Don’t Cry Over Fallen Cupcakes

Have you ever had a bad baking day? If you have, you’ll know that they can be as devastating as a bad hair day from hell. Most people don’t bake only for themselves. At least, I don’t. I’ve always been very aware of the people I bake for, and I firmly believe that the touchy-feely idea that people can taste the emotions you had while making the food is true. So when I have a bad baking day, it’s almost always when the product is going to someone–or many someones–I care about. On top of that, these people usually know I went to pastry school and was a pastry cook, and so should be capable of making a decent cake. All in all, bad baking days are a dogeared and food-splattered recipe for extreme embarrassment in the cookbook of my life.

This past Saturday, I was making the birthday cake for a very dear friend of mine’s birthday party. I wanted it to be spectacular, because the birthday girl is pretty darn spectacular herself. I ended up deciding to do cupcakes, and I set out to do two different flavors as soon as I woke up Saturday morning, a chocolate cupcake recipe from The Modern Baker by Nick Malgieri and a white chocolate cake recipe from Pure Chocolate by Fran Bigelow of Fran’s Chocolates. I’d had success with the devil’s food cake recipe in Malgieri’s book twice last fall, and one of my chefs at pastry school used to work for Fran Bigelow and helped with the production of the photos and drawings in the book (if I remember correctly, the hands in the drawings at the beginning of the book are hers), so I trusted both books to have good recipes.

Now, as I said, I’ve had way too many bad baking days before, and I really wanted to get it right this time. Most of my misadventures in the kitchen have been centered around birthday cakes. I actually swore off making them for a long time, thinking that it was my old, malfunctioning oven’s fault that the cakes never turned out right. Also, I knew that the other main cause for substandard baking is my tendency to cut corners and get lazy when I’m cooking in my own kitchen. This was never a problem in school or at the restaurant or the B&B, so now I make very sure now to do things deliberately and professionally when I bake.

I was off to such a good start. Other than some worry over the way the batter for the chocolate cupcakes turned out, I felt very organized and in control of the situation. The white chocolate cake batter turned out to be gorgeous, this billowing silky mass that I’m guessing is what Cloud 9 must be made out of. But the dark chocolate cupcakes…well, I can’t tell you for sure whose fault the disaster was on that one. Was it the recipe? Was it my paranoia of over baking them? Was it the unsweetened chocolate I used, that was maybe a little past its prime? Without making the recipe again, I can’t say for sure.

The batter was weird, very watery, but I assumed that was because the author’s stated intent was to make very moist cupcakes (they were, indeed, very moist, almost fudgy, which I can’t fault at all). It was very hard to get into the cupcake wrappers cleanly, even pouring it from a measuring cup with a pour spout, because it was so thin it just ran down the outside of the cup as soon as I tipped it downward. The chocolate also was an issue, as it didn’t melt but stayed in little tiny flecks. I wanted to blame the recipe on that one, too, because he instructed to melt it by pouring boiling water over it (and thus, in my mind, creating an environment perfect for the chocolate to seize if it didn’t emulsify right away), but then the same thing happened later with a different recipe and the same chocolate. I feel like I underbaked them, but they were in the oven for ten minutes longer than the recipe said, so…I’m still perplexed.

They looked and smelled beautiful in the oven, but fell when they came out, quickly and drastically. I wish I had a picture of those chocolate sinkholes. I was disappointed, mostly in myself because I knew that’s where the blame should probably land, given my past track record. But then the white chocolate cupcakes went in, and they looked and smelled so beautiful that I wasn’t too worried. After all, cupcakes are easy to hide under mounds of frosting.

Back to the white chocolate variety. I had high hopes these would outshine my failure with the dark chocolate ones. I knew that using a cake batter for cupcakes was risky, but I thought the problem would be overbaking them, not underbaking them. So, once again, I pulled them out way too soon. These, unlike the chocolate ones, ended up being beyond repair, because I waited too long to decide to put them back in the oven and never managed to get them to bake all the way through.

Cue mental breakdown. Tears were shed. Oaths to never bake again were uttered. It wasn’t pretty. Bad baking days never are.

Fortunately, Baker Bee rode up on his white horse (i.e. rolled out of bed) brandishing a shiny whisk and saved me, despite my ranting and raving and general foul mood. While I took a soothing shower, he made another batch of cupcakes, this time using a recipe from our trusty copy of Joy of Cooking, which is where I should have gone for my cupcake recipe. Other than the chocolate not melting properly, his were cupcakes–high rising domes of very cake-ish cake.

I was feeling a bit down in the dumps about my lousy cupcakes. The white chocolate ones, despite tasting fabulous, weren’t something I could serve to anyone (except Baker Bee, who thinks they taste like the perfect pound cake of all things). My chocolate ones were visibly inferior to Mr. Bee’s, which is fine in other areas of cooking but I like to think that I got some sort of useful skills out of pastry school that I can contribute to our kitchen.

Time was running out. I turned to the quickest thing to frost them with that would look impressive: torched meringue. It just looks cool, and it’s one of those things like ganache that really isn’t hard to make at all, but if you don’t know how to make it and brown it you wouldn’t know where to start. We had meringue on my wedding cake and everyone loved it. So I started piping it on Baker Bee’s cupcakes. I played around with it a bit, remembering the way that piping meringue on top of meringue produced an interesting visual contrast. It looked fun and festive, but what would I do to make the fallen cupcakes not look like ugly stepsisters beside them?

Then it came to me. Earlier in the week, I’d had this strong urge to make Obama cupcakes–faux Hostess chocolate cupcakes, but with the white squiggle writing “Obama” in cursive. Not an original idea, but I really wanted to do it…and then didn’t. But on Saturday I had 18 cupcakes with gaping holes staring up at me, and a Kitchen Aid bowl full of Swiss meringue, and…well, you do the math. The fun twist I came up with was to fill the hole with meringue and mound some on the top of the cupcake as well, then torch it before dipping the top in the ganache. That made the meringue a lot more stable, and possibly imparted a hint of toasted marshmallow to the flavor (more research is needed to confirm this). Plus, it made the cupcakes look like they had risen and stayed that way, which wasn’t a bad thing at all.

On some of them, I tried to pipe the white squiggle, but the meringue wasn’t behaving properly when piped that thinly (hence the bad handwriting on the cupcakes…normally, I’m pretty good at that–oh boy, there goes the old ego again), so I just left a lot of them dressed in only their glossy ganache. Baker Bee thinks I should figure out how to make them fall again in the future so I could make filled cupcakes again, and although I pointed out that there are techniques for getting the filling inside the cupcake, I think it might not be a bad idea.

At the party, I stacked them tiered-cake style with the help of a few cake stands. All together, they looked great. Not perfect, but that’s coming from the mouth of a self-critical perfectionist. I was happy with them at the end, and they provided a great sugar high for the rousing round of Cranium and custom vampire-themed Mad Libs. (If you look closely, you’ll see that one of the cupcakes was meant to be a vampire.)

The funny thing is that even though both batches were chocolate cupcakes, and I used the same meringue on both of them, with the only difference being the ganache, they were both very, very different cupcakes, both good in their own way. A lot of people seemed to think my fallen ones with the ganache were better, and they certainly were more intense on the chocolate, but the day after I went to have one bite of Baker Bee’s cupcakes with a huge crown of spiky meringue on it and ended up eating the whole thing.

Here’s the Swiss meringue recipe I use out of my notes from pastry school, in case you’re in need of a good one. The beauty of Swiss meringue as opposed to Italian and French is its stretch, gooey, marshmallowy consistency. Technically, Italian meringue is more stable, but Swiss meringue holds up very well on cakes in my experience, and I love the texture of it. The meringue on the gelato coppetta I wrote about in my last post was undoubtedly Swiss, and I wouldn’t have had it any other way.

Swiss Meringue
(printable version)

Egg whites 8 oz (250 g)
Fine granulated sugar 1 lb (500 g)

Procedure

Place the egg whites and sugar in a stainless steel bowl or in the top of a double boiler. Beat with a whisk (more near the end than at first) over hot water until the mixture is hot about 120°F.* Transfer to the bowl of a mixer and whip at high speed until stiff peaks form. Turn down speed to cool.

* I learned to test the temperature this way from my chef at pastry school: dip your finger in, and if you have to pull your finger out immediately because your cuticles feel like they’re on fire, it’s ready. The warmer the egg and sugar mixture gets, the more stable the meringue will be.

19 thoughts on “Don’t Cry Over Fallen Cupcakes

  1. Daily Spud

    Well despite all the mishaps, they look great – far fancier than any cupcakes I’ve ever made!

  2. Chef E

    A work of Art!

    I would like to play with fondant for the first time and have a cake design in mind, any suggestions on an easy recipe to start with, I have until April to experiment? Thanks!

  3. The Other Tiger

    Thanks everyone! You’re helping me feel better about them. :-)

    Chef E – I’ve never actually made rolled fondant, just the confectioner’s type. From what I’ve read and been taught, it’s not really worth it to make your own rolled fondant, because unlike confectioner’s where you might want to very the consistency depending on what candy you were making, all rolled fondant is pretty much the same. But I also understand the desire to make things from scratch, and I know I’ve seen recipes for it around, so if you find a good one, I’d love to hear about it. ;-) Otherwise, in the past I’ve used both the Wilton pre-packaged stuff and some from pro distributors, and it was all about the same.

  4. ice tea: sugar high

    nonsense… they turned out GREAT! i Love the flower details on the meringue. Do share how you do that..

    Thanks =)

    1. The Other Tiger Post author

      Thanks! I’ve been meaning to play around with that some more…I want to try to come up with a meringue that’s just a little easier to control when I’m piping.

  5. Steph

    Those cupcakes look delicious! I love meringue frostings, but sometimes I find they taste a little too sweet. I really liked Dorie’s from her devil’s food white out, but it deflates really quickly. I was thinking of give swiss meringue a try.. thanks for the recipe.

    Steph’s latest blog post: Silver Palate Banana Bread

    1. The Other Tiger Post author

      Definitely try out Swiss meringue…we used it on our wedding cake and it held up great for several hours on the hottest weekend of the year! The meringue is a little sweet, which is why the ones with the flat ganache caps actually were a little better than the dramatic ones. They had a better chocolate to meringue ratio. However, I thought that the ones with all the meringue would be too sweet and I wouldn’t like them much at all, and they were pretty good! So, I must have lucked into a good recipe there. :-)

    1. The Other Tiger Post author

      Do it! I really like Swiss meringue. It holds up so well and has a really marshmallowy texture. The only trick is to make sure to keep whisking it when it’s over the heat so you don’t cook the egg. That and making sure not to have any fat on the bowl or the whisk/whip.

    1. The Other Tiger Post author

      Hmm…well, the sugar in the meringue provides structure as well as sweetness, so it might suffer some. Sugar actually “cooks” the egg a bit even without heat (similar to citric acid “cooking” the fish in ceviche), which is why you should always whisk sugar and eggs together immediately when you’re adding one straight into the other. That cooking firms up the proteins in the egg, which along with the application of heat gives Swiss meringue more stability and a stretchier texture.

      But, you certainly could experiment with lowering the sugar a bit…I just wouldn’t do it for the first time if you didn’t have the time to make it again if it didn’t turn out. :-) One thing that you could try to compensate for the lowered sugar is to heat the egg to a slightly higher temperature. The tricky part, though, is to heat it without letting any of it solidify, so you’d have to be careful to whisk constantly and very, very thoroughly.

      Anyway, that’s my educated guess!

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