I hope I never get a total on the number of hours I spend watching awful television. Utilizing that time productively I could have cured cancer with lentils (it is possible!), mastered another language, or at least learned to order off the menu of our favorite Thai restaurant without cracking up the waitress. Instead, the list of shows I've watched regularly ticks off all the danger boxes on the intake form for Imbeciles, an inpatient facility for the stubbornly ignorant.
My husband appears, hovers, over my shoulder while I'm watching television. I hate that. I don't need witnesses to my depravity. He asks, "What are you watching?"
"Cupcake Wars," I mumble, figuring out too late there's no way to effectively mumble that combination of letters.
"Ha. Ha," he says.
"Seriously. That's the name of the show."
He frowns. "Is it supposed to be funny? A funny show?"
"No," I say. "It's cupcakes and wars, together, unironically. After this, Pudding Feuds comes on."
He brings a hand up to his chest to signify an oncoming heart attack. I quickly assure him, "I'm just kidding. There's no Pudding Feuds."
He continues to stand behind me, watching, while the cupcake soldiers scurry about in a panic, arming themselves with spatulas and confectioner's sugar. The losers will be sent home to make more cupcakes. The winners get to stay and make more cupcakes. "Don't watch this," I snap. "You won't like it. It's a stupid show."
"So why are you watching?" he asks.
I take a big gulp of beer to top off the vat where lentils and language lessons should be brewing a better me, where there are only fermenting good intentions. I answer truthfully and with a ladylike belch, "Hell if I know."
There is no reason in the world I should be watching a show about cupcake bakeries. Bakeries are for eclairs and baguettes. Cupcakes are for elementary school birthday parties, as school rules prohibit cake knives – for good reason. I've never been with a large group of children for longer than an hour without thinking wistfully of hari-kari.
Additionally, in the epic battle of pie vs. cake, I march for pie. In the mismatched fistfight of creamed rutabagas vs. dessert of any kind, I pledge allegiance to rutabagas. Three lives ago I was a babushka in rural Hungary and in my subsequent lives I haven't yet adjusted to the abundance of white sugar in The America.
Creamed Rutabagas (with lots of pepper)
Regarding cupcakes, my lingering babushka distinctly dislikes swirly dollops of terribly sweet frosting atop pucks of dry cake, and the frivolity of sprinkles when so much is wrong with the world.
As so often happens in my life, once I feel comfortable taking a firm stand against something – sex before marriage, sardines, cupcakes – I'm proven wrong.
Needing to make cupcakes for the birthday party of an adult woman I call "a friend" despite her questionable taste in baked goods, I dug up a frosting recipe sent by email from another friend who swore the recipe was to die for. I didn't believe her, and I should have. It's everything a frosting should be – rich but light, creamy but not greasy, and exactly sweet enough. The first taste was revelatory, revolutionary, the shot heard round the rutabaga, signifying the end of a long civil (cupcake) war. I lost and I won. As I expired from my mortal battle wounds, I whispered, with sprinkle-studded lips: I regret that I have but one life to give...
The Ultimate Frosting
The email from my friend contained no provenance for this recipe. I have seen similar recipes for frostings that use a flour/granulated sugar mixture rather than confectioner's sugar, but the technique used here is different from those. Google brought up a jumble of confusing results. I'd like to give credit, and a medal of some sort, to the original creator, so if anyone knows his or her name, please pass that information on to me.
The original recipe calls for 1 cup of whole milk, but I rarely keep whole milk on hand – we drink skim milk; I cook with heavy cream – so I use ½ cup heavy cream and ½ cup skim milk. The recipe will work either way.
1/4 cup flour
1 cup sugar
pinch of salt (if you're using unsalted butter)
½ cup cream
½ cup milk
2 tsp pure vanilla extract (the best you can afford)
1 cup (two sticks) butter – salted or unsalted – slightly softened but not at room temperature and cut into ½ inch cubes.
In a heavy saucepan, mix the flour, sugar and salt (if needed). Whisk in the cream and milk. Whisk constantly over medium heat until the mixture comes to a slow boil and is thickened like a loose pudding, about 7 minutes.
Pour the hot pudding into the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. You can use a hand mixer, things will just take a little longer. Beat on high speed until the mixture is cooled to room temperature and fluffy (about five minutes). Lower the speed to medium and add the butter a little bit at a time. Crank the speed back up and beat until light and fluffy. Add the vanilla and blend to incorporate. If the frosting is too loose, put it into the refrigerator for 10 minutes or until it reaches spreading or piping consistency.
Coffee Chocolate Cupcakes
1 cup buttermillk
1 cup coffee at room temperature
2 cups sugar
2 large eggs
½ cup vegetable oil
2 tsp vanilla extract
3/4 cup cocoa powder
2 cups flour
2 tsp baking soda
1 tsp baking powder
½ tsp salt
½ cup chocolate chips
Preheat your oven to 350. In a stand mixer the whisk attachment, mix the buttermilk, coffee and sugar on medium speed until they are blended. Add the eggs one at a time. Add the vegetable oil and the vanilla extract. Turn the mixer to low and add the cocoa powder. Blend until everything is smooth, scraping the sides down now and then.
In a small bowl mix the flour, baking soda, baking powder and salt. Use a sifter or a whisk to make sure everything is well blended.
With the mixer on low speed, add the dry ingredients to the wet and blend until the flour is incorporated. The batter will be thin, and there might be a few lumps.
Line 2 cupcake pans with paper liners and fill each cup 2/3 full. Bake for 15-20 minutes or until they pass the toothpick test.
Makes 24 cupcakes