Editor’s note: Living in the Colorado High Country is pure joy. Baking in it isn’t. High altitude makes cookies spread in the pan, cakes fall and few baked goods turn out as they do at sea level. This twice-monthly column presents recipes and tips that make baking in the mountains successful.
A dessert that’s both pretty to look at and pleasing to eat gets star billing in my recipe collection. Here’s one of my current favorites: a moist vanilla cupcake, flavored with berry liqueur and frosted with strawberry butter-cream and crowned with a chocolate-dipped berry.
The dessert can be made in stages: Up to a month before serving, bake and freeze the cupcakes. Two days ahead of serving, make the sugar syrup and store it, covered, in the refrigerator. The next day, defrost the cupcakes, brush them with sugar syrup, frost and store them, covered, in the refrigerator. On serving day, prepare the fresh strawberries and place them on the frosted cupcakes.
Instead of dipping the strawberries in chocolate, you can save time by simply slicing the hulled berries and placing several slices decoratively on each cupcake.
If you make mini-cupcakes, use a pan with cups that are the dimensions specified below; smaller ones don’t result in as moist a cupcake.
(Adjusted for altitudes of 8,000 feet and higher. Makes 12 standard or 22 mini cupcakes.)
1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons cornstarch
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/8 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons superfine sugar, preferably Baker’s
2 large eggs, room temperature
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/4 cup canola oil
1/2 cup whole or low-fat milk
3 tablespoons superfine sugar
3 tablespoons water
1 to 2 teaspoons Creme de Cassis
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
2 tablespoons cream or milk
3/4 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 1/2 cups confectioners’ sugar
Strawberry jam to taste
1 pound small strawberries, washed and dried
8 ounces semisweet chocolate
1 teaspoon canola oil
Step 1: Make cupcakes: Preheat the oven to 375 degrees with a rack in the center position. Line the cupcake pan with paper cups and spray with a vegetable oil-flour spray.
Step 2: Use a whisk to combine the flour, cornstarch, baking powder and salt in a bowl. Set this aside.
Step 3: With an electric mixer at medium speed, beat the sugar, eggs and vanilla until smooth and starting to thicken, 2 to 3 minutes. Add the melted butter and the canola oil and beat again until well blended.
Step 4: Add the flour mixture, alternating with the milk, in three additions (three of flour, two of milk), beating at low speed after each addition until incorporated. Stop as soon as the batter is smooth; don’t overbeat.
Step 5: Spoon the batter into the cupcake pan, filling the lined cups two-thirds full. Place the pan in the oven and immediately reduce the temperature to 350 degrees. Bake until the cakes spring back when lightly touched and a toothpick inserted in the center of one comes out clean, this can take from 23 to 30 minutes. Remove to a rack, let cool slightly, then remove the cupcakes from the pan.
Step 6: Make sugar syrup: Combine the sugar and water in a small saucepan and bring to a boil, boil 1 to 2 minutes, until the sugar dissolves. Remove from the heat, cool slightly and stir in 1 teaspoon Creme de Cassis. Taste, and if desired, stir in another teaspoon. Cool completely. Brush a thin layer over each cooled cupcake, let it absorb, then brush each again.
Step 7: Make the frosting: Beat the softened butter until light and smooth, add the cream, salt, and vanilla extract and beat again until blended. Add 1 cup of the confectioner’s sugar and beat at low speed until incorporated. Add more sugar, a tablespoon or 2 at a time, until thick enough to hold a shape when piped. Add strawberry jam, a tablespoon at a time, taste and add more if desired. If necessary, add more sugar or more cream to maintain the right consistency. Pipe or spread frosting on cupcakes.
Step 8: Make the chocolate-dipped strawberries: Select just-ripe berries with no bruises (avoid berries that are fully or overly ripe; they’ll taste watery when dipped). In a microwave, at a low temperature, melt the chopped chocolate and canola oil in a 1-cup measure or a narrow bowl (the melted chocolate must be deep enough to submerge the berries). Remove the mixture from the microwave when there are still small lumps of chocolate visible and stir until completely melted and smooth.
Hold each berry by its leaves, dip it into the chocolate, shake gently over the bowl to remove excess chocolate, and carefully place on a baking sheet lined with parchment or waxed paper. When the chocolate has set (refrigerate, uncovered, to speed up this process), use a small sharp knife to trim any excess chocolate and create a pretty shape (some usually pools where the berry sat on the paper).
Right before serving, place a chocolate-dipped strawberry on top of each cupcake. If there are any extra, arrange them decoratively around the cupcakes.
This recipe is inspired by one from Food and Wine Magazine. Vera Dawson, author of “Cookies in the Clouds” (available at The Next Page Books & Nosh in Frisco), is a chef instructor with CMC’s Culinary Institute. Her recipes have been tested in her home kitchen and, whenever necessary, altered until they work at our altitude. Contact her at email@example.com.