Before I share the recipe for this little cupcake here—because I know I’ll be poked with pointy sticks if I attempt to post a picture and then skedaddle without including a recipe—I do want to thank everyone who either commented here, sent email or called in response to the “Bay Area v. Beantown geographic smackdown” post. I heard from a lot of you, and I am touched to know that so many of you care, and wish both me and Lloyd well in the coming months and years, when we’ll need as much luck and intelligence on our side as we can muster. I am refraining from commenting further right now—although Bog knows that won’t last long —simply because for all that this is an exhilarating process, it is a stressful and exhausting one, too. I won’t enumerate on all of the factors we need to consider for our future; the most important one, of course, is to stick by each other as long as we live*, but there are other factors, too, factors that both require Lloyd to stay in New York for at least another year, and also require us to contemplate our post-New York future—because, as I predicted on this very page nearly 4 1/2 years ago, our time in New York is running out, and we’d like to get a head start before the rug is pulled from under us. In short, Lloyd and I are not going into anything with blinders on. We’re trying to make the smartest decision that can be made, even if that decision does not look smart in the short term. For that reason, I am holding off on any more discussion until I’m ready for it. Thank you all, in advance, for your patience and understanding.
Yes, yes, so noted, blahdeblahdeblah. Cupcakes, please?
Absolutely. Today’s bit of
Sunday Thursday afternoon cake love was inspired by bunni, who made beautiful little cakes using the Magnolia Bakery vanilla cupcake recipe and her bunny cakelet tins. From the minute she called to tell me about them, I’ve had cupcakes on the brain—but not the cupcakes that are ubiquitous in New York (and, to hear my dear friend Sharon tell it, are making an inroad into the same nifty neighborhood in Pittsburgh where, once upon a time, I wanted to open my bread bakery). I recognize that from an aesthetic viewpoint, a steep tower of icing atop a cupcake might look sexy, but the result is always the same: after two bites, my head rings, my teeth hurt and my stomach feels like a canvas bag with a medicine ball in it. As much as I hate to admit any fealty toward packaged food, I’m afraid that my idea of the ur-cupcake stems from the Tastykake chocolate cupcakes I loved as a kid: a small, intensely-flavored cake, a thin ribbon of icing across the top. If you are familiar with fairy cakes, those are pretty much where my cupcake tastes lie.
Once I knew that cupcakes were in my future, it was a short skip to determining the flavor. Ever since I acquired my copy of one of my favorite cookbooks, English Food by the late Jane Grigson, I have been enchanted with her recipe for Parsnip Cake, which she describes in her recipe headnote thusly:
In recent years, American carrot cake—sometimes, and I am not sure why, called passion cake—has become popular in Britain. A friend from San Diego sent me her recipe, and I thought it might be good made with parsnips instead of carrots. And it was, in fact it was even better. That is my excuse for including it in a book of English food.
I am of the opinion that, as Robert Heinlein said of little girls and butterflies, Jane Grigson needs no excuses. About the cake, she is bang-on. I made two changes to her recipe. One was to bake the cake in muffin cups, rather than layers; the other was to substitute half the plain flour with whole-wheat pastry flour, inspired by my new copy of King Arthur Flour Whole-Grain Baking, which I bought on Monday after spending Easter weekend reading Momerina’s copy. There are other changes I’ve thought of making: adding raisins, adding pineapple, replacing the traditional cream-cheese icing with with seven-minute coconut icing—but really, I would just be gilding the lily here, and I know it. I tried one of these with a cup of tea at 11 a.m., and it was just right as is, the perfect thing to bake—and to eat—while contemplating one’s stressful and uncertain future.
inspired by Jane Grigson’s parsnip cake in English Food (Ebury Press, 1992)
makes 18 medium-sized cupcakes
Note: Because Jane Grigson gives both metric and imperial weight measurements, that’s what I’m using here. Normally I try to include volume as well, but this morning I just weighed everything right into the mixing bowl. If you’d like volume measurements, let me know, and I’ll edit accordingly.
For the cupcakes:
375g (12 oz.) peeled, grated parsnip (peel and grate first, then weigh)
125g (4 oz.) chopped hazelnuts or walnuts (again, chop first, then weigh—I used hazelnuts)
400g (13 oz.) caster or golden granulated sugar (if you have regular granulated white sugar, that’s fine)
125g (4 oz.) all-purpose or plain flour
125g (4 oz.) whole wheat pastry flour (or use 250g all-purpose flour if you don’t have whole wheat pastry flour)
2 teaspoons baking powder
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon (Because this is an English recipe, I used Ceylon cinnamon, which is the predominant cinnamon used in British baking. After I added it, I remembered that the original recipe source was American, and what we Americans consider cinnamon is the stronger, more pungent cassia. Really, though, you can’t go wrong here, no matter what you use.)
1 teaspoon salt
250ml (8 fl. oz.) oil (Jane Grigson recommends either sunflower or a 50-50 sunflower/walnut or hazelnut oil mix. I used peanut oil, which is my default oil of choice, but if you can’t have peanuts, canola, safflower or even plain vegetable oil will work just fine)
4 large eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla extract (Jane Grigson suggests either the vanilla extract or the seeds from a vanilla pod; I think that the pod vanilla flavor might be lost in this cake, but in all fairness, I haven’t tried it yet.)
Preheat oven to 400F/185C/Gas Mark 6. Set a rack in the center of the oven. Line a 12-cup muffin mold with paper liners or spray with nonstick spray.
Mix parsnips and nuts together by hand and set aside.
In a stand mixer or food processor, combine the sugar, flours, baking powder, cinnamon and salt. Add the oil and beat just until combined. Add the eggs, one at a time, and beat until just combined. (You can also do this in a regular bowl with a hand mixer. If you beat this by hand, make sure that the oil and eggs are very well combined.) Add the parsnips and nuts, stir to blend. Add the vanilla. Be sure that the parsnips and batter are all evenly distributed.
Divide the batter between the cups. (I used a 1/4-cup Zeroll cookie scoop, which gave me 18 total.) Bake on the center rack for 28-30 minutes, rotating the pan halfway through the bake. When they are done, the surface will look moist, but they will be firm to the touch, and a toothpick plunged into the center of the cake will emerge clean.) Let rest for a few minutes before decanting the cakes to a cooling rack. If you have batter left over (there should be enough for six more cakes), let the pan cool down, then line and bake off the rest of the batter. Let cool completely.
For the icing:
250g (8 oz.) cream cheese (Jane Grigson specifies full-fat, but I used reduced fat [Neufchatel], which worked nicely. Fat-free, though, I wouldn’t do.)
125g-175g (4-6 oz.) softened unsalted butter (I used the smaller amount)
4 tablespoons confectioners sugar, sifted (This makes a not-too-sweet icing, which I love; if you like a sweeter icing, add more)
1 teaspoon vanilla extract or lemon juice
This is a doddle. Cream the cheese and butter together, add sugar, add vanilla or lemon juice, stir until smooth, well-blended and fluffy. Ice your cupcakes all at once, or just put them in an airtight container and ice as needed. Keep the icing in the fridge. Let it come to room temperature and stir before you spread it.
*Astute readers among you might recognize this line from ”Song of the Open Road” (stanza 17) by Walt Whitman, which my dear friend Sharon—the same dear friend Sharon who told me about the arrival of hepster cupcakes in Pittsburgh—read at our wedding. It still resonates with us.