A few years ago I picked up the book Cupcake Heaven at Anthropologie. Although I was instantly drawn in by the luscious pictures and the out of the norm ingredients many of the recipes boasted, I’ve only made two things from this book and both of them were a little lacking. One of them was the Lavender Cupcakes. I had never tasted lavender, but it seemed like such an odd, different addition to cake that I really wanted to try it. When I found dried lavender flowers at the Spice House a year ago, I came home, picked up this book, and made these cupcakes.
I loved them and was disappointed in them simultaneously. The flavor of lavender was different from anything I’d ever tasted. It’s floral and herby and yet also a little spicy. It takes something normal in a completely different direction while not being overpowering or obvious in any way. Unfortunately, I was really not fond of the cake. The texture was coarse and sandy and not at all what I was looking for in a cake. I put the recipe away, knowing I’d have to find a better base to showcase the lavender.
A few months ago, Mindy and I made the White Velvet Cake from Rose Levy Beranbaum’s The Cake Bible. When we sample the cake scraps I thought it was the best white cake I’d ever tasted, but when I dug into the actual cake, I was less enamored of it. It was still good, but it seemed a little dry to me. Mindy insists this is because we were eating it in conjunction with a fudgy chocolate cake and the unfavorable comparison was just in my mind, which could very well be the case. Regardless, when Mindy later made Sweetapolita’s version of the White Velvet Cake, I fell in love. It was perfect. Fluffy and light, yet moist and full of vanilla flavor, it was THE BEST white cake I’d ever eaten. The differences between the two cakes are very slight – an extra half an egg white and a ¼ cup of sugar more doesn’t seem like a lot, but to me they elevated an already marvelous cake to something approximating excellency. I had finally found the base for my lavender cake.
The second item to tackle would be the frosting. I’m not a huge fan of frostings and glazes and certainly not in the exorbitant amounts that cupcake bakeries tend to pile on to disguise sub par cakes. I particularly detest the quick buttercreams the involve nothing more than beating powdered sugar into butter. Their sickeningly sweet flavor and gritty texture leave me wanting. Although I’ve always made it for my cakes, it’s only because I’ve been afraid of real buttercreams. I tend to scrape it off onto my plate and eat my cake naked.
In the interest of trying new recipes, I thought it was time to tackle a real buttercream. I chose a Swiss Meringue Buttercream from Joy of Cooking because it uses only egg whites and not yolks and does not involve cooking a sugar syrup. Baby steps. I never succeeded in getting the thermometer to read 160°, but I think that’s because the egg whites immediately start to cool once you take them out of the pan and I know I wasted some time fumbling with the bowl and the thermometer and the towel I was trying to use to protect my hand. I did get past 150° on the first try, so I just kept beating the whites in the water until I got glossy peaks and considered that sufficient.
The frosting was overly buttery when I first tasted it, but after it had cooled completely the butter flavor faded into the background, leaving a smooth, perfectly balanced, delicate cake topping. Gone are the days of quick buttercreams for me – from now on this is the only way I’ll go. (I should admit that I tried to make this a lavender buttercream, but I didn’t use nearly enough lavender and the taste disappeared completely. So, we’ll call this a vanilla buttercream and pretend that was my intention. The best way to correct a baking mistake is to pretend that’s what you planned to do all along!) I topped the frosting with some decorator’s sugar for a little sparkle and crunch. Use it or omit it as you desire.
2 ½ large egg whites, at room temperature*
½ cup whole milk, at room temperature
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1 ½ cups cake flour, sifted**
¾ cups plus 2 tablespoons sugar
½ teaspoon dried lavender flowers
½ tablespoon plus ½ teaspoon baking powder
3/8 teaspoon salt
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature and cut into cubes
Preheat oven to 350°. Line 12 standard muffin cups with cupcake liners.
In a medium bowl or measuring cup, combine and stir the egg whites, 2 tablespoons milk, and the vanilla. Set aside.
Combine the dry ingredients in a large bowl on low speed for 30 seconds. Add the butter and remaining milk and mix on low speed until just moistened. Increase to medium speed and mix for 1 ½ minutes. Scrape the sides of the bowl and begin to add the egg mixture in 3 separate batches; beat on medium speed for 20 seconds after each addition.
Scoop ¼ cup portions of batter into each muffin pan. Tap pan against the counter few times to even out the batter and get rid of any air bubbles.
Bake 16-18 minutes or until a cake tester comes out clean when inserted into the center. Let cool in pan for 5 minutes before putting on wire rack to cool completely.
Makes 12 standard cupcakes or one 8-inch round cake.
*How do you get 2 ½ egg whites? Buy a small carton of liquid egg whites. You’ll need it for the buttercream anyway. Just make sure that the product contains egg whites and nothing else.
**I didn’t have any cake flour on hand when I went to make these, so I used all-purpose flour instead. There is a noticeable difference between the two, but it’s not necessarily detrimental. Cake flour does make the cupcakes lighter and fluffier, but I found the ones I made to be perfectly fine, too. Don’t think you have to buy special flour to make these.
Vanilla Swiss Meringue Buttercream
2 large egg whites, at room temperature
¼ cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar
1 tablespoon water
1/8 teaspoon cream of tartar
½ teaspoon vanilla
¾ cup (1 ½ sticks) unsalted butter, softened
Whisk together the egg whites, sugar, water, and cream of tartar in a large stainless steel bowl. Set the bowl in a wide deep skillet filled with about 1 inch of simmering water. Make sure the water level is at least as high as the depth of the egg whites in the bowl. Beat the whites on low speed until the mixture reaches 140°. Do not stop beating while the bowl is in the skillet, or the egg whites will overcook. If you cannot hold the thermometer stem in the egg whites while continuing to beat (i.e., you do not have a candy thermometer, which I don’t), remove the bowl from the skillet just to read the thermometer (and get that thermometer in there quickly), then immediately return the bowl to the skillet. Beat on high speed just until the mixture reaches 160°, 2-4 minutes.
Remove the bowl from the skillet and add the vanilla. Beat on high speed for 3-5 more minutes, to cool. The meringue should hold glossy peaks.
Beat butter in another large bowl until creamy, about 30 seconds. Beat a large dollop of the meringue into the butter until well combined. Continue to beat in about half of the meringue in large dollops. Scrape the remaining meringue into the mixture and beat until smooth and fluffy. At this point, add in any food colorings and beat until color is fully combined.
Spread buttercream on top of cupcakes using an offset spatula or butter knife, or fill a pastry bag and pipe swirls on top (I used a Wilton 1M open star tip). Sprinkle decorator’s sugar on top, if desired.