“There’s supposed to be an eclipse today!”
“That’s right. When?”
“Around 3:30, I think.”
“Ooh, perfect timing!”
The kids were running around, playing before our baking class. The moms were thinking we might be able to view the eclipse while eating the cupcakes we would be baking. A two-fer!
So, you knew this was coming, right? Pumpkins I mean. It is October.
I roasted a sugar pie pumpkin the morning of class; just scooped out the seeds, oiled the cut edge and tossed it in a 350 degree oven for about 45 minutes.
The kids eyed the slightly shriveled halves skeptically. I’m sure they were thinking, “now how are we gonna make cupcakes with that?”
We set up the food processor, (always a crowd pleaser), and they took turns scooping the softened flesh of the pumpkin into the work bowl.
We added a couple of tablespoons of water, gave it a whirl, and voilà! Pumpkin purée sans the can.
We didn’t get around to baking many cakes during our previous series of classes. My plan for this series is to cover the various methods of mixing a cake, starting with the easiest.
“When you guys make muffins, what do you do?”
I clarified. “I mean when you mix the batter, do you just put everything in one bowl and mix it up?”
“No!” (silly me)
“Well how do you mix your muffins then?”
“You put them in different bowls!”
“So you put your milk in with the flour and the sugar in with the eggs?”
“No! You put the dry ingredients in one bowl, and the wet ingredients in the other bowl.”
“Yes! And that is what we call the muffin method. Dry ingredients in one bowl, wet ingredients in another, mix them together…cake!”
We looked at our recipe and turned on the oven.
“Why should we turn on the oven first?”
We talked about how it was important to have the oven at the right temperature when the cake was ready to go in, otherwise any loftiness that had been introduced by chemical leavening, (baking powder/baking soda), or by mechanical leavening, (whipping), would be lost as the batter sat waiting on the counter. This would mean flat cake. And sadness.
Back to the recipe. The next ingredient was butter. Browned butter to be exact. This would give the pumpkin cupcakes a little extra boost of flavor. How so? Butter is an emulsion of water and fat, with milk protein solids suspended inside. As the solid butter melts, the water evaporates and the milk solids cook, settle to the bottom of the pan, and turn brown; the resulting flavor is slightly nutty and altogether delicious.
We cut the butter into chunks and placed it in a light colored pan over low heat. We could let that cook while we finished measuring the other ingredients.
The kids weighed the flour.
“You have to zero out the scale so you don’t weigh the bowl!”
And added baking soda, spices and salt.
They helped each other with the fractional measures.
“I’m using three 1/4 teaspoons for this.”
“You could also use 1/2 teaspoon and 1/4 teaspoon.”
They measured the two sugars by volume as well.
“Hey that looks like a face!”
The smell of the cooking butter reminded us that it was nearing the point where we should be paying attention to it. It can go from brown to black in seconds, so we stopped mixing and stood guard over the pan on the stove.
It wasn’t quite there yet, but we could see the solids gathering on the bottom of the pan. We used a spoon to push aside the foam at the surface so we could better monitor the color below. The goal was a deep nut brown, but we would need to pull it off the flame when it was just a shade lighter, as the residual heat of the pan would continue to cook the butter. As soon as we took it off the heat, we poured the liquid into a dish to cool slightly.
The eggs were whisked into the bowl of wet ingredients.
I explained that while I had forgotten to pull the eggs out of the refrigerator before we started, I was able to bring them to the correct temperature quickly, by placing them in a bowl of warm tap water for 5 minutes.
Buttermilk, vanilla, and the browned butter were whisked together with the other wet ingredients.
Before we combined the contents of the two bowls, I wanted to work on mixing technique.
“Do you guys remember what happens when we add liquid to flour?”
I reminded them about gluten and how it gives baked goods structure, but also makes things chewy. That’s good in bread, but not in cake.
“Do you want chewy cupcakes?”
“Then in order to keep from developing the gluten in our cake batter, we want to mix it as little as possible; just enough to combine the ingredients, but not so much that we make it tough.”
I filled a bowl with dried beans and demonstrated how to fold, which is the most efficient way to mix the ingredients together. I showed them how to hold the rubber spatula in their dominant hand and use it to cut down through the middle of the bowl, scrape up the side nearest to them and turn the spatula over, so the underside of their wrist was now facing up. The other hand would rotate the bowl as they continued to fold its contents over upon themselves.
They each took a turn at folding the beans in the bowl. Though a bit awkward at first, they had the basic movement down by the second or third flip of the spatula.
Finally, we moved on to more desirable ingredients.
I advised against over mixing; little lumps in the batter are just fine.
We used a portion scoop to divide the cake batter into the pan, filling the cups nearly to the top.
While the cupcakes baked, we whipped up a bit of cream cheese frosting.
They whisked together room temperature cream cheese, a small amount of softened butter, maple syrup, vanilla and a couple tablespoons of sour cream, all to taste.
“It needs more vanilla!”
“Oh that’s good!”
They all agreed when to stop adding maple syrup, deeming it sweet enough. And it was, pleasantly. I was surprised, I thought for sure I was going to have to stop them from making it too sweet.
Once the cupcakes had a chance to cool, I spooned a little frosting on top and passed them around.
They were gobbled up in no time.
The kids ran outside to play while a couple of us moms enjoyed our cupcakes with a cup of coffee.
“Hey, what’s going on with this eclipse?”
“Oh, did we miss it?!”
Engrossed in eating our treats, we had totally missed it. Homeschool mom fail.
But really good cupcakes!
Brown Butter Pumpkin Cupcakes, adapted from this recipe
Makes approximately 18 cupcakes
6 oz. (3/4 cup) unsalted butter
9 oz. (2 cups) unbleached all-purpose flour
1-1/2 tsp. baking soda
1-1/2 tsp. ground cinnamon
1 tsp. ground ginger
3/4 tsp. fine sea salt
1/4 tsp. ground cloves
1-1/2 cups pumpkin puree, homemade or canned
1-1/2 cups granulated sugar
2/3 cup firmly packed light brown sugar
2 large eggs, at room temperature
1/3 cup buttermilk, at room temperature
Position a rack in the center of the oven and heat the oven to 350°F.
Melt the butter in a heavy-duty 1-quart saucepan over medium heat. Cook, swirling the pan occasionally until the butter turns a nutty golden-brown, about 4 minutes. Pour into a small bowl and let stand until cool but not set, about 15 minutes.
In a medium bowl, whisk the flour, baking soda, cinnamon, ginger, salt, and cloves. In a large bowl, whisk the pumpkin purée with the granulated sugar, brown sugar, eggs, and buttermilk until very well blended. Gently whisk in the brown butter until completely incorporated. With a rubber spatula, fold in the flour mixture until just combined.
Divide into pan and bake until cupcakes are well risen and spring back to the touch.
Cool before frosting.
Maple Cream Cheese Frosting
Ok, so I always make my frosting to taste. I don’t like the taste of powdered sugar so I use maple syrup. Just make sure your cream cheese and butter are at room temperature so they are easy to whisk together.
8oz cream cheese, room temperature
4 T unsalted butter, room temperature
pure maple syrup, to taste
sour cream, about 2 T
vanilla extract, to taste
Whisk together. You are supposed to frost the cupcakes with this, not eat it in spoonfuls out of the bowl.