I still remember the first time I ate a Karen DeMasco cupcake. It was back in the days when I worked in a lofty office on the 11th floor of a building near Union Square. I had a corner office with hardwood floors and beautiful views of all the water towers of the area (and a very sweet boss who for some reason worked in the smaller office). I'd ordered lunch that day from 'Wichcraft, a soup and a half sandwich, but when the bag arrived - to this day, I'm not sure why - they'd also included a little plastic container holding one almost-black cupcake, thinly glossed with chocolate icing.
I was and am not a cupcake person. I have never liked buttercream and the aching sweetness of most cupcakes just sent me soaring into shaky-hands territory every time I ate one at an office birthday or baby shower. Nah, I prefered the inside-out cookies from City Bakery (now sadly defunct, the cookies, not the Bakery) or a little pot of Kozy Shack rice pudding for an afternoon sweet snack. Then suddenly, unexpected and alluring, nothing other than a cupcake sat before me. But it wasn't covered in an inch of frosting and it didn't look saccharine at all. I put it aside and ate my lunch, glancing over at the cupcake every once in a while, as if making sure it was still there, hadn't evaporated like a tiny little leprechaun.
Eating it was sort of mind-altering. It was tender as can be, the softest, most delicate crumb I'd eaten in a cupcake, or cake, for that matter, but with the gutsiest, deepest, darkest chocolate flavor ever. I sort of couldn't square the two away in my head together for a while. The thin chocolate icing cap was a textural pleasure and then, poof, suddenly in the middle of the cupcake, I alighted upon a bubble of whipped cream that I wasn't expecting at all. It was, hands down, the best cupcake of my life. Nothing even came close. After that, nothing really deserved to be called cupcake either.
It was for that recipe alone that I couldn't wait for Karen to publish her book. And a few years later, namely, a few weeks ago, I went into the kitchen to bake the first batch of "my" cupcakes.
(Now, let's just all take a moment here and acknowledge that this home baker would never be able to exactly replicate something that a trained pastry chef made on a daily basis. Plus, the exalted memory of a single cupcake eaten over four years ago was going to be tough to live up to. Lastly, I was an idiot and didn't buy a pastry bag with a metal piping tip like I should have. Don't be an idiot.)
The batter for the devil's food cake is relatively easy. You make a cocoa paste, a mixture of the dry ingredients and then a wet mix with creamed butter and sugar, buttermilk and eggs. All three are folded and blended and mixed together until you have a gorgeously creamy, shiny batter. I wanted to spackle my kitchen with this batter, wanted to use it as a face mask, wanted to sculpt a statue out of it. It was so tactile and whippy and glossy.
The batter baked up nicely into dark, domed cakelets. A warning: Whatever you do, don't let these overbake, even for a minute. Err on the side of underbaking rather than overbaking. It'll make the difference between a moist, tender cupcake and a rather hohum-ish one. The tester shouldn't be entirely clean, but don't let it come out covered in raw batter either.
The rest of the preparation can be pretty fun, granted you have a proper pastry bag with a metal tip. Remember? I didn't, so the rest of my afternoon was spent with a Ziploc bag, a plastic spatula, a paring knife, a bowl of whipped cream, and lots of sweaty, angry cursing. I'll leave it at that. If properly armed, your metal pastry tip gets inserted into the bottom of the cupcake and you squirt cream filling into the cupcake until pressure on the top of the cupcake lets you know you've filled it to capacity. Easy!
The best part, as far as I'm concerned, is dipping the cupcakes into their shiny cap of chocolate ganache. If I was Queen of the World, I'd make a decree banning buttercream frosting for eternity and make the thin, elegant, shiny slip of icing (chocolate, lemon, what-have-you) de rigueur for cupcakes. The original recipe has you use corn syrup in the ganache for stability, but seeing as corn syrup costs something like 10 bucks a bottle here, I left it out with fine results.
Oh, and how did they taste, you're wondering? It's pretty hard to go wrong with a dark chocolate cupcake, tender with buttermilk, fragrant with vanilla and chocolate, a creamy white filling, and that dark bitter top. They're wonderful as far as cupcakes go and were eaten with wide-eyes and professions of love and astonishment.
Did they measure up to that one cupcake consumed at my desk in New York all those years ago? They didn't, of course. But how could they, really? That cupcake was an unexpected gift, a memory frozen in time, a reminder of my old life that will always be suffused with golden light. I will never, ever forget it.
Devil's Food Cupcakes with Cream Filling
Makes 14-16 cupcakes
Note: The recipe makes for more filling than you'll need and more batter, too (hence the adjusted yield noted in the line above, as opposed to the original recipe). You can bake the cupcakes in batches if you have only one muffin tin, or use small ramekins lined with paper liners. As for the leftover whipped cream filling, eat it for dessert? The ganache topping is meant to be generous, so that you can easily drag your cupcakes through it once or twice for a good, shiny cap.
For the cupcakes:
3/4 cup plus 1 1/2 teaspoons unsweetened cocoa powder
3/4 cup cake flour
2/3 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
3/4 teaspoon baking powder
3/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1 1/4 cups plus 2 tablespoons packed dark brown sugar
5 tablespoons unsalted butter at room temperature
1 large egg
1 large egg yolk
1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons buttermilk
3/4 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1. Preheat the oven to 350F. Line standard muffin tins with paper liners, if you have more than one 12-cup muffin tin. Otherwise line a standard 12-cup muffin with liners and then line small ramekins (if you have them) for the remaining batter.
2. In a medium mixing bowl, whisk the cocoa powder and 1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons warm water to form a paste; set aside.
3. In another bowl, sift together the cake flour, all-purpose flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt.
4. In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, mix the brown sugar with the butter on medium speed until they are well combined with no pieces of butter visible. Add the cocoa paste, making sure to use a spatula to get all the cocoa paste into the mixer bowl. Once this is well combines, add the egg and egg yolk. Scrape down the sides of the bowl with a rubber spatula. In three additions each, add the buttermilk and vanilla extract, alternating with the flour mixture.
5. Divide the batter evenly among the muffin cups, filling them 3/4 full. Bake, rotating the tins halfway through, until the cupcakes spring back to the touch and a tester inserted in the center of a cupcake comes out mostly clean, 20-25 minutes. Invert the cupcakes onto a wire rack, turn them top side up, and let them cool completely.
For the cream filling:
1 cup heavy cream
2 tablespoons confectioners' sugar
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1. To make the filling, combine the cream, confectioners' sugar, and vanilla extract in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with a whisk attachment. Beat on medium speed to soft peaks, about 4 minutes. Put the cream into a pastry bag fitted with a small piping tip. Using a paring knife, make a small cut in the bottom of each cupcake, through the paper, to insert the tip of the pastry bag. Insert the tip of the pastry bag about 1 1/2 inches into a cupcake. Gently squeeze the bag while holding the fingers of your other hand over the top of the cupcake. When you feel a slight pressure on the top of the cupcake, stop filling. Repeat with each cupcake.
For the ganache:
4 ounces semisweet chocolate, chopped
1/2 cup heavy cream
2 tablespoons light corn syrup (optional; I didn't use this)
1. To make the ganache, put the chocolate in a small mixing bowl. Combine the cream and the corn syrup, if using, in a small saucepan and bring to a boil. Pour over the chocolate right away, and stir slowly until all of the chocolate melts and the ganache is silky and shiny.
2. Carefully dip the top of each cupcake in the ganache, tapping gently to remove the excess. Return the cupcakes to the wire rack to let the glaze set up, at least 30 minutes.
3. The cupcakes can be kept in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 3 days.