There are lots of traditions surrounding Mardi Gras, but one of my favorites is King Cake. King cake is a braided pastry made with a rich yeast dough that is filled with a sweet cinnamon mixture and topped with brightly colored gold, green and purple icing. The recipe varies from place to place, but the overall effect is quite like a large danish or cinnamon bun (flavor-wise, at least). I’ve made both more traditional and less traditional versions of king cake. This year I wanted to play with those bright colors a little bit more and decided to make a batch of brightly colored Mardi Gras Cupcakes.
These cupcakes start out with my favorite buttermilk cupcake recipe and get a splash of food coloring to brighten them up. The cake is moist and tender, with a flavor that is a good combination of vanilla and butter. It’s also not too sweet, so it goes well with just about any kind of frosting. I used the same technique that I use for zebra cake, layering colored batter inside of my muffin tins to get striped cupcakes. Gold, purple and green make for a very festive, Mardi Gras themed finished product!
I used a classic vanilla buttercream on these cupcakes, partly because I like vanilla and partly because I wanted a neutral color that wouldn’t draw attention away from the colorful cake. A quick vanilla buttercream would work very well, too. Brightly colored pearl sprinkles would be a nice garnish here and look like mardi gras beads, if you have some.
If you don’t want to use regular food coloring, keep in mind that there are some natural food coloring options out there. And if you want to skip the food coloring step altogether because you’ve run out of it, you can bake the batter as-is (no layering and no coloring) and top the cupcakes with colorful sanding sugars in gold, purple and green.
Mardi Gras Cupcakes
1 1/3 cups all purpose flour
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp salt
1 cup sugar
1/4 cup butter, room temperature
1 large egg
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 cup buttermilk
yellow, green and purple food coloring
Preheat oven to 350F. Line a 12 cup muffin tin with paper liners.
In a medium bowl, whisk together flour, baking soda, baking powder and salt.
In a large bowl, cream together butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Beat in the egg and the vanilla extract. With the mixer on low speed, gradually incorporate one third of the flour mixture followed by half of the buttermilk. Add another third of the flour mixture, followed by the remaining buttermilk and the last of the flour. Mix just until no streaks of dry ingredients remain.
Place just less than 1 cup of batter in each of 2 small bowls. Add yellow food coloring to one, green to another and purple to the batter remaining in the mixing bowl. Stir in food coloring until batters are uniformly dyed.
Divide yellow batter evenly into prepared muffin cups, then evenly divide the purple batter on top of that. Do not attempt to spread the purple batter, just drop a dollop on top of the yellow. Evenly divide green batter on top of purple, again not spreading the green batter, just dropping it down.
Bake for 15-17 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into the center of a cupcake comes out clean. Turn cupcakes out onto a wire rack to cool completely before frosting.
Quick Vanilla Buttercream Frosting
1 cup butter, softened
2 1/2 tsp vanilla extract
4 tablespoons milk
3-4 cups confectioners’ sugar
Cream butter with an electric mixer until soft. Add vanilla and milk, then gradually blend in sugar until frosting reaches a fluffy, spreadable consistency. The amount of sugar necessary will vary according to the weather and season, so you might need a bit extra if it’s humid out and a bit less if its dry.