Three years ago, I opened my laptop on a brisk Sunday night in Denver, Colorado. I was supposed to be preparing for the week, pulling together some reports that my boss wanted in his hands by 8AM the following morning. But instead of working through the necessary Excel spreadsheets, I was thinking about cupcakes.
I was thinking about how, in college, I would always bake a box of Funfetti cupcakes to de-stress from whatever paper or final I was worrying about and distribute them to my classmates the next day. How the last decent cupcake I’d had was in London, when I’d stopped inside a bakery in Kensington to buy a cup of coffee and instead fortuitously discovered some of the best cupcakes I’d ever eaten in my life.
I was also thinking about how much I hated my job, what a mistake it was to move Erlend and myself to a city where we didn’t know anybody, and how, as a girl who’d spent most of her life living in places where the ocean was an hour or less away, I hated living high up in the mountains where water boiled at a different temperature and the air was so thin and dry that it caused me to feel lightheaded if I moved too quickly (true story — I’m just not built for the mountains).
So at that point, sitting at my cheap Ikea dining table with all that unhappiness and regret and loneliness crushing down on me, I did what I always do when I’m stressed out — I started writing.
But at that point, I knew enough about the internet to know that privacy was an illusion, and I worried that my relatively new employers and old college frenemies would find the blog with negative consequences. But even if that weren’t a concern, I didn’t want to write about my depression. I didn’t want my friends in Portland, San Francisco, and London to worry about me, especially since so many of them had been confused by my move to Denver in the first place. So instead I wrote about a neutral topic that I was more than familiar with, one that I knew would remind my friends of a happy me: cupcakes. I wrote about what it was like to bake in high-altitude, and that time I tried making my favorite and highly-dependable vanilla cupcake recipe from the Hummingbird Bakery Cookbook only to be completely blindsided when it failed miserably.
But in that period of unhappiness, this blog became my lifeboat. At first, it was just how I communicated with the friends I’d left behind in the cities that I missed and longed for. And then, surprisingly, it allowed me to discover that I actually had a creative bone in my body even after years of maths and economics studies, even after 14 hour workdays at a job I hated. Eventually, it became my purpose and a much-needed anchor in a city and a job that I felt so disconnected from. Talking about baking and eating desserts allowed me to pretend that things were okay until they were actually, really, and truly okay again.
So to celebrate the three years, I figured I’d go back to the beginning. I frequently mention that the first thing I ever baked was a batch of Funfetti cupcakes from a box mix in my college dorm’s kitchen; this is true. But I also began this very blog with a box of Funfetti cake mix as well. This time, after all those years, it’s time to make the cake from scratch:
For the homemade Funfetti cake, I used this wonderful recipe on Food52 by one of my blogger heroes, Molly from My Name is Yeh. Molly spent weeks researching the best kind of cake base, ingredients and sprinkles to make Funfetti cake from scratch at home, and let me tell you — her work really paid off. This cake was exactly like the box mix, but minus the artificial taste that cake mix tends to have from all the weird, un-pronouncable chemicals used to make it last as long as possible. I made almost no alterations from her recipe, with the exception of using real vanilla extract (probably why my cake didn’t turn out as white as it could have) and an additional half teaspoon of ground vanilla bean powder (my new favorite ingredient) to make it as vanilla-y as I could.
And of course, I slathered the cake with this unstoppable chocolate frosting:
This isn’t the sophisticated and classy chocolate ganache frosting that you see on this yellow cake and these chocolate crème fraîche-topped cupcakes, nope. Those recipes use fancy dark chocolate, with full cream and no sugar... and while I love all those things, it's not really the kind of frosting you want on a funfetti cake.
Instead, you want THIS chocolate frosting. This is THE chocolate frosting of your childhood — the kind that causes tantrums because you would have happily eaten spoonfuls of it had your mom not wrestled the bowl away from you. The secret? Lots of powdered sugar, cocoa powder, and a touch of cream cheese. Because believe me, once you throw a little cream cheese in your chocolate frosting, it’s hard to go back.
I know that it’s quite the epic cake, but it’s one that really is suited for the occasion. I still remember the elation I felt from the first comment on my blog from a person I didn’t know, the pride I felt when my first picture was featured on Foodgawker, the delight from my first press mentions and the first time I saw one of my pictures on Pinterest that wasn’t pinned by me. During those lonely months in Denver, you guys are what helped me get on my feet again. Thanks for visiting, reading and baking along with me.
Some baker's notes:
- Ground vanilla bean powder is available online, specialty spice shops and in the bulk spice sections of fancy grocery stores like Whole Foods. If you can't find it/justify the expense, feel free to omit the recipe, but your cake will likely be less vanilla-y than mine.
- I used pure vanilla bourbon extract, which gave my cake a slightly yellow color. For a whiter cake, substitute pure vanilla extract for McCormick's Clear Imitation Vanilla. McCormick's will also give your funfetti cake a more box mix-y taste.
- As Molly's research shows, for best results, use artificially dyed store-bought sprinkles! If you're hardcore and/or want to pick your own colors, you can also use my recipe for homemade sprinkles, but be sure to make bright, bright, BRIGHT colors that pop out against the white cake.
- 1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature
- 1 1/2 cups granulated sugar
- 4 large egg whites
- 1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
- 2 tablespoons pure vanilla extract (see baker's notes)
- 2 1/2 cups cake flour
- 2 1/4 teaspoons baking powder
- 1 teaspoon vanilla bean powder (optional, see baker's notes)
- 3/4 teaspoon kosher salt
- 1 cup whole milk
- 2/3 cup plus 1 tablespoon brightly colored sprinkles (see baker's notes), divided into 2/3 cup and 1 tablespoon portions
- 3 ounces cream cheese, at room temperature
- 2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
- 1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature
- 1/2 cup natural unsweetened cocoa powder
- 2 teaspoons light corn syrup
- 3 1/2 cups confectioners' sugar
- 1 teaspoon malt powder (optional)
- 3 tablespoons whole milk
- Preheat the oven to 350 (F). Prepare two 8-inch cake pans by spraying liberally with cooking spray and lining the bottom of each pan with parchment circles. Lightly spray the parchment.
- In the bowl of a freestanding electric mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, combine 1 cup unsalted butter and 1 1/2 cups granulated sugar and cream on medium-high speed for at least 5 minutes, until light, fluffy and doubled in volume. Lower the mixer speed to its slowest setting and add 4 large egg whites, one at a time, only adding the next one until the previous egg white has been fully incorporated. In a small liquid measuring cup, whisk together 1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons vegetable oil and 2 tablespoons pure vanilla extract and slowly stream into the egg mixture until fully incorporated. Turn off the mixer.
- In a medium bowl, whisk together 2 1/2 cups cake flour, 2 1/4 teaspoons baking powder, 1 teaspoon vanilla bean powder, and 3/4 teaspoon kosher salt. With the mixer running on low, add the flour mixture to the butter mixture in three additions, alternating with adding 1 cup whole milk in two additions, starting and ending with the flour mixture. Mix on low speed until just incorporated — be careful not to overmix! It's okay to have one or two flour streaks left at this point.
- Once you have a smooth batter, use a rubber spatula to fold in 2/3 cup of sprinkles. Be careful not to overmix! Again, just fold until the sprinkles are evenly incorporated throughout the batter.
- Divide the batter evenly between the prepared pans, and sprinkle the remaining 1 tablespoon of sprinkles over the top of each cake. Transfer the pans to the preheated oven and bake the cakes for 35 to 40 minutes, until a toothpick inserted into the center of the cake comes out clean and the tops of each cake bounce when gently poked with a finger.
- When the cakes are finished, transfer the cakes to a wire rack. Allow to cool in pans for 15 minutes, before turning out of the pans to cool completely. Allow the cakes to cool completely before frosting.
- In the bowl of a freestanding electric mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, combine 3 ounces cream cheese and 2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract. Beat the cream cheese and vanilla together on low speed until smooth. Increase the mixer speed to high. Add 1 stick unsalted butter and beat until incorporated, using a rubber spatula to scrape the bowl as necessary, about 1 minute.
- Reduce the mixer speed to low and beat in 1/2 cup unsweetened natural cocoa powder and 2 teaspoons light corn syrup. Add 3 1/2 cups confectioners' sugar and 1 teaspoon malt powder (if using) until smooth. Add 3 tablespoons milk, one tablespoon at a time, beating until the milk is fully incorporated. Once the milk is fully incorporated, turn the mixer to its highest speed and beat for no longer than 1 minute, until the frosting is light, fluffy and has achieved a spreadable consistency. Be careful not to overbeat, or the frosting will be too liquidy — do not beat for more than a minute!