For whatever reason, I tend to cook, and bake, in phases.
There was a point, a few years ago, when I was making scads of cupcakes. Up until that point pies were my thing, but then one day, suddenly, I started making cupcakes and couldn’t stop. Every chance I got; birthdays, special occasions, holidays, parties, picnics, you name it; I was there with a box of cupcakes in hand.
Then, a year or two ago, I started perfecting my layer cake technique and my cupcake phase was over as suddenly as it began. I started pumping out picture perfect layer cakes, and my overgrown stash of cupcake liners and muffin pans got pushed to the back of the cupboards and forgotten. I’m not positive, but this might mean I’m getting back on the cupcake train.
When a good friend of ours announced the other day that she was having a birthday party at a bar in her neighborhood, I knew right away that it was time to dust off the muffin pans and bake some cupcakes.
A lot of people have become disillusioned with cupcakes because they were so ubiquitous at their peak, especially in New York. I totally get it. I do. The cupcake trend was out of control, and there were a lot of bad cupcakes out there.
But! The cupcake craze is over! Like totally over. We moved on. We have gourmet donuts! And Cronuts! And Cragels!
You’re officially allowed to like cupcakes again. You don’t even have to make any references to Sex and the City when you eat them or anything. I promise! Really.
And, the thing about cupcakes is that they’re extremely portable and easy to eat without plates and forks and knives and all the other things you need to serve and eat a layer cake. Cupcakes are a whole lot easier, and a whole lot more fun. They’re the perfect single serving of cake and icing, they’re handheld, and they’re totally adorable and festive.
Not only are these cupcakes fun and easy to eat, but they also happen to be completely and thoroughly delicious. Our friend requested something fruity and summery, so I went all out and flavored both the cake and the icing with strawberries and lemon. To really pack in the flavor I pulsed the strawberries in a blender with a little bit of sugar, and cooked the mixture on the stove to reduce and concentrate the ripe berry flavor. This extra step makes a huge difference to fill these cupcakes with bright fruit forward flavor without the use of any extracts or artificial flavorings.
These cupcakes are incredibly moist and full of summery flavor. They’re sweet but not too sweet, and the lemon juice and zest adds a bold brightness to the strawberry flavor. Since the cakes are sweet enough on their own, I chose to go for a light and airy meringue buttercream, and it was definitely the right decision. Traditional American buttercream would probably have been too heavy and sweet here. Meringue buttercream is fluffy and light and just barely sweet, like whipped cream but much more stable. Not only is the texture and flavor perfect, but the icing is perfectly pretty in pink, with little specks of fresh strawberry showing through. Because these were for a birthday I added some festive pink sanding sugar for extra sparkle and shine, but to be honest, I probably didn’t need to.
Obviously, they were a huge hit.
Lemony Strawberry Cupcakes with Strawberry Meringue Buttercream
Reduced Strawberry Puree:
2 lbs of ripe strawberries
1/4 cups sugar
pinch of salt
wash and hull strawberries and either chop very finely, or pulse in a food processor or blender. You want them finely chopped, not liquified. Mix together with sugar and salt in a large saucepan. Bring to a boil over medium high heat and reduce for about 20 or 30 minutes, until thick and jammy. Stir regularly and watch carefully, it’ll want to boil over. I had about 1 1/2 cups of puree when I was finished. If you have more, or less, divide between the cake batter and the icing at a 2:1 ratio.
For the Cupcakes:
3 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup unsalted butter, at room temperature
2 cups granulated sugar
1½ teaspoons vanilla extract
zest and juice of 2 lemons
1 egg white
1 cup buttermilk
1 cup reduced strawberry puree
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Line standard muffin tins with paper liners.
Whisk together flour, baking powder and salt; set aside.
With an electric mixer on medium-high speed, cream together the butter, sugar, lemon zest and vanilla until pale and fluffy, about 3 minutes. Add the eggs and egg white, one at a time, beating until each is fully incorporated & scraping down the sides of the bowl as needed. Reduce the mixer speed to low and add the flour in two batches, alternating with the buttermilk, and beating until well combined. Add lemon juice and strawberry puree, and blend until just combined.
Divide the batter evenly among the lined cups, filling each three-quarters full. Bake until golden and a cake tester inserted in centers comes out clean, 25 to 30 minutes. Transfer to pans to wire racks to cool for 15 minutes; turn out the cupcakes onto the rack and let cool completely. Cupcakes can be stored up to 1 day at room temperature in airtight containers before frosting.
Strawberry Lemonade Meringue Buttercream:
4 egg whites
1¼ cups granulated sugar
1½ cups unsalted butter, cut into tablespoons, at room temperature
1/2 cup reduced strawberry puree
zest and juice of 1 lemon
Combine the egg whites and sugar in the heatproof bowl of a stand mixer set over a pan of simmering water. Whisk constantly by hand until the mixture is warm to the touch and the sugar has dissolved (the mixture should feel completely smooth when rubbed between your fingertips).
Attach the bowl to the mixer fitted with the whisk attachment. Starting on low and gradually increasing to medium-high speed, mix until stiff (but not dry) peaks form. Continue mixing until the mixture is fluffy and glossy, and completely cool (test by touching the bottom of the bowl), about 10 minutes.
Reduce the mixer speed to medium-low and add the butter a few tablespoons at a time, mixing well after each addition. Once all the butter has been added, scrape down the sides of the bowl with a spatula and switch to the paddle attachment; continue beating on low speed until all air bubbles are eliminated, about 2 minutes. Add the strawberry puree, lemon zest and juice; and beat until combined. Stir the icing with a rubber spatula until smooth. Keep the buttercream at room temperature if using the same day, or transfer to an airtight container and refrigerate up to 3 days or freeze up to 1 month. Before using, bring to room temperature and beat with paddle attachment on low speed until smooth again, about 5 minutes.
Spread or pipe the buttercream onto each cupcake. I used an Ateco #846 tip and piped a large swirl, then sprinkled on a bit of pink “raspberry rose” colored sanding sugar. They’re best eaten the day they’re made, but can be stored in an airtight container at room temperature for up to 1 day, or refrigerated for up to 3 days.