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.)