Let me tell you something about cupcakes. They make people happy. I know they’re all the rage right now, they’re the in thing to make for weddings, showers, christenings. Or little red chicken Christmas/Paddy’s Day parties. I’m just as guilty as anyone for falling for it and I’m not ashamed. I’m not a fashionable person by any stretch, but I’m all over this cupcake thing. Sometimes I scare myself.
I took a trip to New York City three years ago and Magnolia Bakery was on the itinerary for obvious reasons. I wasn’t a cupcake super-fan at the time. I enjoyed them, but I certainly didn’t plan on hitting the bakery on a weekend and having to line up for twenty-five minutes for a cupcake with dozens of tourists. After all, I considered myself more of a traveler, not a tourist and we all know there is such a remarkable difference. And yes, I’d seen that silly episode of Sex and the City where Miranda and Carrie sit outside and eat pink cupcakes on a bench in Greenwich Village and look all glamourous and gorgeous and all, look at me I live in Manhattan and I’m in the Village eating a pink cupcake. This had nothing to do with me going to Magnolia Bakery whatsoever, I was simply a traveler in search of a treat to fuel my walk to lower Manhattan. Which is why I took the 35 minute detour and the walk down Bleecker Street. Yep. So I’m there on a weekday and the line-up isn’t there. I stroll on into the shop like I own the place, like I’m an eye-rolling New Yorker who knows when to hit the bakery when all the annoying tourists aren’t around. Never mind the fact that I had just walked down Bleecker Street and spent five minutes staring at a block of smoked buffalo mozzarella in a shop window like I’d found the Holy Grail. My attempt to look like a local didn’t work in Magnolia either. When the smell of warm vanilla hit me in the face as soon as I cracked the door to the bakery, I knew I was done for. I gave in. I became a tourist. I knew New Yorkers made fun of us, just as we make fun of them every summer in Cow Head. But this was more important, this was about the food. With wide eyes and a fuzzy feeling in my heart and belly, I bought two perfect cupcakes. They were tucked neatly into a little white cardboard box for me by the lovely girls behind the counter and I stashed it in my bag, deciding to save the treats until after my walk downtown.
Turned out to be quite the event. I chose a park bench away from the tourist crowd at the Ellis Island ferry terminal for the big cupcake moment. I had just been mugged by a seagull who stole my hot dog. No joke, he landed on my head and then made a grab and got away with half (wiener and bun) before swooping off to brag to his arsehole seagull friends. Now I sat alone on a bench, opening the little white box as furtively as I could, wary of being mugged again by the local wildlife. A squirrel the size of a beagle came out from behind a bush and leered at my cupcake. I looked him squarely in the eye and said, “Squirrel, I am a traveler. Not a tourist. I do not feed the animals. And my hot dog was just stolen by a seagull, so eff off.” I guess he figured I’d paid my dues and took off, leaving me alone to enjoy my dessert. Or to go back and get his friends so they could give me rabies and take my cupcakes. I better get this done. One perfect, pink, vanilla jewel. One big bite that left pink icing on my nose and a tear in my eye. It was the beginning of a love affair with cupcakes and a lifelong hatred of seagulls.
And there you have it. I made my first real homemade batch a few months later for an impromptu St. Patrick’s day party at my place (it was impromptu, I was going to eat them all myself)…green icing, tacky sprinkles, the works. The effect was startling. Everyone went nuts for them. Now, everyone was drinking Guinness and homemade wine out of plastic bags (my parties are that classy), and that may have had something to do with the startling factor. But they were gone faster than a Manhattan seagull can steal a hot dog. And that’s pretty goddamn fast. It’s been full cupcake throttle ever since. I’ve made them for parties, for new babies, for the first sunny day of spring when you can finally sit outside and have a cup of tea. And for the record, I think they’re so much more fun for weddings than those ten-tier marzipan jobbies. My sister had a cupcake tier at her wedding reception and although I didn’t get drunk and fall on it like I teased Jade I would, I certainly managed to take a sizeable chunk out of it. Yeah, I was that bridesmaid.
Right, I didn’t know I could talk so much about cupcakes either, okay I did. But there was indeed a batch of happiness made recently that involved a shiny brand new cupcake recipe. I made them for the Cow Head farewell curry, but these things were so great that they deserved a mention just to their sweet little selves. Earl Grey cupcakes with lemon buttercream icing. Not a perfect fit for a dessert that follows a heavy curry supper, but who cares. They’re cupcakes. This wasn’t Top Chef, this was a group of girls starved for curry and cupcake love in the middle of the Newfoundland wilderness. Good thing you could get lemons that day at the liquor store.
I’d heard about these cupcakes a few months earlier from my friend Katie. She’d had a real shit day and a couple of friends had made them for her to cheer her up. They worked. And when she told me about the recipe (I can’t remember when that was, but we were probably at my place eating something) I almost fell off my chair. Then I realized I had the recipe in a cookbook my pal Simmons had given me for a birthday gift a few months earlier; Cupcakes from the Primrose Bakery (by Martha Swift and Lisa Thomas, Kyle Books, 2009). The Primrose is in London and by all accounts is to the city what Magnolia is to Manhattan. It’s a gorgeous, gorgeous book, the photos and recipes are unreal. My copy was still in St. John’s but thankfully I managed to find the recipe online. I also had a stash of “Lady Grey” tea (not quite as strong as earl, so I upped the teabag number by one) which was fortunate, because there’s no earl to be had in Cow Head, and a Tetley cupcake would just be weird.
Earl Grey Cupcakes with Lemon Buttercream Icing
Makes a dozen cupcakes (I got about 15…)
1/2 cup 2% milk, at room temperature
4 Earl Grey teabags (or 5 Lady Grey)
8 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature (I used salted. Love salted butter, don’t care)
1 cup plus 2 tbsp granulated sugar
1/2 tsp almond extract, optional (yes, please. weird)
2 large eggs, at room temperature
3/4 cup plus 2 tbsp self-rising flour
3/4 cup plus 1 tbsp all-purpose flour
(I didn’t have any self-rising flour so I used 1 and 3/4 cup all-purpose flour with 1 1/4 tsp baking powder)
Preheat the oven to 350 F. Line a 12 cup muffin pan with cupcake liners. Set aside. Heat the milk in a saucepan over medium heat until it just begins to boil. Remove from heat and add the teabags. Cover and steep for about 30 minutes. Remove the teabags and gently squeeze to remove any excess liquid from them. Discard the teabags. In a medium bowl, sift together the flours and set aside. In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment (I used a hand mixer) cream the butter and sugar until mixture is smooth, about 3-5 minutes. Add the almond extract if using and mix until combined. Add the eggs, one at a time, and beat well after each addition. Alternate adding the flour mixture and the infused milk, beginning and ending with the flour, mixing until combined after each addition. Carefully spoon the mixture into the cups, filling them about 2/3 full. Bake for around 25 minutes or until slightly raised and golden brown. Cake skewer should come out clean when inserted into centre of cupcake. Let sit for 10 minutes before removing cupcakes from pan. Transfer to a wire rack to cool completely. Frost with lemon buttercream icing.
For the lemon buttercream:
8 tbsp unsalted butter, at room temperature (again, salted was ok)
1/4 cup 2% milk, at room temperature
1 tsp lemon juice
1 teaspoon lemon zest
4 1/4 cups confectioners’ sugar, sifted
In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment (again, hand mixer), beat the butter, milk, lemon juice, zest and half the sugar until smooth. Gradually add the remainder of the sugar and beat until smooth and creamy.
I thought I was a cupcake purist (partial to vanilla, even though I’ve been a chocolate girl all my life), until now. And although I love buttercream sometimes even I (gasp) find it a little too sweet which is why I’ve started making (pink!) cream cheese icing for my vanilla cupcakes; I like the tang of the cream cheese with the sweetness of the cake. But these little Earl Grey babies are sweet and aromatic in a way I never thought possible. The citrus of the lemon buttercream is perfect, it’s just perfect. Don’t dare try to substitute bottled lemon juice, get a real lemon with real zest and you will weep beautiful lemony tears of joy, that’s how good this icing is. Whether you love Earl Grey tea or you’ve never even tried it, give these cupcakes a go. They will make your kitchen smell like a fancy bakery in Greenwich Village or Covent Garden, will leave your friends with fuzzy hearts and bellies and will leave you feeling like one classy little chicken.