How often do you see kids eat just the frosting off a cupcake or piece of cake? Do you think making a cake from scratch is hard? Sure, you can always buy a pre-made cake, but it's more fun to do some experimenting. And it’s not as hard or labor intensive as it seems, especially with a couple of good recipes up your sleeve.
When making your own cake, the ingredients you select can make a big difference. Use the best quality ingredients you can find, especially for the main ingredient like chocolate or vanilla, advises Laurie Lialin, owner of Tiny Cake Bakery in El Granada. Also, "do a trial run of a recipe before the big day so you know what to expect," she adds. "You can adjust the flavors if needed and you will feel more comfortable with the recipe."
Some people think you have to have special equipment, but that’s not always the case. Sure, a stand mixer is great but you can make the Every Day Vanilla Cupcakes recipe below with a bowl and a whisk. You do need at least one set of measuring cups and spoons, a mixing bowl, and at least one cake pan, even if it’s a 13”x9” glass pan.
Once the cake is made, the frosting is really simple. This is where having some type of electric mixer, even a hand-held one, is critical. If you don't have one, borrow one. The flavor of a homemade buttercream frosting cannot compare with something pre-made. Regardless, just make sure the cake is cool before you frost it so the frosting won't melt.
What About the Box?
Baking isn’t for everyone. If the thought of making a cake truly from scratch gets you more stressed than going to the mall the week before Christmas, give yourself a break. Find a brand that you like and trust. Look at the ingredients on the side of the box and try to avoid trans fats and high fructose corn syrup. Keeping it simple is preferred as well. There’s nothing like a good vanilla or chocolate cake.
Kristin Durham, who works in the bakery at New Leaf Community Market in Half Moon Bay, says if you are pressed for time, it's OK to use a boxed mix but make sure to use a good brand. For example, New Leaf sells a number of organic brands, which produce excellent results. Also, you don't want to cut corners on the frosting, she adds. It's so easy to make your own buttercream frosting. Just use the 2-4-6-8 recipe at the end of this article.
Have Fun: Simple Decorating
When it comes to “decorating” a cake, you can leave that to the professionals — most children are happy with frosting, some sprinkles, candles and a small toy on top. They are not looking for fancy flowers and rose petals. Colors, yes, but the shapes generally do not matter.
For example, when a child says he wants a spiderman cake, putting a clean plastic figure on the top of a frosted cake instead of buying a cake with an image of the superhero should do the trick and save you $20.
Other ideas for decorations are colored shredded coconut for grass (use green food coloring), slivered almonds, M&M candies, brown sugar for sand, red licorice, and even some chocolate kisses. This is where a trip down the bulk aisle can get those creative juices flowing.
Using your imagination to create a homemade cake can be a lot more fun, satisfying and tasty than something from a store. The next time a birthday rolls around for your child, give one of these recipes a try. Yes, it will likely take more time but it’s hard to put a price tag on the experience.
Every Day Vanilla Cupcakes or Cake
Even if you are not a baker, try this recipe. It’s very easy and you only need to measure a few extra ingredients than if you were using a boxed cake mix:
Makes 12-15 cupcakes or one 13"x9" cake
1 ¼ cups all-purpose flour
¼ cup cornstarch (the cornstarch replicates the texture in cake flour)
1 tsp baking powder
½ tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
2 lg eggs at room temp
2 tsp vanilla extract
2/3 cup sugar
6 TB melted and slightly cooled unsalted butter
2/3 cups butter milk (put 1+ TB vinegar in a large measuring cup; add milk and fill to 2/3 cup. Let stand 5 mintues)
1. Adjust oven rack to middle position; heat oven to 325 degrees. Line 1 standard-sized muffin pan with baking-cup liners, possibly a second one.
2. With a whisk, mix flour, cornstarch, baking powder, baking soda and salt in medium bowl until combined.
3. Whisk eggs and vanilla in large bowl until well blended. In steady stream, pour sugar into eggs, whisking constantly. Gradually whisk in melted butter, then add buttermilk.
4. Add one-third of dry ingredients to bowl with wet. Using whisk, gently combine; a few streaks of flour should remain. Repeat twice with remaining dry ingredients. Continue to gently stir batter with whisk until most lumps are gone. Do not overmix.
5. Fill cupcake liners only 2/3 full or else cupcakes might overflow. Place cupcake pan on the middle rack, until cupcakes just begin to color and toothpick inserted in center comes out clean, 18-22 minutes. Cool pans on wire racks for 5 mins then remove cupcakes from pans, place back on rack, and cool to room temp before frosting, about 1 hour. Before icing the cupcakes, put them in the fridge before frosting but use frosting at room temp.
6. For a cake, bake in greased 13"x9" pan for about 30 minutes.
7. If you need 24 cupcakes, make this recipe twice; do not double.
Gluten-Free Dark Chocolate Cupcakes
You can easily make this non-gluten free by using regular flour and omitting the xanthan gum. This recipe does not double very well. Store leftover cupcakes (frosted or unfrosted) in the refrigerator, but let them come to room temperature before serving.
Makes 12 cupcakes
8 TB unsalted butter , cut into 4 pieces
2 oz bittersweet chocolate , like Ghirardelli
1/2 cup Dutch-processed cocoa
3/4 cup basic gf flour blend (buy or you can make your own, you can also use regular flour for non-gluten free cupcakes)
3/4 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp sea salt
1/4 heaping tsp xanthan gum (omit this ingredient if you are making regular cupcakes)
2 large eggs
3/4 cup organic white sugar
1 tsp vanilla extract
1/2 cup sour cream or plain yogurt (full-fat is best)
1. Pre-heat oven to 350F. Line 12 cup muffin pan with baking-cup liners.
2. Melt butter and chocolate either in a bowl over a pan of simmering water or in a microwave-safe bowl and microwaving in 30-40 second intervals, stirring in between, until melted. Set aside to cool but make sure it’s still liquidy.
3. Whisk cocoa powder, flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt and xanthan gum in a bowl to combine.
4. Whisk eggs in another medium bowl to combine. Add sugar and mix briskly for 2 minutes. Add vanilla and stir. Mix in sour cream or yogurt.
5. Add flour mixture and mix until it is all combined. Mix quickly for 10-15 seconds.
6. Divide batter evenly among muffin pan cups. Bake 15 to 18 minutes or until the top springs back when pushed in.
7. Cool for 5 minutes then remove from pan and place on a wire rack. Cool completely before frosting. Store in the refrigerator.
You can always make muffins and call them cupcakes. Most children won't notice the difference. Technically the real difference is a muffin is usually denser because it's not beaten and it can have less sugar. Here are some easy recipes:
Basic Buttercream Frosting 2-4-6-8
Mix the following in a bowl with an electric mixer or in a stand mixer until fluffy:
2 tsp vanilla
4 cup powdered sugar
6 TB milk, milk alternative or water
8 TB unsalted, softened butter
Once the frosting is made, it's easy to tint with food coloring or just frost as is.