The Best Vegan Cupcakes

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Somewhere between Sex and the City, the establishment of Web 2.0, and the 2008 financial crisis, cupcakes truly had a moment. I’ve been around long enough with hungryandfrozen.com to witness their rise, their stagnation, and the mild backlash, and in this time I’ve only actually blogged about them like, once, eleven years ago, and have spent the rest of the time loftily reflecting upon the cupcake’s place in societal food trends and my place as its constant witness. That self-congratulatory nonsense ends today, since I finally made cupcakes again and the thing is, outside of trends or whether you think they’re cutesy or whether you’re still smarting from being charged $9 for one that time when you accidentally wandered into the local organic market and had made too much small talk with the cupcake seller to be able to back out politely without some kind of purchase – outside of all that – cupcakes are wonderful. A small cake! Just for you! Whole and perfect, with nothing to add or subtract! What’s not to love?

Recently it was my brother and father’s birthday, and I strong-armed them into letting me make cupcakes as the candle-bearing birthday cake (a conceit completely undermined by the birthday celebrations occurring at a beach picnic where the untethered wind wouldn’t even let the match stay lit for more than a second). Normally I’m quite confident to just make up a cake but with the pressure of it being for an occasion I wanted to consult an existing recipe, and then this one at Minimalist Baker seemed so straightforward and reasonable that I ended up following it pretty well to the letter. The recipe worked perfectly: tender, vanilla-scented little sponge cakes, exactly how I pictured them in the tastebuds of my mind (or the mind of my tastebuds?) and the ideal load-bearing wall for all that buttercream.

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So while I can’t take credit for the cupcakes, the buttercream is absolutely my invention and I cannot even begin to express how delighted I am with it, and myself. Speaking with a vague, unearned air of science, the process involves making a quick emulsion of oil, vinegar and milk, which imitates butter, and then beating icing sugar into that unlikely emulsion until you end up with clouds of the most dreamy, fudgy, buttery and delicious icing you can fathom (as a vegan, I mean, but everyone I’ve fed this to loves it.) I’d explored different kinds of vegan icing before and while using margarine gives good results texture-wise, it’s so hard to avoid that unfriendly margarine flavour. With this quick emulsion method, you get all texture, all flavour, and none of the crestfallen bereft-ness. I split the buttercream in two and flavoured half with cocoa and half with raspberry flavouring and the latter was absolutely my favourite – obviously chocolate is very good, in fact it hardly needs me to defend it, but there’s something about a pink cupcake that just feels right in my soul.

These really are the perfect cupcakes, and without a drop of exaggeration I’ve thought about them every single day since the last one was consumed. And don’t feel like you have to wait for a special occasion to make these: if birthdays are far off (or out of reach) I’d just make a batch and have them for dinner, in its entirety.

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The Best Vegan Cupcakes (with The Best Vegan Buttercream)

Delicious, classic vanilla cupcakes with raspberry or chocolate vegan buttercream. Cupcake recipe adapted very slightly from the Minimalist Baker; Buttercream recipe by myself. Makes 12.

  • 1 cup soy milk or similar
  • 1 teaspoon apple cider vinegar
  • 1/2 cup rice bran oil
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1 and 1/2 cups flour
  • 1 and 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt

1: Set your oven to 180C/350F and line a standard muffin tray with 12 paper liners.

2: Start by pouring the milk and vinegar into a large mixing bowl and leaving for a minute or two to curdle slightly. Add the oil, vanilla, and sugar, and whisk to combine.

3: Sieve in the dry ingredients – important, as sieving prevents any baking soda lumps – and as the original recipe recommends sifting some of the flour in before the raising agents followed the remaining flour and salt, I will pass this tip onto you as well. Sieving the dry ingredients in this order helps to ensure that the baking powder and baking soda are fully dispersed amongst the flour. Whisk everything together until well blended without any lumps remaining. The mixture should be about the texture of pancake batter – if it’s too liquidy then just sieve in a couple more tablespoons of flour.

4: Divide the mixture between the twelve paper holders, filling them no more than 3/4 full to allow for the cupcakes rising. The mixture is extremely delicious, and it will look like you’ve got a lot, but I personally recommend waiting until you’ve actually filled the paper cases before you go eating too much of it. Bake the cupcakes in the centre of the oven (that is, not too high or too low) for 22 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into the centre of one of them comes out clean. Allow the cupcakes to cool completely before icing. If the cupcakes have risen quite high, you might want to level off the tops with a serrated knife (and then eat the offcuts, cook’s treat) to make a flat playing field for the icing to go on.

Buttercream:

  • 1/3 cup soft (but not melted) refined coconut oil
  • 1/3 cup soy milk or similar (plus extra if necessary)
  • 1/4 teaspoon apple cider vinegar
  • 1 level tablespoon golden syrup (or light corn syrup if American)
  • pinch salt
  • 1 tablespoon custard powder
  • 2 and 1/2 – 3 cups icing sugar
  • 1-2 tablespoons good cocoa
  • 1/4 teaspoon raspberry flavoured essence
  • few drops pink food colouring
  • Rainbow sprinkles, or sprinkles of your choice, to serve

1: Place the soft coconut oil, milk, vinegar, golden syrup and salt into a mixing bowl and blend with a stick blender. It will look quite unpromising at this point, but don’t worry. Add the custard powder and blend again, followed by the icing sugar, a spoonful at a time while still blending, until it forms a thick, dense frosting that begins to hold its shape.

2: Once it gets particularly thick you can remove the stick blender and add the remaining icing sugar by sieving it in and then stirring to combine – start off with 2 and 1/2 cups, but if it’s too thick, stir in a tablespoon or two of extra soy milk, and if it’s too soft, sieve in a little extra icing sugar. The texture you’re after is a spreadable icing that’s thick enough to hold its shape when you move your spoon through it.

3: Scoop about half of the icing into another small bowl. In one bowl, sieve in the cocoa and stir it in until it’s completely combined – you may want to add another spoonful of milk here, as the cocoa can have quite a drying effect. In the second bowl, stir in the raspberry essence and a few drops of pink food colouring, until it’s the flavour and shade you want.

4: Frost the cupcakes once they’re cooled completely – I just dropped a spoonful of icing on top of a cupcake and spread it around with the back of the spoon, then moved onto the next one, but you could also use the flat side of a knife. Scatter the sprinkles over the cupcakes as soon as you’ve iced them – if you leave it too long the icing will set and the sprinkles will just bounce straight off (I mean, I still got sprinkles everywhere anyway, but.) You might end up with a little more icing than you need, once again: cook’s treat.

Notes:

  • I recommend rice bran oil specifically because of its neutral flavour – because these cupcakes are pretty simple I wouldn’t recommend an oil with an overpowering flavour. Canola or grapeseed oil also have a pretty neutral flavour.
  • I haven’t tried piping this buttercream so I couldn’t honestly say whether or not it’s suitable for the purpose, although I’d guess it would be, since it holds its shape well.
  • The custard powder in the icing is for flavour and texture, but I’ve made it without and it was also fine so don’t stress if you don’t have any.

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music lately:

One For My Baby (And One More For The Road) by the highly underrated Ida Lupino, from one of my favourite films, Road House (1948). She’s not exactly a singer, but the way she acts through this song is exquisite – as the bystander says after she’s done, “She does more without a voice than anyone I’ve ever heard!”

Dress by PJ Harvey. That barrelling drumbeat and the “if you put it on” refrain and everything, it’s just so good.

Regina by The Sugarcubes. You know I have ready a list of Broadway songs I would love to hear Bjork sing (and vice versa, I’ve always thought Idina Menzel would be an ideal person to cover Big Time Sensuality.

PS: If you enjoy my writing and wish to support me directly, there’s no better way than behind the claret velvet VIP curtain of my Patreon. Recipes, reviews, poetry, updates, secrets, stories, all yours on a monthly basis.

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