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To the Last Crumb

Yes, Crumbs is shaky, the gourmet trend is waning, blah blah. But is the cupcake dead? Of course not.

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Yes, I bake cupcakes. Lots of them.

Until a few years ago, this wasn’t a controversial hobby. I’ve been a baker for as long as I can remember, graduating from watching my Grandma Betty make chocolate chip cookies in her sunny upstate New York kitchen to writing my own cake recipes and starting a baking blog.

Before becoming the dessert to hunt after — or sneer at, depending on your tastes — cupcakes were the kind of thing your mom threw together the night before you needed to bring a treat to share at kindergarten. A box of mix, a plastic tub of frosting, and maybe even some rainbow sprinkles. Cupcakes were made for church bake sales and baby showers, or really any event where it makes life easier when you can simply hand someone their portion in a tidy wrapper.

But my, how times have changed. Ever since Sprinkles Cupcakes opened in Beverly Hills in 2005, and we all watched Carrie lovingly bite into a Magnolia cupcake on Sex in the City, cupcakes have watched their star rise high. And for many, it has risen too high.

To me, all baked goods were pretty much equal; I enjoy a good slice of pie just as much as I enjoy a buttery scone. So, to be honest, I don’t understand the hate that cupcakes receive. They’re handheld cake with frosting on top. Sure, they’re no Mille-feuille or petite French macaron, but that doesn’t make them across-the-board garbage. There are certainly subpar cupcakes out there, but there are a number of great ones from creative bakers who focus on high-quality ingredients and innovative flavors. And remember, there are just as many uninspiring or plain awful desserts being served in restaurants across the country, but you don’t hear people lamenting the “death” of dessert.

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So, when Crumbs Bakeshop announced on July 8 that it would be closing all of its cupcake shops nationwide, the usual haters came out of their hidey holes, proclaiming the tired “Cupcakes are dead!” (Mind you, they did this back in 2013 when Crumbs’ shares went down. It’s getting old.)

Are cupcakes really dead? And says who?

Stella Parks, pastry chef and blogger at BraveTart tweeted the same day at the Crumbs’ announcement: “Rolling my eyes so hard at the so-called death of cupcakes. Cupcakes are older than doughnuts, they’re not going anywhere.”

And of course, the First Couple of Cupcakes, the Robicellis, commented as well: “Cupcakes will end when Ice cream ends, or burgers end. When people stop wanting comfort food they don’t have to share with others.”

It’s also a bit unrealistic to link the closing of a publicly traded chain, which expanded too quickly to sustain itself, to the death of a handheld dessert. Experts tried to link the closing of Borders to the death of reading, too — how did that work out?

Whether or not you like cupcakes, both Parks and the Robicellis make excellent points. Cupcakes are comfort food. They’re to be shared (or not), and the earliest mention of this portable dessert dates back to 1796. Yes, that’s right… cupcakes were around during George Washington’s life, and it’s going to take more than a bakery chain that grew too fast too quickly to sink them.

And personally, I will always love baking cupcakes — even if only from a practical perspective. Their format makes trying new recipes easier for me due to the ability to bake a lower yield; they weigh less than a frosted layer cake when hauling them into the city for a coworker’s birthday; and I appreciate that they’re an individually portioned dessert which can be eaten sans utensils.

While we all sit and wait to see what Marcus Lemonis — of Dippin’ Dots fame — decides to do to rescue Crumbs, here are a few of my favorite cupcake recipes to show you the range these little desserts can have.

Vanilla Cupcakes with Salted Caramel Buttercream

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Vanilla/vanilla cupcakes are hugely popular, so why not shake things up a bit with a salted buttercream instead? Toss on some sprinkles and call your friends over… trust me, they won’t say no to this invitation.

Ingredients

For the cake:
1 cup flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
½ teaspoon salt
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature
¾ cups sugar
2 eggs
½ cup whole milk
1 tablespoon vanilla extract

For the icing:
¼ cup sugar
2 tablespoons water
¼ cup heavy cream
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 cup (16 tablespoons) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 teaspoon salt
2½ cups confectioners sugar

Instructions

Heat the oven to 350°F and position the racks toward the center. Line pans with cupcake papers.

Combine the flour, baking powder and salt in a bowl and gently mix to combine. Set aside.

Cream the butter with the sugar, beating until light and fluffy.

Add the eggs one at a time, mixing to combine.

Alternate the dry ingredients and milk, and mix until combined.

Add the vanilla extract, mixing to combine.

Divide the batter between 12 wrappers in the cupcake tins and bake for 20-22 minutes.

When done, transfer tins to wire racks to cool 10 minutes; turn out cupcakes onto racks and let cool completely.

To make the caramel sauce for the buttercream, stir together granulated sugar and water in a saucepan. Bring to a boil over medium high heat.

Cook without stirring until mixture turns a deep amber color.

Remove from heat and slowly add in the heavy cream, salt, and vanilla extract, stirring until very smooth.

Let caramel cool for about 20 minutes, until it is just barely warm and still pourable.

For the buttercream beat butter until light and fluffy.

Add a ½ cup of sugar gradually, beating until combined.

Add the remaining sugar ½ cup at a time.

Pour in the room-temperature caramel and beat on medium high speed until light and airy, (about 2 minutes).

Pipe frosting onto cupcakes.

Yields 12 cupcakes

Root Beer Float Cupcakes

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The key ingredient to making these cupcakes with spot-on flavor is root beer concentrate. Root beer soda will not do these treats justice, and if anything else, it will negatively affect the chemistry of the cake and make the buttercream a wet mess. If you’re low on time, skip the whipped cream filling… it can be our little secret.

Ingredients

For the cakes:
1 cup flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
½ teaspoon salt
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature
¾ cups sugar
2 eggs
½ cup whole milk
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
4 teaspoons root beer concentrate

For the filling:
½ cup whipping cream
2 tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon root beer concentrate

For the icing:

1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature
2½ cups confectioners sugar
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
Root beer concentrate for streaking the piping bag

Instructions

Heat the oven to 350°F and position the racks toward the center. Line pans with cupcake papers.

Combine the flour, baking powder and salt in a bowl and gently mix to combine. Set aside.

Cream the butter with the sugar, beating until light and fluffy.

Add the eggs one at a time, mixing to combine.

Alternate the dry ingredients and milk, and mix until combined.

Add the vanilla extract and root beer concentrate, mixing to combine.

Divide the batter between 12 wrappers in the cupcake tins and bake for 20-22 minutes.

When done, transfer tins to wire racks to cool 10 minutes; turn out cupcakes onto racks and let cool completely before coring (if including the whipped cream filling) and frosting.

For the whipped cream, thoroughly clean and chill your mixing bowl for 10-15 minutes first.

Add the whipping cream to the bowl and, using the whisk attachment, whip until peaks form.

Add the sugar and root beer concentrate and whip to combine. Chill until you’re ready to fill the cupcakes.

For the frosting, beat the butter until light and fluffy. Add ½ cup of sugar, beating until combined.

Add the vanilla. Finally, add the remaining sugar gradually and whip until light and fluffy.

To assemble the cupcakes, core them and pipe the root beer whipped cream into the centers (if making the filling).

For the buttercream, fit your piping bag with your tip of choice and streak the inside of the bag with root beer concentrate (do this over a sink, it’s messy). Using a toothpick or chopstick, dip into the concentrate then drag the stick along the inside of the piping bag, 3 to 4 times. Work quickly.

Add the vanilla frosting and pipe onto the cupcakes.

Yields 12 cupcakes

Sriracha Chocolate Cupcakes with Chocolate Buttercream

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Sriracha is a wildly popular condiment on its own, and when paired with the rich sweetness of chocolate, the two create a sophisticated, yet funky, cupcake. And really, if cupcakes are all hype, why not use a hyped up ingredient like sriracha in them, too?

Ingredients

For the cake:
1 cup flour
1 cup sugar
¾ teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon salt
½ cup (8 tablespoons) unsalted butter
½ cup brewed coffee
1 tablespoon espresso powder
6 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder
1 egg
½ cup whole milk
½ teaspoon vanilla extract
1½ teaspoons chili flavoring (Optional, for an additional spicy kick)

For the filling:
2¼ ounces semi-sweet chocolate chips
2 tablespoons heavy cream
½ tablespoon unsalted butter
4 teaspoons sriracha

For the icing:
1 cup (16 tablespoons) unsalted butter, at room temperature
2½-3 cups confectioners sugar
⅓ cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 tablespoons heavy cream

Instructions

Work on the truffle filling first so it has time to chill (at least 30 minutes).

Measure the chocolate into a heat-safe bowl.

Bring the heavy cream and butter to a boil. Take off the heat and pour over the chocolate, then add the sriracha.

Stir until the chocolate melts and isn’t lumpy.

Set aside to cool for 10 minutes at room temperature, then chill in the fridge for about 30 minutes (it shouldn’t be rock hard, but it also shouldn’t be soupy… look for the consistency of buttercream).

Heat the oven to 350°F and position the racks toward the middle. Line cupcake pans with cupcake papers.

For the cupcakes, combine flour, baking soda, salt and sugar, whisking to blend; set aside.

In a heavy-bottomed, medium pan, melt the butter on medium-high heat.

Once melted, add the coffee, instant espresso and whisk together. Add the cocoa — gradually — whisking to combine. The mixture should come to a simmer, but not a boil. You want it to thicken.

Once thickened, cool the cocoa mixture for about 15-20 minutes at room temperature, whisking occasionally to release more heat

In the bowl of your stand mixer, whip together the eggs and milk.

Once the cocoa mixture has cooled, slowly add a little bit of it to temper the eggs, whisking constantly. Continue to slowly add the remaining mixture, whisking to combine. If you don’t want to whisk by hand, and have a stand mixer, then set the speed on low and slowly pour the cocoa mixture in.

Add the dry ingredients in 3-4 stages, mixing well to combine. Add the vanilla extract and chili flavoring (if using) and mix well.

Divide batter evenly among lined cups. Bake for 18-22 minutes. When done, transfer tins to wire racks to cool 10 minutes; turn out cupcakes onto racks and let cool completely.

Core the cupcakes, fill a piping bag with the filling and pipe into each cupcake.

To make the buttercream, beat the butter until light and fluffy.

Add 1 cup of sugar, beating until combined. Add the cocoa powder and vanilla.

Finally, add the remaining sugar gradually and heavy cream (as needed) and whip until light and fluffy.

Place the buttercream in a piping bag and pipe the frosting onto the filled cupcakes.

Yields 14 cupcakes

Photos by Rachel Wisniewski

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