I was searching through the old blog for a little something, earlier this week, and stopped mid-scroll with the giggle-fits. Seriously. Non-stop fruits and veg, without fail, for four months?
I am so sorry.
And don't believe it.
I'm not sure how it came to pass that my last fifteen posts all involved salad. Okay, I do. We're winding down summer. Eating anything but seems a shame, when the cooking is easy, the bounty egregious, and all manner of produce, dirt-cheap. Also, I love the stuff.
But an accurate reflection of our diet, our days?
I'm a huge proponent of balance—on the table, if not in life, where I'm pretty sure it ranks right up there with Wheedles, unicorns, and good hair days—and all good salads need ballast. Of which, we've had (always have, always will have) much. Like those two vast trays of brownies. And chocolate cakes (several). And popovers. And caramelized oat brittle bars (the goal of my trolling). And cream biscuits. More rounds than I can count.
And that's just this past month. And I'm just getting started.
There were the crumpets Henry made, Sunday. (These. To rave reviews.) Plus those pies, apple, coconut. Plus chocolate chip granola bars, chocolate chip banana muffins, chocolate chip pancakes, peanut butter chocolate cookies, salted chocolate chip cookies, double chocolate zucchini muffins. Sense a theme?
And apple crisp! Two. No, three. And peach crisp. Oh wait, WAIT! We did talk crisp! See? Proof. (Plugging my ears about all that fruit under...LALALAAAAAA).
(He incidentally made apple butter, also, and a very nice one, at that. It took me a lot of tripping over extra elbows at my side before I realized: he wants to cook, this one. It's new. And novel. And messy. And fantastic. But I don't think apple butter will help my case, here. Moving on.)
In other words: rest assured, we're in no danger of going over to the Salad Side. Sometimes, the ballast just doesn't get air time.
I am here today to right that wrong.
(Aside: I found the photo, below, in my September files. No notes, no details, just butter. Pounds of butter. If the above shortlist doesn't carry my case, there's this. Documentary evidence.)
(Incidentally, I also discovered the index hasn't been updated in I-don't-know-how-long. Whose job is that, anyway? I'll get on their case, post-haste...)
(And while we're all parenthetically cozy, one more: don't believe, either, that our days our long gauzy strolls through the canopies. Double pfft. My days are stewy, sloppy concoctions of messes and meetings and family and Life.
Indeed, this particular canopy? One I spied on an afternoon over-full of errands. I'd been meaning to take a proper woods hike for weeks, to slow down, to take in the leaves, to inhale what is indisputably Ohio's finest hour. Still undone, this pipe-dream. In the meantime, racing back to meet the school bell, I could not keep my mind on the road for the glory. I flipped the blinker, cranked my wheel hard, and spent six awesome minutes down by the river. Zen on warp speed. Whatever works.)
Failing that, there's edible zen.
I've lost count of the batches of the above I've baked since my first go, some three months ago. This is notable because a) I'm not a big baker of cupcakes, and b) I'm really quite good with numbers, and c) these are more than slightly unlikely to win the Molly's Most Favorite Cupcake Ever prize. See, I set myself the challenge, for several reasons, of finding a great gluten-free cupcake, last March. There's a reason you're learning of the project in October. It was a looooong seven months.
On the premise "If you have nothing nice to say...": the frosting was uniformly fantastic! And all cupcakes, even those that are doppelgängers for chalk and/or sawdust and/or cement, are excellent frosting delivery systems.
Without dwelling on the disasters, then, suffice it to say they were legion and epic. Honestly, I should have abandoned the cause somewhere around July. And nearly did. Which would have been tragic, as I might have missed these.
These are Jennifer Shea's Orange and Almond Cupcakes, and are, hands-down, my favorite cupcakes. Ever. Of any kind. Period. Exclamation point. Plural. (!!!!!!)
And really, of course they are. Jennifer Shea is the proprietess of Seattle's top-notch Trophy Cupcakes. I've sung Shea's praises before, on the subject of chocolate buttercream. Her vanilla buttercream's equally thrilling, and we'll get to that in a minute. But first: these cakes. They're sneaky little devils. Look in the Trophy index, and under "gluten-free", you'll find exactly nothing. I grumped and moaned and didn't give this a second thought, until I went to bake a batch of Shea's standard, superlative Vanilla Vanilla cupcakes. And there, eleven pages away, was this: Orange and Almond Cupcakes. Just that. Exactly that. There because those two things together, bound by butter and upheld by eggs, make about the most excellent kind of cake a person hope for. Footnotes or no.
I know. I didn't believe it, either. I read the recipe through three times. Then laughed. Out loud. How could two boiled oranges, blitzed whole and into oblivion, be right? And how could half a dozen eggs, half a cup of butter, plus sugar and almond flour, ever conspire to be edible? Let alone Trophy-worthy?
I still can't actually answer these questions, but per the above: I've a lot nice to say, here. Like how, somehow, eggs and ground almonds create this exquisitely tender crumb. And how the modest sugar lends sweet, but as one note of many in a well-padded chorus. And of how those oranges, those whole zizzed up oranges, do downright mind-boggling things. They perfume every inch with their poignant citrus sweet, hinting faintly of marmalade, but not at all bitter, because every dour speck's been boiled fully out. They create a fantastically damp crumb, that melts in the mouth when eaten hot, and also, when eaten four days out. (Don't ask. Makes absolutely no sense. Just reporting the hard-won facts. You try waiting.) And then, there's that color, all glowy orange, at least as outrageous in person as pixel. These are cakes that exist not out of need or necessity or niggling constraint. These are cakes that are the sublime collision of ingredients, expertly realized. They taste like fate. Shea scores again.
Now, you'll note that these are piled high with frosting. As well they should be. I didn't mean to cast aspersions above; frosting delivery system's no slur, but cornerstone to a cupcake's mission in life. It's just that the cakes must be worthy of the cause. Or in the case of these cakes, the frosting must meet standard. Impossibly lofty towering standards. Easy-Peasy.
Shea's vanilla buttercream is an inversion of everything I know on the topic. It ditches the ordinary rough ratio of 1 cube butter : 4 cups powdered sugar. It leaves my longstanding favorite buttercream in the dust, in terms of unflinching. It calls instead for—ready for this?—6 cubes butter : 3 cups powdered sugar. That's no typo. That's buttercream brilliance. If you had any doubts about my devotion to balance at the table? Resolved.
Shea's buttercream plays like some rogue chemist's experiment into just how much butter a sugar molecule can hold. These proportions, they're beyond fearless, beyond unlikely. And beyond compare. Impeccably creamy, faintly salty, barely sweet, utterly irresistable. Also, immune to error. This is, after all, five-minute stuff, no eggs, no heat, just beat and eat. I'm so in.
Together? These cakes, this frosting, they're a match to make knees weak. Wills, too. Though the cakes alone have never made it to the frosting stage, without serious decimation. I think I ate four, unadorned, my first go. I've since given myself a stern talking-to (several), and solemn warnings about my wastral ways. About how, if I eat too many plain cakes, custard-like and deeply fragrant and punchy-plump with flavor, I won't have room for as many frosteds. I only sort of listen to myself. In the end, I usually split the difference, play both sides (think daisy rhyme): "she eats one frosted, she eats one plain, she eats one frosted, she eats one plain, she eats six..." Suffice it to say, these cakes stand alone, frosted or un-, footnoted or buried, for eaters of every stripe. It's not even possible to go wrong. Unless, of course, you don't get busy...
Almond and Orange Cupcakes (Gluten- + Grain-Free) + Mind-Blowing 5-Minute Vanilla Buttercream
gently adapted from Trophy Cupcakes and Parties!, by Jennifer Shea
yield: 21-24 cupcakes
Please note: oranges must boil for 2 (unattended) hours, then cool for 1, before preparing batter. Oranges can be cooked, cooled and refrigerated up to 3 days in advance.
These are flat, low-profile cakes. You fill the tins almost to the top, and the little rise the oven yields soon fades. No matter. All the easier to frost. And irrelevant to the intense flavor. Also, Shea's original calls for one Tablespoon of rose water. It's not my thing, so I omit. As to almond flour, Bob's Red Mill is widely available in grocery stores and online.
2 large organic oranges
1/2 cup salted butter
2 1/4 cups almond flour
2 tsp. baking powder
1 1/4 cups granulated sugar
Three hours (or up to three days) before you wish to make your cupcakes, begin by boiling the oranges. Place oranges in a large saucepan, deep enough for the fruit to float. Fill pot to within 2" of the top, and set over high heat. Bring water to the boil, then reduce heat to maintain a brisk simmer. The bobbing action of the simmer should be adequate to keep the oranges rotating on their own, but if they are not turning over, give them a stir now and again, to ensure all sides see the hot water. Add water as needed, to keep oranges well above pot bottom. Simmer a full two hours, then remove with tongs, and set aside to cool, 1 hour.
Preheat oven to 350°. Line two 12-cup muffin tins with papers and set aside.
Melt butter; set aside to cool.
In a large bowl, whisk together almond flour and baking powder until combined, then set aside.
In the bowl of a food processor fitted with a steel blade, combine eggs and sugar and blend until smooth. Remove hard green stems from boiled, cooled oranges (if there are any), and add whole oranges and melted butter to the processor. Blend until smooth, 1-3 minutes, and try not to faint for the dizzyingly fantastic smells. Pour orange mixture into dry (almond flour) ingredients, and stir gently, thoroughly, until batter is smooth.
Fill lined tins almost to the rim with batter; these rise very little. Bake about 30 minutes, rotating pans at the 15 minute mark, until the tops of the cupcakes are firm and a knife inserted in a middle cupcake comes out clean, with damp crumbs. Let cool in the tins for 10 minutes, then remove to a wire rack to cool completely.
Mind-Blowing 5-Minute Vanilla Buttercream
Yield: Frosts 24 cupcakes extravagantly
There is a definite, faint saltiness to this buttercream, which is exactly as I like it. Feel free to hold off on the additional salt until you've tasted it, can adjust to suit. And do sift here. In frosting, it makes all the difference.
3 cups (6 sticks; 1.5 pounds) salted butter, cut into roughly 1" slices
6 cups confectioners' sugar, sifted
2 tsp. vanilla extract
1/4 tsp. kosher salt
To the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, add the sliced butter. Beginning with the mixer on the lowest speed, then gradually increasing, and using a rubber spatula to scrape down the bowl sides, as needed, cream the butter until it makes a slapping sound against the bowl sides; is several shades lighter; and perfectly smooth. This may take as little as 30 seconds (for room temperature butter), and as long as several minutes, if you begin with cold cubes. I've used both, with equal success. The slapping sound, color, and smooth texture are your cues.
Add sifted confectioners' sugar, one cup at a time, mixing at the lowest speed and scraping down sides between additions. Mix until its completely incorporated, then repeat, until all the sugar has been added. Scrape bottom and sides of bowl one last time, then add vanilla and salt, beating at low speed, briefly. Now, and this is important, and the crux, and the hurdle, continue to beat for another 5 minutes. At first, the buttercream will seem to soften, wilt, and go shiny. Keep the faith! In a few minutes' more, the buttercream will stiffen and increase in volume. When this happens, you are there.
Frosting can be used immediately, or stored up to 5 days in the refrigerator. If you've stored your buttercream, scrape it back into the mixing bowl, and beat until creamy and stiff again, 1-2 minutes.