I entered the National Capital Area Cake Show’s Cupcake Social a few weeks ago, and I’ve been walking around in a haze of butter, caffeine, and leftover adrenaline ever since. I rolled in from Vegas at midnight the day before the contest, did all my grocery shopping that morning, and cranked out exactly one half of the cupcakes that I intended to make before realizing that I was going to miss registration, holy shit, we have to go NOW.
I’m happy to say that I made it there in one piece, with one complete set of cupcakes in tow. I didn’t miss registration! I got set up in time!
I also kind of won at cake? I placed in the top three for division and flavor. Which was a surprise and a pleasure, given the quality of the other bakers there.
Here’s what I learned before and during the contest:
- If you get business cards printed for your blog, you are going to leave them at home.
- Having a friend around during an all-day baking sprint is really useful. Two friends are even better. If possible, stagger their arrival so that one of them can bring you food when you start getting faint around hour 6.
- If you stand next to the person who wins the whole entire thing, you are going to spend a lot of energy being gracious even though everybody likes her cupcakes better than mine and everything is terrible why does she have tiny adorable starbucks wrappers for her cupcakes did she really make 110 of those really she’s a lovely person but seriously what the fuck
- Everything is going to take three times as long as you think it will. I had two recipes tested and ready to go; I came out with one kind cupcake. I just ran out of time. I could have saved myself a bunch of grief and also a shitton of butter money if I had been realistic about the timing from the start.
I had a lot of fun! And then something weird happened.
Whenever someone tried to congratulate me about the contest, I turned red. I said it was silly. I got profoundly uncomfortable. Which is bizarre, because that kind of attention is usually my lifeblood. When I hit my weightlifting goals or my word count in a writing project, I can’t shut up about it. Cupcakes, though? I’d rather sink into the earth.
I run a lot of mental circles when it comes to baking. I insist to myself that baking involves a lot of precision and chemistry and repeated trials. As if my hobby belonged in a science lab, despite my own protestations to the contrary. “I burn myself all the time!” I say, laughing and showing off the scars. As if I can make baking and cupcake contests into some kind of rough and tumble activity.
Almost as if I’m trying to cover up the fact that I spend time on something that’s pretty, that’s fussy, that involves decorating, and cleaning, and time in the kitchen.
In other words, as if I’m embarrassed by doing something feminine.
Sorry, friends. The misogyny was calling from inside the house.
I’m not the most feminine person in the world. I play around with the idea of femininity. I enjoy the contrast between heavy boots and floral skirts, or bright lipstick and very short hair. I don’t think that I’m gendering wrong, or that it’s gendering wrong is even possible. But there’s a difference between not being very feminine, and being embarrassed by any association with femininity. This feels like the latter. It’s the flip side of the weird, fucked-up pride I used to take in being considered one of the guys. As if there was something wrong with being one of the girls, as if I got a gold star every time someone saw me drink black coffee and straight whisky. Those are still my drinks of choice, but that’s because I like them, not because I’m trying to prove that I’m special. (I’m so glad I got my head out of my ass on that one–Tough Girl Me never let herself drink sparkly wine, and that shit is delicious.)
I love baking. I love it. I think about it almost all the time. I have an entire carbohydrate-based vocabulary for I love you, or I’m so proud of you, or I’m sorry this is happening, or those motherfuckers won’t know what hit them. I don’t want to be embarrassed because my cupcakes might come off as girly. I don’t want to be embarrassed by coming off as girly, period.
I’m not saying that I’m suddenly going to make everything pink and covered in flowers. That’s still not my jam, and I don’t have that kind of skill. But I can stop making excuses for something I love, and spend that energy on making better cakes instead.
So, right, cappuccino cupcakes. Eat too many of these and you’ll go to the fucking moon. There’s espresso powder and instant coffee and also more espresso. These cakes are overly caffeinated, overly complicated, and probably way more effort than it’s worth. In other words: this is my favorite recipe in the entire universe.
There are four parts to these tiny monsters: a layer of dense, rich coffee-flavored cake, topped with a layer of airy espresso chiffon cake, filled with espresso cream and topped with barely-sweetened whipped cream. I made the recipe to mimic the experience of drinking a cappuccino, with a layer of light foam over the base of milk and espresso. This recipe makes about 120 mini cupcakes, maybe a little more—I ran out of time before I ran out of batter.
Shopping List (This is everything you’ll need. I break it out by recipe later.)
3 cups all purpose flour
1 1/3 cup cake flour
6 1/4 cups sugar
3 sticks butter
1/4 cup vegetable oil
4 tbsp + 1.5 tsp instant coffee
3/4 cup buttermilk
1.5 tsp baking soda
1 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp salt
5 tsp vanilla extract
1/2 tsp cream of tartar
6 tsp brewed espresso (fresh brewed if you’re fancy, or 2 tsp instant espresso powder + 4 tsp boiling water)
6 tsp instant espresso powder
6 cups heavy whipping cream
Everything. Seriously, everything in your kitchen. All the measuring implements you have. As many bowls as you can manage (you’re still going to be cleaning them out and reusing them). An electric hand mixer and/or a stand mixer. Mini cupcake tins. Mini cupcake liners. Piping bags. Piping tips, if you have them. One really big cup. A cupcake corer, or a grapefruit knife, or a 1/4 teaspoon measure, or whatever you feel like using to make holes in really small baked goods. Cooling racks. A pot. A rubber scraping spatula, or several. A microwave. A butter knife.
Really, actually, everything.
We’re making a stupid amount of stupidly complicated cupcakes, so best be prepared. Lay out all the measuring implements you have. Sort them by size. You might not use all of them, but you’re going to come damn close, and this is way easier than rattling around in the odds-and-ends drawer every time you need one.
Pull your eggs out of the fridge and put them in a warm water bath. We’re in chiffon cake territory, which means the temperature of the eggs really matters. Fortunately, you don’t have to bring your butter to temperature since you’re just going to melt it.
Make the 6 ounces of espresso now. Put it in the fridge so it has a chance to cool down.
Espresso Cream Filling Part 1
This is really just flavored whipped cream. All we’re doing here is making espresso with heavy cream and then putting it in the freezer to chill for a few hours.
6 tsp instant espresso powder
2 cups heavy cream
1/2 cup of sugar (you won’t need this yet)
Pour the heavy cream into a microwave-proof bowl. Zap it in the microwave for 20 seconds. Stir and zap again. Repeat until sticking your finger in the cream gets uncomfortable. Measure in the espresso powder and stir until the powder completely dissolves.
Put the cream in the freezer. I highly recommend making sure the bowl has an extremely flat surface to rest on. Don’t try to balance it on top of your frozen pork chops and brussels sprouts. If you do, the bowl is going to tilt and you’re going to open the freezer later to find this.
Proceed to ignore the cream filling. It’ll be cold enough once we’re done with everything else.
The Coffee Cake Layer
3 cups all purpose flour
3 cups sugar
1/2 tsp salt
3 sticks butter
1 cup boiling water
4 tbsp + 1 1/2 tsp instant coffee
3/4 cup buttermilk
1 1/2 tsp baking soda
3 tsp vanilla
Melt your butter on the stove over low heat and start your water boiling. While all that is taking care of itself, mix together the flour, sugar, and salt in the biggest bowl you have. My four quart bowl was just big enough.
As soon as the water comes to a boil, mix in the instant coffee. The butter will almost certainly be melted at that point, so go ahead and pour the coffee in. Mix everything together.
Then learn from my mistakes and take the spoon out. Metal conducts heat! Sorry, hand.
Turn up the heat and bring the coffee/butter mixture up to a boil for ten seconds. Then take the pot off the heat and put it aside. Fun science fact: coffee is actually fat soluble! Use this knowledge to take Bulletproof Coffee to its logical extreme and make coffee with melted butter.
In a slightly less enormous bowl, mix together the buttermilk, eggs, baking soda, and vanilla. Then grab that coffee/butter pot and pour it onto the dry ingredients. Mix them together until just combined. And finally, pour the buttermilk/egg mixture in and fold it all together. Reach down to the bottom of the bowl as best as you can while you’re folding. You’re working en masse; no matter how thoroughly you mixed in the last step, you will find secret caches of dry flour in there
Once everything is folded in together, set the bowl aside. You have a hot date with your egg whites.
The Espresso Chiffon Layer
I am extremely fond of this recipe. It’s actually the second fancy cake I ever made. The sheer number of dick jokes I made to myself while baking it inspired me to create this blog. I’m very happy to see it again.
1/4 cup vegetable oil
6 eggs at room temperature
6 tbsp espresso at room temperature
2 tsp vanilla extract
1 1/3 cup cake flour
1 1/2 cup sugar (divided into 1 cup and 1/2 cup)
1 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp cream of tartar
Clean all the bowls you dirtied while working on the coffee cake. You’re going to need them. Also, preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
Separate your eggs. My preferred method is cracking the egg in half and pouring the yolk back and forth between the shells while the white sloughs off into a bowl beneath:
You’ll want a medium sized bowl for both the whites and the yolks.
In a chiffon cake, it’s most important to make sure that there is no yolk in with the whites. Err on the side of leaving a little white in with the yolks, rather than pouring the yolk over one too many times and breaking it into the whites bowl.
I recommend keeping a few spare eggs on hand.
Set the whites aside for a minute. Pour the vegetable oil, vanilla, and espresso in with the yolks and mix.
Grab your sifter and the biggest bowl you have that isn’t currently holding coffee cake batter. This is my favorite part, because there is something wrong with me.
Sift the cake flour, a cup of the sugar, the baking powder, and the cinnamon into that big-ass bowl. Proceed to ignore the dry ingredients.
Now, finally, return to the bowl of egg whites. Drop the cream of tartar on top. Whip up the egg whites until they’re frothy, like this:
Then start pouring in the remaining half cup of sugar, a little bit at a time so the bubbles don’t collapse under its weight. Keep whipping the egg whites. You want them at soft peaks. The mixture will start holding ridges, like this:
When you see those ridges, SLOW DOWN. You don’t want to overbeat. Stop when you hit soft peaks.
Pour the yolk-espresso mixture into the dry ingredients and mix until everything is just combined. The most important thing is not to overwork the flour. Fucking around and overworking the flour will give you tough cake.
Take a bite out of crime! Don’t over-stir your batter.
Next, scoop out a third of your egg whites and stir them gently into the batter to lighten the texture. This makes folding in the rest of the egg whites easier. Once the texture is somewhat uniform, drop the rest of the egg whites on top. Fold until the streaks disappear.
Congratulations! You have two complete batters. Time to assemble some cake.
Prepping The Cupcakes
Pull out your mini cupcake tins. I had two tins with 24 hollows each. I would have been happy to have twice as many that so I could prep one batch while the other was in the oven. Utilize your resources as you see fit!
Put in the cupcake liners. My cupcake tins are exactly the right size and shape to slip between the wires of my oven rack, which makes it incredibly hard to get the tins back out again. I like to leave one cup open in the corner that I can use to grab the tin out of the oven.
Each cupcake needs half a tablespoon of coffee batter and half a tablespoon of espresso chiffon batter, starting with the coffee. I understand that half a tablespoon is a stupid and inconvenient measurement. I’m very sorry that the imperial system has done this to us. If you don’t happen to have a half-tablespoon measure on hand, you can measure in one and a half teaspoons into your first cup. Then put the batter in a freezer bag, clip off a corner, and squeeze the batter into the rest of the cups, using the first as a visual guide. Plus that way, you’ll never experience the despair of comparing your tiny fucking half-tablespoon to an enormous sea of cake batter.
ONE. HUNDRED. AND. TWENTY. SCOOPS.
Pour in the coffee batter first. Then, as gently as you can, spoon half a tablespoon of chiffon batter on top. You can pipe the chiffon batter if you have to, but the two kinds of cakes won’t be as cleanly divided. Decide how important a pretty gradient is to you and proceed accordingly.
Two 24-cup trays of mini cupcakes bake for 7-8 minutes at 350 degrees. You might want to start checking at 6 minutes in your own oven. Mini cupcakes burn really, really easily, so it’s worth verifying the bake time. Stick a fork in one of the cupcakes. If it comes out clean, you’re done! Let the cupcakes rest in the tins for a few minutes, and then pry them out and put them on a cooling rack. I found it easiest to slide a butter knife under the cupcakes and lever them out, instead of trying to pick them up each one by hand.
Prepare your next round of cupcakes and repeat twice more. While the cupcakes are baking, finish the espresso cream!
Espresso Cream Filling Part 2
Rescue your espresso cream from the freezer. Try not to spill it all over the floor. If a skin has formed on top, just stir until it dissolves back into the rest of the liquid.
If you have a bigger bowl than the one I pictured above, I highly recommend transferring your cream into it! If your bowl is too small, you’re going to experience a really serious splash zone once you start whipping.
Get your remaining 1 1/2 cups of sugar and keep it handy. Start whipping the cream. Just like with the egg whites, start pouring the sugar in after the cream gets foamy. This time, keep whipping until you get stiff peaks. If the espresso cream just. won’t. fucking. set, try putting it back in the freezer for 20-30 minutes and coming back to it after another round of cupcake prep and baking.
Hooray! You have a filling.
Whipped Cream Frosting
Ordinarily, I like a little vanilla and a lot of sugar in my whipped cream. This time, though, I was trying to emulate the delicate dry foam on top of a cappuccino. I put in just enough sugar to stabilize the whipped cream. This is the one time in your life that adding sugar will make a situation more stable, so enjoy it.
4 cups heavy cream (you could probably get away with 3, if you can find anyone who sells cream in increments of less than a pint)
1/4 cup sugar
You know the drill by now: pour the cream into your biggest unoccupied bowl, whip until frothy, pour in the sugar, and then keep whipping until you hit stiff peaks. Then put it immediately in the fridge until you’re ready to assemble the cake.
Once your first set of 47 cupcakes is ready, you can start assembling the cupcakes! Have your filling and frosting handy. Also grab your pastry bags (or freezer bags with the corners cut off), your pastry tips if you’re using them, a big tall cup, and whatever you’re using to core your cupcakes.
Step one is coring the cupcakes. This part sucks, and it’s going to take forever. Sorry friend. There’s no way around it. I started with a little cupcake corer. This is the one time when specialized equipment did not help at all. The corer made perfect cylindrical cuts in the cupcakes… and then failed to actually lift out the cores. I got frustrated, pushed too hard the next time, and bottomed out. Then of course all the fucking cake would lift out, leaving me with a hole that went all the way down to the liner. I had better luck with using a quarter-teaspoon measure to cut out a hollow instead. The Internet informs me that grapefruit knives will perform the same function. No matter what you do, you’re going to be sticky and frustrated–and if you figure out a way to be anything other than sticky and frustrated, do not tell me. My only solace is that everyone finds this just as miserable as I do.
On the plus side, you’re also going to wind up with a graveyard of discarded cupcake cores and damaged cupcakes. All of this makes for excellent pre-contest snacking.
Filling The Cupcakes
This part of the assembly almost makes up for the coring. It soothes my grumpy soul to fill cupcakes. You don’t actually need a pastry bag for this part–a freezer bag works just fine. Stuff whatever you’re using down into a tall cup and fold the open edges over the sides of the cup. Spoon your espresso cream into the bag, then unfold the edges and seal up the bag. Clip off the end and start squeezing cream into your cored cupcakes.
Frosting The Cupcakes
Readers of this blog know that historically, my cakes have looked like shit. I actually took pride in it. “My cakes are ugly,” went my thinking, “so they have to rely on taste alone, and are OBVIOUSLY better than the froofy decorated cakes. By not trying at all, I have won at baking.”
Turns out your cake can be just as delicious and not look like shit at the same time. I wasn’t better than people who could decorate! I was just an asshole. Not knowing how to do something doesn’t make you better or cooler than the people who put in the time. (Unless other people know about crime or hard drugs, in which case you’re fine.)
Also, this was a contest, and I wanted to win. So I bought a bunch of piping tips and fucked around until I could make a little icing star. My number one piece of advice is to get one of the really massive tips–I used a Wilton M4. They are four hundred times easier to control than the smaller tips that look as if they should go with mini cupcakes.
Drop your tip into the bag. Put the bag in the cup, like you did with the espresso cream. Scoop in whipped cream, making sure to leave enough room that you can actually get the bag out of the cup without squeezing frosting everywhere. Don’t worry if you can’t get all the whipped cream in at one go–it’s probably going to take a couple of rounds to frost everything. Seal up the bag and get to frosting.
All I did was touch the tip to the edge of the coring hole, apply a little pressure, and move my hands in a little circle. Then I stopped squeezing and lifted the bag away. Tada! Swirls.
My whole decorations-to-taste theory got blown completely out of the water once I arrived, by the way. I saw some really gorgeous cupcakes that also tasted incredible. I still couldn’t compete in the looks department, but I’m really glad I actually tried.
So here’s what I learned from making 120 mini cupcakes and submitting them to the judgment of my peers. Bring a friend. Bring lots of friends! Have spare eggs. Don’t be a dick. If you are being a dick, consider changing course. Buy more bowls. Make sure to stop and eat. And for fuck’s sake, enjoy yourself.
After all, you still have four pounds of butter in the fridge.
The Mess Report: