Note to self: This week, it happened.
Just when you thought Spring was set in its ways, all bright skies and temps stuck in onward and upward, it interrupted itself. Paused. Retrenched. Brought spluttery days of gorgeous gray. Dove-soft skies and drippy windows. Bought time. Reprieve. Calm before the summer storm.
Think back to when May marched on, right on track, fruit trees trading their pink, and pomp, for purposeful workhorse green. Predictably. Systematically. Conspiratorially. (We're always sorry to see them go, the bees and me.)
But then? The rains came, and chilly ones, too. And with them, excuses to stay indoors.
And shuffling muscles.
Play moved outside, and with it, toys, as play and toys do, when daylight attenuates. (There's an 18" triceratops stuck in the crabapple, as I type.) And it was not a forced march, but a pleasure. Simple, unnoticed, invisible; unmodified by bugs, steam, blistering scorch. Remarkable for being unremarked upon.
I thought we were past that. We weren't. (Don't forget.)
Tiny ordinaries—book-reading, snack-eating, book-writing, mindless-weeding, lollygagging, nothing-doing—migrated easily, seamlessly outdoors. Eclipsed the membrane between indoors and out. Because out was as lovely (nay, more) than in.
Before the hot hullabaloo of summer? There was this.
Shorts traveled up from the basement; mittens, down. Flip-flops were installed. Snow boots, archived. Tank tops, worn, washed, worn again. And then, we were reaching again for coats. Long sleeves. Pants. Pants? Whence the pants?
Three months from now, mind: Shorts come and go. Pants happen. Hallelujah.
Tomatoes took hold, and pride, alongside. Me, smug for having gotten around to getting them in. May, turning coat, flirting with freezing. Me, recalling what pride goeth before.
Oops. And oh well. Runt tomatoes later are a small price to pay for gunmetal, sponge-minded skies, today.
And for all that? It was an ordinary week, with ups and downs abundant as any. Washing machines on strike. Sick tummies, fevered heads. Apocolyptic homework. The usual.
When early August arrives, ghastly, icky-sticky? Recall: Weather's but one factor. Diaphonous skies are no silver bullet. Pussywillow light, no cure-all. Also? Recall you can pull a grizzly, hibernate in the basement, eat ice cream for dinner. And pull up these picutres, these days, this reality. They'll be there when you need them. Like slam-dunk chocolate cupcakes.
Look, I know we just spoke chocolate last week, and Nigella, also, and both, again, a few months prior. But, you know how I am. Besides, everyone, or everyone with kids, anyway, or cupcake needs, or chocolate hankerings, or tastebuds, needs a fine, fast, foolproof chocolate cupcake.
Here you go.
I'm a faithless and fickle chocolate cake baker, eye always roaming, oven always auditioning. Last week alone, I baked two different chocolate cakes. Four, if you count the doubling of batches. The first one had merit, was rich, dense, intense, the way I always think I take my chocolate cake. It made up for a Monday, and was shared with friends, but had I it to do over, I'd have shared these, instead. The other had lumps, and odd pockets, and difficulties. This had none. It never does. It always works. And delights. And supports epic quantities of buttercream.
Which is why, when our weekend occassioned cupcakes, I returned to this decade-old favorite. It's nothing more than a basic sour cream chocolate cake, and though I've baked it a hundred times, I can't explain it. The technique is weird. The chocolate footprint, minimal. The effort, even less. The end result, exquisite. Every. Single. Time.
You might argue I'm biased toward any recipe that allows me, the earth's most inept cupcake baker, to turn out something edible. Fair enough. But I'd argue back that foolproof has it's merits. As does an impeccably tender crumb. And the lilt that cultured dairy lends to cocoa. And the way these bear regal beehives of salty-sweet buttercream.
A word about that buttercream. Rough instructions are below; wild enthusiasms, right here. After years of tweaking and tinkering with buttercream—the fast and dirty sort, powdered sugar plus butter, which I far prefer to the oil-slicky, egg-enriched version—I finally asked my friend Allison to show me the light. She makes what I modestly think of as The World's Hands-Down Absolute Best Buttercream. Mine always wilted, or wept, or bored, or more often, all of the above. Hers is ethereal, and lofty, and lovely, and left me speechless and crumb-covered more than once. She shared. And she said I could, too.
Hallelujah, Round Two.
The secret, turns out, is to add a lot of powdered sugar. A lot a lot. Like, to two cubes of butter, 2 1/2 pounds of powdered sugar. Maybe three. (She doesn't measure. Me, neither. She's a keeper.) Also, buttermilk, instead of sweet, to loosen it slightly and lend a faint tang. Me, being me, add two teaspoons of salt. Yes, salt. Yes, two teaspoons. It is riveting. The end result is a sweet creamy pouf, but with edge, sass, a salty sly wink. Hepburn, with a twinge of Winehouse. I'd hand you one through the screen, if I could.
Maybe you also have end-of-year celebrations coming soon. Maybe you don't. Never mind. These hold well. These cupcakes, this buttercream, this week, they're going on file. They'll be there when you need them. You and me, both.
Sour Cream Chocolate Cupcakes (with Salty-Sweet Buttercream)*
adapted from Nigella Lawson, How to Be a Domestic Goddess
yield: 24-28 cupcakes, or 2-8" or 9" layer cakes
Set the butter out two hours before mixing, as it goes directly into the flour, and should be squishy-soft. I've used both Dutch and natural cocoa here, to good effect, but the quality of the cocoa shines, so choose well (Valrhona, Penzey's, and Ghiradelli offer lovely ones). Cupcake yield is based on low- or high-rise cupcakes. I tend to go low, as they travel better, and allow for more buttercream. Your choice. In addition to extra cocoa, coffee, and salt, this reflects a doubling of Nigella's original, as I see no point in twelve cupcakes. That said, it halves easily, if you've the need. It also makes a stellar double layer cake.
for the cupcakes/cakes:
2 2/3 cups all-purpose, unbleached flour
1 1/2 cups granulated sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt
1 3/4 cups salted, very soft butter
1 1/4 cup sour cream, at room temp
1/2 cup best cocoa
4 large eggs, at room temp
1 tablespoon granulated instant espresso or coffee
1 tablespoon pure vanilla extract
Preheat oven to 350°. If making cupcakes, line 24 tins with liners. If cakes, butter bottoms and sides, and line bottoms with parchment circles; set aside.
Combine flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda, and salt in the bowl of a standing mixer, fitted with the paddle attachment. Add softened butter, and beat on low for 1-2 minutes, until generally combined. In a wide-mouth measuring cup, whisk sour cream, cocoa, eggs, vanilla, and instant espresso, until thoroughly combined. Slowly add cocoa mixture to the flour mixture, beating on low, until thoroughly combined.
Scoop batter into prepared muffin tins, just below level for a low-rise cupcake (yield: 28), to the tin level for a fuller, rounder cupcake (yield: 24). Alternatively, divide batter evenly between prepared cake tins, and smooth surfaces. Bake cupcakes for 20-22 minutes, or until a knife inserted in the center yields damp crumbs. Let sit in tins 10 minutes to cool, then invert onto a cooling rack to cool completely. (Cakes take around 30 minutes. Remove papers from cake bottoms, after removing from tins). Once cupcakes/cakes are completely cool, 2-3 hours, pile high with your favorite buttercream.
*Sweet and Salty Vanilla Buttercream
Yields enough to frost 24-28 cupcakes, or 1 double-layer cake
When I asked after sharing this recipe, my friend Allison not only agreed, but replied: " I think of my buttercream like the polio vaccine... It's for the people. It is my gift to man kind." I could not agree more. This is a loose, rough way with buttercream, depending on taste, touch and sight. Do not be shy with the beating. Taste often, and mindfully. Be fearless with sugar, and a lush with the buttermilk. Any shortcomings in end results are mine, entirely. Any successes, all Allison. (Thanks, friend!)
1 cup (8 oz.) salted butter, 30 minutes from the fridge
2 1/2 - 3 pounds powdered sugar
2 teaspoons kosher salt (or 1 1/2 teaspoons, table salt)
2-3 teaspoons pure vanilla extract, to taste
1/2 cup buttermilk, well-shaken, preferably full-fat, plus more as needed
In the bowl of a stand mixer, fitted with a paddle attachment, beat the 2 cubes of softened butter until creamy, 1 minute. Gradually, add powdered sugar, 1/2# at a time, alternating with splashes of buttermilk. Add, also, the salt and vanilla. Beat a minute or so between each addition, scraping down sides occasionally, continuing until you've added two pounds of sugar, adding buttermilk as necessary to thin. Switch to the whisk attachment, and whip several minutes, to work in air and loft. Taste as you go, for vanilla, sugar, and texture, continuing to add sugar by the spill and buttermilk by the splash, until frosting is lofty, airy, and holds a respectable peak. Lick beater. Rejoice.