by Wolfgang Puck
Bake a batch of holiday cupcakes
Every grown-up seems to become a child again as the holidays approach. We're humming carols. We're wearing festive outfits. We're all wondering, at least secretly, what presents we might receive - while hurriedly finishing up the shopping for the ones we're going to give. And, usually not so secretly, we're dreaming about all the delicious, sweet holiday treats we're going to eat.
Some of those treats we might actually bake ourselves, too. I know so many people right now who seem up to their elbows in sugar and flour, nuts and dried fruits and chocolates. They're pulling all their baking sheets and pans from the cupboards. They're trying to figure out how they're going to wrap everything, and to whom they're going to give it all.
So let me offer one little suggestion that might ease your mind about that last-minute holiday baking: Keep it simple. Bake a batch of holiday cupcakes!
Unlike fruitcakes, on which public opinion will be forever divided, cupcakes are universally loved. Who doesn't want to receive their own individual cake, one they don't have to share, one they can eat in a single sitting? It's like every child's dessert fantasy come true. No wonder so many cupcake shops have popped up in recent years.
But you don't have to go shopping and pay high prices to enjoy great cupcakes. They're so easy to make at home. Whether you have a stand mixer, or just a big bowl and a hand-held electric mixer, you can put together the batter in a matter of minutes. Pretty paper or foil cupcake liners (you can even find them decorated in holiday colors and patterns) eliminate the need to grease the pan - and they make unmolding and serving simple, and cleanup a cinch.
You'll find my recipe for buttermilk cupcakes easy. The acidity of the buttermilk gives them a pleasant tang, while also helping to keep them extra tender. (You could also substitute sour cream, for an even tangier taste, or canned coconut milk for its unique character.) A whole vanilla bean (you'll find jars of them in the spices section of your supermarket), its tiny seeds and pulp scraped out and included in the batter, adds remarkable flavor. And I can't say enough about how easy, and luscious, the chocolate frosting recipe is from Spago's executive pastry chef Sherry Yard.
Once you've baked, cooled, and frosted the cupcakes, decorating them is easy. Top each with a fresh berry, if you like. Or go wild with your favorite little candies, from traditional rainbow sprinkles to jelly beans or gumdrops to crushed pieces of red-and-white-striped holiday candy canes.
So, what are you waiting for? Make your inner child happy and bake a batch soon!
HOLIDAY BUTTERMILK CUPCAKES
12 ounces unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 vanilla bean
1-3/4 cups granulated sugar
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
4 large cage-free eggs
1 pound cake flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 cup buttermilk
Semisweet Chocolate Frosting (recipe follows)
Whole fresh organic raspberries or blackberries, unwrapped holiday candies, or other decorations (optional)
Set a rack in the middle of the oven. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.
Put the butter in the mixing bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, or in a large mixing bowl. Using the stand mixer at medium speed, or a hand-held electric mixer at medium speed, beat the butter until it looks light, pale yellow, and fluffy, about 1 minute.
With a small, sharp knife, carefully split the vanilla bean lengthwise. With the knife tip, scrape the seeds from each half and put the seeds in the bowl with the butter. Add the sugar and beat at high speed until the mixture looks very light and fluffy, about 6 minutes, stopping as needed to scrape down the bowl with a rubber spatula.
Add the vanilla extract and break in 2 of the eggs. Beat until thoroughly blended, and then scrape down the bowl. Beat in the remaining eggs and scrape down again.
Over a separate bowl, use a flour sifter or fine-meshed wire sieve to sift together the flour, baking powder, and salt. In three batches each, alternate beating in the dry ingredients and the buttermilk until combined, stopping as necessary to scrape down the bowl.
Line 20 cupcake cups with paper or foil cupcake liners. Spoon in the batter, filling them about three-fourths full.
Bake in the preheated oven for 12 minutes, then rotate the pan and continue baking until the cupcakes look golden brown in the center and darker brown around the edges, 3 to 5 minutes longer.
Remove the pan from the oven and leave on a wire rack to cool to room temperature. Remove the cupcakes from the pan and spread them with the frosting. Decorate each cupcake, if you like, with a berry or candy. Store in an airtight container at room temperature until serving.
SEMISWEET CHOCOLATE FROSTING
Makes about 4 cups
12 ounces semisweet or bittersweet chocolate chips
12 ounces unsalted butter, at room temperature
2 cups confectioner's sugar
Bring 1 to 2 inches water to a boil in a medium saucepan. Reduce the heat to maintain a simmer. Put the chocolate in a heatproof bowl large enough to sit on top of the rim of the pan without its bottom touching the water. Stir the chocolate over the simmering water until melted. Remove from the heat and leave at room temperature until completely cool but still soft and creamy.
Put the butter and sugar in the bowl of a stand mixer with the paddle attachment, or in a mixing bowl using a hand-held electric mixer, and beat at medium speed until smooth and fluffy, about 3 minutes, stopping as necessary to scrape down the bowl with a rubber spatula. Use the spatula to scrape the melted chocolate into the butter mixture. Beat until smooth, about 1 minute longer. Use immediately to frost the cupcakes.