Baking Chocolate Cupcakes and Brownies: A Beginner’s Guide
by Lisa Maliga, copyright 2017
My second cookbook has just been released after months of testing various chocolate cupcake and brownie recipes. It was so much fun baking these sweet treats and learning more cupcake decorating techniques. For example, I tried the swirl method and was able to come up with this:
I’ve also learned how to make my own sparkling sugar and the various ways to core cupcakes. So, if you love chocolate goodness, keep on reading!
Chapter 1 ~ About the Ingredients
Your cupcakes and brownies can look and taste better than any found in a bakery. What you put into your batch of cupcakes is up to you and your budget. Are fresh eggs and butter available to you? I’ve been able to use farm fresh eggs in many of my batches of cupcakes and brownies. Those hens are free ranging and while kept in a coop at night, during the day they amble around several acres of pasture and eat natural food from the ground as well as organic chicken feed.
Use whatever ingredients you have in your pantry, cupboards and refrigerator for your first batches of brownies and/or cupcakes. Don’t invest a lot of money in ingredients or equipment if you only plan to make the occasional dessert. But once you make brownies and cupcakes from scratch, get creative and try new brands of chocolate, butter, or any of the other ingredients to learn if you can taste a difference. Oftentimes you’ll find some sweet [I couldn’t resist that pun] deals on the ingredients at your grocery store so you’ll spend less money on finding out what you like to add to your chocolaty desserts. Baking isn’t just science–it’s also art.
As the recipes in this book are all about using the most natural ingredients, as well as the best tasting, virgin coconut oil is recommended. This tropical oil is easier to use in oil form rather than solid. Coconut oil is coconut butter at temperatures below 78 degrees Fahrenheit. Depending on the weather, I can let it sit in the sun to melt or if it’s hot enough then measuring it is always easier. Virgin coconut oil gives cupcakes natural moisture and you won’t taste the extra coconut.
I used to think that a ganache was something fancy that went on top of a cake or some type of fancy pastry. I knew it was made from chocolate, but that’s about all. If you’ve never made this lovely and decadent macaron filling, don’t worry, it’s very easy to make. You only need a few ingredients but you should get the best type of chocolate that you find appealing. For practice, use standard dark chocolate morsels that you may have in your pantry, but if you’re a chocoholic, add a 70% cacao content dark chocolate.
Chocolate Espresso Ganache Filling
4 ounces heavy cream [120 grams] 4 ounces finely chopped dark chocolate [120 grams] ½ teaspoon vanilla extract or vanilla bean paste ½ teaspoon instant espresso
Put cream in microwave for about one minute until hot — NOT boiling. Pour over chocolate chunks. When melted add instant coffee and vanilla and whisk well until smooth. Let sit at room temperature for at least four hours or overnight. Cover with plastic wrap. Just before getting ready to use a spatula to scoop the ganache into a piping bag with large round tip.
This is a simple recipe to make and it will really perk up your macaron shells. The touch of espresso gives the chocolate more zing! I used my favorite brand of chocolate: Valrhona.
Adding instant espresso to chocolate chunks
Pour in your cream and vanilla extract or vanilla bean paste
I’ve owned and read many cookbooks over the years. Some have been leather-bound tomes dating back almost two centuries. Others have been spiral bound and contained gorgeous color photos. As a teenager, I used to look at the cake decorating books, admiring the artistry behind each unique design.
Until this year, I never thought I’d write a cookbook. Sure, I’ve shared recipes before, as soap is made in a kitchen. But soap is easier to make than macarons and even a small bar lasts a lot longer than these delicate desserts.
Before the November 1, 2016, release of Baking French Macarons: A Beginner’s Guide, I was trying to get the paperback edition properly formatted. Being on a tight budget, I went to Fiverr and found a formatter who would do a 155-page cookbook with 54 color photographs for $6, including the $1 processing fee. What a bargain! I was skeptical that the newly listed formatter could do the work in less than one day as he promised. A day after the promised delivery time, I received a message. “Hi Lisa, I am high sorry for the delay. I had delay of my new PC yesterday and I cannot continue using the old one. I was highly disappointed the time the agent came in. So, I am greatly sorry for this late delivery of your work.”
A few hours after sending the email, he sent me the .DOC and PDF files. He even changed the name of the file to end with the word GOOD.
The title now read Baking French Macaron: A Beginner’s Guide.
Continuing the singular theme, there was a Table of Content.
The headings were out of bounds and didn’t pass CreateSpace’s interior reviewer. Some of them began on the chapter page. Photos were less than the required 300 dpi. The “good” ones were stretched like in the following example.
I politely thanked him for his trouble and contacted someone else.
Jackie [not her real name] gave me a rate of $30. That still seemed reasonable. A few hours later, she had finished the project. I was very surprised in the amount of time it took and was naturally suspicious. It was formatted without headings but everything else looked nice; certainly no stretched photos. Before thanking her for a job well done, I uploaded it to the interior reviewer. All the images were less than 300 dpi. I contacted her and she said she’d fix it. A few hours later, I was sent another version. The same thing happened.
For the next four days, it went on. Some of the photos eventually were 300 dpi, others were under that ‘magic’ number. Finally, when all but 7 of the photos were considered good enough, I thanked her and decided to forego a paperback edition. Even if I had a less costly version with black and white photos, it wasn’t worth all the time and aggravation I’d gone through. I couldn’t compromise and publish a photo-less book. I’d spent way too much time and money into making my book the best it could look.
I’d noticed another scam cookbook that was doing well, even though it had no photos and the back cover was completely blank. Some of the recipes had ingredients only—no measurements. That book was selling several copies a day. I was motivated to figure out my photo problems, and eventually I did.
The eBook cover I’d designed was nice, but I knew a professional could do a much better job. Print covers needed strong typography so titles would show up well.
Using my own photos for the cover, I didn’t have to be concerned about copyright issues. I’d been checking out numerous cover designers and I went through their portfolios. I found a very talented artist. The book cover was far better than the one I made on Canva.
What started my love of macarons was a quirky romance novella I wrote called Sweet Dreams. The main character is a romance author/baker. Although the macarons aren’t mentioned at the beginning of the story, those tempting petite cookies have a costarring role. During the writing of the ebook, I got obsessed with macarons. I read several cookbooks on how to make them, visited numerous websites, and sampled quite a few tasty macarons. I bought some online and tried some from various bakeries. They ranged from mediocre to heavenly.
It was a tough job, but I gutted [pun intended!] my way through it.
Making a pound cake from scratch is the most advanced baking I’ve ever done. This dessert contains the most basic ingredients found in your pantry and fridge: eggs, butter, flour, sugar, vanilla extract and baking powder. As long as you have a hand or stand mixer and measure your ingredients correctly, it’s not difficult to mix and bake.
Macarons also require few ingredients: two types of sugar, egg whites, almond flour, and color. That’s it as far as the cookies, a/k/a shells go. The fillings can be diverse: readymade jams or jellies, caramel, Nutella, butterscotch, lemon or lime curd, etc. You can make your own whether it’s buttercream, chocolate ganache, or a jam/fruit spread.
I’d tasted macarons a few times and loved them. They were decadently sweet and rich. From an Etsy store, I ordered an array of pastel colored macarons that were photographed for the cover of my novella, Sweet Dreams.
I needed a picture for the cover of my forthcoming sweet romance/cozy mystery, Macarons of Love, #4 in the Yolanda’s Yummery series. So I bought macarons in various colors and flavors. Average price: $2.25 each. I took 300+ pictures and they were good, not great. I cherished each macaron and decided that having these delicacies handy whenever I wanted them was a very appealing idea. Even if they didn’t turn out looking great, I’d get a better education about the art of baking macarons and would understand my characters even more. I had most of the ingredients and equipment, I reasoned. Well, not almond flour, but sugar was in the cupboard and fresh eggs in the fridge. I’d watched more than a dozen how-to videos on YouTube. I read numerous blogs, many of them showing step-by-step directions. Some bakers claimed they were easy to make; other bloggers despaired of ever being able to create them. One confessed that several batches never even made it to the oven.
I spent $12 for one pound of almond flour! This is one of the reasons why macarons aren’t cheap. I also learned that almond meal, almond powder, and almond flour are the same thing. Only when making macarons, you needed to sift or sieve it. The more you sift, the finer it gets, the better lookin’ those macarons.
Macarons weren’t spooned onto a baking sheet—they were piped on. Piped with one of those piping or pastry bags? I thought that was for decorating cakes or cupcakes. My experience with a piping bag? Zip. I couldn’t just neatly spoon them on? Nope.
Separating eggs and whipping the whites into a meringue didn’t seem too difficult to someone who’s whipped thousands of gallons of shea butter. But there’s a difference between the two ingredients: shea butter can’t be overwhipped, egg whites can. I also had a major oopsie that first day after picking up the egg and instead of separating it the entire egg splatted into the bowl. Great, I’d have to wait another 24 hours so the egg would be aged enough for high quality macarons. At least that’s what many of the bakers suggested.
Since I knew my piping skills were nonexistent, I had some foresight: I made a template the size of the baking sheet and had 1.5” circles neatly spaced on the back of the paper that was adhered to the baking sheets.
I put the required amount of almond flour [Bob’s Red Mill] through a small sieve. Correction: I attempted to sieve the flour. Thirty minutes later, I’d managed to get about 1/8 of a cup from sieve to mixing bowl. I grumbled about how time consuming it was, recalling people on videos doing it in seconds. I tried smacking the sieve and just spilled more flour. The spatula didn’t work. My fist, wanting to punch it through… nope, that sieve was too small.
I interrupted my macaron making “festivities” and drove to the store to buy a larger sieve. Finally, the almond flour was able to make it through the larger size mesh, as did the powdered sugar.
Meanwhile, I had no difficulty whipping the egg whites, granulated sugar, and adding the magenta gel color.
Folding the flour and sugar meant the dry ingredients had to be sifted again. Good thing I didn’t have to use that mini sieve. The egg whites would’ve deflated or whatever happens to old egg whites. Macaronnage is the term for gently folding the dry ingredients into the egg whites which results in a batter that’s not too stiff and not too runny. There are ways of determining when it’s done such as counting the number of strokes to testing the batter to see how it falls from the spatula—the term molten lava is frequently used. Well, I guessed it was like molten lava because my arm was starting to feel like it with all that mixing, um, folding.
Before I encountered my first run-in with the pastry bag with the plastic nozzle that I’d hopefully inserted correctly, I had to get the pink batter from bowl to bag. Those baking experts showed how easy it was—the same people who could probably pipe blindfolded—insert piping bag in a glass, fold the top over like a cuff, and make sure the nozzle was pointing up rather than down. Also, twist the bottom of the bag a few times so the batter won’t escape. Okay…
Theoretically, easy. I plopped the pastry bag into the glass and added the first scoop of batter with my spatula…but I’d forgotten to make the cuff so the batter got stuck on top and some of it fell on the counter. Way to go, wasting batter and making a mess. Eventually, I got most of it into the bag and the batter started escaping from the bottom, too. I’d be lucky if I managed to make one macaron shell!
I won’t describe the horror of piping except that part of my face was pink from batter oozing out the top as I tensely gripped it. Some dropped onto my hand. Good thing it wasn’t red! Each of the discs was a different size with only a few of them being round. Getting the batter onto the parchment paper was a messy feat but in the end I managed to get 24 various sized discs onto each tray.
I baked each tray separately and used the bottom oven rack after reading and watching the tales of staying away from the middle rack.
The result can be seen to your left.
Itsy bitsy feet on some, a single mega cracked shell, but the taste of the shell was sweet. I added jam rather than attempt to do a buttercream filling which would need to be piped—I really didn’t fancy that word!
This is an easy cake to bake. As I wanted it to be as rich as what my mom made, I used imported GMO-free butter, pure cane sugar, and eggs that come from chickens that are free to roam around outdoors. Using the best available ingredients will make a difference in how this scrumptious pound cake smells when baking and when removed from the oven.
Naturally, the taste will be better than any frozen pound cake which has preservatives, water, skim milk, high fructose corn syrup, soybean oil, and artificial coloring!
8 ounces salted butter Kerrygold or President [or other organic non-GMO butter] softened to room temperature
1 cup pure cane sugar
1 Tablespoon lemon juice
4 large eggs free range or pasture-raised
2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract
Oven Temperature: 300 Degrees Fahrenheit
Grease a loaf pan [9″ by 5″] lightly with butter.
Beat the butter for about a minute until you have a creamy texture.
Add the sugar. Beat the butter and sugar together for about 5 minutes. Make sure they’re combined and whip a lot of air into the mixture to make the batter fluffy.
Add eggs to the butter and sugar mixture and mix for about 5 minutes.
Add lemon and vanilla extract.
In a bowl, combine the flour and baking powder.
Add flour mixture to your mixing bowl.
Mix until the flour is incorporated and forms a stiff batter. Don’t overmix.
Pour batter into your prepared loaf pan. With a spatula, smooth the dough down so that the surface is relatively flat and fills the pan.
Bake for 1 hour 30 minutes.
You’ll know it’s done when: top is golden and edges are starting to brown. The crust will be fairly firm and the center may have a crack or two.
Let it rest in the pan for about 10 minutes. Run a knife along the edge and carefully turn it out of the pan. Place it right-side up on a rack to cool.