Jon of Montreal detests cupcake shops and regards them as a blight on the urban landscape. I can sympathize with this; cupcakes, after all, have very few redeeming characteristics. They are usually too dry, the frosting is insignificant or overload, with nothing in between, and all too often, cupcake presentation is just too cute. This is not even to mention that a true cupcake can only have negative health consequences. The Primrose Bakery of London, judging from its cookbook, is exactly the type of cupcake shop that Jon abhors: the cupcakes are a little too cute, and, based on the recipes that I tried, mediocre in taste. I suspect that even Jon, however, would approve of the Robicelli Bakery: there is nothing cute here. The Robicellis are uncompromising in their quest for the best tasting cupcake, their cupcake combinations are stunningly creative, and are even beautiful, in the way that food, not toys, should be beautiful.
Robicelli’s: A Love Story, with Cupcakes: With 50 Decidedly Grown-Up Recipes by Allison and Matt Robicelli is a great cookbook, even for those who are not enthusiastic about cupcakes. It should, however, be stated at the outset that sensitive souls who have a problem with reading the word “f***” should avoid this book, as the book often reads as a Sopranos script. Each chapter is a love letter: “A Love Letter to True Love”, “A Love Letter to Bacon”, “A Love Letter to The Golden Girls“, etc. Allison’s prose introductions to the chapters (with side comments from Matt) are a pleasure to read, humorous yet heartfelt, and Allison has no hesitation bringing her reader into her cupcake shop and her life. Allison makes every effort to see that her readers succeed in making Robicelli syle cupcakes. Her comments on equipment and ingredients should not be skipped; they are both useful and entertaining. (Allison gives the first good reason I have ever seen for using canola oil: “it’s Canadian and we f***ing love Canada.”) “So You F***ed up Your Cupcakes!” and “So You Have Extra Stuff” are useful sections, as is the “Half-Assed Corner” at the end of most recipes, providing a simplified version of the recipe. Nor does Allison shy away from the hard questions; there is a box providing a solution to the problem “There Are Too Damn Many Cupcakes in This House, and I’m Terrified I May Eat Them All.”
There are creative cupcake combinations in this book, often too creative for me, although if I cooked chicken, and kashrut were not an issue, the celebrated “Chicken ‘n’ Waffles” cupcake (page 193) would be very tempting. The two cupcakes I made from this book were tamer than “Chicken ‘n’ Waffles”, yet were about as good as cupcakes can get (but still not in the upper echelons of dessert, tastewise). I made 18, not 24, cupcakes from each cupcake recipe, and found that a half recipe (not whole) of the buttercream was more than enough to frost these 18 cupcakes.
There are buttercreams and then there are buttercreams. Specifically, we have French buttercream, made with butter, sugar, and egg yolks, Italian buttercream, made with butter, sugar, and egg whites, and what the Robicellis call American frosting, made with butter and powdered sugar. The Robicellis clearly prefer the French buttercream, and, to judge from the blurbs on the back cover of their book, they are particularly known for their buttercream. According to Shirley Corriher, author of two science of cooking cookbooks, “the Robicelli’s famous French buttercream recipe alone is worth the price of this book.” Hmmm… It is safe to challenge Shirley’s grasp of economics, but is she right about how amazing the buttercream is?
The Robicelli buttercream recipe (delightfully presented in comic strip format on page 32) does not differ in significant ways from other French buttercream recipes that I have found. The ingredients and technique are all basically the same with only minor variations. The general idea is to cook a sugar syrup to the soft ball stage while whipping up lots of egg yolks. The sugar syrup is drizzled into the yolks, beating all the time, and then a massive amount of butter in incorporated, a little bit at a time. The resulting emulsion can then be flavored in various ways. For the pros of French buttercream (as opposed to American frosting), Amy first lists “delicious” and then expands: “Like really, really, really f***ing delicious.” Sorry, Amy. I would really (really, really) like to agree, but I can’t. To me, French buttercream just tastes like butter with sugar mixed in. (Which Amy does seem to recognize; she suggests one use for leftover buttercream as “flavored butter” on pancakes and waffles.) I like butter and sugar more than most people, but the overwhelming butteriness of French buttercream is just too much, not only for health considerations, but because it is just… too much. As Danny’s father used to say: “Too much is enough.” I used less than half the amount of buttercream suggested in the book to frost the cupcakes I made, and it was still too much.
“Butterbrew” is the Robicellis’ tribute to Harry Potter. This is a vanilla cupcake with butterscotch sauce drizzled into and on the cupcake, frosted with French buttercream flavored with butterscotch, and with a piece of edible gold foil to decorate. I left out the edible gold foil. It might have looked nice, but I did not know where to get any, I did not want to spend money on it, and I did not want to eat it. The cupcakes themselves were fine, but a little on the dry side, although this might have been my fault for cooking the cupcakes too long. I would have liked more butterscotch flavor. Danny, however, was very impressed with this cupcake, and Alan also liked it, preferring it to the chocolate Robicelli cupcake, below.
The Robicellis are big fans of The Golden Girls, and have a cupcake named after each of the four golden girls. I tried the “Bea Arthur” cupcake (page 179), and liked it much more than the butterscotch cupcake. In fact, the Bea Arthur cupcake appropriately served as birthday cake for my 61st birthday. This is a mocha cupcake with a frosting of French buttercream mixed with cream cheese and vanilla and with chocolate ganache drizzled on top. The cupcake itself was properly moist, the cream cheese lessened the buttery impact of the buttercream, and the ganache drizzle was a treat. This Robicelli cupcake was the choice for Henry and me. [Go to the recipe.]
This is, after all, the twenty-first century, so I think it is highly possible that the word “f***” has passed the lips of Martha Swift and Lisa Thomas, owners of the Primrose Bakery of London and authors of Cupcakes from the Primrose Bakery. I am fairly confident, though, that neither of the two ever has or will use the word in a published work. In addition to the G-rated vocabulary, their cookbook differs in other ways from the Robicellis’ book. Other than the two page introduction detailing the genesis of the Primrose Bakery, the book is just one recipe after another. Recipe introductions are not only impersonal, but devoid of any real information. The Primrose Bakery frostings (or at least the ones given in the cookbook) are not the French buttercreams favored by the Robicellis, but mostly butter and powdered sugar combinations, with some ganache type frostings. Food coloring and candy decorations abound. There is not a whole lot of innovation in this book, although there are the curious “Milky Way Cupcakes” (page 58), consisting of Milky Way bars, corn syrup, and cornflakes, mashed into cupcake holders, slathered with chocolate “buttercream”, and decorated with plastic chicks.
“Honey and Granola Cupcakes” (page 40) are really more muffin that cupcake, although when spread with cream cheese frosting (page 35) can no longer qualify as muffin. I made these because I had some granola (from Joanne Chang’s Flour) that I did not like that much. I might have liked these cupcakes more had I liked the granola more (but then I would have eaten the granola and not made the cupcakes). The cupcake batter was too thick, despite my mistake of adding twice the amount of milk called for, and the baked cupcakes were predictably dry. The frosting, curiously, did not taste as overpoweringly buttery as the Robicelli buttercream (although it had plenty of butter), but neither was it as seductively smooth. The highest praise I can come up with for these cupcakes is: mediocre.
“Peanut Butter Cupcakes” (page 70) with “Milk Chocolate Frosting” (page 72) were much more successful. The cupcakes themselves, made with a generous amount of peanut butter, were a little dry, but that (again) might have been my fault for cooking them too long. The frosting was made of a lot of milk chocolate melted into a small amount of cream and butter. I was suspicious of this frosting and did not think it would work: I thought that it would be way too hard once it cooled. But it turned out to have an excellent texture, and as this frosting was not almost all butter, I was much happier eating it. Alan liked these cupcakes in spite of his stated preference for peanut butter and chocolate solo, not as ingredients in other food. [Go to the recipe.]
Chocolate Cupcakes with Cream Cheese Frosting
Adapted from Allison and Matt Robicelli, Robicelli’s: A Love Story, with Cupcakes
1 cup water
2 cups sugar
2 tablespoons corn syrup
1⁄4 teaspoon cream of tartar
5 egg yolks
1⁄8 teaspoon xanthan gum
11⁄2 pounds butter
4 ounces cream cheese
1⁄2 teaspoon vanilla
3⁄4 cup cocoa
1⁄2 teaspoon instant espresso powder
2⁄3 cup hot coffee
2⁄3 cup buttermilk
2⁄3 cup walnut oil
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 egg yolk
1⁄2 teaspoon salt
11⁄3 cups flour
13⁄4 cups sugar
3⁄4 teaspoon baking powder
1⁄2 teaspoon baking soda
31⁄2 ounces semisweet chocolate
1⁄2 cup cream
2 teaspoons instant espresso powder
You will use half the buttercream to make the cream cheese frosting for these cupcakes; the other half you will save to use on some future batch of cupcakes. The buttercream can be stored in the refrigerator for a few days or frozen. When ready to use, thaw, if from the freezer, and then beat to regain the necessary frosting powers.
Mix together the water, sugar, corn syrup, and cream of tartar. Bring this to a boil, stirring until the sugar is dissolved. Continue to let the sugar syrup cook, without stirring, until it reaches 235º. While the sugar syrup is cooking, beat the egg yolks and egg in your heavy duty electric mixer, using the wire whisk. they should become very fluffy. When the sugar syrup reaches 235º, remove the pan from the heat. Beat the xanthan gum into the eggs, and then, very slowly, add the hot sugar syrup to the eggs, beating with the whisk while you do so. After all the syrup is added, continue to beat with the whisk until the eggs and syrup have cooled, almost to room temperature. Switch from the whisk beater to the paddle beater. Start adding the butter, a sliver at a time, beating with the paddle as you do so. This should take a while, since a pound and a half of butter is a lot of butter.
Eventually all the butter will be fully incorporated into the frosting; beat thoroughly to make sure that there are no solid blobs of butter in your frosting. You are now done with a double batch of buttercream. Separate it into two equal halves. Store one half, and beat the cream cheese and vanilla into the half you will be using.
To make the cupcakes, preheat the oven to 350º. Line 18 muffin cups with 18 paper liners.
Beat together the cocoa, espresso powder, and hot coffee. In a separate container, mix together the buttermilk, walnut oil, vanilla, egg, and egg yolk. With your mixer running, pour this into the cocoa coffee. Sift together the flour, sugar, baking powder, and baking soda. Add the dry ingredients to the wet ingredients, and beat slowly until everything is combined. Be sure to scrape the bowl to make sure that the batter is uniform.
Distribute the batter among the 18 lined muffin cups; I use an ice cream scoop to do this. Bake for 20 to 25 minutes, until the tops of the cupcakes spring back. remove the cupcakes to a rack and let them cool.
To make the chocolate sauce, chop up the chocolate and put it in a bowl. Heat the cream and espresso powder just until it starts to boil. Then pour it over the chocolate, stirring occasionally until the chocolate is dissolved. Let the sauce cool, stirring occasionally so that it will stay pourable. Taste, and if you think you would like this sweeter, add a little bit of corn syrup.
When the cupcakes have completely cooled down, frost them. You can do this with a knife, but it is fun to be elegant and use cake decorating tools. All you need is a large star frosting tip and a large heavy plastic zip-loc bag. Cut the tip off one end of the bag, nestle the star piping tip in this opening, and fill the bag with frosting. Pipe a generous spiral of frosting, from the outside to the inside, on top of each cupcake. Once all are frosted, drizzle the chocolate sauce on top.
These cupcakes can very successfully be frozen.
Peanut Butter Cupcakes with Milk Chocolate Frosting
Adapted from Martha Swift and Lisa Thomas, Cupcakes from the Primrose Bakery
101⁄2 ounces good milk chocolate
1⁄4 cup cream
2 tablespoons butter
1⁄2 teaspoon vanilla
5 tablespoons butter
2⁄3 cup peanut butter
1 cup dark brown sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
3⁄4 cup plus 1 tablespoon flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
Pinch of salt
1⁄4 cup milk
To make the frosting, chop the milk chocolate and put it in a bowl. Bring the cream and butter just to a boil, then pour it over the chocolate. Add the vanilla. Stir occasionally as the chocolate melts, and then stir every now and then in order to maintain the frosting consistency until you are ready to frost.
Preheat the oven to 350º. Line 12 muffin cups with paper liners.
Beat together the butter and peanut butter. Beat in the sugar, eggs, and vanilla. Sift together the flour, baking powder, and salt. Add the dry ingredients to the batter alternately with the milk, beating after additions, and beginning and ending with the dry ingredients. Scoop the batter into the lined cups, and bake until springy on top, about 20 minutes. Do not overcook.
When the cupcakes are done, let them cool completely. Then frost with the milk chocolate frosting.