I do like to make my own icing – it tastes better, and you can control the quantity. Is it just me, or have others noticed that a can of icing does not stretch to cover a full batch of box-mix cupcakes? Like packages of hot dogs and hot dog buns – they should match up, unit for unit, but they don’t. If you have never read the book “Good Omens: The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch,” by the British fantasy writers Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman, you should. (I promise that I will tie this into the subject of cupcake icing in just a tick.) It’s a tremendously funny, sort-of parody of “The Omen,” wherein the Second Coming and the Anti-Christ get switched at birth, so the family hand-picked by the devil to raise the demon spawn can’t figure out why the kid is so nice, and vice-versa. Anyway, in the book, angels and demons walk among us, and over time the demons have refined their evil-doings to be a tad more subtle:
Many phenomena – wars, plagues, sudden audits – have been advanced as evidence for the hidden hand of Satan in the affairs of Man, but whenever students of demonology get together the M25 London orbital motorway is generally agreed to be among the top contenders for Exhibit A.
I fully agree with this principle, as I firmly believe that Satan had a hand in designing the I30 traffic cloverleaf in Arlington, Texas. Likewise, I believe that some minor demon is responsible for packaging hot dogs and hot dog buns in non-match-y quantities, and the same guy probably decided how big to make the frosting container.
Or, it’s entirely possible that I’m just a frosting-abusing freak. After all, I was raised by a woman with a serious frosting addiction. Running joke between my dad and me: to my mom, a five-layer cake is one layer of cake topped with four layers of frosting. Why she bothers with the cake at all sort of escapes us; maybe she thinks that you need to have just a little cake in order to actually call it cake?
So I’m serious about my frosting – and I think I’ve perfected my recipe, which I will include at the end of this post. But, cake-wise, I’m all about starting with the box mix. And so it was that I found myself perusing the online version of one of those folksy cooking magazines where every recipe is accompanied by one (or more) of three phrases: “Always requested at family gatherings,” “Always a hit at bake sales,” and/or “Kids love these.” (Variation: “Even my adult children love these.”) Oh, and there’s a fourth phrase that is flogged perhaps more than all of the others combined:
“The pecans make these special.”
In place of “pecans,” feel free to substitute any ridiculously common and/or otherwise obvious ingredient. Example: “This week, Thelma shares her recipe for Chicken Drummettes. The tiny legs severed from the bodies of smallish chickens make these special.”
You get the idea.
I thought that this particular Web site would be a good source of box mix-based cupcake recipes. And I was not disappointed. Some of these represented actual value-added to the boxed mix:
I’ve seen lots of pirate-themed cakes, but the Swiss-Cake-Roll-as-treasure-chest is danged ingenious. So, while the accompanying recipe wasn’t much more than “prepare a box of cake mix following the instructions for cupcakes,” the way that everyday items were incorporated took the finished product to another level. (Or, put another way, “the Swiss Cake Rolls make these special.”)
I also loved these harvest season babies, baked from a spice cake mix to which apples and other ingredients were added. Not only are they decorated super-cute, but the batter additions actually converted the basic spice cake flavor to something different and unique.
Then there were the other 98% . . . . Another pop culture reference: Helen Hunt, playing a gingerbread baker on Saturday Night Live. As a guest on the fictitious (and hilarious) “Delicious Dish” NPR radio program, she points out to the clueless hosts that she added a garage to her gingerbread house, itself made from gingerbread. Then, in the most deadpan voice imaginable, she adds, “I made the cars out of Matchbox cars.” For whatever reason, this phrase stuck with Parnell and me, and whenever we encounter someone purporting to “invent” something that already exists, it’s a race to see who can reference Matchbox cars first. (Hey – unintentional Matchbox pun.)
So, our first Matchbox car creator submitted a recipe for “Candy Corn Cupcakes.” Now, you’re expecting these to incorporate the flavor of candy corn, right? Like the caramel apple cupcakes above? Or, at least, the cupcakes should look like candy corn.
Um, no. The recipe is a plain vanilla (that small pun was intended) cupcake recipe, and once the cupcakes come out of the oven you are instructed to ice them with “frosting of your choice.” Then . . . you top them with candy corn. Except, actually, the recipe calls for “candy corn or other decorations” (Italics theirs). So, what makes them CANDY CORN CUPCAKES is just the candy corn on top . . . which is totally optional.
Another cupcake equivalent of the Matchbox car: “Caramel Chocolate Cupcakes.” Box mix, canned icing . . . but the caramel, pecans and chocolate chips inside “make them special.” Really? You took stuff from the store, added three of the most obvious baking go-to’s that are found in everyone’s pantry (and, at one point or the other, get thrown into EVERYONE’S batter) – and somehow this engenders pride of authorship? And what’s with the title? Shouldn’t these be called CARAMEL PECAN CHOCOLATE CUPCAKES? Because, apparently, to “author” a cupcake recipe you just (1) score a box mix from Duncan or Betty, (2) throw in X and Y objects found in your pantry and (3) name the result “X and Y Cupcakes.” Easy, peasy, lemon squeezy. By the way, here’s how you make Easy, Peasy Lemon Squeezy Cupcakes: you buy boxed cake mix, you follow the ingredients for cupcakes, you top the cupcakes with canned frosting, and then you plunk a pre-squeezed wedge of a lemon on top. Correction: you top them with a wedge of lemon or other citrus fruit.
Because the non-specific citrus topper is what “makes them special.”
So, in that spirit, here is my recipe for “Cream Cheese Butter Almond Extract Confectioners’ Sugar Cupcake Frosting”:
CREAM CHEESE BUTTER ALMOND EXTRACT CONFECTIONERS’ SUGAR CUPCAKE FROSTING
• 6 ounces cream cheese, softened
• 4 tablespoons butter, softened
• 1 teaspoon almond or other flavored extract of your choice
• 2 1/2 cups confectioners’ sugar
Beat together cream cheese, butter, and extract on medium speed with a heavy-duty mixer for 5 minutes. Reduce the speed to low and add the confectioners’ sugar, ½ cup at a time. Increase speed to medium and beat for an additional 5 minutes.
If you have a KitchenAid stand mixer, the 10 minutes of whipping time is overkill – 2 or 3 minutes, each cycle, will do it. I have made this with coconut extract and topped the cupcakes with shredded coconut; very yummy. Parker is partial to lemon extract. I am also planning on adding cola-flavored extract to my arsenal and experimenting with a rum-and-coke cupcake (rum down below, coke up top).
I like this recipe because it remains soft, spreadable and pipe-able. Grady Spears’ buttercream recipe (acquired through my oldest child, who took a cooking class from Grady – yes, my ten year-old is my recipe mule) rocks my world, but it quickly returns to a butterlike consistency, and you are constantly having to re-whip it.
So, actually, factually, I can say that the cream cheese makes this frosting special. And I bet that cupcakes iced with this stuff would be a hit at bake sales . . . if I participated in those.