Logically, we can say that no one type of cupcake is better than any other, and everyone is entitled to their personal preferences. But secretly, we all feel that there is one type of cupcake that is just a bit better than all the alternatives, one flavor pairing of cake and frosting (assuming that they’re both good quality, of course) that is just plain better than the rest. A vanilla cupcake with vanilla frosting is the one that takes that place of honor for me. It may sound boring at first when you compare it to the alternatives of fudgy chocolate, rich red velvet or zesty fruit and citrus-laden cakes, but the flavor is simple, clear and oh-so-satisfying.
I often bake cupcakes for other people or special occasions, but this batch was for me and I decided to fall back on the vanilla on vanilla combination. For the cake, I used a slight variation on one of Cupcake Bakeshop’s cupcake recipes. I felt a bit inspired by the fact that I had some of the same type of cupcake wrappers she uses, I suppose, and I liked the fact that this particular cake recipe uses the simple creaming method (cream the butter and sugar, then add dry ingredients) instead of the more involved technique of cutting the butter into the dry ingredients first (often my preferred method because it makes the cakes so tender). I used vanilla extract, rather than vanilla sugar, to give the cakes a good vanilla flavor, and chose to use buttermilk as the primary liquid.
The resulting cupcakes completely lived up to my expectations. They had a good texture – sweet and tender enough not to be mistaken for muffins, but not so light that they crumbled when I bit into them – and were quite moist. I actually used a type of vanilla extract that has vanilla beans in it, so they had a nice speckled look to them, as well as a lovely vanilla flavor. Since I already had some vanilla bean buttercream on hand, I used that to frost the cupcakes. If you don’t want to make the whole batch – which will definitely give you extra frosting – you can go for a simpler quick vanilla buttercream and still get great results with the cupcakes.
Vanilla Cupcakes with Vanilla Frosting
12 tbsp butter, room temperature
1 2/3 cups sugar
2 large eggs
2 2/3 cups all purpose flour
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 cup buttermilk
1 tbsp vanilla extract
Preheat oven to 350F.
Place 20 muffin wrappers (if using the stiff kind pictured above) on a baking sheet, or line 20 muffin cups with paper liners.
In a large mixing bowl, cream together butter and sugar. When light and fluffy, beat in the eggs one at a time.
In a medium mixing bowl, whisk together flour, baking powder and salt. In a measuring cup, combine the buttermilk and vanilla extract.
With the mixer on low speed (or by hand), stir one third of the flour mixture into the butter mixture. Blend in half of the buttermilk, followed by another third of the flour mixture. Stir in remaining buttermilk/vanilla and the rest of the flour, mixing only until no streaks of flour remain. Divide evenly into prepared muffin cups, filling each about 2/3 full.
Bake for 22-24 minutes, until a tester inserted into the center comes out clean and the top springs back when lightly pressed. Cool in pan for 2-3 minutes, then transfer to a wire rack to cool completely before frosting.
Makes 20 cupcakes.
Real Vanilla Bean Buttercream
1 lb (2 cups) unsalted butter, soft and cut into one inch pieces
3/4 cup plus 1/4 cup sugar
1/4 cup water
5 large egg whites
1/4 tsp cream of tartar
1/2 vanilla bean
In the bowl of a stand mixer, place egg whites, with cream of tartar and 1/4 cup sugar nearby.
Heat 3/4 cup sugar and 1/4 cup water in a small saucepan. Heat over medium high heat until sugar is dissolved. When sugar reaches 230F on a candy thermometer, turn mixer on medium high. When egg whites are frothy, add cream of tartar. Gradually add the 1/4 cup sugar. When egg whites begin to form soft peaks, turn the mixer down to medium low and begin to drizzle in the boiling sugar mixture (which should be at approximately 245-250F, firm ball stage). When all of the hot sugar is added, turn the mixer up to medium high and beat until the bowl is no longer warm to the touch. Add the butter one lump at a time and continue beating until mixture is smooth and fluffy, approximately 12-20 minutes. It will look rather like ricotta cheese for a while – just keep beating!
Once it is smooth, scrape vanilla bean and mix in the vanilla specks (or use 1-2 tsp vanilla extract).
Keep at room temperature – do not refrigerate before it has been spread on a cake or cupcakes.