Whenever I move to a new place, I always start by baking a batch of vanilla cupcakes from The Hummingbird Bakery. I've baked the recipe so many times now that I know it by heart — if somebody were to point a gun to my head and told me to bake something from scratch as if my life depended on it, this would be the recipe that I would shakily bake. Even under the dire (and hopefully, fictional) circumstances, I know that its results will be solid and dependable, and the recipe will make a batch of tasty cupcakes with a hearty crumb and a beautiful golden color.
As a result, the recipe has become my litmus test. The first thing I bake in every house I've ever lived in is a variation of these cupcakes — they were the first thing I baked in Colorado, for this blog and my new oven in Denver. They made an appearance when I moved back to Portland (but this time with some rose flavored extract). I know what they're supposed to look like and taste like in the best circumstances. If they come out too dry, I know that the oven runs too hot. If they're taking longer than the 20 to 25 minutes that the recipe calls for, the oven has uneven heating and perhaps runs too cool.
When I first made these cupcakes in my new apartment in San Francisco, I nearly cried. The new oven appears to simultaneously run too hot and too cold, resulting in half the cupcakes being overbaked and the other half underbaked. The second run, in which I rotated the muffin tin halfway through in an attempt to fix the uneven baking, resulted in the exact same overbaked/underbaked cupcakes. Oh, and did I mention that the new oven can't even fit a regular cookie sheet? It was certainly a big change from the brand new double oven I had left behind in Portland.
But real talk — yes, it's a big disappointment.
And yes, it's going to be a big adjustment.
HOWEVER, this blog was borne from similarly frustrating circumstances — teaching myself how to bake at high-altitude after having lived at sea-level my entire life — and so it's about time I stop resting on my laurels and my spacious, beautiful kitchen and go back to the blog's roots: challenging myself to be the best baker I can be in imperfect circumstances. But this time around, instead of figuring out how to bake in the mountains, it'll be all about figuring out how to bake in a finnicky apartment oven that's only big enough for one rack and a 9 x 13-inch pan.
In any case, uneven and misshapen cupcakes can always be hidden by some frosting and pretty fruit. I added some lemon zest (because I have a lemon tree in my new yard, and couldn't resist) to the original recipe, as well as a dash of cornmeal to give the cupcakes a slight crunch in their crumb. To complement the citrus and cornmeal, I topped the cupcakes off with goat cheese frosting (think: a tangier cream cheese type frosting with that unique umami flavor from goat cheese), fresh strawberries, and the best fig jam from Bonne Maman. Because is there a better combination than strawberries, figs, and goat cheese? Nope, there really isn't.
Some baker's notes:
- Bonne Maman fig jam is available online, or in specialty gourmet grocery stores like Whole Foods.
- I like to use a 1-tablespoon sized cookie scoop to divide the cupcake batter evenly between cupcake case — it makes dividing the batter a breeze, and clean-up a cinch. For this recipe, I put 2 tablespoons of cupcake batter in each case.
- Frost your cupcakes immediately after you have made the frosting. If you let the frosting sit out too long, it will start to crust and you will have a hard time frosting your cupcakes. However, make sure your cupcakes are cooled completely before frosting, or they will get soggy.
- 3/4 cup granulated sugar
- fresh zest from 1 small lemon
- 3/4 cup all-purpose flour
- 1/4 cup fine-ground yellow cornmeal
- 1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
- a pinch of salt
- 3 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature
- 1/2 cup whole milk, divided into two 1/4 cup portions
- 1 large egg
(makes enough for 12 cupcakes)
- 8 ounces cream cheese, at room temperature
- 4 ounces soft goat cheese, at room temperature
- 1/4 cup confectioners' sugar, sifted
- 1/4 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
- 1/2 cup fresh strawberries, hulled and quartered
- 2 tablespoons Bonne Maman fig jam
- Center a rack in the oven and preheat to 325 (F). Prepare a muffin tin by lining each of its cavities with a cupcake liner.
- In a small bowl, combine 3/4 cup granulated sugar and the fresh zest from 1 small lemon. Use your fingers to rub the zest into the sugar, until the zest is well incorporated throughout the sugar and the mixture becomes fragrant. Set aside.
- In the bowl of a freestanding electric mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, combine the lemon-infused sugar (from the 2nd step), 3/4 cup all-purpose flour, 1/4 cup fine-ground yellow cornmeal, 1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder, a pinch of salt, and 3 tablespoons unsalted butter. Beat on the mixer's lowest setting until the mixture turns sandy and the ingredients are well combined. Pour in 1/4 cup of the milk and continue beating until the milk is just incorporated.
- In the bowl of a liquid measuring cup, whisk together 1 large egg with the remaining 1/4 cup milk. Pour the mixture into the rest of the batter, and continue beating until just incorporated. Be careful not to overmix!
- Spoon the batter into the paper cases until two-thirds full and bake in the preheated oven for 20-25 minutes, or until light golden and the cake bounces back when touched. A skewer inserted in the center of each cupcake should come out clean. Let the cupcakes cool slightly in the pan before turning out into a wire rack to cool completely.
- When the cupcakes are completely cold, spoon the frosting on top and decorate accordingly.
- In the bowl of a freestanding mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, combine 8 ounces cream cheese and 4 ounces goat cheese. Beat on medium-high speed until well combined, before adding 1/4 cup confectioners' sugar a tablespoon at a time. Once all the confectioners' sugar is added, add 1/4 teaspoon pure vanilla extract and beat until just incorporated.
- Use a piping bag or an offset spatula to spoon the frosting on to the top of each cooled cupcake. Garnish each cupcake with strawberries and a dollop of fig jam. Serve immediately.