31 Dry Drinks of January


Believe it or not, my most requested recipe isn’t a cupcake or a bread or any of the other goodies that you’ll find in my shared photos. My most requested recipe is a beverage . . . a non-alcoholic beverage. And I have to say one of my favorite things about this recipe is the reaction from people who try it for the first time. Almond Punch is an understated name for this drink that always stops people mid-swallow with an unexpected, “Wow!” before requesting for the recipe.

Which you can have, by all means. Is there anything more annoying than a “secret recipe?”

Despite its popularity it never occurred to me to post this recipe in the test kitchen until I was compiling the 31 drinks I put together for Dry January. Intrigued by claims of long-term benefits like better sleep, more energy, clearer skin, and weight loss in exchange for a one-month abstinence, I thought I would check it out. Click below for the full list in order of best to worst, and read on for a detailed review.  

Committing to the Dry January challenge was as simple as downloading the app and signing up. But I know me and I know my routine, so I was going to one damn fine plan to change things up. That morning cup of coffee is not so much about caffeine as it is routine and it’s the same with the after-work cocktail. So I decided to take a page out of my Halloween playbook and add a month of non-alcoholic drinks to yearly horror movie schedule. Yeah, that could work. Hell ... that could even be fun. And in the spirit of the rating horror movies, let’s rate the drinks.  Spirit, get it? Never mind.


For scoring, I went with a simple scale from 1 to 3 against a benchmark of red or white wine in four categories: taste, calories, difficulty, and sippability. Sippability is my made up term for the tendency to want to have another glass. Wine is the ultimate sippable beverage for me so a drink that made me want a refill would be more likely to keep a cork in the wine bottle where it belonged for a month. I also prioritized the categories; taste was the most important followed by calories, difficulty and sippability. That meant a drink with a numerically higher score might be less likely to make it into my glass if something else tasted better without being too caloric or just a pain in the ass to prepare. As a benchmark, wine doesn’t have a perfect score thanks to its 25 calories per ounce. In fact, none of the drinks earned a perfect 12 but the #1 came close.

I did lay in a few ground rules as my goal was to find viable substitutes while experiencing those lasting benefits for myself. No caffeine, no non-alcoholic alcohols, and no water. Iced coffees, lattes, and Arnold Palmers were off the menu. Better sleep was more likely to happen without caffeine. Fake booze like O’Douls, Seedlip, and non-alcoholic wines generally pack all of the cost and calories of their real counterparts without the flavor or the buzz. These imitations don’t fool me, I know it’s a glass of nothing pretending to be something. I could never get there with diet sodas either, so if fake booze works for you there then by all means, go for it. The only reason I took water off the list is I already drink a lot of water, so “substituting” water really meant cold turkey and I was going for something different.

Who knew that coming up with up with 31 drinks would be so hard? Try googling non-alcoholic drinks and you’ll find plenty of mocktails that contain a lot of sugar (ginger ale and ginger beer are packed with it) or virgin drinks that are just boring without the booze. Like a virgin toddy, ranked #27 on my list. This version of my favorite winter warmer wasn’t just boring, it was nasty. It turns out that hot water with honey, lemon and spices needs a shot of whiskey. A better option is a cup of your favorite evening tea. I have two versions here at #12 and #13. Both are delicious, caffeine free, and great for warming up or winding down. One steaming cup is enough for me and while it has its place, hot tea just isn’t the right fit for sipping while cooking.


Now that I’ve dumped on the virgin cocktail, my second favorite drink turned out to be just that. Such is my bias against the virgin cocktail that it hadn’t even occurred to me to try a Virgin Mojito until a friend suggested it. I made it exactly the way I make the real deal except no rum - and I shocked myself when I didn’t miss the booze. And just like a real mojito, you can adjust the sweet, sour, soda, and mint to suit your taste. This drink is going to be my go-to cooler during the summer. Mojitos, with and without the booze, take a some work to prepare and clean up and that is why this drink earned second place with a score of 10/12.

First place went to the the Ginger Lime Spritzer which is could almost be described as a ginger mojito. Fresh ginger and lime infused simple syrup combined with club soda make for an easy to prepare beverage with great flavor and very few calories. There is some up front work to brewing the simple syrup but once prepared, it hangs out in the refrigerator for weeks. The strength of the ginger is totally up to you and depends on the amount steeped into the syrup and how long it has been in your refrigerator. This drink had a near-perfect score of 11/12 and I love, love the flavor of real ginger.

Third place on the list is an Orange Honey Ginger-Ale. The base of this drink is a honey simple syrup infused with orange and ginger, and it is delightful when combined with club soda and orange juice. I think this is the best tasting drink of the bunch - it also has about twice the calories of the top two, but still a lot less than wine.

Pause for a fun fact. There is no ginger in ginger ale or ginger beer. At least not in any of the brands readily available in my supermarket. I was able to find a ginger beer that claimed to have real ginger way down the ingredient list, and it carried a higher price tag to prove it. After making a half dozen simple syrups, I’ve learned that a ginger simple syrup with club soda is better than any store bought ginger ale. I will definitely sip a glass of commercial ginger ale over any other soda, but make your own sometime and see if it doesn’t change your religion.

Earlier I described the virgin toddy as nasty so you may wonder what drinks kept it off the bottom. How about a fruity spritzer made with lemons and kiwi fruit? The worst drink of the pack sounded so much better in my head than it tasted in my glass. Kiwi fruit is expensive and a pain in the ass to peel so when you combine it with lemonade, a little sugar and club soda . . . it tastes like lawn grass. Worse is the texture that might have you thinking you whipped up a batch of clippings liberated from the lawnmower. It isn’t appetizing to look at either with all of those kiwi seeds sitting on the bottom. I would love a second opinion on this one if you’re up for it.

Three different herbal iced tea blends also floated at the bottom. I thought I would be getting a caffeine-free version of my beloved Arnold Palmer so I had some expectations. What I got was something that tasted more like soap. Two of the bevvies looked like beer, especially after being poured into a Guinness tumbler, but all of these drinks went down the drain. I also put the Mango Lassi near the bottom, mostly for the calories. A mango lassi is a smoothie, and there’s only so much smoothie a person can drink. My version made with frozen mango and plain, whole-milk yogurt was not quite as tasty as what I have gotten at Indian restaurants, but adding more honey to balance the rest of the ingredients made a high calorie version of a smoothie even worse. My own morning smoothie has no added sugars, although you can argue that fruit juice is sugar and I won’t even try to defend that.

A few bevvies in the middle of the pack deserve honorable mention and a seat at your dry drink table. The white grape spritzer as designed was a little sweet for me, so it came in at #9. I changed it up later by mixing the recipe as written with club soda which would bump it into the top 5 for me. As a bonus, it looks like a glass of wine if you serve it right and skip the garnish - plus you still have the original, sweeter version for your guests who are into that. I made the garnishes optional in the recipe; frozen grapes don’t really have a place in my routine. The Lemon Basil Mock-jito is another non-alcoholic version of a mojito using a basil instead of mint, and lemon instead of lime. It’s a bit of work to whip up and higher in calories than it’s more traditional virgin cousin (that sounds naughty), but a solid member of the virgin mojito family. Finally, the Cucumber Ginger Limeade at #20 gets a bye in the difficulty category from the simple syrup you already prepared. There is still plenty of prep owing to the cucumbers but I found that bitterness of the cucumber really complimented the tart of the lime and made for a uniquely refreshing drink. If you don’t want to make the full mocktail, try muddling a bit of cucumber with the Ginger Lime Spritzer and see if that speaks to you. Prep and calories also got the best of the Cucumber Gimlet, but mixed in a batch for a group will distribute the effort and earn you some well-deserved praise.

I made it through Dry January just fine and it was a lot easier than I thought it would be. I think that is due to making a commitment and sharing it combined with the game of drinks I played all month. I found I wasn’t focused on what I was missing and I never felt cranky. Quite the opposite in fact. I also noticed improved sleep and a little more energy in the day. The most lasting benefit is awareness and just less consumption overall. I will totally do this again next January and have a few tips if anyone is interested in trying it for a week or a month or whatever.

  1. Use the app, keep track if your progress, read the stories, watch those little umbrellas add up.

  2. Engage an accountability buddy. They don’t have to go dry with you and it helps you to stay on track. If you can’t find one, I’ll do it.

  3. Find one of the easy drinks on the top 10 list and keep the ingredients on hand. Tonic with lime, club soda with bitters, or store-bought flavored seltzer are as easy to pour as a drink and if you stay committed, these will keep you from using “too hard” as an excuse.

  4. Go to the gym for 30 minutes, put your clothes in the laundry or closet, tidy up the kitchen, plan your outfit for tomorrow, walk to the mailbox, go to bed early. Simple tasks will keep you busy and you may be surprised that you stay ahead of weekend chores when you aren’t taking the time to relax with a cocktail. Bonus, it will keep your mind occupied as well and ease you out of work and into the evening.

  5. When you reach your goal, however long or short it is, reward yourself with a nice bottle of wine and enjoy what it feels like to get a buzz after a few sips.

Pumpkin Spice Latte Cupcakes

It’s been ages since I have been in the test kitchen. The temperature in Salt Lake City jumped up to 108°F the weekend before July 4th and it remained scorching hot through the summer. Firing up the oven just seemed like a little trip to hell so all cooking the last couple of months has been outside – on the grill or in the smoker.

baking in the summer be like . . .

baking in the summer be like . . .

But fall is finally here and Pumpkin Spice Latte season has arrived. And while I am not one to stand in line at Starbucks for a venti of this deliciousness, I definitely understand those who do. So with temperatures finally coming down, I thought it would be fun to try my own version – PSL in a cupcake. Actually, that wasn’t my first thought when PSL season arrived. My daughter is a wizard at making bath bombs and several weeks ago she gave me a hands-on tutorial. I was thinking about all of the Halloween bath bombs I would make and I thought about creating a PSL version. If only I was any good at bath bombs … But hey, I’m pretty good at cupcakes so I decided to leave the bath bombs to the expert I and I created a Pumpkin Spice Latte cupcake.

What if i were a cupcake?

What if i were a cupcake?


There were a lot of recipes out there and I was tempted to try the doctored cake mix version because the altitude here shows no mercy. In the end, I settled on a recipe that includes real pumpkin in the list of ingredients and a tweak to my baking technique. The cupcakes turned out perfectly. Was it the perfect recipe? The perfect technique? A little bit of both? I don’t know, but I’m not changing any of it.


I am in a constant state of stalking recipes and researching techniques to widen my aperture. For me, the perfect cupcake has a slightly domed top out of the oven that doesn’t deflate as it cools. But I have noticed a lot of recipe blogs and videos where the cupcake is slightly sunken in the middle and no apologies. So maybe I’m too hard on myself and a little concavity is okay – just fill it in with frosting. But that’s not good enough for me. And this recipe delivers.

I am including the cream cheese frosting and caramel topping because they are part of the entire recipe, but I opted for a simple buttercream with a little Kahlua to bump up the coffee flavor. Play with the quantity of pumpkin pie spice and espresso to balance your own tastes. I increased the espresso and decreased the spice from the original recipe but you may prefer a lower coffee-to-spice ratio. The link to my recipe is below and in the recipe folder at the top of this page.

Happy autumn, I hope you enjoy the return to your indoor kitchen as much as I have.

A Perfect Chocolate Cake

The cover photo of the recipe that caught my eye. Compare this with my final result and judge me for my lack of presentation skills.

The cover photo of the recipe that caught my eye. Compare this with my final result and judge me for my lack of presentation skills.

Last year my dear friend, Midge, asked me to create the perfect chocolate brownie. A fair request since I had been a little bragadocious about my perfect cupcakes. Which, by the way, are still perfect. But the perfect chocolate brownie? That's harder - and not just because I don't love brownies. I mean, I also don't love lamb.

What in the world does lamb have to do with brownies, you ask? It's simple. When I cook lamb, I don't know if it is any good because it tastes to me like lamb. Before you tell me that I just haven't had it cooked right, know that I have eaten lamb at some very good restaurants, including a fine Indian restaurant that braised the lamb in delicious spices of curry and masala with tomatoes and cream. It all still tasted like lamb.

It's the same  with brownies. Whether prepared from scratch, made from a box, or created from a doctored mix - they taste like brownies. And to make matters worse, there are your chewy, fudgy brownies and your cakey brownies, and all textures in between. I have found that there is  a division between folks on the chewy side of the brownie aisle and those on the cakey side, and they like to debate about the proper texture of a brownie. You just can't have your cake and chew it, too. So it seems the perfect brownie is destined to fail.

It's not that I didn't try. I love my friend, I love a challenge, I love to create a sweet, chocolatey treat. I also thought it would be fun to decorate a pan of perfect brownies like a pumpkin patch and give large pieces away on Halloween night. I tested recipes from Bon Appétit,  Food Network, and Sally's Baking Addiction. I tested a deceptively difficult recipe featured in a one-minute internet video. I tested recipes from co-workers, including a legendary caramel brownie that sparked Pavlovian responses when it appeared on the pot luck sign-up sheet. That particular recipe calls for 60 caramels and do you want to know how long it takes to unwrap 60 individual caramels? I was baking late on a school night, breaking a long-standing rule that was totally worth it because these would be perfect. Reviews said they weren't. Good thing, too, because perfection would mean days of unwrapping caramels.

I also bought a gourmet cocoa recommended by Epicurious since perfect brownies demanded perfect ingredients. My plan was to get the texture right and then home in on the flavor. But after multiple tries and giving away the results in exchange for mediocre reviews, the cocoa eventually made it's way into this perfect chocolate cake.

I will go back and try again (I have a King Arthur Flour recipe on deck), but I was distracted by a beautifully glossy chocolate cake that popped up in my news feed - the cake that is the cover photo for this post - so you understand the allure. The recipe was sourced from My Recipes which has never let me down, and it included buttermilk.  I tend to have more success with baking at high altitude when the recipe includes an acid like sour cream or buttermilk. And the cake was a bundt configuration and I had a shiny new Pampered Chef bundt pan begging for attention. So I measured out the last of the Scharffen Berger 100% cacao powder and went for it.


My husband is my biggest fan and the nicest guy in the world, and that means his food reviews are suspect. I have to tune into his honest responses like leaving half of the food on his plate at the end of a meal or going back for seconds. A reaction like, "This is the best cake you have ever made," gets my attention, and that was his review. A review made even sweeter by the fact that chocolate is not his favorite. And I had to agree, my own mouth full of a bite so moist there was no milk required.  So taking a break from the elusive perfect brownie, I bring you a perfect chocolate cake - adapted from the original recipe which is in the link below. 

A few notes. I went to a Pampered Chef party and was promised that their new bundt pan would kick ass on all other bundt pans. It came with a warning from the hostess to be careful lest the baked confection fly right out of the pan en route from oven to cooling rack. I was sold at Pampered Chef and that pretty blue color. I am not sponsored by Pampered Chef - the company doesn't sponsor anyone. I just think their stuff is really, really good. And while I still used a baking spray on this project, it did indeed slide right out of the pan without leaving a crumb behind. I gave away my old pan.


Modifications to the recipe are standard altitude mods that I do with most recipes. Reduced quantities of chemical leavening and a slightly hotter oven. I did not bake this on convection, just a 25°F temperature bump did the trick. The finished cake did rise above the rim of the pan a bit, but it did not spill, fall or sink.  Perfect.

The final mod is a lesson learned on good chocolate. While I used a premium cocoa, I think that is optional. But the ganache in the original recipe calls for semi sweet chocolate chips and the quality of your chocolate really matters here. Please don't go for those toll house chocolate chips at the grocery store. Get the best quality semi-sweet chocolate you are willing to pay for. I used Ghirardelli because that's the best I could find in my grocery store and it is pretty good. A trip to the gourmet section of a specialty store wouldn't be the worst idea. I hope you enjoy the recipe, and hopefully your glazing skills are better than mine. If not, nobody will notice. They will think the cake is "perfect."

Perfect Chocolate Bundt Cake

  • 2-1/3 cups all-purpose flour
  • 3/4 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1½ teaspoons baking soda
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 3/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
  • 2 cups granulated sugar
  • 1 cup buttermilk
  • 1 cup warm brewed coffee
  • 1/2 cup vegetable oil
  • 2 large eggs
  • 2½ teaspoons vanilla extract
  • 8 ounces semi-sweet chocolate, chopped (I used Ghirardelli)
  • 1 cup heavy cream
  • 1 tablespoon coffee liqueur
  1.  Preheat the oven to 375°F.  Prepare a bundt pan with baking spray.
  2. Sift cocoa into a small bowl to remove lumps. Whisk in the flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt; set aside.
  3. Mix the eggs and sugar in mixing bowl until combined.  Add oil, vanilla and coffee and mix to combine.  Add dry ingredients alternately with buttermilk until fully mixed and homogeneous. Do not overmix. 
  4. Pour batter into prepared bundt pan.  Bake 40-50 minutes, until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.  Remove to a wire rack and cool for 10 minutes.
  5. Turn cake out onto a plate and let cool completely. Meanwhile, prepare the ganache.
  6. Heat heavy cream to almost boiling. Pour onto chopped chocolate and whisk until smooth. Add liqueur and let cool to room temperature.
  7. Spoon or carefully pour ganache over cooked cake, allowing the glaze to drip down the sides and cover cake completely. For presentation, it Is best to do this on a prep plate, and move to a cake stand or serving plate once the ganache has cooled and set completely.


A Perfect Chocolate Cupcake

It makes sense to follow up THE perfect vanilla cupcake with A perfect chocolate cupcake. Okay, I'm feeling sassy and allowing for the possibility of multiple perfections here. Remember part of perfection is in the simplicity of the recipe and this particular one has an extra step - boiling water. I know, it's so hard to boil water but all steps matter. To compensate for this extra step I just pretend I am making tea while baking and voila', boiling water. Okay, who are we kidding? I never drink tea when I bake, but maybe I'm on to something.

While this chocolate cupcake was truly delicious with great chocolate flavor and a lovely crumb, the icing was really the star of the show and I was actually unprepared for that. It took me two tries to get the cupcake right. The first recipe I used was a basic chocolate recipe that included vegetable oil, buttermilk, cocoa powder, and a combination of white and brown sugars. I made some minor high-altitude adjustments: slightly reduced baking soda and a temperature bump to 375°F convection. I prefer recipes that contain an acid like sour cream or buttermilk. They usually work out for me and produce moist, tender results. Sadly, not this time.

These little guys tanked so badly it was almost impressive.  I can usually tell if the recipe will fail in the first 5 minutes of baking. The signature lag in rise at the center of the cake is a dead give away but I never give up hope. I usually spend the remaining 15 minutes telling myself a story that the treats will spring in the last minutes of baking just before swapping that tea for something a little stronger. 

We had a family friend in town that weekend and the subject of altitude was tossed around. We talked about the effects of altitude on physical training and later turned the discussion to what a few thousand feet can do to baking. Lucky for me I was able to provide proof although to be honest, it was kind of embarrassing. If there is one thing I have learned as a self-taught and very amateur chef, it is this: an emotionally safe environment is prerequisite to success. Cooking and baking take practice and when your spouse is critical of your results, it is hard to keep going. My husband is outstanding in that capacity and I credit him with any skills I have developed over the years. No matter how bad the failure, he is no critic and eats whatever comes out of the oven. And he sells the hell out of his enjoyment of it. That is what he did with these pathetic, sunken failures. 

I decided against further tweaks to this recipe due to its lack of promise. I switched a recipe from Food & Wine that include cocoa powder and semi-sweet chocolate chips combined with the aforementioned boiling water. The recipe also had butter instead of oil as well as sour cream. The scientist in me really ought to design an experiment to find out whether the choice of fat, acid, or sugars affects the results. 

Right away, I could tell that this batch of cupcakes was not going to fail in the oven. Success would depend on the flavor, but at least I wouldn't need power tools to get them out of the pan. After about 17 minutes, I removed these perfectly domed cupcakes from my oven and felt my ego boost enough to try something new with the icing. I know, I should have quit while I was ahead but I started this entry by saying I'm feeling sassy. 

The chocolate and vanilla swirl icing turned out so much better than I expected that it will be my new standard when really trying to impress with flavor. The combination of buttercreams turned a simple chocolate cupcake into a perfect chocolate cupcake. It tasted like an ice cream twisty cone and looked just as good. 

The chocolate cupcake is definitely on the agenda for Halloween - delicious and foolproof, it would be silly for me to use anything else. However . . . the swirl icing is probably not going to make the cut. I cannot see my way to making two separate batches of icing, combining them into a piping bag and swirling them on top of a cupcake only to cover it with a green monster head, a meringue ghost, or an Oreo-covered graveyard. Nope, this icing needs to star in its very own show with maybe a few sprinkles for support.  

Chocolate and Vanilla Swirl Icing

Milk Chocolate Frosting

  • 1 and 3/4 cups (210g) confectioners' sugar

  • 1/4 cup (21g) unsweetened natural cocoa powder

  • 1/2 cup (115g) unsalted butter, softened to room temperature

  • 2 Tablespoons (30ml) heavy cream or half-and-half 2

  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract

  • salt, to taste

Vanilla Frosting

  • 1/2 cup (115g) unsalted butter, softened to room temperature

  • 1 and 3/4 cups (210g) confectioners' sugar

  • 2 Tablespoons (30ml) heavy cream or half-and-half 2

  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract

  • salt, to taste

  1. For the chocolate frosting: sift together the confectioners' sugar and cocoa powder to assure there are no lumps. Set aside. With a handheld or stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, beat the butter on medium speed until creamy - about 2 minutes. Gradually add the sifted sugar/cocoa powder alternately with the heavy cream and vanilla. Beat on low speed after each addition. Once all added, beat on high speed until creamy and combined for at least 2 minutes. Add a pinch of salt if frosting is too sweet.

  2. For the vanilla frosting: With a handheld or stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, beat the butter on medium speed until creamy - about 2 minutes. Add confectioners' sugar, cream, and vanilla extract with the mixer running on low. Increase to high speed and beat for 3 full minutes. Add more confectioners' sugar if frosting is too thin or more cream if frosting is too thick. Add a pinch of salt if frosting is too sweet.

  3. Prepare a piping bag with your preferred tip and place in a tall glass, folding the edges over. Spoon chocolate frosting into one side of the bag and vanilla frosting into the other side of the bag. Remove the bag from the glass and push the icing through the tip to release any air. Twist the top of the bag and pipe with your preferred method.  (This is the method I used, I followed Sally's instructions for making and piping the icing exactly. There are other methods for piping multiple flavors and colors of icing, including special piping tips.)

The Perfect Vanilla Cupcake


I am always looking for a better cupcake recipe. I would say that I've tried a thousand recipes but that's me being hyperbolic.  Dozens, though - I have tried dozens.  The test kitchen sits at 5000 feet and baking can be a real challenge. I'd never researched high-altitude baking before and chalked sunken cupcakes up to my lack of technique or a crappy recipe. Besides, I always had my good friend, the cake doctor, standing by. When I moved to a new town and added 600 feet in altitude, baking failures became more noticeable. As did my need to crank out a good cupcake from scratch. 

I researched  the dickens out of high-altitude baking. I read "Pie in the Sky," which is recognized by most as the bible of high-altitude baking. I followed that up with another book on high altitude baking. I think it was called "High Altitude Baking." I got cookbooks written by executive chefs at ski lodge restaurants - if you can bake at 10,000 feet then 5000 should be, well, a piece of cake right? I surfed the internet and sorted through countless YouTube tutorials. In the end, I found that some recipes worked - but most did not. I still didn't understand why. I mean, yes the air is thinner and water boils at a lower temperature and yeast-dough rises faster and chemical leavening reacts before the batter is ready - all of that stuff. Yet...why this recipe and not that one? There are lists of "standard" high-altitude baking adjustments. Add more flour, decrease the amount of sugar, reduce the quantity of baking powder/soda, use more liquid, add an egg, increase the oven temperature... Did I leave anything out? I'm sure I did. And in the end, I couldn't consistently produce a perfect cupcake.

By perfect, I don't mean just flavor and texture. Not when I'm cranking out over 100 of those fully-decorated suckers on Halloween night. No, perfect means it can't be too damn hard. So, without further adieu, I bring you my perfect vanilla cupcake. Adapted ever so slightly from Sally's recipe which is included the link below. All ingredients are room temperature. I weigh my ingredients and highly recommend you spring for the $10 on Amazon for a kitchen scale and do the same. Baking failures are way more expensive. Per unit measures are also tricky. Size does matter when it comes to eggs. Also, did you know that in Japan a stick of butter is half the size as it is in the United States? I found that out the hard way when sharing recipes across the Pacific.

Vanilla Cupcakes

  • 1 stick (8 tbs) butter
  • 200 grams granulated sugar (1 cup)
  • 200 grams cake flour (1-3/4 cup)
  • 1/2 tsp baking powder
  • 1/4 tsp baking soda
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • 3 large egg whites
  • 1 Tbs pure vanilla extract
  • 120 grams full-fat sour cream (1/2 cup)
  • 1/2 cup full-fat milk
  • Optional vanilla bean ** 
  • Frosting of your choice (try the fluffy brown sugar recipe below)
  1. Beat the butter on high speed until smooth; add sugar and beat until well combined. Meanwhile, combine dry ingredients and set aside.
  2. Add egg whites and vanilla, beating at medium speed until combined.  
  3. Add sour cream, beat at medium speed until combined.
  4. With mixer on low, slowly add the dry ingredients until just incorporated. Then add the milk, mixing slowly just until all ingredients are combined. 
  5. Fill prepared cupcake liners 1/2 to 2/3 full. 

Now for the hard stuff: the baking temperature. Sally calls for 350°F for 19-22 minutes. I use 350°F convection.  Of all of the adjustments I have made to cure altitude sickness in my kitchen, I believe the convection oven has been the most important. With my oven, that means I set the temperature at 375°F because the convection feature automatically adjusts the setpoint down to 350°F. I set the timer for 15 minutes and increase in 2 minutes if necessary. These came in at 17 minutes and my yield was 18 cupcakes.

This is a standard mixing procedure for cake batters, I left out all of the extracurricular instructions. You know to scrape down the bowl and not to overmix. I've always wondered what that meant - don't overmix. I never overdo anything. I will say that I evolved from dumping everything into the mixer and beating the tar out of the batter at high speed to gently combining the ingredients in stages. Too much or too vigorous mixing can introduce air into the batter and make the cake tough, a less-forgiving property at altitude. I often do the final mix by hand. This batter was beautiful - silky and smooth, I knew I was on to something. 

I know what you're thinking - what about the vanilla bean? Well, there is a reason that wars have been fought over spices. Vanilla beans are both exquisite and expensive. Keep in mind that here in the test kitchen, we look for recipes that are delicious, easy, somewhat economical, and versatile. I plan to use this recipe as a base for other cupcakes like orange and cinnamon and I'll be sending them out the door by the gross. This recipe produced a simply delicious vanilla cupcake without the vanilla bean. But if you make a single batch for your family and friends, scrape the seeds of a whole bean into the batter when you add the egg whites. That's what I do when I make these for just us. Those little brown flecks are like candy hearts on Valentine's Day screaming, "I love you."

For more about Sally, check out the links to my favorite cooking places. Enjoy.

Fluffy Brown Sugar Icing

  • 1 cup brown sugar (packed)
  • 1/4 cup water
  • 1/2 cup light corn syrup
  • 4 egg whites
  • 2 tsp vanilla
  1. Mix brown sugar, water and corn syrup in a medium pan. Bring to a full rolling boil. Boil at medium heat for approximately 10 minutes until syrup drops like a hair from a spoon. Remove from burner and set aside.
  2. Meanwhile, beat egg whites until stiff.
  3. Slowly pour the hot syrup in a thin stream into egg whites, beating constantly.
  4. Beat until icing holds peaks; beat in vanilla.
  5. Let cool to room temperature. Store covered in the refrigerator until ready to use.

A link to the recipe source is included below with photos and a video. I followed the recipe exactly. I recommend refrigerating the icing for a bit before piping it onto your cupcakes. At my room temperature it was just a little bit soft, but as you can see it still held the swirl just fine. The recipe makes a lot of icing. I refrigerated the leftovers and noticed that it started to separate after a few days. I didn't try to re-whip it into shape just because my kitchen is in a state of remodel so I'm off cupcakes for a couple of weeks. 

I got as many compliments on the icing as I did the cupcake. It is a delicious alternative to buttercream when you want something that is a little less sweet. Enjoy.