Folks, I have a Valentine’s gift for you: a cupcake.

I’ve explained my feelings about Valentine’s Day before; namely, that it’s a quasi-holiday that puts a lot of weird pressure on couples to be romantic.  Isn’t there enough weird pressure in the universe already?  Pretty sure the answer’s yes.

In recent years, however, I’ve been helping a local youth group with their annual Valentine’s Day fundraiser.  They charge admission for a seated dinner, and the yutes serve as the wait staff and entertainment.  Andy runs the kitchen, Jessica assists, and I do the baking.  I daresay that the experience has caused me to quite look forward to Valentine’s Day.  Miracle of miracles!

I was completely disappointed this year when the fundraiser conflicted with a friend’s wedding.  More than just a chance to hang out with Andy and Jessica, I was missing out on a chance to grow and improve.

When I emailed Andy to tell him about my scheduling conflict, he jokingly replied, “I think you should make about 40 desserts and drop them off on your way to the wedding.”

So I did… and these cupcakes were born.

Happy valen-times, ever buddy.

Before we get down to business, I need to warn you about a few things.

There’s a huge problem right off the bat: the recipe calls for canola oil instead of butter.  In cake recipe terms, that’s like Queen Elizabeth going commando – it just doesn’t happen.

Second, this imposter fat is “creamed” with the sugar and the eggs. Blasphemy!  Everyone who is anyone knows that you only add eggs after you’ve beaten the tar out of your butter and sugar components, and even then, you introduce them gradually, one at a time.  These poor shy little eggies just get plopped right in.  What in tarnation is going on here?

Third, the batter is really loose.  As in runny.  On the verge of watery, actually.  Heck, I’ve made sweet tea with more viscosity than this cupcake batter.  When I made my first batch of the stuff, my hopes were dashed.  If the oven hadn’t been pre-heated, I probably wouldn’t have wasted my time baking them off.

I am so glad I did.  I don’t think it would be an overstatement to declare these to be the most successful cupcakes I’ve made to date.  The crumb is killer – tender and airy, almost weightless on the tongue – with a definite wallop of chocolate to the palate.

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Now I need tell you something else, and this is very important: You could very well stop after making the cupcakes and no one would blame you.  In fact, it’s probably the smart way to go.  No one is asking you to make curd or scoop cupcake tops or deal with the pain in the neck that is buttercream.  This particular dessert was for paying customers, and I knew Andy’s entrée would be lights out — a tough act to follow.  Plus there’s the whole existential issue of it being a cupcake – the stuff of kid’s birthday parties and backyard picnics, not seated dinners.  I needed to up the ante.

I was inspired my moderate success filling with those triple lemon cupcakes with curd.  And I wanted a dash of pink; ergo, raspberry.  (After all these years, I’m secure enough in my tomboyishness to flirt with a little pink now and then.)

But the true beauty of these cupcakes is that they are a blank slate upon which to doodle.  You could simply dust them with a little confectioner’s sugar.  Traditional chocolate frosting would be terrific, ganache would be superb.  And need I suggest white fluffy icing?  I thought not.

Whether and however you’re celebrating, happy Valentine’s Day, one and all.

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Cupcakes for Your Cupcake

For the curd:
6 ounces fresh raspberries, plus more for an optional garnish
3/4 cups sugar
2 large eggs
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/8 teaspoon salt

For the cupcakes:
½ cup natural unsweetened cocoa powder (I used the plain old Hershey’s stuff)
2 ounces high quality milk chocolate, chopped (I used Lindt)
½ cup boiling water
½ cup buttermilk
1 cup cake flour (spooned lightly into the measuring cup and leveled with a knife)
¾ teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon salt
2/3 cup dark brown sugar, packed
½ cup canola oil
½ cup (white) sugar
2 large eggs, room temperature
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

For the buttercream: ***Warning! Buttercream is a total hassle. And you’ll need a handheld mixer and an instant read thermometer for this exercise.***
10 ounces semisweet chocolate, chopped
7 tablespoons water, divided
4 large egg whites
¾ cup sugar
¼ teaspoon cream of tartar
1 teaspoon vanilla
¾ pound (3 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature

Make the curd: Combine the raspberries, sugar, eggs, lemon juice, butter, and salt in a medium saucepan. Cook over medium heat, stirring, until thickened and bubbly, about 5 minutes (not to worry, it will thicken more when chilled).  Strain into a medium bowl using a fine-meshed sieve, pressing on solids to extract as much of the berry goodness as possible. Refrigerate until cold, at least 2 hours and up to 1 day.

Make the cupcakes: Preheat oven to 350F.  Line 18 standard muffin cups with paper liners (I prefer the paper/foil double liners).  Combine cocoa powder and chopped milk chocolate in a medium bowl.  Pour the ½ cup boiling water over; whisk until smooth.  Add buttermilk, whisk to combine; set aside.

Whisk the flour, soda, and salt in another bowl.  In the large bowl of an electric mixer, beat the brown sugar, oil, ½ cup white sugar, eggs, and vanilla on medium to medium high speed until light and creamy, at least 2 minutes.  Reduce the speed to low and alternate adding the flour mixture and the chocolate mixture in two additions.

Pour the batter into the prepared baking cups.  Bake until they test mostly clean with a toothpick, with a few crumbs attached, about 15-18 minutes.  Cool in the pan on a rack for 10 minutes, then transfer directly to the rack to cool completely.  The cupcakes can be made up to 3 days ahead, stored in an airtight container at room temperature.

Make the buttercream: Melt the chopped chocolate and 5 tablespoons of the water together in a medium bowl (I do this in a microwave, beginning with one minute on full power, stirring, and then proceeding in 30-second intervals).  Set aside to cool to lukewarm.

Combine the egg whites, sugar, remaining 2 tablespoons water, and cream of tartar in a stainless steel bowl (steel is important for heat conduction).  Set the bowl in a large, deep skillet, and then add water to the skillet to come up around the sides of the bowl at least as high as the egg whites.  Remove the bowl, then bring the water to a simmer on the stove.

Set the bowl back into the skillet of now-simmering water and beat the egg whites with a hand-held mixer on low speed until the mixture reaches 140F.  (If you can’t check the temperature while you’re mixing, remove the bowl and quickly take a reading – if you stop beating while the mixture is in the water, you run the risk of cooking the eggs solid.  No bueno.)  Once you achieve 140F, switch to high speed and beat the  mixture just until it reaches 160F, which will take just a couple of minutes, five at most.

Remove the bowl from the skillet, add the vanilla, and continue to beat on high speed until you have big glossy peaks of meringue nirvana.

In another bowl, beat the butter until light and creamy.  Add about a cup of the meringue to the butter and beat until well combined.  Repeat, adding half of the total meringue by the cupful and beating until combined.  Add the second half of the meringue and beat until smooth. 

You now have buttercream — time to make it chocolate buttercream!  Switch to the whisk attachment, then curse my name when you realize that every piece of kitchen equipment you have is dirty.  Add half of your melted chocolate mixture to the buttercream in small dollops, then beat on medium high speed until combined.  Add the rest of your chocolate, and beat again until you have smooth, fluffy, chocolate buttercream.  Taste it, then take back everything you said about me.

You may need to let the buttercream set up for a bit before it will hold its shape for piping.  Personally, I was in a hurry and just dolloped it onto my cupcakes, which I think is kind of messy and romantic and homemade in a finger-lickin’ good kind of way.

To assemble: (why yes, I did copy this straight from my last post!):  Scoop out the center of each cupcake using a melon baller, spoon, 1-inch biscuit cutter, or whatever tool you have on hand that will do the trick. Fill each cupcake center with the curd. Top each cupcake with frosting, either piping through a bag (you can use a regular old zip-top bag with one of the corners snipped off) or by dolloping in on with a spoon and smoodging it around.  Top with a fresh raspberry or two and perhaps a mint leaf.

Note: You might be wondering what to do with all those scraps of cake.  If you live alone, this might be a problem, in which case I suggest a parfait.  If you don’t live alone, set out a glass of milk and wait.