I don’t care what the poets say about April being the cruelest month: I know they’re wrong. For bakers, the cruel month is this one, January. It’s the month when food magazine pictures go from whipped cream cakes to detox teas. A few days ago, everyone resolved to go on a diet, and now, even if your nearest and dearest will eventually eat what you’ve baked, they’ll put up a fuss before they do. It’ll all be over by Valentine’s Day, but until then — arrgh.
Because I bake for a bunch of reasons, among them that I love the process, love having homemade treats in the house and love sharing them, I bake through this “lean” season. And while I mostly just go on my merry way, baking what I want to bake, I make a concession when my dinner guests are dieters. Instead of the usual cakes, tarts or small custards, either I go for cookies, leaving it to my friends to find their own resistance level, or I make it easy on them and serve these cocoa cupcakes, one-to-a-plate treats that are (super-reasonable and) delicious in their unadorned state and (only slightly less reasonable and) even better served with yogurt.
The easiest way to describe these is to say they’re like mini devil’s food cakes. They get their deep flavor from cocoa powder. (Because almost all the fat has been removed from the dried cacao solids and nothing has been added, whatever you make with cocoa powder has a pure chocolate flavor.) The cupcakes get a touch of tang and a lot of their tenderness from buttermilk. And they get a base note of flavor from cinnamon, which loves chocolate the way milk loves cookies.
● Like confectioners’ sugar, cocoa powder can clump, so even lazy bakers (like moi) have to give in and sift it. Measure, then sift or strain it into the bowl that’s holding the flour. Add the cinnamon, baking powder and baking soda, and whisk everything together to blend completely.
● The cupcakes are made in regular-size muffin pans. Even when the pans are nonstick, I like to line the wells with paper cupcake papers (or to give them a spray of cooking oil or swish of butter). Cupcakes in papers look cute, rise evenly and help make cleanup a snap.
● Give the butter, sugar and salt a good beating, and then add the eggs one by one. Don’t worry if the mixture curdles (as it probably will, even if you were an obedient baker and let the eggs come to room temperature). Everything will smooth out once the dry stuff goes in.
● So that all your cupcakes will be the same size and bake through at the same time, use a cookie scoop to measure out the batter. If you fill a large scoop (one with a capacity of three tablespoons) with batter and level it against the side of the mixing bowl, you’ll get exactly a dozen cupcakes.
● If you make the simple yogurt topping for the cupcakes, prepare it before you start the cocoa batter. You need to drain the yogurt for at least 1 hour and then, after you’ve added the sugar and vanilla, you need to chill it, so give yourself a head start. You can get this done a day ahead if you’re a planner type.
● The topping is soft and, unlike frosting, won’t hold its shape for very long; best to spoon it over the cupcakes when you’re ready to serve them. Alternatively, you can turn the cupcakes and topping into a spoonable dessert: split the cupcakes from top to bottom, put them in a bowl and top with the yogurt mix. Sprinkles are optional.
I’ve chosen a straightforward name for these, but you could just as easily dub them Have Your Cake and Eat It, Too, Cupcakes.
Greenspan will host her Just Ask Dorie chat from 1 to 2 p.m. on Wednesday: live.washingtonpost.com.
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MAKE AHEAD: These are best eaten the day they are made, but they can be kept covered tightly at room temperature for up to 1 day or frozen for up to 2 months. The yogurt for the optional topping needs to drain for at least 1 hour (and up to 1 day in advance). The topping can be refrigerated a day in advance.
From cookbook author Dorie Greenspan.
For the topping (optional)
1 cup plain nonfat Greek-style yogurt
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/4 cup confectioners’ sugar
Sprinkles, for finishing
For the cupcakes
1 cup flour
1/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature
2/3 cup granulated sugar
1/4 teaspoon fine sea salt
2 large eggs, at room temperature
3/4 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 cup regular or low-fat buttermilk, at room temperature
1/2 cup mini chocolate chips (optional)
To make the optional topping: Line a fine-mesh strainer with damp cheesecloth or a double thickness of damp paper towels and set it over a bowl. Spoon the yogurt into the strainer, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for 1 hour (or for up to 1 day). One hour before you want to use the topping, spill whatever liquid has accumulated out of the bowl and wipe the bowl dry. Scrape the yogurt into the bowl, then whisk in the vanilla extract, confectioners’ sugar and salt. Cover and refrigerate (for up to 1 day).
For the cupcakes: Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Drop paper cupcake liners into a 12-cup muffin pan, or grease the wells with cooking oil spray.
Place the flour in a bowl. Sift the cocoa powder over the flour, then add the cinnamon, baking powder and baking soda. Stir to incorporate.
Combine the butter, granulated sugar and salt in the bowl of a stand mixer or handheld electric mixer; beat on medium speed for about 3 minutes or until smooth. Stop to scrape down the bowl. On medium speed, add the eggs one at a time, beating for a minute between each addition, then add the vanilla extract. (Don’t be concerned if the mixture looks curdled.)
Reduce the speed to low and add half of the flour mixture. Once that is almost incorporated, add all the buttermilk and, once that is incorporated, follow with the remaining flour mixture. When the batter is smooth, mix in the chips, if you’re using them.
Divide the batter evenly among the paper liners or greased muffin wells. (Dorie Greenspan uses a large cookie scoop, with a capacity of about 3 tablespoons, for this job.)
Bake (middle rack) the cupcakes for 18 to 21 minutes or until they are peaked and puffed and spring back when pressed lightly; a tester inserted into the center of the cupcakes will come out clean. Transfer to a wire rack (in the pan); let them cool to room temperature -- or don’t: These are good warm, unadorned.
If you’ve opted for the topping, apply just before serving, either on top or thinly spread over cupcake halves (split top to bottom). Decorate with sprinkles, if desired.
Nutrition | Per cupcake (using low-fat buttermilk): 170 calories, 3 g protein, 21 g carbohydrates, 9 g fat, 5 g saturated fat, 50 mg cholesterol, 90 mg sodium, 0 g dietary fiber, 12 g sugar
Recipe tested by Kara Elder; email questions to firstname.lastname@example.org