Better than Sprinkles
I would like to take this paragraph to confess a dirty little secret: I have never fully comprehended why people love cupcake bakeries like Sprinkles and Crumbs. Please do not misunderstand — cupcakes and I have a long past full of fond memories. They are cute, especially when bite-sized, and you do not need a fork or a plate to eat one. Kids and adults alike go crazy for cupcakes, and they bake in half the time of a regular cake. What’s more, endless creative possibilities exist in the cupcake-decorating realm. Hating cupcakes is like hating tiny, fluffy kittens and puppies: unfortunate, bordering on impossible.
My confusion applies specifically to chain cupcake 'boutiques.’ In New York City, Crumbs cupcakes are sold everywhere — from grocery stores to the Metropolitan Museum of Art's cafeteria-style dining concourse. Down the street from Radio City Music Hall lines form around the storefront of Magnolia Bakery's midtown location. Upon returning home to Southern California, I found my best friend in the grips of a hard-core Sprinkles addiction. Though the East Coast favorites dealt me a hand of disappointment, I eagerly tagged along with her on a mid-morning cupcake run. Despite the promising flavors, cheery cashier and high cuteness factor of the cupcakes, again I was fuzzy on the source of the obsession.
I would not go so far to call them terrible but, like McKayla Maroney, I am not impressed. While the cake itself is flavorful and moist, the frosting ranks slightly above grocery store variety. The heavy texture of Sprinkles frosting is almost identical to that of Magnolia Bakery, which uses vegetable shortening in tandem with butter. This petty cheat to cut costs deprives frosting of its light, creamy potential. Here lies my issue: Cupcakes are nothing without good frosting. I have enjoyed less-expensive and more delicious cupcakes from other less-lauded bakeries, even from friends with no professional baking ambitions. So why all the hype? Is it the charming décor of the cupcakes or the mob-like mentality of a fad? Seriously, shed some light for me and I'll give you a cupcake ...
At the risk of gaining a conveniently rhythmic yet unoriginal nickname, I have a second recipe featuring bananas. I promise I am not obsessed — though Chunky Monkey has been a lifelong favorite ice cream flavor — I just happened to have two ripe bananas sitting impatiently on my desk. Perhaps ripe is an understatement; these were at the point of ripeness my mother calls “banana bread bananas.” This phrase is best defined as brown-black peels and a unmistakably sweet aroma of banana that wafts about the room.
Let me note at this point that said smell should be a positive one. Please deposit all reeking bananas in the trash, far away from your dorm. Your roommates will thank you. All detours aside, these are so full of flavor that one is guaranteed the best banana bread ever. However, this week I decided to be original and think outside of the box, so I made banana cake. I concede that this may only count as slightly adjacent to the box. But there is also cream cheese frosting and salted caramel sauce involved, so no matter where you are in relation to the box, or a fox in socks, even Sam I Am would desert his green eggs and ham for two or three of these cupcakes.
Banana Cupcakes with Cream Cheese Frosting & Salted Caramel Sauce
1 cup butter, room temperature
1 cup sugar
1 cup banana — about two large bananas — mashed, very ripe
3 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
Preheat oven to 350F.
Beat the butter and sugar together. You can do this with a spoon or rubber spatula if you do not have an electric mixer; just make sure the butter is very soft. If you just leave it out for a couple hours before baking, you do not have to microwave the butter. It is completely food safe to do so, I promise. However, if you do decide to use the microwave, set the power level to 50 percent and use 15 second increments; the butter should become soft, not melted.
After beating the butter and sugar together, mix the eggs and mashed banana — use a fork, defeat all major lumps — together and add in three parts to the butter. After each addition, stir and scrape the bowl well.
Combine the baking powder, salt, flour and cinnamon and add to the wet ingredients. Stir until it is mixed in well.
Divide into a wrapper-lined cupcake pan, filling cups two-thirds of the way. Bake about 15 minutes. If you lightly press on the top of the cake, it should spring back up immediately when they are done. If you are doubtful about this method of judgment, stick a toothpick in one — it shouldn't come out wet.
Makes about 20 cupcakes.
Cream Cheese Frosting
makes about 3 cups, enough to frost about 20 cupcakes
3 cups powdered sugar
13 1/2 ounces (or 1 1/4 cup and 2 tablespoons) cream cheese, room temperature
3 ounces, or 6 tablespoons, butter, room temperature
Tip: Most cream cheese packages have lines marking ounces, just like sticks of butter mark tablespoons, for easy measuring.
Beat butter and cream cheese together. The instructions about the butter for the cupcakes applies to these as well. When butter and cream cheese are mixed thoroughly, add the powdered sugar in three separate additions. Stir in well after each addition. Frosting should be smooth, creamy and delicious. Refrigerate for at least 20 minutes before using to ice cupcakes.
Salted Caramel Sauce
1/2 cup sugar
1/4 cup water
1/4 teaspoon lemon juice
1 1/2 tablespoons butter
1/3 cups cold heavy cream
3 pinches salt
Combine sugar, water and lemon juice in a small sauce pan. Measure out the butter, heavy cream and salt, and place within reach of the stove. Stir gently; try not to get any sugar up on the sides of the pan.
Place on stove at high heat. Do not stir once sugar is on heat. Cook until sugar turns a light amber color. The color while it is in the pan will look darker than the actual color, so place a white piece of paper or paper towel by the stove. When the sugar begins to color, dip a fork or spoon into the sugar, and let some drop on the paper. This is the true color of the caramel. When it is light amber, take pan off the heat and pour in the heavy cream.
Caution: The sugar will bubble up in the pan because of the sudden temperature change; this is normal. Wait 30 seconds and then stir until it settles down. Add the butter and salt and stir well.
Leave your caramel sauce to cool; after the pan cools off you can place it in the fridge. As it cools, it will thicken. If it is too thick by the time you want to use it, just reheat gently over low heat. Drizzle over the frosted cupcakes, and enjoy!