Cupcakes inspire a surprising amount of animosity for what would seem an innocuous dessert item. Ask most anti-cupcakists about the bases of their objections, and you’ll hear the same thing: cupcakes are dry, flavorless sugar bombs. But according to Pam Nelson, owner of Butter Lane Bakery in Manhattan, there’s no reason a cupcake can’t be moist, delicious, and not-too-sweet. “Our mantra in developing our recipes was less sugar, more flavor,” she says. A few secrets to perfect cupcakes:
- Use the best butter you can find. “A lot of commercial bakeries use a subpar fat like margarine or shortening,” says Jen Aaronson, an editor of , because these ingredients are cheaper than real butter. But what you save in expense, you’ll sacrifice in taste. “If you don’t use butter, you’re going to have to overcompensate with sugar,” she says. At Butter Lane, Nelson and her partners go through 150 pounds of organic butter a week.
- Whenever possible, use real ingredients: seeds of vanilla from vanilla beans, lemon from the fruit, not lemon-flavored extract. “A cupcake is a small version of a cake, not just a vehicle for frosting,” says Aaronson, and deserves the same quality ingredients you’d use for a full-size cake. And, it should go without saying, don’t even think of using a mix.
- Cocoa belongs in a cup, not a cupcake. Butter Lane’s chocolate cupcakes start with blocks of bittersweet chocolate, rather than cocoa powder. “It’s not cheap, and it’s a pain in the ass,” Nelson says. “It means we have to have someone standing over a double boiler, melting chocolate. But it’s worth it, because then our cupcakes have that moist, almost molten quality.”
- Frosting doesn’t need to induce sugar shock. “People do love frosting, and they tend to think the more you pile on, the better it is,” says Aaronson. But that doesn’t mean it has to be teeth-achingly sweet. Nelson says she managed to reduce the amount of confectioners’ sugar in her frosting by nearly half by adding a bit of cream cheese. “If you put in the amount of sugar you want for the taste, you need to double that amount to get the consistency you want. Cream cheese lets us use the amount of sugar we want and still have a pretty cupcake.” And when you add the sugar, do so slowly. Creaming it gradually into the butter will prevent the frosting from becoming gritty and grainy.
- No naked cupcakes! Whether you plan on frosting them or not, wrap your cupcakes within 30 minutes of taking them out of the oven, says Nelson. Her store uses plastic wrap for the vanilla cakes, and aluminum foil for the chocolate—she’s not sure why, but finds different flavors require different wrappers. The cakes aren’t iced until serving, which prevents them from drying out.