Cupcakes: a contemporary camp classic!

As with macarons, there is nothing butch about a cupcake, but it revels in its campery – and rightly so! They flounced onto the baking scene with great style several years ago, demanding to be noticed, and all of a sudden the shops started featuring them and everyone started making them.

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A good cupcake is indeed a gorgeous affair, especially served at room temperatute so the sponge is not cold and the buttercream is very soft.

And by a good cupcake, I mean a light, well-flavoured sponge matched by, but not dominated by, a well-flavoured and well-balanced topping.

Sadly, as with many things, the cupcake craze has suffered somewhat from ubiquity, and all too often the commercial ones are gigantic affairs that tend to be just dry cake with a sickly-sweet icing, with little flavour-wise to link it to its sponge: after a couple of bites you feel as though you have had enough!

The sponge:

For me, I usually prefer a Victoria Sandwich mixture, which is simple and works very well, but you can go for any cake recipe you like.

For chocolate cupcakes, replace 40g of the flour with cocoa powder. A handful of chopped chocolate pieces in there does not go amiss either!

Additional flavours to the sponge:

I often like to add grated zest of an orange or lemon to the mixture, if going for a fruity flavour, but other goodies could include:

  • pieces of finely chopped dried fruit (dusted very lightly in flour to prevent them sinking!)
  • chocolate chips
  • small pieces of fudge
  • pieces of chopped nuts
  • 2-3 teaspoons of spices (ginger, cinnamon or mixed spice)
  • instant coffee powder dissolved in a little hot water
  • using a mixture of caster sugar and other sugars such as muscovado

The topping(s):

The icing needs to be generous enough not to feel short-changed, yet not too much that it towers too high, making it all a challenge to eat!

For me, it should be very light and melt-in-the-mouth that packs flavour rather than just being buttery sweet: usually a fruit buttercream does it for me, as the combination of sharpness and sweetness ticks my boxes!

If I am going for a fruity cupcake, I often cut out a little of the sponge from the top, dollop a little fresh fruit curd or purée into the hole, before piping on the buttercream. However, one of my current favourite enhancements with fruity cupcakes is to spoon a little drizzle topping over the still-warm cupcakes, let them cool and then top with a little buttercream.

The easiest drizzle topping is made by mixing the freshly squeezed juice from the fruit (lemon, lime or passionfruit are real stars here!) with a little granulated sugar: the sugar really doesn’t need to dissolve, as a little crunch from the sugar adds great texture.

More often than not a simple buttercream made by whisking together equal quantities of very soft unsalted butter and icing sugar until the buttercream is very light and soft works a treat. If you whisk it for about 10 minutes in a free-standing mixer, it becomes almost mousse-like.

NB: using equal quanties of butter and icing sugar gives a less sweet buttercream than is typical but it has a more luxurious flavour and a much lighter texture.

The buttercream can then be flavoured.

Flavouring a buttercream:

For a fruit buttercream, simply add enough fresh fruit purée to the buttercream to get the level of flavour you want, whisking in a little at a time to stop it curdling. I try to add as much as I can to get a real tangy flavour.

If it does curdle (and I have lost count of the number of times a buttercream has done this to me!), whisk in a little cooled melted white chocolate, using about 50g chocolate to every 200g of buttercream: the buttercream will come back together perfectly.

I also use fruit powders a lot: they can be bought online as well as in several specialist cook shops and have a great intensity of flavour. A few teaspoons beaten into a buttercream will enhance it no end, and it is also great dusted lightly on top of the cupcakes.

Some of my other favourite ways to flavour a buttercream are:

  • coffee (use granules and dissolve them in hot water, leaving the solution to cool before using),
  • melted and cooled chocolate (any flavour)
  • fruit curd
  • salted caramel

And the tip above to rescue a curdled buttercream with whatever other flavours have been added has yet to fail me!

Cupcakes (makes 12 cupcakes)

Cupcake sponge:

  • 3 medium eggs at room temperature
  • 130g unsalted butter, softened
  • 130g self-raising flour (or use gluten-free flour which works like a dream here)
  • a generous pinch of salt
  • 130g caster sugar
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder

you will also need:

  • buttercream (any flavour): recipes for different buttercreams can be found on my cake tips page
  • fruit powder, edible glitter, popping candy etc…to finish (optional)
  • cupcake cases
  • cupcake or deep muffin trays

(1) Pre-heat the oven to 160C (fan).

(2) Put the butter, sugar, salt and eggs into a large bowl. Sift in the flour and baking powder and mix together gently until just incorporated: do not over-beat, otherwise the cupcakes will be heavy.

(3) Spoon into cupcake cases, coming to no more than half-way deep.

(4) Bake in an oven for about 15 minutes until well risen and firm to the touch. Remove from the oven and leave to cool in the tins.

(5) When the buttercream has been made, leave to chill for about 20 minutes in the fridge so that it is easier to pipe. Pipe buttercream on top of each cupcake and finish however you like: a dusting with fruit powder or edible glitter or a sprinkling of chocolate popping candy….quite simply, go for it!!

(6) Remove the cupcakes about an hour or so before eating, at which stage the buttercream should be gorgeously soft and silky as you bite into it.

Some of my favourite flavoured cupcakes

    • Earl Grey tea cupcakes – this is one of my signature cupcakes, using Earl Grey tea butter. The recipe is here

Some of my other favourite cupcakes are in the gallery below:

Author: Philip

Finalist on Britain’s Best Home Cook (BBC Television 2018). Published recipe writer with a love of growing fruit & veg, cooking, teaching and eating good food.

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