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A&E >  Food

Wrapper’s delight

Carolyn Jung / Knight Ridder

What’s sweet all over, fits in your palm and makes children giggle with delight and some Gourmet magazine readers so incensed they cancel their subscriptions in a huff?

Would you believe, the cupcake?

The homespun bakery-case staple has turned hip and hot. The little cakes with the big gobs of fluffy frosting are showing up at office parties, as wedding cakes, and as the signature sweet at pastry shops, like the new Citizen Cupcake cafe in downtown San Francisco.

These aren’t your old-school cupcakes, mass-produced with artificial flavorings and greasy frostings made of cheap shortening. These modern versions are near works of art, made with butter, imported chocolate and seasonal ingredients and decorated with everything from confetti candy to sugar-dusted rose petals to sparkly gold leaf.

At Citizen Cake and Citizen Cupcake in San Francisco, pastry chef-owner Elizabeth Falkner uses a pastry bag to inject caramel, chocolate ganache and key lime curd into cupcake centers. She’s even adding a do-it-yourself stand at Citizen Cupcake so customers can decorate their own.

At Butterfly Cakes in Burlingame, Calif., yellow and devil’s food cake cupcakes are boldly hued with piped buttercream and delicate, handmade sugar flowers. At Citizen Cake and Citizen Cupcake, 15 types of gourmet cupcakes rotate through the menu, including pineapple upside-down cupcakes (pineapple chunks on the bottom of a buttermilk cake topped with passion fruit frosting and toasted coconut strips; and rocky road cupcakes (a chocolate cupcake slathered with chocolate frosting enfolded with chunks of walnuts and house-made marshmallow, with the top dipped in melted chocolate to form a decadent candy coating).

Cupcake mania began in New York, where more than a dozen bakeries continue to try to out-cupcake one another. Manhattan’s Magnolia Bakery, which was featured in an episode of “Sex and the City,” sells a whopping 3,000 cupcakes a day. Lines still snake out the door there, and a posted sign warns, “Limit 12 cupcakes per person.”

Who would have ever guessed, though, that these innocent-looking little sugar bombs could incite an uproar? Gourmet magazine certainly didn’t. Not when it published its January cover photo of an adorable polka-dot cake topped with a heap of turquoise blue, mint green and girly pink cupcakes.

Forty readers wrote to the magazine, most gushing over the recipe and photo. But three were downright hostile, threatening never to read Gourmet again. In a published letter, a Walnut Creek, Calif., woman wrote that it was “totally unimaginative and gross. This is a new low for your magazine … Colorful, yes. Inspiring, no.”

Gourmet’s editor in chief, Ruth Reichl, was dumbfounded.

“It never occurred to me that there was a kind of snob bias against cupcakes,” Reichl wrote in an e-mail. “Maybe it’s because of their association with children, and the way you have to take cupcakes to your child’s school on birthdays. I’m still puzzled by the fact that someone would cancel her subscription because she was offended by cupcakes!”

So is Kim Garcia of Palo Alto, Calif. She had a local specialty baker, Nancy’s Fancies, replicate the Gourmet cupcake cake for her daughter Olivia’s 13th birthday in January. Olivia had seen the picture on her mother’s copy of the magazine, and had immediately fallen in love with it. Olivia’s 35 friends did, too, when Garcia unveiled the cake at the party.

“I’ve never seen that kind of reaction from kids. The girls were screaming, `It’s so cute! Oh, I love it,’ ” says Garcia, who plans to order the same cake for a friend’s upcoming 40th birthday. “It turned out perfect. And I didn’t cancel my subscription.”

In this grab-and-go world, a cupcake is the perfect walk-away snack. It’s a fountain of youth snuggled in a paper liner, encasing fond memories of childhood birthday parties, baking with our mothers and licking gooey pastel frosting from our fingertips.

With cupcakes, you not only can have your cake and eat it, too, you can selfishly have your very own, don’t-have-to-share-it-one-iota cake.

“People just love the idea of having their own dessert,” says Sonya Hong of Butterfly Cakes, which sells 50 special-order cupcakes a week for birthdays and bridal showers and created five cupcake wedding-cakes last year. “It feels more special. If you present someone with a cupcake, it brings a big smile to their face. It’s a bigger smile than from just a piece of cake.”

Angela Haydel DeBarger agrees. When she married Scott DeBarger on July 10 at an outdoor ceremony in Los Gatos, Calif., she had no typical fondant-covered, tiered, white wedding cake. Instead, large tables were blanketed with 175 vanilla buttercream cupcakes, each unwrapped, sitting atop a sugar cookie, with a cookie “handle” affixed, giving them the look of cups with saucers. An 8-inch round cake filled with raspberry preserves and lemon curd was decorated similarly, to create a large cup with saucer just for the bride and groom.

“I thought one cupcake per person would be enough. But everyone wanted seconds,” Haydel DeBarger says about the cupcake fantasy created by Nancy’s Fancies. “They’re all gone — the cake, the cupcakes. There was nothing left to save for our first anniversary.”

You might think of cupcakes as a penny-pinching alternative to a wedding cake. Guess again. At Nancy’s Fancies, a traditional wedding cake is $5 on up per slice; cupcakes are $6 to $8 each. Cupcakes are more expensive for weddings because they are much more labor-intensive. Each must be frosted individually, then transported and assembled, either laid out on a table or stacked on an elaborate tiered stand that is sometimes decorated with five dozen or more fresh blooms, says Hong of Butterfly Cakes.

Still, that hasn’t stopped brides from ordering them. Susan Nourai Panico chose a tiered cupcake wedding cake for her reception last fall in Sonoma, Calif. Butterfly Cakes stacked 160 banana, carrot and chocolate mousse cupcakes, each decorated with an orange, yellow or red flower to match Nourai Panico’s wedding colors. Her guests devoured them, leaving Nourai Panico with only one regret.

“I didn’t even get one.”

Boston Cream Cupcakes

From Elizabeth Falkner, pastry chef-owner of Citizen Cake and Citizen Cupcake, both in San Francisco

For cupcakes:

1 1/2 sticks (6 ounces) unsalted butter

1 1/2 cups sugar

1 teaspoon vanilla

3 eggs

2 cups all-purpose flour

1 tablespoon cornstarch

1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

1/4 teaspoon salt

1 cup buttermilk, room temperature

For pastry cream filling:

1 cup milk

3 egg yolks

1/3 cup sugar

2 tablespoons cornstarch

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1 stick (4 ounces) unsalted butter

1 cup heavy cream, whipped

For chocolate glaze:

1 cup heavy cream

1 tablespoon corn syrup

8 ounces chopped bittersweet chocolate

2 tablespoons (1 ounce) unsalted butter

To make cupcakes: Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Cream butter and sugar together with an electric mixer; add vanilla and eggs. Sift dry ingredients together and add in 3 stages, alternating with the buttermilk. Line muffin pans with paper liners. Fill each about three-quarters full with batter. Bake 15-20 minutes.

To make pastry cream: Bring milk just to boil in medium saucepan. Whisk egg yolks, sugar and cornstarch together in a bowl. Stir just a little of the hot milk into the egg mixture to equalize the temperatures. Add a little more hot milk to the egg mixture and stir well again. Then add all of the hot milk, and stir. Return mixture to saucepan; whisk over low heat constantly until mixture becomes thick. Pour pastry cream into clean bowl and whisk in vanilla. Whisk in butter 1 ounce at a time until smooth. Cover surface with plastic wrap and chill until cool. Fold whipped cream into chilled pastry cream.

To make chocolate glaze: Bring cream and corn syrup to boil. Pour hot cream over chopped chocolate in a medium bowl. Let hot cream sit on the chocolate for about 5 minutes. Stir until chocolate is dissolved and smooth. Stir in butter.

To assemble: Fill pastry bag with pastry cream; poke tip of pastry bag into top of each cupcake and inject each with some pastry cream. Or slice each cupcake in half horizontally and spread some pastry cream in between layers.

Drizzle chocolate glaze over top of each cupcake.

Yield: 20 to 24 cupcakes

Nutrition per serving: 339 calories, 23 grams fat (14 grams saturated, 61 percent fat calories), 4 grams protein, 32 grams carbohydrate, 111 milligrams cholesterol, trace dietary fiber, 223 milligrams sodium.

Traditional Vanilla Cupcakes with Vanilla Buttercream Frosting

From “The Magnolia Bakery Cookbook” (Simon & Schuster, $25)

For cupcakes:

1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened

2 cups sugar

4 large eggs, at room temperature

1 1/2 cups self-rising flour (or make your own by blending 1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour with 2 1/4 teaspoons baking powder and a scant 1/4 teaspoon salt)

1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour

1 cup milk

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

For frosting:

1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, very soft

8 cups confectioners’ sugar

1/2 cup milk

2 teaspoons vanilla extract

Few drops of food coloring (optional)

To make cupcakes: Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line two 12-cup muffin tins with cupcake liners.

In large bowl, on medium speed of an electric mixer, cream butter until smooth. Add sugar gradually and beat until fluffy, about 3 minutes. Add eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition. Combine flours and add in four parts, alternating with milk and vanilla extract, beating well after each addition. Spoon batter into cupcake cups, filling each about three-quarters full. Bake until tops spring back when lightly touched, about 20-22 minutes. Remove cupcakes from pans and cool completely on a wire rack before icing.

To make frosting: Place butter in a large mixing bowl. Add 4 cups sugar and then the milk and vanilla extract. Beat until smooth and creamy. Gradually add remaining sugar, 1 cup at a time, until icing is thick enough to be of good spreading consistency (you may not need all the sugar). If desired, add a few drops of food coloring and mix thoroughly. Use and store frosting at room temperature, as icing will set if chilled. Frosting can be store in an airtight container for up to three days.

Yield: 24 cupcakes

Nutrition per serving: 430 calories, 17 grams fat (10 grams saturated, 35 percent fat calories), 3 grams protein, 68 grams carbohydrate, 79 milligrams cholesterol, no dietary fiber, 120 milligrams sodium.

Ginger Cupcake Triple Play

From “Baking in America” (Houghton Mifflin Company, $35) by Greg Patent

For cupcakes:

1 3/4 cups sifted cake flour

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

1/4 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon ground ginger

1/2 teaspoon allspice

1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature

1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

1 (1-inch) cube peeled fresh ginger, finely grated (plus any juice)

Finely grated zest of 1 orange

1 cup firmly packed light brown sugar

1 large egg

3/4 cup buttermilk

1/4 to 1/3 cup finely chopped crystallized ginger

For frosting:

3 tablespoons heavy cream

1 (3.5-ounce) bar white chocolate (such as Lindt), coarsely chopped

2 tablespoons sour cream

To make cupcakes: Adjust oven rack to lower-third position and preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line 14 muffin cups with paper liners; set aside.

Resift flour with baking soda, salt, ground ginger and allspice; set aside.

In large bowl, beat butter with electric mixer on medium speed until smooth, about 1 minute. Add vanilla, fresh ginger, orange zest and 1/4 cup brown sugar. Beat for 1 minute. Beat in remaining 3/4 cup brown sugar about 1/4 cup at a time, beating for about 20 seconds after each addition. Scrape bowl and beaters and beat on medium-high speed for 4 minutes until smooth and fluffy. Add egg and beat for 1 minute.

On low speed, add flour mixture in 3 additions, alternating with buttermilk, beginning and ending with flour and beating only until smooth after each addition. Stir in crystallized ginger. Divide batter evenly among muffin cups, filling them about two-thirds full. Don’t bother to smooth batter; it will level itself during baking.

Bake for about 25 minutes, until cupcakes are golden brown and spring back when gently pressed in the center. Cool in pans for 5 minutes, then remove them to wire racks to cool completely.

To make frosting: Heat cream in a small heavy saucepan over medium heat until it just comes to boil. Remove from heat and add white chocolate. Whisk until chocolate is melted and mixture is smooth. Whisk in sour cream. Set aside, whisking occasionally, until frosting is completely cool and thickened enough for spreading.

Place a teaspoonful of frosting on top of each cupcake and spread evenly with back of a spoon. Let stand until set before serving.

Yield: 14 cupcakes

Nutrition per serving: 144 calories, 7 grams fat (4 grams saturated, 43 percent fat calories), 1 gram protein, 20 grams carbohydrate, 23 milligrams cholesterol, no dietary fiber, 73 milligrams sodium.

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