It was a snowy day, with a blanket of white so fluffy and soft that if you were a dog you couldn't resist bounding about in it. But my dog was forced to resist as I wouldn't let him out. I wanted to use the blanket of undefiled purity as a background for a food photo, which inspired a culinary creation of something cool and refreshing - and of course, sweet. Chocolate mint! Further reflection suggested a cupcake though I have ridden somewhat reluctantly on the outskirts of the cupcake craze of the past several years, sampling the best in Charleston, S.C. and Middleburg, VA. Magnolia's, Georgetown and Sprinkles Bakeries in NYC top several lists in our family and it has been scientifically determined that their cupcakes are winners. In fact, a Sugar Fest is "officially" conducted once a year by my daughters and their cousins in NYC, which involves a pilgrimage about the city bakeries in pursuit of the best cupcake and bouts of sincere indigestion after. I enjoy the cupcake but have always wondered why we didn't just stick to the cake and have more of a good thing. I suppose it's the appeal of a personalized serving neatly wrapped, topped and seemingly custom-made for each individual, bringing back the nostalgia of childhood tea parties.
Now to the flavors: I have learned a thing or two about chocolate and mint over the years, as the first flush of the love affair with this combination has matured to a mature, lasting relationship of trust and commitment.
#1 - Mint grown in the home vegetable garden will take over everything non-mint and insists upon scenting its world, confident it goes well with everything. My raspberries are not impressed, but getting cozy with chocolate was truly inspired. That makes me wonder, does mint grow in Cacoa tree territory?
#2 - There is endless ingenuity among cooks when necessity is the mother of invention. Expat friends shared the experience of being served a delicious chocolate mint dessert in an African country where neither mint nor mint flavoring was available. When pressed, the cook confessed that he used toothpaste for the flavoring. Why not?
#3 - I've also learned that our palettes sense taste from color as well as other properties. There have been occasions when I've served chocolate mint brownies with all the ingredients, except the mint, but the green frosting convinced the eaters that they were eating mint brownies.
Being supplied with eager taste testers (is there ever a shortage?) I asked them to taste both versions of these cupcakes and tell me which they preferred and why: one variety being topped with a chocolate ganache and the other with a minty, fluffy, buttery frosting. Opinions were divided and I had to taste one and then the other myself, changing my opinion of "favorite" as quickly as I sampled the other in a flurry of chocolate crumbs and cupcake liners. In the end, I preferred the fluffy frosting - a unique flour/milk paste base into which creamed sugar and butter are added - which should become a staple frosting for cakes it is so uniquely satisfying. My husband preferred the ganache. I prefer them both to toothpaste!
Cupcakes on Snow
Buttermilk Chocolate Cake
1 12/ cups flour
1 1/3 cups granulated sugar
1/2 cup unsweetened cocoa
1 1/4 tsp. baking soda
3/4 tsp. salt
1 cup buttermilk
2/3 cup oil
1 tsp. vanilla
-In large mixing bowl with electric mixer, beat all ingredients on low speed until blended. Beat at medium speed 3 minutes, scraping bowl occasionally. Set aside and preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Cream Cheese Filling:
1 - 8 ounce package cream cheese, at room temperature
1/3 cup granulated sugar
pinch of salt
1/2 - 1 tsp. mint extract, depending on taste
1 cup semi-sweet chocolate chips
-Combine cream cheese, sugar and egg and beat until smooth. Add extract and salt and stir in chocolate chips.
-Line 18 cupcake tins with cupcake liners for Flour Frosting or simply grease tins for the ganache topping version (without using liners). Fill each tin half full with cake batter. Place tablespoon full of cream cheese filling in the center of each cupcake and then top with one more tablespoon of chocolate cake batter. Bake at 350 degrees for about 20 minutes or until a knife inserted in the center of a cupcake comes out clean.
-Allow to cool, then frost with frosting and add a mint candy to the top for garnish (Dove - Chocolate Mint Swirls or Andes Chocolate Mint Sandwiches)
Bring 1 cup cream to a boil in a small saucepan over medium-high heat. Remove from heat and pour in 1 cup semi-sweet or bitter-sweet chopped chocolate or chocolate chips. Allow to sit about 15 minutes without stirring. Then mix with a wire whip until chocolate is melted and mixture is smooth. Allow ganache to sit until thickened to spreading consistency, 1 - 2 hours at room temperature. Spoon about 1/4 cup of ganache mixture over each cupcake removed from tin so that the ganache runs over the top and down the sides of the cupcake. Place cupcakes on wire rack set over cookie sheet, to catch the excess ganache.
5 tablespoons flour
1 cup whole milk
1 /2 cup softened butter
1 cup granulated sugar
1/3 cup unsweetened cocoa
dash of salt
1/2 tsp. mint extract
-Place flour into medium sized saucepan. Slowly pour milk into the flour, beating with a whip, a little at a time until all the milk is incorporated into the flour. Slowly bring the milk to a boil over medium-high heat, stirring constantly until very thick. Remove from heat. Cover with a lid and allow to cool about 30 minutes.
-In another mixing bowl, cream the butter, sugar and vanilla together until smooth. Stir in 1/3 cup unsweetened cocoa and dash of salt. Add the cooled flour/milk mixture to the butter/ sugar mixture and beat at medium-high speed until mixture is very smooth and fluffy. Stir in mint extract.
-Frost cooled cupcakes wtih frosting or place into pastry bag and pipe onto the cupcakes. Garnish with a chocolate mint candy.