The best cupcakes of my life were the ones I never got to eat. I was maybe seven or eight at the time, and we were on a trip to Mammoth with my extended family. Being young and fidgety, the long drive up from Southern California nearly cost me my sanity. So by the time we arrived, all I wanted to do was move around.
We had rented a cabin or house of some sort, and since it was summertime, I took advantage of the pool. (How second-grader of me, to drive all the way up to Mammoth to ignore the trees and the mountains and fixate instead on the ubiquitous swimming pool.) I swam and swam my little brains out, until I realized that I was not at all accustomed to the altitude, and soon found myself nauseous and mopey.
What put the nail in my sulky coffin was that it was one of my cousin's birthdays, which the family was celebrating with cupcakes. I can't recall what type of cupcakes they were (my guess is "funfetti"), but I still remember the pangs of longing I felt when I realized I was too ill to partake in them.
By this time, night had fallen, and it was quite dark. My dad, seeing my disappointment at being unable to share in the celebration, took me outside through the back door. He led me a few steps away from the house, to be farther away from the lights within. Then he picked me up and began pointing out all the constellations that the brightness of our hometown streetlamps had always hidden from view. He didn't show me obscure ones, just the main cast of characters: the Big Dipper, the Little Dipper, maybe Orion. I didn't care much about the constellations anyway, so amazed was I by the sheer volume and brightness of the hitherto faint sky diamonds.
When we'd first left the house, I had cast a glance backwards to see my cheery, cupcake-eating family within, and I'd been jealous. But after a few minutes out beneath the stars with my father, I remember looking back at all the folks inside and thinking that if they knew what I was experiencing out there, they would be jealous of me.
It is in that spirit that I share this recipe for the best vanilla cupcakes I've eaten in a long time. The recipe is from the America's Test Kitchen Family Baking Book, and I didn't bother to modify it, because it was excellent as is. The cakes are flavorful even and especially without frosting, but since most people are all about the frosting, I recommend this recipe for chocolate buttercream. There are many chocolate buttercream recipes out there, but I liked this one because it didn't require me to chop or melt any chocolate -- and it's very tasty. Paired together, the two of them served as the perfect reminder that sometimes, with a little help, a dose of bitter disappointment can still become (forgive me) the icing on the cake.
from America's Test Kitchen
Yield: 20-24 cupcakes
2 3/4 cups (11 oz) cake flour
2 tsp baking powder
3/4 tsp salt
16 TBS (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
1 3/4 cups sugar
4 large eggs, room temperature
1 TBS vanilla extract
1 1/2 cups whole milk, room temperature
1. Adjust the oven racks to the upper-middle and lower-middle positions and heat the oven to 350 degrees F. Line 2 12-cup muffin tins with paper liners - I like to put two liners in each cup, as it makes them sturdier when you pour or spoon in the batter. Whisk the flour, baking powder, and salt together in a medium bowl.
2. In a large bowl, beat the butter and sugar together with an electric mixer on medium speed until light and fluffy, 3-6 minutes. Beat in the eggs, one at a time, and then the vanilla until combined, about 30 seconds.
3. Reduce the mixer speed to low and beat in one-third of the flour mixture, followed by half of the milk. Repeat with half of the remaining flour mixture and the remaining milk. Beat in the remaining flour mixture until just incorporated.
4. Give the batter a final stir with a rubber spatula to make sure it is thoroughly combined. Use a standard 1/4 cup ice cream scoop to portion the batter into each cup. Bake the cupcakes until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out with a few crumbs attached, 15-20 minutes, switching and rotating the tins halfway through baking. Let the cupcakes cool in the tins for 10 minutes, then transfer them to a wire rack to cool completely. Spread the frosting evenly over the cupcakes and serve.