Wednesday, 1 February 2012

Elephant No. 122: Cupcakes

Today marks the one-third mark for this leap-year-long project, so—as suggested by Ken, among others—it's time to celebrate. I'm not a big cake-person, so cupcakes seemed more like the thing to do for today's elephant.

The origin of cupcakes is not known, although cupcake recipes have been printed in Europe since at least the twelfth century A.D. In England, they are often known as "fairy cakes" and in Australia as "patty cakes". A cupcake is essentially a single-serving cake, baked in a thin pleated paper or alumunim wrapper.

In the United States, the first written mention of cupcakes occurs in 1796, when American Cookery by Amelia Sims featured a "cake to be baked in small cups." The first actual use of the word "cupcake" appears to date from a 1828 pastry cookbook by Eliza Leslie.


In the early nineteenth century, before the widespread availability of muffin tins, cupcakes were often baked in individual pottery cups, ramekins, or moulds. The name "cupcake" is thought to derive from the fact that the cakes were about the size of a smallish teacup. The English name "fairy cake" refers to the diminutive size of the cakes, suitable for a tea party hosted by fairies. Interestingly, English fairy cakes are not all as small as cupcakes, and are often far less elaborately iced and decorated than their North American counterparts.

There is also a "cup" cake which is named for the one-cup (250 ml) measure used for each of four ingredients. These also came to be known as "1234 cakes" or "quarter cakes", because they combine four ingredients in the following proportions: one cup of butter, two cups of sugar, three cups of flour, and four eggs. The result is something like a yellow pound cake, albeit with half the butter.

Over the past few years, cupcakes have become trendy, resulting in a virtual cupcake industry. Today, shops, television shows, cookbooks and more are entirely devoted to these sweet treats.

For today's elephant, I decided to use a mix for both the cake and the icing. Because I like carrot cake, I bought this mix at the grocery store. I've used it before when time is an issue, and it's actually not that bad.

For the icing I bought this "cream cheese flavour" icing. I was going to buy a different brand labelled "cream cheese icing" but after reading the labels, I discovered that none of the commercial brands has any actual cream cheese in it, so "flavoured" it is.

Although I didn't feel like laying in all the ingredients to make carrot cake from scratch today—or shredding mounds of carrots, for that matter—I've included my carrot cake recipe below, for anyone who wants to make the real thing. This recipe also works for cupcakes, and the cream cheese icing in the recipe is most excellent, if I do say so myself.

Carrot Cake with Cream Cheese Icing

Carrot Cake
3 eggs, lightly beaten
1/2 tsp. (3 ml) almond flavouring
2 cups (500 ml) all-purpose flour
2 tsp. (10 ml) baking soda
2 tsp. (10 ml) cinnamon
1 cup (250 ml) chopped walnuts
1-2/3 cup (395 ml) granulated sugar
1-1/2 cup (325 ml) vegetable oil
2 cups (500 ml) grated carrots
1 cup (250 ml) flaked coconut
1 tsp. (5 ml) salt

1. Beat eggs with whisk. Add sugar and oil. Mix well.
2. Stir in carrots and coconut.
3. Sift together dry ingredients (flour, baking soda, cinnamon, salt). Stir into moist mixture just until combined. Add almond flavoring and nuts.
4. For a full-sized cake, pour into a 23 x 33 cm (9 x 13-inch) pan, or two round 23 cm (9-inch) layer pans, and bake in a 160˚C (325˚F) oven for one hour. For cupcakes, bake at 175˚C (350˚F) for 15–20 minutes. Remove from oven and let cool on wire rack.

Cream Cheese Icing
3/4 tsp. (4 ml) almond flavouring
1/4 cup (60 ml) butter
250 ml (8 oz.) cream cheese (not spread)
450 g (1 lb.) icing sugar—or amount needed to make a spreadable frosting

1. Cream together butter and cream cheese.
2. Beat in almond flavouring and icing sugar.
3. Spread on cooled cake.

Now, however, back to the pre-made mix. It's very simple to make: just add some water, some vegetable oil (I used sunflower oil), and two eggs. Mix for a couple of minutes until well blended.

Once it's mixed, you need to line muffin tins with little cupcake wrappers. I usually make bigger cupcakes than this, but I only had medium-sized wrappers on hand, so that's what I used. The package says this should make 18 cupcakes, so I'm guessing that I should have been using these smaller wrappers all along.

Next, fill the cupcake wrappers somewhere near the top, but not right to the top. When the batter rises, it will overspill the wrapper if you fill it too high.

Pop them into a 175˚C (350˚F) oven, and bake for about 15–20 minutes, depending on how accurate your oven is. The cupcakes are done if a toothpick or cake tester comes out clean when inserted into the middle of one of the cupcakes.

Now comes the decorating part. I wasn't sure if I was any good at this sort of thing, because the last time I actually decorated a cake with more than plain icing and some sprinkles was probably about 20 years ago.

To my great annoyance, I discovered that, although I had all the tips to my icing bag, the icing bag was absolutely nowhere to be found. There went the idea of prettily piped cupcake tops.

My next idea was to spread the tops with icing using a knife or spatula, then add coloured sugar sprinkled over a template of some sort. This was a complete disaster on the one cupcake I tried. Plan number three: spread icing on the tops with a spatula, then make a small batch of coloured icing and pipe some sort of elephant on the tops of the cupcakes.

I quickly learned that the cream cheese icing I bought is terrible for this sort of thing. It's got a strange gooey consistency, and doesn't like to stay where you put it. I persisted in spreading the tops of all 18 cupcakes with plain icing, but I wasn't particularly happy with the way they looked.

For the coloured icing, I took a couple of large spoonfuls of the cream cheese icing, and put it into a bowl. I added an equal amount of icing sugar, thinking this would stiffen the icing for piping. It didn't. I began to dislike this icing quite a lot.

I tinted the icing with generic food colouring, using two drops of red and one drop of blue, to arrive at a sort of lavender colour. It's actually more grey than lavender, but I convinced myself that it would work for an elephant.

Because I couldn't find the icing bag, I put the lavender-grey icing into a snack-sized zipper bag and cut a tiny hole at one corner. This creates a functional piping bag, albeit without any fancy tips to play with.

I'm not used to decorating cakes with icing, and I'm not great at decorating a rounded surface, so these all ended up looking fairly eccentric. Rather than stopping and starting, I mostly drew each elephant in a single continuous line.

To finish these off, I added small silver dragees as eyes.

I don't think I'm really cut out for cupcake decorating, but it wasn't terribly time-consuming. If I were to do this again, I'd probably make sure I had a proper icing bag, and I think I'd make my own icing. In fact, I'd probably make my own cake, too.

I decorated eight cupcakes before I ran out of coloured icing. The rest have plain icing.

The cupcakes worked out okay in the end, although they won't win any beauty contests. On the other hand, the main purpose today was to celebrate the one-third mark in this blog. So I took a standard birthday candle, cut off the top third, and stuck it in the mouth of one of the elephants.

And, of course, it wouldn't be a celebration without also lighting the candle and blowing it out. So that's what I did.

Now, if there were only a few more people around to eat some of these.

Elephant Lore of the Day
It is well known that elephants have a sweet tooth. At the Phoenix Zoo in the United States, however, elephants have also learned how to mix their own sugary drinks.

Zoo staff hide powdered Gatorade in various locations inside the elephant enclosure. When the elephants come upon a cache of the powder, they place it in their mouths, add water, then swish it back and forth for a sweet, refreshing treat.

To Support Elephant Welfare
World Wildlife Fund
World Society for the Protection of Animals
Elephant sanctuaries (this Wikipedia list allows you to click through to information on a number of sanctuaries around the world)
Performing Animal Welfare Society
Bring the Elephant Home
African Wildlife Foundation 

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