Tuesday, December 7, 2010

The Cupcakes that Almost Killed Me

Cupcakes. Cupcakes that look like spaghetti and meatballs. Seemed like a great idea. Seemed like---dare I say it?---an easy idea.

How hard could this be, I thought? I have a cupcake decorating kit. I have an oven. I have a college education and am little more than a semester away from my third Ivy League degree. This will be a cup of cake, thought I.


I didn't realize how many mistakes it was possible to make while baking cupcakes. Now I know it is at least twenty-five.

Things started out innocently enough. A few days ago, I found a recipe on Duncan Hines.com with a picture I couldn't resist: a tray of cupcakes that appeared, at first glance, to be a plate of spaghetti and meatballs.

Image from DuncanHines.com

How charming! With a clothing swap party on the horizon, I had the perfect excuse to bake them. I already had a box of cake mix, so I sojourned to the grocery store to pick up a few of the missing ingredients.

I began by making a two substitutions - one on purpose, and one by accident. First, the original recipe calls for a fererro rochet candy (mixed with strawberry jam) to be used as the "meatball." This seemed a bit too much for me. I'm eating a cupcake already, so I'd like to avoid putting a second dessert on top of it. I decided to sub a raspberry (mixed with strawberry jam) for the candy. This was tasty. Second, upon arriving home, I realized I didn't have any of the butter called for on the box. I subbed canned pumpkin (1:1 ratio). I didn't notice a taste difference (and was surprised to find that I couldn't really taste the pumpkin, either).

The cupcakes baked according to the package directions. So far, so good.

You should know: at this point, I'm feeling like a domestic badass. My apartment smells awesome. I am wearing a cute apron. I cut calories in my cupcakes (albeit accidentally) with the butter-->pumpkin thing, and on purpose with the fererro rochet--> raspberry thing. I'm about to use my pastry decorating kit for the first time and I am rocking this kitchen. I may actually be thinking the words: "Jewish girl, you are such a domestic badass." I let the cupcakes cool, have a healthy dinner, and then rock up to my kitchen counter, frosting in hand, ready to make some decorative magic.

First step: coat the cupcakes in a base coat of frosting. Just a "thin layer," I am warned. (NOTE: This is a lie.) I'm supposed to add some food coloring to the frosting, but eff this. Pasta is white, and vanilla frosting is white. After coating all the cupcakes with a thin coat (lie), I realize that pasta isn't actually WHITE white. This frosting---it is white. Very white. If I were served spaghetti this shade of white, I would probably blame the eventual food poisoning I would contract on the weird white spaghetti I never should have eaten. So I add some yellow food coloring. But then it's too yellow. At this point, I actually follow the recipe and add a bit of cocoa powder and the frosting takes on a distinctly pasta-like hue. (Note: You can see the difference between the base coat and the pasta in the first picture) Amazing how recipes work like that, huh? Almost like someone KNEW just how much I should add. (note: I actually added too much yellow food coloring when I was ignoring the recipe, but for narrative simplicity I won't tell you about that (SPOILER ALERT: the frosting moots out anyway because I have to redo the whole frosting process).) I congratulate myself on my ability to create photo-real color using food products.

Now it's time for the fun part, I think - the spaghetti! I whip out my handy pastry decorator but decide to get crafty and use a ziplock bag instead of the included pastry bag.

This is a huge mistake.

I took this picture with the intention of illustrating on my blog how clever and resourceful and economical I am:

See that pastry tip in the corner? I swear, I am thinking, "I will post this on my blog and then describe how smart I was to do things this way!"

I have no pictures for the next half an hour. That's because there were very few moments when my hands were not covered in oozing frosting. The plastic bag was a disaster...frosting leaked out of top, and out of the hole I'd originally made in the other corner while trying to puncture it with the pastry tip. I tried to squeeze the frosting out of the hole without the pastry tip, but at this point the hole was too big and the spaghetti looked more like Udon:

So I switch to the pastry bag. [Note: those of you who know how to use a pastry bag may find this section unbearable. Feel free to skip ahead.] I clumsily squeeze what's left of the frosting into the bag and then examine the tip. I check the instructions to learn how to attach the tip to the bag, but the instructions skip this part and focus solely on forming flowers.

Lacking the common knowledge seemingly required by this product, I decide to use my powers of deductive reasoning and careful examination. The tip doesn't seem to snap on to the end of the bag, and there's no place for it to screw on, either. I must just have to hold it on the end, I think.

WRONG. Frosting cannot be contained by mere manual force. Much oozing ensues.

Ahh, I figure: I bet the pastry tip goes IN the pastry bag, and the tip comes out from the inside! No problem, I'll just stick the tip in the bag.

With complete disregard for the fact that there is a lot of frosting in the pastry bag, I plunge the tip into the sticky depths of the frosting. In the process of trying to push it down to the bottom, first with the stem of a spoon and then eventually, desperately, with my hands, I simultaneously push out about 95% of the frosting in the bag. I am in complete denial at this point---I've shoved my entire hand in this pastry bag and there's no way I can frost cupcakes with this unless I intend to eat them all myself (not unthinkable)---but I am deadset-focused on getting that pastry tip into position at the bottom of the bag.

I eventually align it "correctly," only to discover that it definitely is not meant to be placed inside the bag. After a few more unsuccessful attempts, I eventually figure out what you all knew all along---that I needed to unscrew a part of the bag, then attach the tip, then rescrew the bag.

At this point, I'm out of frosting and run to the store to buy more. (I buy two. I'm not putting anything past myself). I am so crazed with failure and frustration that I cannot even wait to get into my building before I take the frosting out of the shopping bag. I don't know what I plan to do with it while crossing the street, but I know that I must hold it. Holding it will get me one step closer to conquering it. I'm sure I look like a crazy person about to binge on frosting (this is not all that far from the truth), but I live in New York City and folks have seen worse.

Back in my apartment, I repeat the process of adding artificial color (this time to cream cheese flavored frosting) and I reapply the "thin" base layer to the cupcakes. With my pastry bag in hand and feeling finally invincible, I begin to squeeze out the spaghetti strands.

My hands lock up within minutes. The effort of the squeezing is impossible. I guess I should have waited for the frosting to warm up, but it takes forever to get the strands out and it hurts like hell. I'm going for the this-totally-looks-like-spaghetti presentation aspect of things, so I'm not only frosting the cakes, but also the sides of the cakes and the space between the cakes. It's a nightmare. [This is where I realize the lie of the "thin" base layer - it's hard to get any kind of thick rich frosting layer going with spaghetti strands, so if you share my lack of hand strength, the base layer should really be quite substantial.]

Finally, the frosting is applied. The raspberries + jam goes off without a hitch, and I garnish it all with shavings of white chocolate "parmesan".

The raspberries were the right choice for a "meatball." Also, see the difference between the white basecoat and the color-added strands?

These cupcakes definitely get a "WOW" reaction. The finished product totally does look like a plate of pasta:

Note the block of white chocolate on the butter dish in the background! Learn from my mistake and inform your guests that this is, in fact, chocolate and not butter.

Knowing what I know now, I think I'm better prepared to make these in the future. The big take-home lessons:
  • The recipe is not lying about coloring the frosting.
  • Add a thick layer of base frosting.
  • Use a proper pastry bag.
  • The pastry tip probably screws on somewhere. Don't start frosting until you figure it out.
  • Let the frosting warm up before trying to squeeze it out of a pinhole pastry tip.
  • Do not curse at the cupcakes. They cannot hear you.

The Recipe
Adapted from DuncanHines.com

Makes 22-24 cupcakes

* 1 box Duncan Hines Yellow Cake Mix (I used a box of the classic butter recipe)
* 1 canister of cream cheese frosting (plus a second canister in case you totally screw up the first one)
* 2 drops yellow food coloring and 1/2 tsp cocoa powder (to color the frosting) (don't ignore this) (use 3 drops if you use vanilla frosting and not cream cheese)
* However much strawberry jam is left in your fridge (the recipe recommends 3/4 cup, but I got by with about 1/3 cup)
* pint of raspberries
* Grated white chocolate for garnish

1. Bake the cupcakes according to the package directions. Arrange cupcakes close together on a tray and let them cool. Use this time to learn how to use your pastry bag.

2. Combine coloring agents with frosting. Once cupcakes are cool, frost with a reasonable layer of frosting.

3. Add remaining frosting to a pastry bag and use a writing tip to create spaghetti-sized strands. Make sure each cupcake has a lot of strands, and then use some of the frosting to create strands that connect the cakes together. Let some strands fall down the sides of the cupcakes. Take breaks as needed to allow your hands to unclench.

4. Garnish with grated white chocolate. Try not to cry from shame/pain/licking-up-wasted-frosting-induced sugar crash until your guests leave.


LittleMissSeamstress said...

I have done the "canned pumpkin" trick for my muffins once and I am hooked! and you know I tried the zip bag trick for the frosting recently, and it exploded on me once...


Jewish Girl said...

I don't think I will ever use a ziplock bag again! One of my friends suggested via facebook that perhaps my mistake was putting too much frosting in the bag...but I'll just stick with the pastry bag.

Canned pumpkin is fabulous...I really couldn't tell the difference. You can also use applesauce or canned sweet potato!

Barbie said...

LMAO I don't know about your baking skills but your writing skills are fabulous!

JG said...

hehe, thank you :)

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