Cupcakes may be one of the cutest foods you can eat, but they're also practical to serve, whether you're planning a picnic, a bridal shower or a graduation party. Even better, you can save money by baking your own.
We've chosen a batter for Red Velvet Cake topped with cream cheese frosting. The recipe has been around since the 1920s, when the cake was the signature dessert at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York City. But with the resurgence in cupcakes, it's hotter than ever.
Red Velvet is a mild chocolate or devil's food cake with a healthy dose of red food coloring. Additions of buttermilk and vinegar also bring the reddish nature of cocoa to the fore. A word of caution to the novice baker: Be careful when measuring this much food coloring; it's the devil to clean up.
There are hundreds of cupcake recipes out there now, and whichever you choose to make, success begins by learning two basic techniques: how to measure flour, and how to cream butter and sugar.
Technique No. 1: Flour needs a light hand. Packing too much into a cup can make a cake heavy and dense. For this recipe, we use cake flour. Pour it into a large bowl, then whisk it, which is like sifting it. Lightly spoon the flour into a measuring cup, then level it off. No tapping, packing or scooping! If you have a scale, a cup of cake flour weighs 4 ounces.
Technique No. 2: Creaming together butter and sugar beats thousands of tiny bubbles into the batter, creating a light and airy cake. Start with room-temperature butter, which still feels cool to the touch, but gives a bit when squeezed. Adequate creaming takes about 3 or 4 minutes, or until the mixture becomes fluffy and the color has changed from pale yellow to almost white.
Once you have these techniques under your belt, you can bake like a pro.
Cupcake liners also have gotten a fresh boost of trendiness. Bright colors and patterns are available, although we've found that patterns work best with a pale-colored batter. Some cups even are stiff enough to hold their shape on a cookie sheet instead of needing the support of a muffin tin.
An ice cream scoop holds the right amount of batter to fill the liners to just shy of the rim, and is convenient to use.
Always let cupcakes cool completely on a wire rack before frosting them, then let your imagination kick into gear. Cupcakes can be personalized by dipping each frosted cake into a different topping such as crushed candy, caramel corn, mixed nuts, coconut or the many decors available.
For a graduation party, use decorative jimmies in your school colors, or make a tiny mortarboard from a peanut butter cup and a thin mint.
Pastry bags also are easier to use than you might think for creating lush dollops and swirls.
If you arrange your cupcakes on a tiered stand or "tree," you have an instant centerpiece. Your biggest challenge may be in keeping it full.