Thursday, May 1, 2014

The art of frosting a cupcake

I don’t know about you, but I’m kind of sick of cupcakes.

There are plenty of Wall Street analyses of the gourmet cupcake business out there on the interwebs.  The details vary, but essence of the story seems to begin with Magnolia Bakery, the rise of gourmet cupcake businesses and chains across the country, and a mad dash for buttercream, followed by declining popularity over time as people start to realize that cupcakes, frankly, are rather overrated.

Some bitter little fuckers feel the need to bash cupcakes with their oh-so-sophisticated hipster sensibilities, but I won’t sink to that level. Now, I am not keen on those cutesy, overpriced buttercream megaliths either. There’s a good reason for that, and it’s not because my precious palate can’t stand a bit of sweetened butter. Mostly because I have shopping guilt. 

I feel like a fucking criminal spending two fifty on a latte, much less fivebucks for a small, crumbly cake covered in oily frosting. source

And not only is the price markup quite ridiculous, there’s another affliction—yes affliction—plaguing the cupcake industry of our glorious country: American buttercream.

That stuff is seriously depressing. Greasy margarine, chalky powdered sugar, and milk with a dash of vanilla and salt make what is probably the most unfortunate creations in the world of pastry. It’s not…bad, per se, but just a bit sickening in large quantities. If that kind of contradiction is possible. 

It's official: Baby June can't get the words out. source

The likes of Swiss and French buttercream are far tastier and, as a happy accident, easier to pipe and spread. They have much more delicate flavors (at least in comparison to their Murican counterpart), like a dense, buttery marshmallow. And of course, they are grounded in egg whites. The death of a vegan recipe.

The incredible edible egg is truly magical. As the Wikipedia article demonstrates, they can do nearly anything in the world of food—you can poach them, boil them, scramble them, fry them, pickle them, and boil them; they can be used as emulsifiers and thickeners, as rich, flavorful gelling agents and sources of creaminess in both sweet and savory sauces. You can separate them and whip them and make the fluffiest baked goods imaginable. What is a pasta alla carbonara without eggs? Or a crème brulee, or a macaron, or a soufflé? If I wasn’t inclined to avoid animal products, I would be all over this cookbook. There are very few things you can’t do with eggs, and there are very few things that do not benefit from the addition of an egg.

Now, there are certain things that can be done to assuage one’s conscience while consuming eggs. My family often buys the slightly pricier eggs from the Farmer’s Cow, a local and humanely operated farmer co-op that brings delicious dairy products to some parts of New England. But as I have determined to present recipes completely free of animal products on this blog, I will not offer a cupcake topped with elegant Swiss meringue to persuade you that not all hope is lost in the realm of the gourmet cupcake. What is one to do?

Molecular gastronomy, my dear. Soy protein isolate and wheat start come together to make inexplicably vegan pistachio meringues on Vegan Baking; Wing It Vegan uses flaxseed to create a goo that can be whipped into a fluffy egg white substitute.

But alas. Being a lazy freeloader, I have once again resorted to Earth Balance.

There is one thing that the cupcake industry has gotten right, and that is presentation. Taste is secondary. If your cupcake looks gourmet, you can sell it for five bucks apiece, no problemo.

That, in a nutshell, is why I can’t start raking in the bucks for my own baked goods: I don’t have the presentation skills. Sure, it’s easy to whip up a nice moist, delicious cake and smear some delicious frosting on top, but does it look good? Hell no. Most of my cupcakes end up looking something like this:

Don't run away! I don't bite! Promise. source

And as you saw in my big blue minivan cake, my piping skills leave something to be desired. So when I saw Sprinkle Bake’s tutorial for simple cupcake decoration techniques, I knew exactly what I was going to make next: nasty-ass buttercream-covered cupcakes. And they would look fucking awesome.

These are vegan, yes. Didn’t go the extra mile and make some sort of faux meringue-based frosting, but I settled once again for the super-sweet margarine stuff—albeit with a bit of white chocolate to add an another dimension of flavor beyond just butter and sugar. The frosting is sort of sickening (if you, like me, tend to lick the bowl too many times), but it pipes wonderfully and has a great consistency for working on cupcake decoration. If I had dark chocolate on hand, I would have substituted that, because (believe it or not) lemon and dark chocolate actually go pretty fabulously together. So I recommend doing that. 

Here’s the recipe.


Lemon White Chocolate Cupcakes
Makes about fifteen

Lemon cupcakes (adapted from 52 Kitchen Adventures)


244 grams ● nondairy milk (I used soy) ● 1 cup

5 grams ● apple cider vinegar ● 1 teaspoon

125 grams ● all-purpose flour ● 1 cup

63 grams ● white whole wheat flour ● ½ cup

3 grams ● baking soda ● ¾ teaspoon

2 grams ● baking powder ● ½ teaspoon

1.5 grams ● salt ● ¼ teaspoon

54 grams ● canola oil ● ¼ cup

133 grams ● sugar ● 2/3 cup

4 grams ● vanilla extract ● 1 teaspoon

61 grams ● fresh lemon juice ● ¼ cup

4 grams ● lemon zest ● 1 tablespoon


Head over to 52 Kitchen Adventures to get the instructions. If you have Meyer lemons, feel free to substitute. No pressure. I didn’t. Will taste good either way.

Allow cupcakes to cool fully before frosting. I recommend letting them sit overnight or putting them in the freezer for half an hour.

Lemon curd (adapted from Healthy Happy Life)


122 grams ● nondairy milk (I used soy) ● ½ cup

60 grams ● water ● ¼ cup

16 grams ● cornstarch ● 1 tablespoon

75 grams ● sugar ● ¼ cup plus 2 tablespoons

90 grams ● fresh lemon juice ● ¼ cup plus 2 tablespoons

2 grams ● lemon zest ● 1 teaspoon

71 grams ● Earth Balance or other vegan buttery spread ● 5 tablespoons


Clickety-click on over to Healthy Happy Life to get las instrucciones, as usual. You don’t have to make the 
poppyseed muffins, but you can. They look pretty damn good anyway.

Allow to cool completely before using. If you want to pipe the curd on top of the cupcakes, as I did, I recommend grinding the whole shit up in the blender so you don’t get chunks of lemon zest clogging up your pastry tip. Releases a lot of nice aromatic oils too.

White chocolate buttercream (adapted from Sally’s Baking Addiction)


170 grams ● nondairy white chocolate ● 6 ounces

230 grams ● Earth Balance or other vegan buttery substance ● 1 cup

240 grams, plus extra ● powdered sugar ● 2 cups, plus extra

61 grams ● coconut milk or other high-fat nondairy milk ● ¼ cup

4 grams ● vanilla extract ● 1 teaspoon

1.5 grams ● salt ● ¼ teaspoon


Be a kind interneter, click over to Sally’s Baking Addiction and use those instructions instead of my haphazardly rephrased version. I put in about a quarter cup more powdered sugar than required to get a nice stiff consistency ideal for piping. Add salt to taste. Don’t eat too much, or you might feel a bit nauseated (as I did).



Completely cooled cupcakes

Lemon curd

White chocolate buttercream


Use Sprinkle Bake’s awesome tutorial and try really, really hard to pipe the frosting as demonstrated. You can fill the cupcakes with lemon curd or drizzle it on top—if I could do it over again, I probably would have filled the cupcakes rather than smear the stuff on top. But either way is fine.

So how’d the amateur do in her pursuit of cupcake perfection?

Before being assaulted with buttercream.
Since I didn’t have quite enough all-purpose flour, I was forced to use a ½ cup of white whole wheat flour—and what do you know, the tops come out perfectly flat. Not exactly ideal in most circumstances, but for decorating purposes this was pretty awesome.

Dem ruffles. 

This one came out pretty well, if I do say so myself. *pats self on back*

I tried.

Um. Or not. 

Live and learn, I guess. 

Ah, that's better.

Damn studio lights, making the frosting melt.

This is my best attempt at a rose—not perfect by any stretch, but pretty decent considering I don’t think I had the right pastry tip for the job.

A wreath of buttercream.

I don't know why my ruffles aren't as crisp and beautiful as Sprinkle Bakes'. Must be my amateurish aura.
For my less successful cupcakes, I piped a bit of lemon curd on top in an attempt to salvage them. Please forgive those yellow tumors on the right center one—I don’t know what got into me.

Look, ma, I made dinner!

And despite being covered with an inch layer of greasy buttercream, they still tasted fucking awesome.

Taken seconds before this was consumed in a maelstrom of frantic cake consumption.

So I did that. Where's my money?


  1. Well done :) They look yummy! As for the 'cupcake industry' - holy crap! I have never and I will never buy a cupcake at those prices - I don't care how pretty they look (or how wonderful they are reported to taste)! And, just so you know, I make buttercream once in a while - the butter, sugar variety - usually at Christmas where I add eggnog to it and then slather it on eggnog or gingerbread cupcakes. Yummy :)

    1. Thanks for reading! That eggnog buttercream sounds pretty awesome. And when I said ten dollars that was a bit of hyperbole (sorry) One of the smaller cupcake bakeries near my house is about four dollars per cupcake, which can be on the lower end of the spectrum depending where you go (like in New York or something it would be higher). I still think homemade cupcakes are better though. :)

  2. Hi June, great rant, I hear you. I think your cupcakes look pretty darn good. Happy week-end!

  3. Lol! I love cupcakes and sometimes buy them out :o

    1. Nothing wrong with that! Thanks for reading! :)