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Mar 19, 2009 08:13 PM

The Cupcake Working Group - JOIN US!!


These days whenever a community of interest wants to formulate solutions to a problem, they often form "working groups" to pool knowledge, opinion, and innovative approaches. I would like to put forth a working group of my own in this Chowhound forum, to address what I see as a very persistent problem - bad cupcake.

By "bad cupcakes", I don't just mean stores that sell bad-tasting cupcakes. I mean every aspect of bad cupcakes - the texture, the color, the flavor combinations, the price, etc.

I'm wondering if we can put aside the opinions about the businesses that make the cupcakes (because I know of none that do it perfectly) and concentrate on what constitutes a good...nay...a GREAT cupcake. I'm proposing that we discuss our opinions on the attributes that make a great cupcake, truly great. I know that there are a lot of talented foodies who much have great ideas. I want to hear them!

Yes, I know that this seems like a subject that is "an inch deep and a mile wide", but I'd like to see where it here it goes.

Opening Question: What constitutes good cake in a cupcake?

I'll offer my opinion here. Too many places try to capitalize on the concept of "made from scratch". My response is "So, what?!" Mixing raw ingredients doesn't necessarily make cake any fresher, tastier, or texturally better. One of the things that drives me crazy about places like CakeLove is the this type of claim. I've had many "scratch" cupcakes that were obviously over-mixed, resulting in gummy, glutinous, chewy cake.

My idea of good cake is a soft, delicate, fine-to-medium crumb. A cake that shows big bubbles shows the formation of gluten and can never achieve delicate crumb. For all of the flack that box mixes take, they are often formulated to produce this type of texture. (Taste is another issue.)

In my opinion, if a cupcake fails the texture test there is nothing that can salvage it.

OK, folks...let's see if this working group idea has legs! Pour forth!

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  1. Sean, great point about the "scratch." I had a sweet old lady make my wedding cake - lemon flavored at $1.00 a slice thank you - and when I asked her if I could have a "tasting" she said - honey, go to the grocery store and get some lemon flavored duncan hines cake mix. HA! The cake was moist and beautiful. :)

    Back to cupcakes, we have a new cupcake bakery in my area that specializes in toppings/frosting while only offering either chocolate or vanilla cupcakes. I think keeping the two flavors only would keep their core competency in check (CAKE, afterall). We'll see what happens...
    Conversely, we have a traditional cupcake bakery that is all price and not much show. DRY cupcakes and lardy- frosting. Way too many flavors and not enough talent, in my opinion.
    I am a fudge freak, so I tend to like a really moist cupcake - dense, - NOt overmixed dense, but just cross your eyes rich with a skim of frosting. As you can imagine, I love brownies, too.
    I love the idea of frosting, the art and beauty - even making it. But, I kind of want to scrape it off. I Love a whipped, very light frosting - almost liked whipped cream. I would love a recipe if anyone has it!
    Also on "boxed" cupcake topic - I secretly love funfetti and would be interested in a homemade recipe for that - what ARE those little nubby things? or do I want to know?

    One more topic to raise - wrapper or no wrapper? I'e done both w/ mixed results...
    One tip to class it up if all y ou have is the multi colored cups is to try to just section out one color and use it for the display..ex, pick out all the blue for this batch.
    Never bought the "foil" wrappers? Anyone?

    20 Replies
    1. re: stellamystar

      Hey Stella. Thanks for being the first (hopefully not the last) contributor to this burning social topic. :)

      For Christmas this year, my girlfriend and I we given the task of making dessert for the family get-together. We decided to have an adult dessert (an expensive cheesecake from the Cheesecake Factory) and a kiddie dessert (red velvet cupcakes with cream cheese icing). Things got so busy that week that I only shopped for ingredients at 10:00 on Christmas Eve. By that point, I was so tired I didn't even want to think about making anything from scratch. So, I copped out and bought a box of Duncan Hines red velvet cake mix. My girlfriend ended up mixing and baking the cupcakes. She added a bit more cocoa to the mix, but that's all. We were both overwhelmed by the result. The cake was moist, delicate, and deeply flavorful. The color was exquisite. Moreover, the quality of this boxed cakemix product was far better than locally made, scratch red velvet cakes that we've had. The final chapter of this story is that on Christmas Day, the cupcakes were more popular than the fufu cheesecake. (This is saying a lot, with regard to my foodie family.) This experience has made me re-evaluate box mixes.

      I must admit that I've never made a cupcake without a wrapper. In general, I think the wrapper is a good thing. It keeps the cake from drying out and makes handling it a bit neater. The foil wrapper cups are good because they eliminate the need for muffin tins. (They generally hold the shape of the cupcake while its baking.)

      Recently, I've been giving some thought to squirting fillings into my cupcakes. I've never done this, but I can imagine how it would add a new dimension of texture and taste. Anyone have any ideas on this?

      1. re: Sean D

        I bake from scratch plenty, and was embarassed when I asked a friend for her cupcake recipe and found out it was from a box. She is also an excellent scratch baker. I have recently resorted to box mix when making large numbers of cupcakes for my three year olds' birthday parties (several dozen cupcakes between daycare and home parties - half the kids only eat the icing anyway). They are probably better received than my scratch attempts, by young and old. But I don't like the way cake mix smells baking in my house - chemically.
        Haven't found a bakery cupcake that had me going for seconds yet, but I shudder at the markup on what I know is so cheap to produce, and generally buy sweets I can't/won't make at home - croissants and other pastries, yeasty sweets, etc.

        1. re: julesrules

          I know what you mean, Jules. My girlfriend and I calculated that the total cost (ingredients, utilities, expendables) for producing the excellent Duncan Hines red velvet cupcakes was about 35 cents, each. Most designer cupcake places charge about $3.50. Starbucks charges about $1.85. Even grocery store bakery cupcakes tend to be at least $1.50. Being a businessman myself, I don't have any qualms with someone taking low cost materials, adding some value, and charging a premium. I just want the end result to be worth spending my money on.

          One of the things I learned from my earlier experiences in food service is that baking is truly a science. (As opposed to cooking, which is far less precise.) Baking is chemistry in edible form. Your comment about the smell makes so much sense. I'm sure that the process of boxing cake mix may require chemical ingredients (including preservatives) that may not be as present in scratch baking.

          The question I have is whether these ingredients are a net gain, or net loss for the end product.

          1. re: julesrules

            When I have volume to make and have to resort to a mix, I use the ones from King Arthur Flour, which don't have that chemical taste that I find in supermarket boxed mixes.

            1. re: julesrules

              Don't worry about it. I think there was a thread some time ago about how so many people prefer boxed cake mixes than from scratch. I remember a friend of mine bringing in cupcakes once. Even though I didn't ask her, I'm pretty sure it came from a box and it was frosted with Betty Crocker frosting as it had that "chemical" type of taste. But so many people proclaimed that it was the best cupcake they had. And even though it really wasn't my thing, I'd rather have a box cupcake than cupcakes from some places like Magnolia Bakery or Cupcake Cafe in NYC because it really tastes better.

              Overall, I prefer cakes over cupcakes because cakes tend to be more moist. But cupcakes are a lot easier to eat walking on the street (which is generally where I tend to eat them). And it does make portion control a lot easier.

              The thing that I hate most about a lot of cupcakes is dryness. It's a huge pet peeve of mine. I guess because it is smaller, it's easier to dry out a cupcake. Probably the most famous cupcake in NYC (Magnolia) is also one of the driest. I think the only reason they're popular is because of Sex and the City. It is so sad to see the huge throng of people lining outside of Magnolia Bakery while Batch bakery (which is clearly superior) around the corner remained relatively empty (and closed down recently). And I also hate sugary sweet icing, especially when it forms a crust on the top. I love the yellow cupcake with chocolate frosting at Mitchel London (NYC) because they use a smooth dark chocolate ganache over super sweet icing. And having made cupcakes at home, I find cake flour yields a superior, more tender crumb.

              ETA: Just found out that Batch hasn't closed down as of yet. Hope that it stays open.

            2. re: Sean D

              Red Velvet - yum! Did you see that Bobby Flay challenge - cupcake challenge - the challenger made Red Velvet with wayyyy too much frosting! It was like an ice cream cone. yuck.

              1. re: stellamystar

                I saw that Stella. Bobby never had a chance! There's just no way to inject that amount of love that his opponent had in his red velvet.

              2. re: Sean D

                <<giving some thought to squirting fillings into my cupcakes. I've never done this, but I can imagine how it would add a new dimension of texture and taste. Anyone have any ideas on this?>>

                The only 2 techniques I'm aware of are to cut a plug out of the top, put in the filling, and replace just the top bit of the plug, or to just stick the piping bag nozzle into the top or bottom and squeeze until it starts to overflow. Cream cheese mixed with jam would complement many cupcakes. Also, there's cheesecake-flavored cream cheese and the cool-whip sized tubs of "cheesecake" filling sold in the dairy aisle - it's light and fluffy but definitely loaded with chemistry. I wonder about putting a whole or halved chocolate truffle atop the batter before baking. Chips and fruits tend to sink to the bottom but perhaps the truffle wouldn't sink in that far. It might remain largely a filling or might meld with the batter and spread throughout.

                1. re: greygarious

                  I use an apple corer to take a plug out and don't bother replacing it, I just frost over the hole. Everyone likes to snack on the cake bits, so no cake is wasted.

                2. re: Sean D

                  For really creative ideas about combinations of cake, filling, and frosting flavors, you might want to check out She's no longer adding to the blog, but there are a gazillion cupcakes in her archive, all with photos and recipes and some words about how she came up with each flavor idea.

                  1. re: Sean D

                    lemon curd is my favorite filling for my cupcakes, which I promptly top with a raspberry buttercream

                  2. re: stellamystar

                    Ah, the foil.....learned about these the hard way. They allow you to make a whole bunch on a sheet pan rather than rotating muffin tins in and out of the oven. They come with a regular paper liner between each foil one. Initially I thought this was to make them easier to handle, and I saved the paper ones to line my tins. But I discovered that the foil is very hard to removed from the baked cupcake, tearing off in a bunch of little pieces. Then I saw Jacques Pepin using them, with the paper liner left inside the foil. AHA! Guess that's why they were there in the first place.

                    My favorite semi-homemade cupcake is Trader Joe's Meyer Lemon Cake mix, which is seasonal. Its hint of orange flavor is great for folks who find standard lemon unappealing. I make it with melted butter instead of oil, and add a cup of shredded sweetened coconut. My cream cheese frosting is just whipped cream cheese mixed into marshmallow fluff. Cuts the overly-sweet fluff and is lighter than typical cream cheese frosting. Sprinkling with more coconut is optinal.

                    1. re: greygarious

                      I always wondered about the metal ones! I have a 6-muffin pan, but I never want to use it because of the rotation. Now, I have to go out and buy them! My husband has been craving Independent Brownies and I have most of the ingredients anyway.

                      1. re: greygarious

                        Grey - thanks for the foil review. Also, can you switch out melted butter for oil in all semi homemade "mixes?"

                        1. re: stellamystar

                          As far as I know, you can sub melted butter for oil in any baked goods that suit your fancy, whether mix or scratch. I've never had a problem doing this. I would not use melted butter in a cake recipe that called for creaming the butter and sugar, as that would change the texture. But if the recipe calls for oil and I think butter would make it better, I melt it. Sometimes it seems appropriate, other times not - for example, I prefer butter ON my cornbread, not IN it. I also use melted butter in cookies, which I prefer to be flat and crispy, which is achieved by melting rather than creaming it.

                          1. re: greygarious

                            Grey- when melting your butter to sub for oil do you clarify the butter to reach an all fat state as the oil is or just melt the same quantity of butter? I am curious because I did some research using the epicurious double chocolate layer cake made 6 different ways mostly concentrating on the method in which the fat was delivered and found each method produced a different texture and taste. Funny enough the one rated highest during the taste test was when I creamed butter and sugar as opposed to introducing the fat in liquid form.

                            1. re: kayEx

                              I just melt the same quantity -- a stick for a half-cup of oil. Let it cool down a little. No scientific reason - just taste and laziness. Butter is better than oil in most baked goods, and if I melt it I don't have to drag out the mixer. If it's possible to bake with a single bowl and a whisk or wooden spoon, that's the method I'll choose.

                              1. re: greygarious

                                Oil doesn't taste as good as butter, however, if you want to refrigerate the cake, the consistency will change if you use butter, whereas it will remain soft with oil. This might not be an issue for you, but I think that sometimes what we perceive as "dryness" in a cake is really the hardness caused by cold butter.

                                (my friend Dan, who owns Taste of Heaven bakery in Chicago taught me this trick.)

                      2. re: stellamystar

                        "I Love a whipped, very light frosting - almost liked whipped cream. I would love a recipe if anyone has it!"

                        I like a good shortening or lard frosting OK, but I prefer whipped cream frostings, as they are less dense, and seem a bit less sugary. All I do is add a bit more gelatin (maybe a third again as much) than I would normally add for a batch of regular stabilized whipped cream. I also play chicken with the cream as it's whipping, trying to get close to but not into the "whipped butter" stage.

                        1. re: stellamystar

                          Stellamystar: Have you tried a flour icing?

                          Mix 5 tablespoons flour into 1 cup milk with a wisk (or shake in a jar). Cook for a bit until thickened, like gravy. Allow to cool completely.
                          Beat till fluffy (6 min): 1 c granulated (not powdered) sugar, 1 tsp vanilla, 1/2 lb butter
                          Add flour mixture to sugar. Beat until incorporated.
                          This is an OLD FASHIONED frosting, traditionally used on Red Velvet Cake.
                          You can substitute part of the milk with fruit puree or part of the butter with cream cheese.
                          I use superfine sugar normally, but I've used regular granulated and it is NOT grainy. Very fluffy and not too sweet. It also holds it's shape if piped.

                        2. Hi Sean -- I'm not enough of a cook to be of much help here, but I did finally figure out that what was really bothering me about a lot of the fancy expensive cupcake places is that they seem to be all frosting and hardly any cake. I guess sort of like stella's saying, but with more detail and knowledge. Really, I'd prefer a slice of cake to a cupcake anyway.

                          Since I believe you're in the DC area, have you ever tried Sticky Fingers cupcakes (and cake)? They're my favorite, and I *think* may fit your crumb criteria (just up the road and a million miles from CakeLove).

                          3 Replies
                          1. re: mselectra

                            You know Mselectra, I just heard about Sticky Fingers in another forum. I've never tried them, but now I've got to.

                            I'm with you and Stella on the slice-of-cake thing. The reason why I ultimately see cupcakes as something of interest is the individual nature of them. For kids, there is always a sort of magic in having your own, special thing - separate from what others have. Even for adults, the individual cake achieves the same thing. On a practical level, for the people providing the cake, it solves problems of perishability, clean-up, and portion control. When you add up all of these factors, a cupcake has the potential to be something rather special - even individualistic.

                            1. re: Sean D

                              Cupcakes are good for sharing - no plates or utensils required. I brought some for my pub quiz team this week and we ended up passing them around all the tables next to us. It's easy to make friends when you have free cupcakes.

                              How do y'all feel about the slightly-crispy top? I love this in muffins, but in cupcakes it just seems wrong.

                              My other pet peeve is too-sweet frosting that just shocks the taste buds to the point where you can't even taste the cake. That chemically stuff you get at grocery store bakeries and caterers is the worst, but some of the fancy cupcake joints also go too heavy on the sugar.

                              1. re: mordacity

                                Hey Mordacity,

                                During the Christmas holiday, I discovered something about the slightly crispy top of the cupcake. My girlfriend and I were baking for the family get together and we had bought a little cupcake tree. (It's a tiered, wire rack that holds about 24 cupcakes.) We decided to try to make the cupcakes uniform, so I took the unprecedented step of cutting off the tops, just above the wrapper line. After frosting the cupcakes, we had two dozen of this cupcake-tops leftover. Then, it came to me. I squeezed some frosting from the piping bag onto one and pressed another top onto it. The result: A classic Amish "whoopie pie". It was delicious!

                                So my answer to your question is: Yes, I like the crispy tops...after you lop them off the cupcakes and sandwich some frosting between them. lol

                                As for the frosting question, I feel that it depends on the cake. Some cakes require more sweetness and richness, in my opinion. While others seem to do better with a lighter, less-sweet frosting.

                          2. Hi Sean D!

                            Sounds like my kind of work group! I love cupcakes. I agree with your assessment of good cake. I live near Los Angeles where there are many high end cupcake shops. I wouldn't mind having one of my own. I do a lot of baking, mostly from scratch. I make cakes for my friends for their parties. I don't think it's a big secret that most of these cupcake shops charge a large price due to the cost of rent and marketing, i.e., advertising, packaging, shop ambience, etc. There are also health department issues, various forms of business insurance, and legal fees for such things as trademark prosecution and defense. The bulk of the ingredients are not that costly. Employees are offered part time work for $8.50 to $12.50 per hour, usually no benefits.

                            From my taste tests of the various shops in the L.A. area, I have concluded that if I need a cupcake, I will bake it myself. Besides the price, the peculiar flavors, the frostings are too sophisticated to taste good.

                            As for the Duncan Hines red velvet mix, I used one for a cake I made for my cake decorating class. I used Italian meringue buttercream which is not too sweet. I have tried all sorts of red velvet cake and cupcake and none were better than the Duncan Hines.

                            3 Replies
                            1. re: Kate is always hungry

                              Hey Kate,

                              I know what you mean about the overhead costs of having a bake shop. Here, in the D.C. metro area, it is difficult to find decent retail property for less than $4,000 per month. (That's on the low end, too!) You have to sell a lot of cupcakes to break even! If I ever went into business for myself, I'd have to find a way to overcome this problem.

                              Right now, we have a couple of popular cupcake shops in the D.C. metro area, but both are considered over-rated, in one way or another. Personally, I don't think that this is a good thing, from the business perspective. I'd want a business that seems less fad-like and more of an everyday necessity.

                              1. re: Sean D

                                DC has at least 4 cupcake places now - Georgetown Cupcake, CakeLove, Red Velvet and Hello Cupcake.

                                1. re: mordacity

                                  Yes -- but if you include CakeLove then you're also listing bakeries that make cupcakes in addition to other stuff and need to add further to the list (Baked and Wired and Sticky Fingers, for example -- I like both of their cupcakes a lot). I think Sean was probably talking about places that exclusively make and sell cupcakes, which do seem vulnerable to the fading of faddishness.

                                  I actually don't have the impression that Georgetown or Hello are considered overrated, they get a lot of praise for the cupcakes (don't they?), but rather get criticized by people who just don't get spending that much on a cupcake no matter how good it is.

                            2. I think my best "creative" cupcake was the sushi cupcakes - fruit roll up, swedish fish, jellied candies, and coconut. But they were sooo heavy. I would recommend making mini cupcakes for this if I did it again.
                              I attached some pics from 2005. I couldn't find green fruit roll up for the nori, so I had to improvise!

                              2 Replies
                              1. re: stellamystar


                                That is WAY cool! Sure...I can see where its a bit impractical. But, bless the heart of the person who pushed the envelope to make it!

                                By the way, as a possible substitute for the green fruit roll-up/nori, perhaps a thin layer of green cake crumbs? (After a quick dunk in some like glaze, a quick roll in the crumbs?)

                                Rock on, Stella!

                                1. re: Sean D

                                  Thanks, Sean! Love the idea of the green cake crumbs or cookie crumbs.... I certainly have enough food coloring around my house to try it out.

                              2. The original comment has been removed