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NewsTribune photos/Genna Ord Elena Gaeta tops a batch of apple-caramel cupcakes in the kitchen of her Spring Valley home. Gaeta is a baking hobbyist who likes to use seasonal ingredients to make fit-the-occasion cupcakes. She’s tried margarita cupcakes for Cinco de Mayo, lemonade cupcakes for hot summer months and pumpkin creations for fall.
Carly Bierbom decorates turtle cupcakes at Two Girls and a Cupcake in Utica, where all the cupcakes are made from scratch. Co-owner Jill Lee recommends home bakers try baking from scratch and eschewing cake mixes, as well as using quality ingredients over cheaper substitutes. “If the recipe calls for butter, don’t use Crisco. If it calls for cream cheese, don’t use cream cheese flavoring.”
Elena Gaeta of Spring Valley bakes for a hobby and discovered a few advantages to baking cupcakes over layer cakes. For one thing, they’re faster: Cupcakes require half the time in the oven and the liners make cleanup a shade faster, as well. Cupcakes also are more fun to decorate, in part because a lone batch will typically yield two dozen cake tops begging for icing, candy toppings or other decorative flourishes. Best of all, if you make a mistake with a cupcake, “you can eat them or you can throw them away,” she said, smiling. And for whatever reason, the world is in love with cupcakes these days. Pinterest, one of Gaeta’s favorite resources, is bulging with cupcake tips, and a few local businesses have either added cupcakes to their menus or, in the case of one Utica bakery, created a cupcakes-only niche business. Tim and Jill Lee own Two Girls and a Cupcake in Utica. They think the cupcake is deeply embedded in the American psyche, noting that schoolchildren have had the experience of having mom send them to school with birthday cupcakes to share with the whole class. Cupcakes make sense for children — no cutting knives, easy cleanup, everybody gets the same size — and those considerations often apply to today’s grownups-on-the-go. “It’s a quick, sweet treat,” Tim Lee explained, noting everybody loves the all-to-myself delight of wolfing down a cupcake without sharing. The Lees opened June 29, 2012, and word of mouth quickly brought in customers eager to try their wares. At that point, the race was on to produce better and better cupcakes for customers who expect something transcendent. “The cupcakes have to be great,” Jill said. “If you don’t have good cupcakes, people will buy one but they’ll never come back.” Good cupcakes aren’t necessarily good for you, however. One dietitian noted that that tiny cupcake can pack a powerful punch against your diet, your waistline and your arteries. Rene Ficek, a dietitian at Illinois Valley Community Hospital, Peru, noted that while nutrition information is readily available for most store-bought treats, bakery treats typically run larger than packaged goods and therefore have inflated caloric and fat contents. “Cupcake popularity has been on the rise for the past few years, and although it appears that this may be a portion-controlled treat, it is high in both fat and calories — even more so than you may think,” Ficek said. “One analysis shows that just one of these decadent bakery delights contained as much fat and calories as three slices of pizza.” This difference, she said, has to do with the trans fat found in shortening made with partially hydrogenated oils, a common baking ingredient. Trans fat increases bad LDL cholesterol levels and also depletes healthy HDL cholesterol. “In short, cupcakes should be an occasional treat, but in terms of nutritional value, they miss the count,” Ficek said. “Even the small amount of protein and fiber they might contain can’t compensate for their high calorie and fat content.” Ferreting out the calories and fats isn’t easy. Baking in tasty goodness, however, is … well, a piece of cake. Here are some surefire ways to improve what comes out of your oven. n Put your heart in it. You won’t find a culinary term called “love” in any cookbook, but that doesn’t mean your audience won’t notice when you put heart and soul into your baking. “TLC is our secret,” Tim Lee said. n Use sour cream to increase moistness. “One of the best tips I’ve discovered over time is to add sour cream to your cake mix,” said Danielle Saletzki of Peru, another amateur cupcake artiste. “This will achieve a really moist cupcake,” she said. “Even if you don’t have a tried-and-true homemade recipe that you prefer, any boxed mix can be modified to result in a delicious cupcake that can taste like it was made from scratch.” n Practice decorating. If you want decorative flourishes that will impress, try layering whipped cream or icing on a saucer or into a small bowl until you get the hang of it. Don’t waste a good batch of cakes with amateurish decoration. (Then again, it’s always fun to eat the mistakes.) “Just keep at it,” Jill said. “Practice makes perfect.” And don’t be afraid to dot an iced cupcake with a mint, hard candy or small cookie. Saletzki said she scrolled Pinterest for baking tips — “A huge resource for cupcakes” — and whipped out a batch of cupcakes topped with Girl Scout Thin Mint cookies. “Since Pinterest, I almost always have some sort of topping adornment on my cupcakes,” she said. “This little touch doesn’t take much more time, but achieves a professional look.” n Cut down on the mess by using an ice cream scooper to fill cupcake wrappers. Saletzki further recommended filling liners two-thirds full and using a toothpick to check for doneness. “A toothpick inserted in the center can come out with a few moist crumbs, but no wetness,” she explained. “Cupcakes removed too early may sink in the center as they cool. Once removed from the oven, the cupcakes will continue to bake in the pan which can potentially dry the cakes out so it is best to allow them to cool briefly and then transfer to a cooling rack.” n Set aside time to try baking from scratch and without cutting corners. Cake mixes contain a chemical additive that ensures the produce will rise in the oven; but in terms of flavor and texture, a prepared mix cannot hold a candle to made-from-scratch. Jill Lee said occasionally throwing out a batch that didn’t rise properly is a small price to pay for homemade taste. Above all, use quality ingredients and pay no mind to the savings or dietary benefits of substitutes. “If the recipe calls for butter, don’t use Crisco,” Jill said. “If it calls for cream cheese, don’t use cream cheese flavoring.” n Don’t be afraid to experiment. Some of the Lee’s best-selling cupcakes were experiments tried after they ran out of ingredients and had to improvise on the fly. “Some of our greatest cupcakes came by mistake,” Jill Lee said. And keep the “grandma rule” in mind. If grandma was known for a particular food or entree, consider incorporating those flavors into a cupcake. Jill Lee tried an unlikely tandem straight from grandma’s breakfast skillet, and now she can barely keep up with demand. “Maple bacon is our No. 1 cupcake,” she said. “We cannot keep it in stock.” Tom Collins can be reached at (815) 220-6930 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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