High Altitude Baking: Almost instant vanilla cupcakes (recipe)
High Country Baking
Editor’s note: High altitudes 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.
Meet my new go-to cupcakes. They’re moist, tender, not too sweet (so adults like them) and faster than lightning to make — one bowl and a few minutes with a mixer gets them in the oven.
You need not limit their flavor to vanilla; use any extract or flavoring you like. Feel free to alter the frosting, as well; almost any topping works with them. The cupcakes in the photo have a white chocolate frosting that’s satiny smooth, barely sweet and tastes a lot like cheesecake. The snowflakes that decorate the tops are commercially made by Wilton.
To assure success, gently spoon and level the flour (too much will dry them out), and make sure your ingredients are at room temperature. To guarantee a moist cake, use the sugar syrup; it’s a boon in our high, dry climate.
(Adjusted for altitudes of 8,000 feet and above. Yields 12 standard or 24 two-inch mini-cupcakes.)
1¾ cups bleached all-purpose flour (spoon and level)
1 cup superfine granulated sugar, preferably Baker’s
½ teaspoon baking powder
½ teaspoon salt
8 tablespoons (one stick) unsalted butter, softened
½ cup sour cream
1 large egg plus 2 large egg yolks, room temperature
2¼ teaspoons vanilla extract
Sugar syrup, optional
¾ cup superfine sugar
¾ cup plus 2 tablespoons water
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
White chocolate frosting
9 ounces real white chocolate (containing cocoa butter), finely chopped
12 ounces cream cheese, cut into 1-inch pieces, softened but still cool
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into 6 pieces, softened but still cool
1½ tablespoons sour cream
½ teaspoon vanilla extract
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees with a rack in the center position. Line the cupcake pan with paper liners, and grease the liners with a flour-vegetable oil spray.
Place the flour, sugar, baking powder and salt in a mixing bowl, and with your mixer on low speed, or with a whisk, stir them until thoroughly blended. Cut up the butter; add it, the sour cream, egg, yolks and vanilla; and beat on medium (if using a standing mixer) or medium-high (if using a hand-held mixer) until a smooth, shiny batter forms, about a minute, scraping down the bowl as needed. Use a silicone spatula to stir a few more times, checking that no more flour is visible.
Spoon the batter into the prepared pan, filling each cup about 3/4 full and smoothing the tops if necessary. Bake until the cupcakes rise (the tops will only round slightly), color a little and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean, about 15 to 20 minutes for mini-cupcakes and 20 to 24 minutes for standard ones. Rotate the pan halfway through baking. Remove the cupcakes from the pan when they come out of the oven, and cool completely on a rack. Cover as soon as they’re cool.
Make the sugar syrup, if using: Combine the sugar and water in a small saucepan, bring to a boil, stirring constantly, and simmer until it thickens slightly to a consistency of half-and-half. Remove from the heat, cool to lukewarm, stir in the vanilla, give it a taste and add more, if desired. When it’s close to room temperature, brush some over the tops of the cool cupcakes, let it absorb, and then brush again. Stop when a thin layer remains visible on each cake (don’t overdo; too much will make soggy cakes). Set them aside until the syrup sets up and is barely sticky.
Make the frosting: (This recipe makes about 2 ¾ cups, enough to pipe a generous amount onto each cake). Melt the white chocolate (in a microwave or a double boiler) on low heat (it burns easily) until partially smooth. Remove from the heat, and stir until fully melted. Set aside until completely cool but still fluid. Pulse the cream cheese, butter, sour cream and vanilla in a food processor, scraping down the sides as needed, until smooth and creamy. Add the cool white chocolate, and pulse only until it’s fully blended. If necessary, refrigerate until the frosting firms to the consistency you want for piping or spreading on the cupcakes. Once frosted, serve or store, covered airtight, in the refrigerator for up to two days.
This recipe is a variation of one from “Cook’s Baking Book.” The frosting recipe is a variation of one from “Rose’s Heavenly Cakes.” Vera Dawson, author of the high-altitude cookbook “Cookies in the Clouds,” is a chef instructor with Colorado Mountain College’s Culinary Institute. Her recipes have been tested in her Summit County kitchen and, whenever necessary, altered until they work at our altitude. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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