooled, it is crushed into coarse pieces for the topping. Creamy mascarpone, the Italian cream cheese, is spiked with amaretto before being slathered on the cupcakes. It provides the perfect bridge between the fine textured chocolate cake and the crunchy praline that is then sprinkled on top.


Whether you have birthdays or political optimism to celebrate, or if you're simply craving a fabulous treat, I urge you to go directly to this recipe, for it will create one of the more memorable cupcakes you will ever have the pleasure of experiencing!

Adapted from a recipe in Gourmet, April 1999.

The cake is light yet quite dark chocolatey without being overly sweet, and I think the combination of the mascarpone with the unusual crunch of the almond-pine nut praline is heavenly!

For the praline:
½ cup slivered almonds
½ cup pine nuts
¾ cup sugar
¼ cup water

For the cupcakes:
1/3 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
5 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/3 cup canola oil
2/3 cup water
3 ounces fine-quality bittersweet chocolate, finely chopped
1 cup sugar
1 large egg
1-1/4 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/3 cup well-shaken buttermilk

For the topping:
8 ounces mascarpone cheese, at room temperature
2 tablespoons amaretto

Toast the almonds in a dry skillet over medium-low heat until just barely golden brown, stirring frequently; set aside to cool on a plate. Toast the pine nuts in the same way and set aside.

Line a baking sheet with heavy foil. In a skillet bring the sugar and water to a boil, stirring until sugar is dissolved. Boil the syrup without stirring until it begins to turn golden. Swirl pan until syrup is deep golden and remove from heat. Stir in the nuts and immediately pour praline onto baking sheet, spreading evenly. Cool the praline completely and break into pieces. Transfer the praline to a resealable plastic bag and coarsely crush it with a rolling pin.

Preheat oven to 300°. Line 18 standard-size muffin cups with paper liners.

In a small saucepan combine the cocoa powder, butter, oil, and water. Bring the mixture to a boil, stirring until smooth, and remove pan from heat. Add the chopped chocolate and sugar, whisking until smooth, and transfer to a bowl. Cool chocolate mixture completely and whisk in the egg. Sift flour and baking powder over chocolate mixture and whisk until just combined. Whisk in buttermilk and pour batter into the prepared cups, filling each about 2/3 of the way full. (You will probably have some empty cups if you are using 12-cup muffin tins, so fill each of those halfway with water to keep the muffin tin from scorching.

Bake cupcakes in middle of oven for 25-30 minutes, until the top springs back when touched or a tester comes out clean. Cool in pan on a rack 5 minutes, then transfer cupcakes to a wire rack to cool completely.

When you are ready to frost the cupcakes, stir the mascarpone and amaretto together in a medium bowl. Spread mixture liberally over the tops of the cupcakes and generously sprinkle with praline. Makes about 18 cupcakes.

Note: You can also bake this cake as a single 9-inch round. Generously butter a 9-inch round cake pan and line bottom with parchment paper, then butter the paper and dust pan with flour, knocking out excess. Bake the single cake layer for 45-50 minutes. Cool in the pan for 5 minutes, then turn out onto a wire rack and let cool completely before frosting with the mascarpone and praline.

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