During the holiday season, many of us rediscover the pleasure of casual entertaining -- potluck dinners, open-house celebrations, buffet dinners and progressive parties that begin at one house and continue in others. Often friends or relatives stop by for spur-of-the-moment get-togethers.
For these occasions a perfect treat to have on hand is homemade cupcakes. Of course, when I say cupcakes I don't mean those tasteless cakes with sugary bright blue frosting showered with colored sprinkles. I am referring to a different kind of cupcake -- elegant, delicious and loved by adults as well as children.
aflead,2 One of the fanciest cupcakes I know are visitandines, or French almond and brown butter cakes. In France they are baked in a variety of shapes, from oblong to boat to mini-muffin, and they make exceptional cupcakes. They are wonderfully rich and flavorful so no frosting is needed, but for the holidays you can crown them with a thin layer of your favorite chocolate frosting.
Most layer cake recipes can be baked as cupcakes. A great choice is Devil's Food Cupcakes. These intensely chocolatey cakes are an irresistible holiday treat and can compete for popularity with any complex culinary creation.
My favorite frosting for the cupcakes contains only three ingredients: semisweet chocolate melted with a little cream and mixed with a touch of butter. This quick frosting has a taste far superior to those consisting mainly of powdered sugar.
Cupcakes bake faster than other cakes, usually in about 20 minutes. They keep well and are extremely simple to make. There is no fussing with layers, no shaping as you do for cookies and no need to decorate each one. In fact, their homey, natural appearance adds to their appeal.
Individual cakes are easy to serve. You don't have to decide when to cut "the cake" as when you serve a large cake. When time permits, it's fun to prepare both kinds of cupcakes below so there is a choice of chocolate and white cupcakes. You can be sure your home-baked cupcakes will be a welcome holiday sweet, whether for dessert or as a snack with coffee, tea or milk.
Brown butter and a generous amount of ground almonds give these cakes their luscious flavor and rich texture. For an ultra-rich treat, frost them with rich chocolate frosting (recipe below).
French almond and brown butter cupcakes
Makes 24 to 30 small cakes or 12 cupcakes
1 cup butter plus extra for pans
1 1/3 cups slivered almonds
1 1/4 cups sugar
3/4 cup flour
8 large egg whites, room temperature
Using soft butter, generously butter 24 to 30 small boat-shaped or small square molds (each containing about 2 tablespoons) or nonstick muffin pan for 12 cupcakes. Heat oven to 400 degrees for small molds or 375 degrees for cupcakes.
Place almonds along with 1/4 cup sugar in food processor and grind to fine powder. Transfer to heavy saucepan. Add remaining 1 cup sugar. Sift in flour and mix well. Add egg whites and mix very well, using whisk.
Melt remaining 1 cup butter over medium-low heat in small saucepan until it starts to brown in dots (look under bubbles) and has nutty smell. This can take 10 minutes or more but should be watched carefully. For easy pouring, transfer to glass measuring cup.
Heat almond mixture over low heat, whisking constantly, until just warm. Be careful because mixture burns easily. Remove from heat. Gradually whisk in melted butter. Transfer to measuring cup and let stand 5 minutes.
Stir batter. Pour enough batter into molds or cupcake pan to about two-thirds full. Set boat molds or square molds on sturdy baking sheet. Bake small molds about 15 minutes, cupcakes about 20 minutes, or until top is set and light beige and edges are golden brown. Unmold immediately onto wire rack and cool. Keep cakes in airtight container.
These cocoa cupcakes have a luscious frosting that is simple to make and has a pure chocolate flavor.
Devil's food cupcakes
Makes 24 cupcakes
2 cups cake flour
2/3 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1 1/4 teaspoons baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup buttermilk
1/3 cup water
3/4 cup unsalted butter, slightly softened
1 3/4 cups sugar
2 large eggs
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla
RICH CHOCOLATE FROSTING:
5 ounces semisweet chocolate, chopped
1/3 cup whipping cream
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, well chilled, cut into 2 pieces
For cupcakes, position rack in center of oven and heat to 350 degrees. Line 24 muffin cups with paper baking cups.
Sift flour, cocoa, baking soda and salt into large bowl. Combine buttermilk and water in separate medium bowl.
Cream butter in large bowl. Add sugar and beat until smooth and fluffy. Add eggs, 1 at a time, beating thoroughly after each addition. Beat in vanilla until blended. At lowest speed, blend in about 1/4 cocoa mixture, then 1/3 buttermilk mixture. Alternately add remaining cocoa mixture in 3 batches and remaining buttermilk mixture in 2 batches, mixing just until blended.
Fill baking cups 2/3 full, using about 1/4 cup batter for each. Bake about 20 minutes or until cake tester inserted into center of cupcake comes out clean. Cool in pan on wire rack. Remove cupcakes in their baking cups from pan.
For rich chocolate frosting, combine chocolate and cream in top of double boiler and set over simmering water until chocolate is melted. Remove from pan of water and stir until smooth. Add butter and stir until blended. Refrigerate 15 minutes. Beat at high speed until frosting is thick enough to spread, about 8 minutes. Frost top of each cupcake. Refrigerate 1 hour or until frosting sets. Serve at room temperature. (Store cupcakes in refrigerator.)