Plain Vanilla

by getfilmy

Once in a while you come across a cupcake that is so ordinary, so simple and yet so good that it just blows you away.

I can’t explain to you what this tastes like. But seeing as this is a food blog and I am trying to find my food writing voice it obviously behooves me to try.

Well here – it’s like how you imagine the first cake that was ever invented would taste, and how that baker – whoever he or she was – must have felt when they took that first bite. It tastes like the invention of cake, the cake of humble origins – and I’m talking metaphorically here, not factually. I’m sure there’s a Wikipedia article or something on the history of cake but what I’m trying to invoke is more the feeling than the fact.

It tastes like the cake you loved when your palate knew more innocent, unadulterated times. It has an old-fashioned, pleasingly eggy-vanilla scent that somehow reminds me of childhood. Simple, humble – it sits quietly and patiently on the kitchen table while you ooh and aah over all the fancy gourmet stuff you bought at the expensive patisserie. It knows, it knows – that you will ultimately return to its sweet, warm embrace.

What it won’t do is have your eyes rolling in the back of your head. It’s much too naive for that. I mean, you might ogle the hot models with their tanned six-packs but it’s the sweet pudgy-bellied soul mate who takes care of you when you’re sick that you’ll always look for. Like him, this cake is somehow made special by the very fact of its un-specialness, to put it in a rather circular, muddle-headed and possibly schizophrenic way.

I’m a big fan of unpretentious food that somehow feels special which is also why I’m a big fan of Nigella Lawson, to whom this recipe belongs. The world is a mad rush of complexity these days and I find a sort of refuge in the plain, the uncomplicated, the unadorned, the un-messed around with. This cupcake is like a sigh of relief. That’s what it is – a sigh of relief. Like coming home – plain, ordinary home after a long, glamorous holiday at a fancy vacation resort.

Right. Now that I’ve exhausted my metaphors, from a baking standpoint, the strange thing is that I can’t pinpoint why this particular cupcake tastes so good to me – not too sweet, not too rich – just right, just hits the spot, positively addictive. Is it the vanilla? Have no clue.

Interestingly there’s no salt in this recipe, which I think is by design rather than oversight. We all know salt is supposed to balance the sweetness in baked goods and while I haven’t experimented with the addition of salt here, I feel that it somehow misses the point. This isn’t the kind of cake where you worry about things like that. It’s just golden and good.

There are no extraneous ingredients, nothing but the absolute basics. But maybe that’s just it – it’s what’s not there that makes it great. A lesson to be heeded (mostly by me) – sometimes it’s what you don’t say that speaks the loudest.

Plain Vanilla Cupcakes With Royal Icing (adapted from Nigella Lawson)

This cake just has my heart. I would marry it if I could. I worry that it could just be me that is so crazy about this – love is blind after all.  I might have oversold this to the point where the poor thing won’t be able to live up to all the hype.

But anyway, I don’t think this would pass any professional baker standards or sophisticated palate tests anyway. I mean blitzing cake batter in a food processor would probably be considered downright criminal to a pro baker. No creaming of the butter and sugar, no adding the flour in thirds alternating with the liquid. Just dump and blitz.

This appears to be Nigella’s patented method for cake-making in that irresistible couldn’t-be-bothered-and-anyway-it-works way of hers. And for the kind of thing Nigella specializes in – which is food that you want to eat pretty soon and make without too much fuss – this is solid gold.

The ratios here are so perfect. I still get a shock every time I bake something because of how much butter and sugar goes into the stuff but these amounts are modest and sensible – 125 gm each of butter, sugar and flour if you’re weighing, 2 eggs – the whole thing can be easily doubled, but if not – you get just 12 out of this recipe. Easy to remember, easy to make, easy to eat.

If you’re squeamish about raw egg whites (and you should err on the side of squeamishness if you are pregnant, elderly or have a weak immune system), this Royal Icing isn’t for you (you could go for a basic buttercream or just forget the icing, the cakes are delicious without it too), but after my first round with it, I knew there was no going back. What a glossy miracle of chemistry this is – Nigella describes it as “white patent leather”, and it is, when it’s wet. When it hardens and sets – it forms a fairy tale shell-like layer on top. And when you bite into it….sigh.

Ingredients (see here for cup conversions)

Cupcakes

125 gm butter, room temperature

125 gm sugar

2 eggs, room temperature

125 gm all-purpose flour

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

1 teaspoon baking powder

2 teaspoons vanilla extract

2 to 3 tablespoons milk

Royal Icing* (see note below)

1 large egg white

125 gm icing sugar

2 teaspoons lemon juice (a couple squirts)

Method

For the Cupcakes

Line a 12-cup muffin pan with cupcake liners. Pre-heat oven to 400. (I love that it’s 400 and not 350 – hotter, faster).

Add all of the cupcake ingredients except for the milk into the bowl of a food processor. Turn the processor on and watch the mix carefully, stopping just when the batter has come together. Get the milk ready and turn the processor back on. Pour the milk down the feed tube. You’re looking for a smooth, dropping consistency. (My batter in the photo above is slightly too thick, I would add a little more milk).

Remove the processor blade. Give the batter a quick mix with a spatula just to make sure there are no stray bits of flour. Drop the mixture as evenly as possible into the muffin cups – a couple spoonfuls each is sufficient. Bake for about 20 minutes (per the original recipe, but mine baked up in 12 minutes so check early). They will look gorgeous and golden on top and you can tell when they’re done when they spring back to your touch.

Cool completely before icing.

For the Icing

Put the confectioner’s sugar and the egg white in a large bowl. With an electric mixer (or use a stand mixer), whisk on low speed until the egg whites get incorporated into the sugar. Raise the speed to medium high and whisk until you have a glossy, thick white mixture (about 3 minutes). Try not to play with the mixture.

Dollop about a tablespoon of icing onto each cupcake and smooth the top, allowing the icing to drip down the sides in slow motion. This is fairly easy as far as cupcake decorating goes. It helps to place the iced cupcakes on a wire rack placed on top of a sheet of parchment for easy clean up.

Make sure to allow the icing to set and harden completely before serving. It tastes best that way.

Makes 12 perfectly sweet little cupcakes.

*Note: You can double the amount for this as in the original recipe, but I find this amount is sufficient for icing 12 cupcakes modestly if not generously. And as mentioned, raw egg whites should not be consumed by the pregnant, the elderly, small children and anyone with a weak immune system.

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