Thursday, May 31, 2007


Fairy Cakes with Cream Cheese Icing

Somewhere along the way, Nigella Lawson's fairy cakes have become the benchmark to which we in the food blogging community compare our cupcakes. Most of us have made La Lawson's version. I'm convinced the cover of her How To Be a Domestic Goddess is responsible - a solitary vanilla cupcake upon which sits a delicate candied flower, probably a blogger's definition of a pretty baked good.

For the longest time, and years before now, my breakfast consisted of a blueberry muffin and a long black (a double espresso with extra hot water). I have not found any authoritative take on the difference between a muffin and a cupcake. My copy of Martha Stewart's Baking Handbook is in the US, and this would probably serve as the most definitive text on the subject I own. The internet hasn't been much help. And, being of English extraction, there is no entry in the Larousse tomes. In all the recipes I have had a squiz at, there is no marked ratio of flour to butter that distinguishes them, both can call on rising agents, nuts, and fruit. So, why is it that when we see them, we know the difference? I come to the quick conclusion that cupcakes are cute little cakes that are smaller than the size of your palm (unless you're a baby or have really tiny palms) whereas muffins are stockier little cakes about the size of your palm and possibly bigger - especially if those "markets" specialising in selling bulk items have anything to say about it.

Though I no longer get breakfast on the go, or at least I have not done so for years, I have reinstituted afternoon tea, an important and necessary part of my day. This is when I have a small slice of cake or, now, a sweet cupcake to get me through often braindead hours of 3-5pm.

The following recipe makes 12 cupcakes. If you do not have self-rising cake flour, sift together 3/4 cup of all purpose flour, 1 teaspoon of baking powder and 1/8 teaspoon of salt.

Fairy Cakes
(from Nigella Lawson's How To Be a Domestic Goddess)

1/2 cup unsalted butter, softened
7 tablespoons sugar
2 eggs
3/4 cup self-rising cake flour
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
2-3 tablespoons milk

1) Preheat the oven to 200 C/400 F and line a 12-cup muffin pan with paper baking cups.
2) Cream the butter and sugar.
3) Gently beat in the vanilla.
4) Gently beat in the eggs on at a time and in between each add a tablespoon of flour.
5) Fold in the rest of the flour.
6) Add the milk by the tablespoon to bring to a soft constitution, suitable for dropping into the muffin cups.
7) Pour the mixture into each of the 12 muffin cups, filling them up equally, usually about halfway.
8) Bake for 15-20 minutes, by which stage the cupcakes should be cooked and golden on top. To see if the cupcakes are done, insert a toothpick through the top of a cupcake to the middle, and if it comes out clean, remove the muffin pan from the oven.
9) Allow cupcakes to cool on a wire rack as soon as you can manage to remove the baking cups from the muffin tray.

Cream Cheese Icing
(Adapted from Nigella Lawson's How To Be a Domestic Goddess)

1/2 cup cream cheese
1 2/3 cups icing sugar
1-2 teaspoons orange juice

1) Beat the cream cheese and icing sugar together until smooth and soft.
2) Mix in 1 teaspoon of orange juice and taste. If you want more juice, feel free to add another teaspoon, as I did.

To assemble: Smear the icing on the cupcakes with a butter knife. I typically do without adornments, but abandon yourself to the impulses of decorating if you so desire.

I know you are sick of the webcam photos, but there are only 5 more weeks until I am reunited with my baby (my angelheart Eric has custody of our digital camera). If I got too close to the cupcake, the texture was even blurrier than it is in this photo. I tried. The cupcakes are tasty, with a hint of vanilla. The icing has a slight tang, offsetting the mild sweetness in the cupcake. I might add a vanilla bean and grapefruit juice next time.
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I think the chief difference between muffins and cupcakes is in the method. W/ cupcakes, you cream butter and sugar together, then carefully add other ingredients, sometimes incrementally. W/ muffins, you dump all the mixed wet ingredients into the mixed dry ones, making for a "dumpier" result.

I'd certainly rather have one (or two) of these little beauties w/ a cup of tea rather than a massive muffin.
I HAVE to make these. They are so sweet looking. Here's the definitions for cupcakes and muffins from my copy of Food Lovers Companion.
Cupcake - a small, individual sized cake that's usually baked in a muffin pan. Sometimes the cupcake mold is lined with a crimped paper or foil cup. After baking, the paper or foil is somply peeled off before the cupcake is eaten.

Muffin - a small cakelike bread that can be made with a variety of flours and often contains fruits or nuts. Most American style muffins fall into the quick bread category and are leavened with either baking soda or baking powder. Muffins can be sweet or savory.

Hmm, do I have too much time on my hands?
Susan, ever the authority, pipped me to the post in terms of differentiating between muffins and cupcakes - indeed, I was going to say the method. Cupcakes truly are cup sized (or at least espresso cup) cakes that are creamed together, whereas muffins are big ol' breakfast things that lack daintiness but make up for their lack of class with great taste.
I still prefer the cupcake though...
Yours look beautiful!
I know these would taste great! When Nigella's DG came out I cooked such a lot from it, the chocolate marsala cake is one of my favourites. Have made all her cupcakes from there bar one!

3-5 is easily my most hungry time of day too.

I was actually considering making these cupcakes yesterday, as I've been given some very pretty decorations... soon. Last year for my little ones birthday party I did the dolly mixture ones as mini cupcakes, the kids really loved them, and spent much time discussing exactly which sweets they all had, luckily I'm obsessive enough to have made sure they all had the same no of each type of dolly mixtures haha, I joke, but it's true. They even ate the cake part! ;)
Susan - The difference in methdo makes sense. I knew something had to account for the stodginess of the muffins compared to the airiness (?) of cupcakes, but once the ingredients overlapped I was not sure where to go next for answers. I guess I would have found out soon enough had I experimented more. It's good to have wonderfully knowledgable people like you around to set me right.

The cupcakes would have been perfect with Earl Grey.

Sara - I don't know if I would call it having too much time on your hands; it is all in how you allocate your time, and if you choose to spend it reading about food (like me), then so be it. Thanks for the referenced definitions. I bet that book comes in handy!

Freya, love - If anyone can lift my culinary spirits, it is you. You are a beautiful liar. Though I know at the end of the day it is not about the pictures, they do help capture the memory and are a way to encourage other people to try, too. They did taste delicious, and I'm giving serious consideration to varying the ingredients, like anise seeds with a cream cheese icing with grapefruit juice and zest instead of that of a lime or an orange. What do you think?

Kelly-Jane - I have not actually made all that much from "How To Be a Domestic Goddess" yet, but I have told myself that I should bake more, though it takes more time and precision than cooking (well, my level of cooking, anyway). I did see the chocolate marsala cake, and I am glad to have your opinion, which I value, on it.

You know, things like sweets as a kid are very memorable. It is great that you put so much time and energy into preparing them for the children. I bet one day they will look back on those mini cupcakes with great fondness. I still remember quite vividly Thursday nights when dad would come home and give me my favourite candy of all, licorice, but I cannot for the life of me remember where we had our family vacations (at least not without photos to remind me).
Yes, Shaun, cupcakes are airy and have that distinctive delicate crumb. I'm happy for others to pick my brain, but Freya is too flattering by calling me an "authority." You should have been around when I glued gnocchi dough to the countertop right before a dinner party. ; )
MMM, cupcakes. I think theres a difference between the recipe procedure for cupcakes and muffins too. =) I love reading your blog btw! =)
Shaun, sorry for coming in so is what it is...

Susan's got it bang-on.

Creaming sugar and butter together is a double-bubble building method: whips air into the mass and the sugar is abrasive enough to cut fat and create more bubbliness..then you add the other bits (eggs, liquids and flours) the end of it all, you should have a sweet little cake.

Muffins, on the other hand are more of dump and clump: add wet ingredients to dry and stir until combined. Even though you mix the sugar into the wet, the sugar dissolves instead of whips up bubbles as it did in creaming. You don't have the starter bubbles formed from creaming, so you have uneven bubbles from the leaveners.

Keep up the good work with Nigella's recipes :)

Susan - Gnocchi incident aside (we all have aspirations to do something grand, even the first time we make it), you are still a legend. I'm glad to have you as a visitor to my blog as I learn and grow from your insight. Thank you.

Victoria - Yup, you've reconfirmed that the method is what makes the difference in the forms and textures of muffins and cupcakes. Sometimes I like writing about the recipe more than the actual cooking, but who can prefer to write about cupcakes over eating them? I have since made them with ground ginger in the cupcake and lemon juice in the cream cheese icing. Yummo.

Jasmine, dearest - You know, I really hate creaming butter and sugar. It takes forever and a day, in either a mixer or with electric beaters. But I understand that it is what contributes to the lightness of cakes and the like. Thank you for reconfirming and elaborating on the chemistry aspect of the cupcake method.

I have a couple more Nigella Lawson recipes to knock out this month. I don't know why I'm suddenly all over her, but I am just going to go with it. I just hope the readers do not get too bored with yet another Nigella invocation.
hi - susan of the well seasoned cook sent me here - I love your blog - interesting writing and poetic name! I was ruminating on the cupcakes vs muffins question so find this discussion v helpful.

My fascination with it at the moment is all the new cupcake cookbooks I keep seeing which seem to be exotic cupcakes such as I have never noticed before. I think I like the chunky denseness of muffins but don't want them monster size so maybe I need to be making mini-muffins.
Johanna - First of all, how lovely of you to visit and leave a comment on my humble blog. Welcome! Susan's blog, The Well-Seasoned Cook, is one of my absolute favorites; I check it every day and am slowly making my way through her archives.

Mini-muffins is probably a good idea. I have made cupcakes a few times since this post, adding different spices. I want to add some nuts (walnuts or almonds probably) and rose water to the next batch and pair it with rose water. Let me know how your mini-muffins come out.
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