Who says cupcakes are passe?

January 12, 2015

There are plenty of reasons to keep loving cupcakes

The metro Detroit chain Just Baked is not alone in closing its corporate-owned cupcake shops. Crumbs Bake Shop, based in New York City, shut the doors on all 48 of its stores in July. (They’ve since reopened a store in Manhattan.)

And while you might have heard some folks say cupcakes are passé, we in the Free Press Test Kitchen disagree. Since the cupcake craze started more than 10 years ago, the little cakes have come a long way from the standard-variety school birthday treat we remember from childhood.

Here are five reasons why we will always love cupcakes (plus some of our favorite cupcake recipes, too):

1. What’s on top: We love the creativity fostered by frosting — from gussied-up buttercreams in wild colors and flavors, to light and airy meringues and decadent chocolate ganache. And then there’s the endless array of decorations available. Of course there are the simple sprinkles, chocolate curls and candy. But so many went further with toppings like candied bacon, pretzels, potato chips, mini-action figures and dolls.

2. What’s inside: Cupcakes jumped from using a plain boxed cake mix to doctored-up mixes with the addition of puddings, spices or nuts or having a theme. There are red velvet, rocky road brownie, peanut butter-infused and even cheesecake cupcakes. Injecting a baked cupcake with jams, cream fillings and frosting is the norm.

3. The pretty presentation: Those fluted paper or foil liners have come a long way. Tons of colors, designs, sizes are sold at grocery stores, craft stores and big box retailers. There are even holders for the cupcakes already in liners. Cupcakes have become the centerpiece of many dessert tables, whether they are displayed on tiers, turned into tasty towers or frosted together to form cakes for any special occasion.

4. Kid-friendly: Cupcakes have always been — and continue to be — a favorite among the younger set. They are the perfect size for smaller hands (unless you splurge for the gargantuan size) and decorating them can be fun for all ages (just watch for the little finger-lickers).

5. Travel well: These tasty treats can travel in style (not the foil-lined shirt boxes you might remember from decades past). Now, there are a variety of handy cupcake carriers, in many shapes and sizes, for easy transport so there’s less mess and fewer frosting mishaps from cupcakes slipping and sliding along the way.

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CHOCOLATE CHERRY CUPCAKES WITH VANILLA BEAN FROSTING

Makes: 16 / Preparation time: 10 minutes

Total time: 50 minutes

The cupcakes get an antioxidant and fiber boost from dried cherries.

1 cup dried cherries

1 cup water

1 cup unsweetened cocoa powder

4 ounces bittersweet chocolate (60 percent cacao), broken

2 tablespoons unsalted butter

3/4 cup light brown sugar

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Pinch of salt

4 large eggs

1/2 cup all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon baking soda

2 vanilla beans, split

1 package (8 ounces) reduced-fat cream cheese (Neufchatel), softened

1/2 cup plus 1 tablespoon confectioner’s sugar

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line 2 muffin pans with 16 paper liners.

In a small saucepan, combine cherries with water. Bring to a boil. Transfer mixture (cherries and water) to a food processor. Add cocoa, chocolate and butter, and pulse until combined. Cool 1 minute. Add brown sugar, vanilla extract and a pinch of salt, and puree until almost smooth.

Pulse in eggs until well combined. Whisk together flour and baking soda in a bowl and add to food processor. Pulse until just combined.

Divide batter evenly among pans. Bake in upper and lower thirds of oven until tops are slightly domed and firm to the touch, 18 to 20 minutes. Remove from oven and cool cupcakes in pans on rack for 10 minutes. Remove from pans and cool completely on rack.

Scrape vanilla bean seeds into bowl. Add cream cheese and confectioner’s sugar and beat well. Pipe or spread frosting onto cupcakes.

From Prevention magazine, January 2012 issue.

Tested by Susan Selasky for the Free Press Test Kitchen. Analysis per cupcake.

219 calories (41 percent from fat), 10 g fat (5 g saturated fat), 31 g carbohydrates, 5 g protein, 170 mg sodium, 76 mg cholesterol, 4 g fiber.

BANANA CUPCAKES WITH CARAMEL BUTTERCREAM FROSTING

Makes: 28 / Preparation time: 15 minutes

Total time: 1 hour 15 minutes

This recipe makes a little more than you may actually need.

3 cups sifted cake flour (not self-rising)

1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda

3/4 teaspoon baking powder

3/4 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

6 ounces (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened

1 1/2 cups packed light-brown sugar

3 large eggs

4 very ripe large bananas, mashed (about 2 cups), plus sliced bananas for garnish

3/4 cup low-fat buttermilk

1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

1 cup chopped pecans

CARAMEL BUTTERCREAM FROSTING

1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar

1/4 cup water

1/4 cup heavy cream

Swiss Meringue Buttercream (see recipe)

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Line standard muffin tins with paper liners. In a large bowl, combine the flour, baking soda, baking powder, salt and cinnamon. In a mixing bowl, cream together the butter and sugar until light and fluffy, about 3 minutes. Add the eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition.

In a separate bowl, mix together the mashed bananas, buttermilk and vanilla.

Add the flour mixture in three additions alternating with the banana and buttermilk mixture, beginning and ending with the flour. Stir in the pecans. You can leave out a small amount of chopped pecans to sprinkle on the tops if desired.

Scrape sides of bowl. Divide the batter among muffin cups, filling each 3/4 full. Bake for 25 minutes. Remove from oven and cool.

To make the frosting: Bring 1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar and the water to a boil in a medium saucepan. Wash sides of pan with a wet pastry brush to prevent sugar crystals from forming. Cook, undisturbed, until caramel is dark amber. Remove from heat and add cream slowly, stirring with a wooden spoon until smooth. When cool, fold in Swiss Meringue Buttercream.

Once cupcakes are cool, frost tops with caramel buttercream. Frosted cupcakes will keep, covered and refrigerated, for up to 3 days. Top with banana slices before serving.

Adapted from Martha Stewart Living magazine, February issue.

Tested by Susan Selasky for the Free Press Test Kitchen.

Analysis per 1 cup cupcake with 2 tablespoons frosting.

319 calories (51 percent from fat), 19 g fat (10 g saturated fat), 37 g carbohydrates, 3 g protein, 170 mg sodium, 62 mg cholesterol, 40 mg calcium, 1 g fiber.

CHOCOLATE CUPCAKES WITH RASPBERRY FILLING

Makes: 24 / Preparation time: 25 minutes

Total time: 1 hour, 10 minutes

The cream filling in these cupcakes is a terrific addition. This frosting is simple and gets a creamy boost from marshmallow crème.

1 box (18.25 ounces) chocolate cake mix

1 container (8 ounces) frozen nondairy whipped topping, thawed

1 package (3 ounces) cream cheese, softened

1/4 cup seedless raspberry preserves

1/2 cup confectioners’ sugar

AMARETTO FROSTING

1/2 cup butter, softened

1 jar (7 ounces) marshmallow crème

2 1/4 to 2 3/4 cups confectioners’ sugar

2 tablespoons almond-flavored liqueur or 1/2 teaspoon almond extract

GARNISH (optional)

Toasted sliced almonds

Fresh raspberries

Prepare the cake mix following cupcake instructions. Let cupcakes cool completely.

In a medium bowl, beat together the whipped topping and cream cheese at medium speed until smooth. Add the preserves, beating until the mixture is smooth. Gradually beat in the confectioners’ sugar until the mixture is smooth. Spoon the mixture into a squeeze bottle or use a pastry bag with a narrow (about 1/8-inch) tip. Insert tip into the top of each cupcake and squeeze a good tablespoon of filling into each center. It’s OK if some seeps out the top. Repeat with all cupcakes.

To make the frosting, in a medium bowl beat the butter and marshmallow crème at medium speed with an electric mixture until smooth. Gradually beat in 2 1/4 cups of the confectioner’s sugar. Add more if it is not sweet enough. Add the almond liqueur and beat until smooth.

Frost the cupcakes and garnish with sliced almonds and raspberries, if desired.

From Cooking with Paula Deen magazine, February 2009 issue. Tested by Susan Selasky for the Free Press Test Kitchen. Analysis per 1 cupcake with about 2 tablespoons frosting.

265 calories (36 percent from fat), 11 g fat (6 g saturated fat), 43 g carbohydrates, 2 g protein, 230 mg sodium, 14 mg cholesterol, 37 mg calcium, 1 g fiber.

BROWN-SUGAR POUND CUPCAKES WITH BROWN-BUTTER GLAZE

Makes: 29 / Preparation time: 15 minutes

Total time: 1 hour 10 minutes.

The Brown Butter Glaze, different from standard cupcake frostings, adds a rich buttery taste. These are best served immediately.

CUPCAKES

3 cups sifted all-purpose flour

2 teaspoons baking powder

1/2 teaspoon salt

8 ounces (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened

2 1/4 cups packed light-brown sugar

4 large eggs, room temperature

3/4 cup low-fat buttermilk

BROWN-BUTTER GLAZE

4 ounces (1 stick) unsalted butter

2 cups sifted confectioner’s sugar

2 teaspoons vanilla extract

2 to 4 tablespoons whole milk

Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Line standard muffin tins with paper liners. In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder and salt. In a large mixing bowl, cream together the butter and brown sugar until light and fluffy, about 3 minutes. Add the eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Add the flour mixture in three additions alternating with the buttermilk, beginning and ending with the flour.

Scrape sides of bowl. Divide the batter among muffin cups, filling each 3/4 full. Bake for 25 minutes.

Meanwhile make the glaze: In a saucepan, heat the butter over medium heat until golden brown, about 5 to 10 minutes. Carefully pour butter into a bowl, leaving sediment behind.

Add the sugar, vanilla, and 2 tablespoons milk to the butter and stir until smooth. If glaze is too thick, add more milk.

Set rack with cooled cupcakes over a parchment-lined baking sheet. Spoon glaze over cupcake tops, and let stand until set. If glaze gets too hard, reheat it gently so you can spoon it. Serve glazed cupcakes immediately.

From Martha Stewart Living, February 2009 issue. Tested by Susan Selasky for the Free Press Test Kitchen.

Analysis per 1 cupcake with 1 1/2 teaspoons glaze.

243 calories (38 percent from fat), 10 g fat (6 g saturated fat), 35 g carbohydrates, 3 g protein, 97 mg sodium, 55 mg cholesterol, 51 mg calcium, 0 g fiber.

PIÑA COLADA CUPCAKES

Makes: 24 / Preparation time: 15 minutes

Total time: 1 hour

A well-drained 20-ounce can of crushed pineapple will yield about 1 1/4 cups of pineapple juice, the amount called for in this recipe.

24 (2 1/2-inch) foil baking cups or floured baking spray

1 package (18.25-ounce) trans-fat-free white cake mix

1 1/4 cups pineapple juice or water

3 egg whites

1/4 cup canola oil

2 tablespoons dark rum or 1 teaspoon rum extract

3 teaspoons coconut extract, divided

1 can (20 ounces) crushed pineapple packed in juice, drained, juice reserved, divided

1 container (8 ounces) fat-free whipped topping

1/4 cup toasted coconut (see note)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line a medium muffin cup baking pan with foil liners or spray with baking spray and set aside. In a large bowl, combine the cake mix, pineapple juice, egg whites, canola oil, rum and 2 teaspoons coconut extract, and beat according to package directions. Fold 1/2 cup drained crushed pineapple into cake batter. Fill each baking cup 3/4 full with batter and bake for 16 to 20 minutes or until a wooden pick inserted in the center comes out clean. Allow muffins to cool completely on a wire rack.

In a small bowl, combine the whipped topping, remaining drained, crushed pineapple and 1 teaspoon coconut extract. When ready to serve, top each cupcake with 2 tablespoons whipped topping and sprinkle with toasted coconut.

To toast coconut, spread out shaved or shredded coconut on a foil-lined baking sheet. Place in 350-degree oven for about 6 to 8 minutes. Stir it once it starts to lightly brown. Watch carefully because it burns easily.

Created by Ashlee Carnahan, Henry Ford Hospital dietetic intern for Heart Smart, and tested by Susan Selasky for the Free Press Test Kitchen.

140 calories (19 percent from fat), 3 g fat (1 g saturated fat, 0 g trans fat), 24 g carbohydrates, 2 g protein, 165 mg sodium, 0 mg cholesterol, 24 mg calcium, 0 g fiber. Food exchanges: 1 1/2 starch, 1/2 fat.

SWISS MERINGUE BUTTERCREAM

Makes: 5 cups / Preparation time: 30 minutes / Total time: 30 minutes

1 cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar

5 large egg whites (at room temperature)

1 pound (4 sticks) unsalted butter, softened, cut into pieces

1 1/2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract

In a heat-proof bowl, place the sugar and egg whites. Set bowl over a pan of gently simmering water, and whisk until sugar has dissolved and mixture registers 160 degrees, about 6 minutes.

Transfer the mixture to the bowl of an electric mixer. Using the whisk attachment, beat on high speed until mixture has cooled completely and formed stiff and glossy peaks, about 10 minutes.

Add the butter, one piece at a time, and beat until incorporated. If the buttercream appears curdled after all the butter has been added, don’t worry. It will become smooth again with continued beating. Add the vanilla, and beat just until combined.

Switch to the paddle attachment, and beat on the lowest speed to eliminate any air pockets, about 5 minutes. If using buttercream within several hours, cover bowl with plastic wrap and set aside at room temperature in a cool environment. Or transfer to an airtight container and store in the refrigerator, up to 3 days. Before using, bring buttercream to room temperature and beat on the lowest speed with the paddle attachment until smooth, about 5 minutes.

From Martha Stewart Living, February 2009 issue. Tested by Susan Selasky for the Free Press Test Kitchen.

Analysis per 2 tablespoons of frosting.

106 calories (77 percent from fat), 9 g fat (6 g saturated fat), 6 g carbohydrates, 1 g protein, 8 mg sodium, 24 mg cholesterol, 3 mg calcium, 0 g fiber.

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