Cupcake Wars: The Ten Commandments of Cupcakes

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

While tasting more than 140 cupcakes during our eight-week Cupcake Wars series, we noticed common areas of complaint and praise on our judging panel.

Herewith, our advice for bakers everywhere:

1. Learn to walk before you run. Perfect the classic vanilla and chocolate cakes with complementary frostings before you step up to other simple combinations, and long before you try something like Summer Peach Meringue Pie Cupcake. Actually, never try Summer Peach Meringue Pie Cupcake, which leads us to . . . .

2. Keep it simple. Cupcakes are eaten out of hand in five or six bites, so don't pack in too many components, or nothing will shine. Two components (cake plus frosting) are classic, but three (cake plus filling plus frosting or cake plus frosting plus topping) can work if each piece makes sense. More than that and you're tempting sensory overload.

3. Don't overbake. You need the right recipe and equipment, of course, but the most common baking mistake might be inaccurate timing. If you have cupcakes in the oven right now, go check them, because they're probably done -- or overdone. And nothing can fix that, not even a filling or a ton of frosting, which leads us to . . . .

4. Get the ratio right. If the cake is moist and tender and the frosting is not too sweet, the best proportion seems to be about two-thirds cake to one-third frosting. That gives you a generous dollop of frosting with each bite of cake, not the other way around.

5. Use good ingredients. The best thing about cupcakes is that they are homey. Artificial flavors are not homey, which leads us to . . . .

6. Respect your vanilla extract, and respect your chocolate. Vanilla is a flavor, not a synonym for "white." On the other side of the spectrum, people are very serious about chocolate, so if you promise it, you'd better deliver it, in a big way. A chocolate cupcake that doesn't taste deep, dark and rich is a bitter disappointment.

7. Beware the refrigerator. Of course it's easier to make a giant batch of cupcakes, frost them and put them in cold storage until serving. If there's butter or cream cheese in that frosting, it's dangerous to hold it at room temperature for more than a few hours. But cupcakes can dry out if left in the refrigerator too long, and they also can pick up flavors from other foods in there. Better to store unfrosted cupcakes at room temperature and then frost what you need as you go.

8. Use butter or cream cheese rather than vegetable shortening in the frosting. Shortening leaves a slick, flavorless mouth feel that seems to last forever -- definitely longer than it takes to eat the cupcake.

9. Watch the sweetness, especially in the frosting. You need sugar, and lots of it, for a classic cake frosting, but you also need balance, or the chocolate, vanilla, fruit or other flavor will just get lost.

10. Looks are important, of course, but don't go for overkill. Use sprinkles, sparkling sugar and other decorations carefully and in good taste. Remember to create something that showcases the flavors in an appealing (and, dare we suggest, obvious) way. And be careful about colors: Even if it's delicious, a spice cupcake with lime-green frosting is just wrong, very wrong.

-- Joe Yonan

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