Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Sailing Along With Key Lime Cupcakes

I have always loved having a summer birthday. Though my childhood pool parties have now been replaced by cocktail soirees and birthday dinners on my roof deck, it always has felt particularly festive to celebrate in an outdoor venue on a balmy summer night. I have several weeks to plan my next birthday celebration, but my friend Laura just raised the bar on fabulous birthday party locations, for twenty-five of us boarded the Pioneer Schooner at South Street Seaport last night in honor of her birthday. What could be more festive than sailing around lower Manhattan at sunset while surrounded by friends and family? If you add some killer Key Lime Cupcakes to the equation, you can consider yourself officially celebrated in grand style.

Laura is one of the most beautiful and big-hearted women I know, and I have always appreciated her quick laugh and generous spirit. She kept me sane throughout our six-year Broadway run in the orchestra of “The Producers”, not only in the pit but also while commuting together through the Times Square mayhem surrounding our theater, and there were countless Sunday nights when I joined Laura and her husband Tom to watch the latest episode of “The Sopranos” or “Six Feet Under” while quaffing gin&tonics. (They had HBO; I brought the gin.) She is my closest neighbor from whom I can borrow the proverbial neighborly cup of sugar, although our kitchen requests of each other tend to be a bit more specific, such as “Can I use your Kitchenaid?” or “May I borrow your silicone baking mats to make those incredible New York Times chocolate chip cookies that we love so much?” And she is definitely one of the most genuinely enthusiastic taste-testers for whom I have ever had the pleasure of cooking.

Laura and Tom love sailing on the Pioneer, the 100-foot schooner which does daily harbor tours from South Street Seaport. When she decided weeks ago that she wanted to celebrate her birthday by taking an evening sail with friends, we all literally hopped on board. I volunteered to make the birthday cake, and after batting many ideas back and forth, we decided that cupcakes would be the easiest thing to manage. Two of the flavors that kept coming up in our discussion were key lime and coconut, so I decided to create a special birthday cupcake for her.

I did some trial batches, starting with my Coconut Cupcake recipe that’s slightly adapted from The Barefoot Contessa version. That particular cupcake is flavored with vanilla and almond extracts, but I decided to replace the almond and much of the vanilla extracts with key lime juice. A scattering of grated lime zest punched up the bright flavor, providing an additional citrus zing.

Since neither Laura nor I are fans of overly sweet icings, a category into which many buttercreams and other meringue frostings fall, I decided to play around with a lime-scented cream cheese frosting. I could hire Laura to be my press agent for the lemony cream cheese frosting I make for my carrot cake, an icing she loves to an extreme degree and once described it in rapturous tones as tasting like clouds. This cloudlike quality is due to the presence of fresh lemon juice and grated lemon zest, a noteworthy addition that elevates this frosting to new heights. When I suggested topping these cupcakes with my standard cream cheese icing flavored with lime zest instead, Laura practically screamed, “You mean we can actually have key lime CLOUDS?!!” Oh yes, we most certainly can!

I topped some of the key lime cupcakes with coconut shavings, but I reserved a dozen cupcakes in case anyone at the party had an aversion to coconut, and I adorned these quite simply with additional freshly grated lime zest. When all was said and done, I must confess that I preferred the straight lime cupcakes to the ones with the coconut. Don’t get me wrong, I devoured the coconut-lime creations as did everyone else, and I would happily make them again in a heartbeat. But the lime cupcakes really came into focus, with the fresh lime flavor being experienced in octaves throughout the different layers of cake, icing and garnish. And that is the recipe I would like to share with you today.

After a month in which it rained for a portion of each day, yesterday could not have been more gorgeous with nary a storm cloud in sight. The view of the Brooklyn Bridge was stunning from the pier, the late afternoon sun bathing the bridge in golden light. 

As we boarded the schooner, Laura and Tom handed us each a picnic tote bag that they had filled with scrumptious sandwiches, Terra chips, and various beverages. And at the bottom of each bag was a key lime cupcake, which Laura had encased in its own individual box and sealed shut with a hilarious little skull-and-crossbones sticker, which seemed appropriate for the nautical theme of this party!

I couldn’t have planned a more perfect day myself, and the month of rain seemed worth it if only to have a day this beautiful. I found myself falling in love with my city all over again as I experienced it from a slightly different perspective.

It delighted me to no end to see how happy Laura was, surrounded by the friends and family who love her dearly. I was glad that I could contribute these key lime cupcakes to the celebration, for it wasn’t just the birthday girl who loved them. While it may not be as feasible to hop aboard the Schooner whenever I feel like it, at least I can easily whip up a batch of these cupcakes any time I want. Even though I didn't want the sunset cruise to end last night, I now know that a single bite of these key lime cupcakes will instantly transport me back to that glorious evening.

This recipe is a riff on my coconut cupcake recipe, which in turn was adapted slightly from a recipe in The Barefoot Contessa by Ina Garten.

Since it can be difficult to find real key limes, I use the bottled Joe&Nellie’s Key Lime Juice and then punch up the flavor even more with grated regular lime zest. If you can’t find the key lime juice, you can easily substitute the juice from regular limes and the recipe will not suffer. A Microplane zester makes it especially easy to grate the lime zest.

For the cupcakes:
3 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1-1/2 cups (3 sticks) unsalted butter, softened to room temperature
1-3/4 cups sugar
5 extra-large eggs, at room temperature
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 tablespoon bottled key lime juice
1 tablespoon freshly grated lime zest (from approximately 1 lime)
1 cup buttermilk

For the lime cream cheese frosting:
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened to room temperature
2 - 8-oz. packages of cream cheese, softened to room temperature
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
3 to 4 tablespoons bottled key lime juice, or more to taste
1 tablespoon freshly grated lime zest (from approximately 1 lime)
3 to 4 cups powdered confectioner's sugar
Additional freshly grated lime zest, for garnish (from 2 to 3 limes)

Bake the cupcakes:
Preheat the oven to 325°. Fill standard-sized muffin tins with 30 paper liners.

Sift the flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt together in a medium sized mixing bowl. Set aside.

Combine the softened butter and sugar together in the bowl of a stand mixer, using the paddle attachment to cream them together until light and fluffy, about 5 minutes. (Alternately you can use a handheld mixer for this.) When the butter and sugar are well combined, add the eggs, one at a time, making sure to scrape down the sides of the bowl with a spatula after each addition. Add the vanilla, lime juice and zest, mixing well.

Add one-third of the flour mixture to the butter-sugar mixture, using the mixer on low speed, just until the flour is blended in. Add one half of the buttermilk and blend in. Continue alternating the flour and buttermilk, scraping down the sides after each addition, and ending with flour. Mix until just combined.

Spoon the batter into the prepared muffin cups, filling them just to the top. If your muffin tins have 12 cups each, you will most likely have six unfilled cups. To prevent scorching during baking, fill those leftover cups halfway with water.

Bake for 25 to 35 minutes, rotating the pans halfway through the baking time, until the tops are golden brown and a toothpick inserted into the center of one comes out clean. Let the cupcakes cool in their pans for 15 minutes, and then remove from the pan to a wire baking rack to cool completely.

Make the frosting:
Beat together the softened butter and cream cheese in a large bowl with an electric mixer. Blend in the vanilla, 3 tablespoons of the lime juice and zest. Add the powdered sugar, 1 cup at a time, beating until the frosting is light and fluffy. After adding 3 cups of sugar, taste the frosting to make sure that this is to your liking. Personally, I don't care for an overly sugary frosting, but you may want to add the additional cup of sugar to suit your taste, and feel free to heighten the lime flavor as necessary. Store the frosting in the fridge until ready to use.

When the cupcakes have cooled, top them with a generous slather of cream cheese frosting and grate a little additional lime zest over the top of each one. Makes 30 cupcakes.

1 comment:

Paulina said...

Excellent post as usual, Louise. And you read my mind - I've been on a lime + cupcake kick for ages now! Can't wait to try these....