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.
You’ve heard of lemon curd and lemon butter, right? In fact, there are two types of lemon butter, one edible, the other that can be spread on your skin as it’s made with lemon peel and lemon oil, sweet almond oil, and hydrogenated vegetable oil. How do I know this? I’ve spent 10+ years in the kitchen formulating the perfect whipped shea body butter and I’ve tried all kinds of butters and oils. But I digress, this is about real dairy butter that goes inside those lovely macaron shells.
This time when I made my lemon buttercream filling, I didn’t use any cream. I blended room temperature butter with the powdered sugar [a/k/a confectioners’ sugar or icing sugar]. I looked in the fridge and saw that the heavy whipping cream was a day away from expiring. Not wanting to take a chance, I decided to add the lemon curd. I added just the right amount to make it much tarter than in the past. Before, it was a sweet lemon. Now, it was a sweet and tart lemon and the vanilla bean paste helped perk up the flavor even more. So it was still a curd and there was that lovely fresh Plugra butter so why not call it butter curd? I also enhanced the color with yellow gel colorant.
Admittedly, I have problems with hollow macaron shells. While some people might not like to bite into a big air pocket, others aren’t as fussy. I’m a perfectionist and didn’t like them, although I’d rather they were hollow than footless! But this time I had fewer hollows. Here’s the proof:
Since July, there have been a couple of baking changes. The first is that the oven maintains an even temperature. Secondly, I’m using powdered colorants which means I mix the batter well, but not too well.
I’m also adding the powdered colorant to the triple-sifted almond flour/sugar mixture just before it goes into the meringue. For this lemony batch, I went au naturel and used turmeric. The resulting color wasn’t a bright yellow and the photos make it look tanner than it actually was. The truest color is that seen with the almost hollow-free macaron just above.
I’m working on a new eBook that will contain macaron recipes along with LOTS of helpful tips for making your own French macarons. Meanwhile, I’m looking forward to baking another batch of minty macarons this week.
There was a sale on fresh organic raspberries so I got ambitious and decided to bake raspberry chocolate cupcakes AND raspberry macarons.
This is the first time I’ve used fresh fruit instead of jam. And you know what—it won’t be the last! Wow, I could really taste the difference, hence the name Really Raspberry!
First, I made raspberry jam, which took about five minutes. All I did was smash up those fresh raspberries with a potato masher—why mess up a food processor–add a lot of granulated sugar and some liquid pectin. The result: 2 jars filled with fresh raspberry jam. I also left in the seeds as I wanted it to be all natural. I was also too lazy to strain them! Once cooled, I added the contents of one jar into a pastry bag, put that into a Ziploc bag and stored it in the fridge where it’d be ready for the macarons that would be made on Monday.
I’ve made the chocolate cupcakes a few times and prefer them to any other because I pour the batter into the liners rather than scoop it, so it’s a lot easier. Plus, I love chocolate!
Making the fresh raspberry buttercream frosting for the cupcakes was as easy as it was when I made it with jam. I even added the raspberries last. Oh, and the amount of vanilla bean paste was very small.
On Monday, I made the macarons. I had not one but two fillings – raspberry jam and some leftover raspberry buttercream frosting. I left it in the pastry bag with the large star tip, as I was too lazy to change it. Now I’d have super fancy looking macarons.
The natural red powdered food coloring was added to the almond/sugar mixture the night before. That’s one thing I’ve learned about making macarons – do as much preparation as possible the night before they’re made. I separate the eggs and leave them on the counter in a bowl covered with a paper towel. I weigh the dry ingredients. And since I was using new silicone baking mats, I even made a template for them.
Making macarons on a Monday is a fine way to start the week! I began the meringue at noon and by 2:18; the third and last batch was done. I didn’t make a record number as only 48 shells were deemed acceptable. I made more, but some were thrown out as they stuck to the mat. I was trying out another oven that was fairly true to the oven thermometer. I used the middle rack, which I won’t do next time, and will lower the temperature. While many of the shells were hollow, at least they had feet.
I had fun deciding to add the buttercream filling and jam—sometimes both! I’d seen macarons with the fancy filling before but hadn’t gotten around to trying it. It’s very simple to do.
Soon I’m going to be baking another batch of macarons with a new powdered color that I haven’t yet used.
Before baking the macarons, I sifted the almond flour three times and poured it into an airtight container. Now, every time I make macarons, I only have to sift the flour and powdered sugar together once, and whisk the two ingredients in a bowl and set it aside. So much sifting is done to ensure that your shells are smooth and shiny.
When I whipped the [room temperature] egg whites, I added the pinch of salt with the granulated sugar at the foamy midway point. Four minutes later, I had that satiny texture of egg whites that had reached their peak. Then I added two drops of pink gel for a baby pink color.
The flour/sugar mixture was added in two stages and this time I counted how many times it was folded: 63. The texture was just right and I was cautiously optimistic, as I poured the batter into the piping bag. My first few macarons were round and all was going well until I felt something wet on my hand. Ooops, I’d been holding the bag wrong and it was leaking out the top. But I kept at it and wound up with a grand total of 52 shells.
30 minutes later, the macarons went into a 300-degree oven. Instead of using the center rack, I opted to use the one just below it. This time I turned the tray eight minutes into the baking. There they were: FEET!
They baked for 19 minutes and when I pulled the tray out I saw 26 macarons shells with feet. I did a happy dance, and added the second tray. Meanwhile, I began making the “lemonade” buttercream filling. Actually, it was flavored with Trader Joe’s lemon curd. I used the strawberry buttercream recipe and substituted lemon curd for the strawberry jam.
All was going well until I added the powdered sugar. It flew out of the bowl, on the counter, stove, floor, me…the bowl was too small! Next time I’d mix the softened butter first until creamy and then very slowly add the powdered sugar. More time consuming but no cloudbursts of sugar that way.
Due to using naturally yellow butter and lemon curd, I didn’t need to add color, but I did: 5 drops which didn’t significantly change the color. The taste was a sweet and tart blend that I adored. If you adore lemon, try the following recipe. Let me know how it turns out and feel free to ask any questions or make any comments!
Pink Lemonade Macaron Shells
1 cup powdered sugar [confectioners’ sugar or icing sugar]
¾ cup almond flour [sift 3 times]
4 Tablespoons granulated sugar
2 egg whites [room temperature]
2 drops pink gel colorant
Pinch of salt
Serving size: 52 shells or 26 macarons [approximately]
Stand or hand mixer with whisk attachment
2 – 4 large baking sheets
Parchment paper or silpat mat
Large sieve or flour sifter
Pastry/piping bag with large round tip
Measuring cups/spoons/stainless steel or glass bowls
Silicone or rubber spatula
Large cup or glass to hold piping bag
* Line two baking sheets with parchment paper or a silpat. If the sheets are thin, double them up. Macarons are sensitive to heat so they need to be baked on a durable tray that has lots of insulation. You’ll also need a pastry/piping bag with a large round tip ready before you begin.
* Sift powdered sugar with the almond flour. Large grains that don’t make it through can be thrown away or used as a skin exfoliator. I discovered this when I washed the equipment by hand the first time!
* Whisk the sugar and flour to make sure it’s fully blended.
* In a stainless steel or glass bowl, beat the egg whites until foamy like a bubble bath before adding the salt. Then add granulated sugar in 3 batches. Start at a low speed and gradually increase the speed. When finished, the mixture should have stiff peaks. Add color last, but only whip for the briefest amount of time to mix in the color.
* Add dry ingredients to the meringue in 2 batches using a spatula. Fold until the mixture comes together, scraping the sides and flip batter over. When the sugar/flour mixture is blended, the batter will be easier to mix and will look shiny. Lift the spatula and see how quickly batter falls in “ribbons” from the spatula. A ribbon of batter dropped into the bowl should merge with the rest of the batter in 20-30 seconds. Another test is to “write” the number 8 with the batter.
* Add tip to piping bag and then twist near the bottom to prevent any mixture from escaping. The tip should face upwards and that also helps keep the mixture in the piping bag as you place it in a cup and form a cuff over the rim so it’s easy to add the batter.
* Spoon batter into piping bag. Twist the top of the bag and untwist the bottom, gently pushing the just-poured batter toward the bottom. You’ll remove any excess air that way.
* Pipe the batter onto the parchment or silicone mat. With parchment, you can use a template. Stay inside the lines as the batter will spread and flatten a bit.
* Pipe batter on the parchment-lined baking sheets in 1.5-inch circles.Keep the batter inside circles if using a template.
* Rap baking sheet several times on the counter. This will further flatten the macarons, and remove air bubbles.
* Preheat oven to 300 degrees Fahrenheit.
* Allow macarons to sit for 30-60 minutes until a film forms. Lightly touch a macaron and if no batter clings to your finger then it’s dry and ready to be baked.
* Bake for 16 -18 minutes. The tops should be firm and glossy and the bottoms of the shells should have formed “feet” or frills at the bottom. The risen macarons should be firm with the slightest amount of give. If it wobbles, they require another minute or so. When done, the cookies can easily be removed from the parchment.
* Remove from oven, place cookie sheet on a wire rack or flat surface and let cool completely.
Lemon Curd Buttercream Filling
1/4 cup softened butter [use a high quality butter like President or Kerrygold]
1 1/2 cups powdered sugar [confectioners’ sugar or icing sugar]
2 Tablespoons heavy cream
3 tablespoons lemon curd
1 teaspoon vanilla extract or vanilla bean paste
5 or so drops yellow gel color [optional]
Whip butter for about 2 minutes before adding some of the powdered sugar. Add the cream, lemon curd and vanilla. Gradually add the remaining powdered sugar until the filling is the desired consistency. Add colorant last.
Pair the shells according to size. Spoon or pipe filling onto one side. Gently add the other side. If using a piping bag, start in the center by doing a swirl until you reach near the edges but not right at the edges. You don’t want to overfill them and make a mess with leaking buttercream filling. Gently add the top shell and give it a twist of about a quarter turn to make sure the shells are nicely lined up.
Store your macarons in an airtight container and put in the refrigerator. They should last about a week. Macarons taste best at room temperature, so remove from the fridge about an hour beforehand.
The macaron baking saga continues as I want to test the King Arthur “super finely ground” almond flour I’d found for a dollar less at Walmart. I also wanted to try a strawberry buttercream filling because I love strawberries and the idea of a buttercream filling seemed decadent to me. I’d written about them in my books but in fact had never made buttercream frosting/filling from scratch. I’ve used containers of Duncan Hines and Betty Crocker frosting. Well, they weren’t actually buttercream, they were called frosting, had a long shelf life, were always at room temperature, and were spread with a knife. At least in my experience they were. While all frostings or buttercreams contain high amounts of sugar, the store-bought variety had vegetable shortening instead of butter so they didn’t contain butter or cream.
At first, I thought the super finely ground almond flour only needed to be sifted with the powdered sugar. Wrong! I ended up sifting it twice. I left the two eggs out overnight, thinking I’d separate them before I made the macarons. When separating the whites from the yolks, some of the yolk dropped into the egg white bowl. Macaron baking experts declared that a NO as fat wasn’t good for macs. So I scrounged around online until I found a website where the author claimed an egg could be aged in the microwave for ten seconds.
Most eggs contain a high percentage of water in the whites. When aged, extra water evaporates. Separate the white from the yolk and cover with cling wrap with a small slit to allow for evaporation, then place in the refrigerator for 24-36 hours. You can also leave it out overnight or for about 12 hours if the bowl is covered with a paper towel. The eggs must be room temperature if you want them to whip into a fluffy meringue.
This was my worst batch yet, due to the egg problem. The egg didn’t age or do anything other than maybe warm up a bit. Unlike the sunny day where I made my first batch, the weather had gone from early morning sunshine to mid-afternoon humidity and rain. It was a challenging four hours due to:
* Waiting 90 minutes for the shells to dry
* Undermixing the batter
* Clumsy piping of the batter
* Forgetting to remove the paper templates from the baking sheet [see 2 photos below]
* NO feet
On the bright side:
* 1 more drop of coloring made the magenta even brighter
* Remembering to make a cuff with the pastry bag
* Lowering the temperature of the oven
* Making the best strawberry buttercream filling I’d ever tasted
* Able to pipe the buttercream filling onto the macarons
Strawberry Buttercream Filling Recipe
¼ cup room temperature Unsalted butter [use a high-quality brand like President or Kerry Gold]
1 ½ cups powdered sugar
2 Tablespoons heavy cream
4 Tablespoons high quality strawberry jam
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract OR vanilla bean paste
I want to emphasize the importance of using the best and highest quality ingredients in your buttercream filling as you will taste them! If you can use fresh strawberries or strawberry jam/spread that you’ve made, that would be excellent. I used a fruit spread that was sweetened with natural fruit juice and fruit pectin. There are many high quality types available in your grocery store, health food store, farmers market, etc. that DON’T contain high fructose corn syrup.
Here’s a list of preferred ingredients: strawberries, sugar, cane sugar, concentrated lemon juice, and fruit pectin.
INSTRUCTIONS: If using a stand mixer, add the butter to the bowl and mix for about 30 seconds, and then add half the powdered sugar.
If using a hand mixer, make sure you have a LARGE bowl and mix the butter first, then add half the sugar.
When the mixture is smooth, add your wet ingredients: cream, jam and vanilla. Once mixed, it’s time to add the remaining powdered sugar.
The mixture should be smooth and firm but not too firm that it would crush the delicate macaron shells.
If you pipe onto the shells, it’s recommended that you use a large, plain tip, Wilton size 10.
Start by piping in the center and doing a swirl until you reach near the edges but not right at the edges. You don’t want to overfill them and make a mess with leaking buttercream filling. Gently adding the top shell and giving it a twist of about a quarter turn is an easy way to make sure the shells are nicely lined up.
NEXT WEEK: More adventures in macaron baking! I test my first batch of chocolatemacarons with chocolate ganache filling!
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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.