Baking Techniques | Lemon Cupcake Fiasco

I have just witnessed the most painful display of cupcake suicide I have ever known to exist. I decided to follow up the Lemon Layer Cake with Fluffy Icing and make a cupcake out of the batter. The flavor was very nice in the cake and I thought that turning them into cupcakes would be great with the icing I had left over from apple banana muffins from last week. So I made followed the recipe and added some lemon zest. This is what the recipe calls for: (I made half of the recipe)

“1 cup whole milk

6 large egg whites, room temperature

2 teaspoons vanilla extract

2 1/4 cups (9 ounces) cake flour [I substituted 2 c all purpose flour and 1/4 c cornstarch]

1 3/4 cups (12 1/4 ounces) sugar

4 teaspoons baking powder

1 teaspoon salt

12 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into 12 pieces and softened

“Adjust oven rack to middle position and heat oven to 350 degrees. Grease two 9-inch round cake pans, line with parchment paper, grease parchment, and flour pans. Whisk milk, egg whites, and vanilla together in 2-cup liquid measuring cup.

“Using stand mixer fitted with paddle, mix flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt on low  speed until combined. Add butter, 1 piece at a time, and mix until only pea-size pieces remain, about 1 minute. Add all but 1/2 cup milk mixture, increase speed to medium-high, and beat until light and fluffy, about 1 minute. Reduce speed to medium-low, add remaining 1/2 cup milk mixture, and beat until incorporated, about 30 seconds. Give batter final stir by hand.

“Divide batter evenly between prepared pans and smooth tops with rubber spatula. Bake cake until toothpick inserted in centers comes out clean, 23 to 25 minutes. Let cakes cool in pans on wire rack for 10 minutes. Remove cakes from pans, discard parchment, and let cool completely, about 2 hours, before frosting.”

Okay. Done. Into the oven they went and they looked so sweet and lovely that I actually thought I would sit in front of the oven with the oven light on to see them balloon up perfectly like you see in the time-lapse imagery on the baking shows. They started to rise and I could see delicious little bubbles float up to the top and burst like little champagne bubbles. I was in heaven. The cupcakes began to rise, slowly at first, and suddenly the one on the far back right started listing to the left. I watched it slide off and over the edge of of the paper liner and ooze onto the muffin tin. I thought, “well, that one was just a little full.” Then, like a perfectly choreographed horror movie, they all began slopping over the edge. I was completely horrified; sitting on the edge of my chair; mouth open in repulsed shock. I couldn’t even bring myself to grab my camera, it was so alarming – like a growing sea of cupcake batter, each one with complete and total disregard for the confines of it’s cup. It was like watching a baby lamb walking out across a mine field; I could look away. Then it happened: they began to fall. One by one, the form and structure of each perfect cake – so perfectly supported by it’s combination of flour, baking powder, liquid and heat – began to fail. The bubbles collapsed, they weren’t baked enough so the centers just slumped like a dead thing in the center of my oven. What made things worse was the oozing, flowing batter began to overwhelm the edges of the muffin tins. Thinking quick, I slid a quarter sheet pan on the next rack down to catch the deluge of dribbling batter.  Let me show you the devastation that ensued.

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It also appears that my oven does not bake evenly. This is how they were placed in the oven and, as you can see, the top left one is much darker and smaller than the other ones. Good to know. At least I learned something about my oven from this disaster.

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One additional thing I noticed about the batter is the overly greasy appearance it has. I have no doubt that this recipe worked perfectly in America’s Test Kitchen, but for some reason it is eluding my abilities to create the perfect cake or cupcake. I am at a loss for the moment, but it will come to me: How to fix this. I have theories. First, the tins (or cake pans) need to be filled less than half full. The whipped egg whites in this recipe – combined with the baking powder – cause MASSIVE expansion. You can see the size of the bubbles below. I also think there needs to be more acid in the batter. I added about one half of a tablespoon of lemon zest to the batter, but I don’t think that did enough. I am thinking the old stand by – cream of tartar – needs to be used instead. The batter is so light and appears to get its structure from the egg white, similar to an angel food cake. Maybe next time I’ll consult Joy of Cooking for their angel food cake recipe and see how that compares.

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(Fast forward 10 minutes) … the damage was much worse than I thought. I sacrificed the most well-done cupcake to cut in half and see how the crumb of the body held up compared to the top. It appears the top melted around the paper liner and proceeded to cement itself together. Below is my attempt to remove the paper from the cake. Not pretty. But it tastes heavenly! Fear not – I won’t give up on this irritating but delicious recipe until I get it right!

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Oh well, at least they taste good. Although, after cutting into the above mess, they seem a little crumbly and delicate for a cake or a cupcake. I think the recipe needs to increase flour. Stay tuned for The Adventures of Lemon Cake.

“Lemon Layer Cake.” The Cook’s Illustrated Cookbook. Jack Bishop, Elizabeth Cardruff and Lori Galvin. 1st ed. Brookline, Massachusetts: America’s Test Kitchen, 2011. 665-667. Print.

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