Cupcakes Versus the Eclipse


“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.



Hopping on the pumpkin bandwagon…

It’s October. You can’t walk 2 feet into a store without running into pumpkins or pumpkin flavored food items.  Orange is everywhere.

My kids began asking for pumpkin baked goods as soon as Trader Joe’s started in with their fall displays back in September.  So I took that into consideration when trying to decide which recipe to make with them during our next baking class, and finally settled on Pumpkin Chocolate Chip Crumb Cake.

Pumpkin. And chocolate.  A win-win in my book.  More importantly, it continues to build on the baking concepts we have already covered.


Because the ingredient list was pretty lengthy compared to our first two baking projects, I gathered everything in advance.

As the kids crowded around my kitchen table, I explained that the cake we would be making fell into the category of “quick breads”.  Usually the method for mixing these kind of items, (banana bread is another example), involves just mixing “wet” ingredients in one bowl, “dry” ingredients in another, then combining the two.  Easy peasy.

The kids separated all the ingredients into the two categories.  I reminded them how important it was to read their recipe through first, as sometimes it might call for an ingredient to be added out of the usual order.


They all remembered how to measure flour, and took focused turns scooping and leveling.

photo 2

We talked about how two 1/2 cup measures would fit into one 1 cup measure. Everyone seemed clear on that.  Three quarters of a cup took a bit more thinking.

Me: “The recipe calls for 3/4 cup of brown sugar, but my measuring cups only say 1 cup, 1/2 cup, 1/3 cup and 1/4 cup.”

Collective pondering.

Younger girl: “You could use three of these.” (1/4 cup)

Nodding heads.

Older boy: “You could also use one of these and one of those.” (1/2 cup and 1/4 cup)


They were all tickled by measuring the brown sugar, “like you’re making a sand castle at the beach!”, and each time the cup was flipped over to reveal a perfect cylinder of sugar, we heard a round of “ooohh”. Simple pleasures.


We had another discussion about equivalent fractions in figuring out how to add 3/4 teaspoon of salt, then it was back on easy street when we only had to use one spoon to measure each of the spices.

There was plenty of sniffing of the contents of the spice jars.  Cinnamon was generally well favored, while ginger and clove garnered very strong opinions.


Then, “Is nutmeg a nut?”

Wikipedia break.

photo 1

(FYI nutmeg is a seed.)

Time to mix in the butter.  This is where this recipe differs from the usual quick bread recipes where the butter is either creamed with the sugar or melted and added to the wet ingredients.

Cutting the butter into the dry ingredients serves two purposes here.  We are making the crumb topping, aka streusel, but we are also insuring that our cake will be super tender.  How?


I referred to our first two classes.  When we made our pretzels we mixed flour with water and kneaded the resulting dough.  When we mixed our pate a choux we stirred our flour into the liquid ingredients and cooked it on the stove.  In both instances the goal was to activate and strengthen the gluten necessary to help leaven our product.  In the pretzel dough it provided the structure needed to capture the carbon dioxide expelled by the yeast, and in the pate a choux it provided the structure needed to trap the burst of steam that created our puffs.

But we don’t always need or want a lot of gluten development in our baked goods because it makes things chewy.  It is desirable in sourdough bread for example, but I can’t think of anybody who likes chewy muffins or chewy birthday cake.

The kids all agreed wholeheartedly with this statement.

Now that we knew how to create gluten, (adding liquid and physical manipulation), we could discuss how not to create gluten.

Back to the butter.

I explained that since we would be adding liquid to our dry ingredients we could help protect our cake batter from forming too much gluten by covering the flour granules with fat, kind of like outfitting them in itty bitty raincoats.  This, along with minimal mixing, would insure that our cake would be far from chewy.


Once that was finished we removed part of the mixture to use later as our crumb topping.


Next, chocolate chips were eaten added to the remainder of the crumb mixture in the bowl.


Then we turned our attention to the wet ingredients.

The kids remembered that liquids always get measured in a liquid measuring cup and viewed at eye level.

“But what about the pumpkin?”

The puree is wet but it wouldn’t pour and settle into the pitcher like the buttermilk.  One could measure it in the dry cups and level it with a knife, but if one doesn’t enjoy washing extra dishes (me) and can employ a little math, (1 cup buttermilk + 1 1/4 c pumpkin puree = 2 1/4 c total volume), then it would be easy to measure it directly into the pitcher.

The kids understood this to mean that, as we added it, the pumpkin puree would cause the level of the buttermilk in the pitcher to rise and we would just stop adding when it reached 2 1/4 cups. Ta da!


Vanilla was a much coveted item.  More sniffing of the contents of the bottle.


Lastly, we added the baking soda to our wet ingredients.  This would provide the leavening in this recipe.

Fortunately, the kids had all experienced the vinegar/baking soda reaction before via some version of the volcano project, so they already knew that the baking soda would react with, well, something in our cake batter, but what?

We discussed how baking soda, a base, requires an acid to react with to create the carbon dioxide bubbles that would leaven our cake.  But we definitely didn’t have vinegar in there.

Me: “Acids taste sour.  What else did we add that was sour, or tangy?”

Kids: “Buttermilk!”

Me: “What else could we use from our kitchen if we don’t have buttermilk on hand?”

Kids: “Juice?” “Lemon?” “Pickle juice?”

Me: “Well that’s basically vinegar”

Kids: “That would be gross anyway”

Me: “What about sour cream? or yogurt? or even milk with vinegar or lemon juice added to it?”

Other mom: “or kefir?”

Yep, all those would work.  Basically anytime baking soda is the sole leavening agent, an acidic ingredient is required.

We could see very fine bubbles form in our liquid mixture once our baking soda was added.


We gently mixed our wet ingredients into our dries.

At this point we were less worried about over mixing causing toughness than over mixing deflating our batter.  When baking soda is the only leavening agent it’s best to get the product into the oven as soon as possible, before the bubbles make their way out of the pan.

The cake batter went into the baking dish, was topped with the reserved streusel and slipped into the hot oven.  About 30 minutes later, kids began wandering in and out of the kitchen, noses in the air.  It smelled just like fall.


This recipe is heavily adapted from the Quintessential Coffee Cake recipe in Richard Sax’s Classic Home Desserts.

Pumpkin Chocolate Chip Crumb Cake

2 ½ c whole wheat pastry flour
¾ c firmly packed golden brown sugar
¾ t sea salt
¾ c (1 ½ sticks) unsalted butter, cut into cubes
1 t ground cinnamon
1 t ground ginger
½ t freshly grated nutmeg
⅛ t ground clove
1 c finely chopped chocolate or chocolate chips
1 c buttermilk
1 ¼ c pumpkin puree
1 t vanilla
1 large egg
1 t baking soda

Heat oven to 350 degrees. In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, sugar, salt and spices. Cut the butter into the flour mixture with a pastry blender or 2 knives until crumbly. Remove and reserve 1 cup of the mixture for the topping. Mix chocolate into the remaining flour mixture and set aside. In a separate container, mix the buttermilk, pumpkin puree, vanilla and egg together. Beat the baking soda into the buttermilk mixture and add to the flour and chocolate bowl. Fold to combine. Scrape the batter into a 9” x 13” pan and smooth the top. Sprinkle the reserved crumb mixture over all. Bake the cake until golden brown, about 35 minutes. It should feel firm but spring back to the touch. Cool to lukewarm.


** I get asked a lot about gluten-free recipes.  This recipe works just fine with gluten-free flours, just be sure that if you are using a packaged flour blend that it doesn’t already contain any kind of leavening.

Photo credits: 3,6,7,13 by Helena Ottoson