Friday, September 16, 2011

Vegan Cupcakes, Mistakes and Failure

I feel a bit overwhelmed. My friend Eliza requested that I update my blog because she felt like hearing my thoughts about vegan food.

What? Somebody read my blog? Someone wants to read it again?? Holy hell.

So I thought I should take a moment to talk about cupcakes. Yes, I know.

Cupcakes, really?
They were a big thing a few years ago, weren't they?

Since having the kid, I haven't paid as much attention to the outside world, but it seemed to me that for awhile, cupcake craft had reached the heady, over-hyped reaches of the DIY world that were once only occupied by home-brewing, kawaii bento and scrap-booking. It's my experience that so many interesting, satisfying crafts and home-projects are easily ruined by the mere hype around them and the number of pre-packaged accessories one can buy at an associated retail establishment.  I think that's mainly due to:  1. My brain's ability to completely shut down from over-stimulation when looking at a wall of die-cut anything 2. My innate distaste for hype and 3. The pioneer homesteader in me who thinks that you should be able to build a working model of the International Space Station with some old photocopied articles from grad-school and a box of toothpicks.

Given all this, I had never really given cupcakes a second thought other than: "Meh." Don't get me wrong. As a kid, they were great, especially if your mom/grandma/whomever went the extra step to bake them in ice-cream cones. (Of course, they did it the hard way back then, and now you can buy a special pan to keep the ice-cream cones from tipping over in the oven. Honestly.) But as an adult, I just didn't see the point. Any cake-baking I did in my 20s and 30s involved fairly elaborate 3-layered assemblages with fruity fillings and piped frosting and so on. After those creations, cupcakes seemed, well, a bit un-challenging.

Then along came this cupcake revolution that made the cake a mere bland vehicle for elaborate, accessory-laden frosting. That didn't really win me over. I'm not so much about the frosting. I'm a big fan of cake, but I really feel that frosting should be well, just a 'frosting', you know, like FROST that maybe accentuates or adds to the cake.  I'm from the Northeast. I know the difference between frost and 3 feet of snow. The cupcake revolution was all about a heavy, dense Buffalo-in-late-January amount of frosting and as creative and artistic as it may be, it wasn't something I wanted to actually eat.

I cast no butter-cream stones here. I know that there are a vast number of frosting fans out there and I wish you no ill-will. Personally, I find it too sweet and from a food-science standpoint, I find it...uninteresting. I mean honestly...sugar, fat, a little liquid, egg whites (if that's the team you play for). You smoosh them together and there it is. Yawn.

But cake? Now cake is chemistry and chemistry is just plain sexy. And because our traditional notion of cake involves eggs and butter, vegan cake has always been an enticing challenge for me. Cake involves a small list of key ingredients: flour, fat, liquid, leavening, sugar, salt. It's that middle one, the leavening, that is the tricky one.

As I've written before, there is a commercial brand of egg replacer that is very popular in vegan circles, but I have to say that I find it repugnant. It makes things chalky, dry and off-tasting, and when you add it to anything that already has baking powder in it, it just makes everything worse. I used to use it and spent a few years very depressed about the state of vegan baking. But things have changed a lot since then. There are now more than 3 vegan cookbooks on the market and there's this whole interwebs thing that seems to have caught on, giving me access to other vegan cooks who are interested in making things a little more interesting than steamed broccoli and brown rice.

So in making a cursory look for a cake recipe a month or so ago, I came upon the simplest, tastiest and, so far, the most fail-safe cake I've ever made. I wanted to take a cake to a neighborhood shin-dig, but I realized that taking an elaborate cake to a pot-luck that was being held on a folding table in the middle of the street just wasn't so convenient, so it came down to cupcakes.

So back to the sexy part: Chemistry. In non-vegan cakes, the leavening agents are usually baking powder and egg, depending on how you treat the eggs.  Eggs also provide 'structure' in that they help to bind together the other ingredients. This recipe, being vegan, eschews the egg, nay, blatantly ignores it. Instead, it uses the sassy, throw-care-to-the-wind pair of vinegar and baking soda. The stuff of science-fair glee, the simple pairing of white vinegar and baking soda is a beautiful testament to the ingenuity of the ancient human mind's search for a meal that doesn't just taste like burnt mammoth.

So kitchen science in hand, I set out to conquer cupcakes. Now, several of my 2 readers know that I can be a bit obsessive about mastering a thing. Any thing, really. So when I mentioned to the Redheaded Vegan (who is often one of the 2 readers) that I'd made 5 dozen cupcakes and that he was to take the mistakes to work, it didn't really phase him. He understands my process: I don't give up, I hold grudges and I will NEVER forgive Ron Moore for the BSG finale.

So this whole cupcake microverse is dangerous for the grudge-wielding, obsessive perfectionists like myself because despite my disdain for the accessory-laden hype, the whole thing is a big, money-sucking, confidence-questioning trap. The little bits of art, the sexy cake chemistry, the desire to make something good and smart and pretty. It's all just a perfect storm of expectations waiting to be unfulfilled. Mistakes will be made in such a place and it is important to approach with acceptance and willingness to screw up.

Let's take a moment to review mistakes. They are pretty much necessary. I envy people who have things turn out exactly how they want them on the first try, but I am not allowed in that club anymore, not since the whole butterfly-quilt incident of 2004. Anyway, in cooking, mistakes are fertile lessons and opportunities to deeply understand what the hell you're trying to do. This isn't scrapbooking. You can't just move that die-cut pumpkin down and to the left. You have to really understand how the glue works.

So this month's main cupcake mistakes include:
1. Using sucanat sugar. While all whole-earthy and nutritionally what-not, it resulted in hockey-puck blech. The answer to this was to use ultrafine sugar. This is just sugar that is ground smaller. You use it just as you would white sugar, but it blends/melts much faster and smoother. I thought this would be a good addition to a recipe that is missing the extra structure and leavening of eggs.
2. Using baking papers that were falsely advertised as not needing a pan. I'm just not sure how you can advertise paper baking cups as not needing a pan and then have them so very obviously NEED a pan. This resulted in parallelogram-shaped lava pools on my cookie sheet. These were tasty, but just wrong, so those were sent in as coder food. The answer to this was to suck it up and buy some extra cupcake tins.
3. Thinking that I knew anything about frosting. The answer to this is at the end.

So here it is. I take no credit for it. I found it on the internets somewhere and only tweaked it slightly.

Vegan Cake

Dry Ingredients:
1 1/2 c. all-purpose flour
1 c. ultra-fine sugar (also known as 'baker's sugar')
2 tsp. baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
 (1/4 cocoa powder, if making chocolate cupcakes)

Wet Ingredients:
1 c. cold water
1 tbsp vinegar (plain white vinegar)
1/4 c. oil
1 tsp extract (vanilla for chocolate or vanilla cake or lemon for lemon and so on)


1. Preheat to 350F
2. Prep your pan/tin/magical free-standing muffin cups that don't work or what have you.
3. Whisk the dry ingredients together in a large bowl.
4. Mix the wet together in a small bowl.
5. Add the wet to the dry and mix with a wooden spoon until everything is incorporated. I'm of the 'don't beat cake mix smooth' camp. Make your own decisions.
6. For cupcakes, I'm anal and add batter 2tbsp at a time to each cup to make sure they are all the same size. I can't be trusted pouring from a bowl, spout or even measuring cup. This makes one dozen standard-sized cupcakes that are about 3.5-4 tbsp each.
7. Bake for 15-22 minutes. I find the chocolate variety needs a few extra minutes, but that may just be part of my insanity.
8. Let these cool in the pan, then
9. Frost with wild, soccer-mom abandon!

OK, so frosting.

As I said, I'm not a huge 'frosting as diorama' fan, but sometimes you just need to impress people or show how much you love them with fat and sugar.  After the success of the neighborhood party cupcakes, I decided to completely lose what was left of my mind and make 6 dozen cupcakes for a wedding reception/picnic.

So I'm one of these people who works really well with a big, important deadline. I need the confines and structure of such things to really push open the gates of creativity and challenge my skills, innate, learned or yet-to-be learned. So while this was an informal reception/picnic, I still wanted the cupcakes to have a splash of fancy and therefore needed to decorate them appropriately.

And here I'd like to give thanks to Al Gore, LOLCats and all the other Internet pioneers who made it possible for me to simply look up instructional videos of how to make pretty flowers out of frosting.

So with my pastry bag, appropriate tips and and empty stomach, I used the following recipe, which is originally from the Veganomicon people, I think:

Vegan 'Buttercream' Frosting

1/2 c. Earth Balance Margarine
3 c. powdered sugar
1/3 c. soy milk
1 tsp extract
(2/3 c. cocoa powder for chocolate)

Method for Chocolate frosting:
1. Put the margarine in a food processor and pulse until whipped
2. Add soymilk, extract and cocoa powder and run until incorporated
3. Add sugar one cup at a time and thoroughly blend

So the chocolate frosting works really really well. For non-cocoa versions, it's a little trickier.

I made lemon frosting and only used a few tablespoons of the soymilk and added 2 c more sugar to get it the consistency I wanted. You may have to just mess with it to get it the way you like it, but I would add the milk cautiously.

Then frost like the PTA is breathing down your back and will withhold any SAT prep from your 5th grader until you make the most creative, innovative and beautiful sugar-bombs you can.

Now this all worked REALLY well for some practice cupcakes I made the week before the 'big event', which are in the picture at the top of the blog. I will note that for non-chocolate frosting, I really did have to mess with it to keep it from being too runny, but as you can see in the photo, the flowers came out really well and kept their shape for several hours with no problem.


Oh boy. I was in fine form. I made all the cupcakes the day before: 2 dozen each of chocolate, lemon and spice cupcakes waiting patiently in their boxes. I even mixed up the lemon and cinnamon frosting the night before, thinking that I could easily whip up the chocolate frosting the next morning. I was READY.

Then I took the frosting out of the fridge the next morning.
It was runny.
Really runny.
So I tried to do some emergency confectioner's sugar magic and managed to partially save the cinnamon frosting, as you can see below. The flowers weren't crisp, but they weren't melting, so that was good enough for the time constraints I was under.

These were spice cupcakes with cinnamon frosting. The flowers didn't melt too badly, but they weren't as crisp as the practice batch.

However, the lemon frosting was a bust. I couldn't even bring myself to take a photo, and neither could any of the guests, apparently. I thought I'd tweaked it as well as the cinnamon, but it just didn't work. The flowers looked great for about 2 minutes until they melted into a pool of Meyer-lemon-yellow goo.

I will not lie to you, gentle readers: I cried.
It's at this point that I would like to talk about failure. Yes, failure. It's an ugly word and if you talked to most modern American parents, you'd think that the word didn't exist anymore, but yes, failure is alive and well and it took up space in my kitchen last weekend.

I'm not ashamed to experience failure, but it's not pleasant. My husband noted that no one would care how the frosting looked, because they would be happy to see/eat cupcakes and it would be, as they say on this coast 'all good'. He also noted that the only person to notice anything amiss would be me.

Ah. There it is. The point that non-insane-perfectionists just don't 'get' about the insane perfectionists: We don't really care what other people think. It's the inner critic who is our nemesis.

So I cried because my frosting melted. There it is: my most recent moment of failure. And we all have them, or at least, we all SHOULD have them from time to time to give us perspective and help us to better ourselves. Of course, this all seems like a 'first-world problem', as is the popular saying nowadays, but it's really just a human problem. Perhaps the most intense learning comes out of the ruin of failure, and learning is what this is whole big life thing is about, isn't it?

I just don't know how to make chocolate frosting look fancy, so this is all I could manage after the heartbreak of the lemon and spice batches.They may look like poo swirls, but they tasted pretty amazing.

Self-defeatist wallowing aside, amidst the rubble of the first two batches of frosting, I whipped up a batch of chocolate and decided to frost them as fast as I could, because we were already behind schedule, and honestly, do chocolate flowers ever really look good?

So of course, people loved the cupcakes because they were really freaking good and no one really cares how the frosting looks, blah blah blah, but I call it an over-all win because I learned something, not just about cake and the fallibility of frosting, but about myself: I can fail and then stumble over my own disbelief in my failure, but I can recover and prevail with the knowledge that every mistake is a opportunity for understanding and betterment.

This is why we should never fear the kitchen, the dissertation, the open-mic night, the order for 6 dozen cupcakes or other potential sources for complete, blundering failure. We will falter, stumble and maybe even completely fail, but we will eventually prevail, and in the meantime, we can always take something made out of chocolate, because you just really can't fuck chocolate up that badly.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

lol, iv been trying to master vegan cupcakes myself. Several mistakes have ended up in the bin.
Good to know im not the only one

Can't wait to give your recipe ago