I have formed this dumb awful habit of allowing myself to stay awake in bed. It happens either late at night when I should be falling asleep or at 3am when I wake up and suddenly everything of minor importance appears to be super urgent. The smart thing to do of course is to try to fall asleep just by brute force or by reading one of Eggboy’s books about economics but the thing about having an amorphous work schedule is that at 3am if I suddenly happen upon the need to do some bridesmaid up-do research I can push my alarm back by 30 minutes and dive right down into Instagram. The problem with all of this is that a) I’m exhausted the next day and b) my brain is so mushy at 3am that all of my decisions made at that hour are just bad. Last month I ordered $400 worth of raincoats from my phone just in case the one that Alana got me for Alaska didn’t fit around my thicker than average arms. They were returnable, I reasoned. And in the end it didn’t rain at all on our trip. Last week I made a hair appointment, saved a dozen inspirational photos of ombré balayage, and made a vocabulary list of hair styles to tell my stylist at my appointment, but then woke up and decided to just go full on brunette and then cancelled my appointment. And of course, 100% of my buttercream flower video watching was also in bed when I should have been asleep.
I am going to get better at this as soon as I understand everything there is to know about butter based cake.
That’s what keeps me up the most at night lately.
With the exception of funfetti cake, pretty much all of my go-to cakes have been oil-based. They’re very easy, reliable, adaptable, and most importantly, moist. I had no reason to stray from them other than that I woke up a few months ago feeling funny that I wasn’t very familiar with butter cakes, and I also just wanted butter. And some change. So I put my stand mixer to work and tinkered with ratios and different ingredients and sat in the parking lot of the gym googling things that i thought of on the way there like “is there a reason that you shouldn’t use heavy cream in cakes” and made a spreadsheet of every single vanilla cake that I could find. I thought about acidity of sour cream and wrangled with our new oven heating elements that took a few days to even out… It was like being back in music school again, trying to learn a new excerpt. I felt like Rob with his spreadsheets which he used to track every single tempo of every single recording of every single important percussion excerpt.
And I went so crazy that I had to finally download that app where you grow trees if you avoid using your phone for long portions of time.
You know how you’re not supposed to change a door knob? (Because if you change your door knob you’ll soon feel like you’ll have to re-paint your door and if you re-paint your door you’ll have to paint the room and if you paint the room you’ll have to paint the rest of your house, pretty soon you’re demolishing and building a new home? Or something.) That’s what I feel like I’ve just done. I’ve switched from oil to butter and now because I’ve done that I’ve needed to adjust moisture levels and because I’ve adjusted moisture levels I’ve needed to adjust dry ingredients and eggs and cooking time and approach and vision and values, etc.
I’m aware that about ten thousand vanilla cupcake recipes exist.
But I also have this hunch that my ideal moisture level of a cake is on the very high side, and that’s what’s shaping my every move. I want a moist cake that has been lifting some weights. Moist, dense, soft cake. Like if these slipper socks were a cake. Not some airy light dainty pantyhose situation. There’s a time and a place for pantyhose cake, and in my life, that’s Passover in the 90s.
So the name of the game became cramming fat into every possible orifice of this thing, without it deflating. Too much fat will destroy a cake’s structure, it will deflate. Too much liquid will also make it deflate. But of course not enough fat will make it dry. So I drew the conclusion that a moist enough cake will deflate just slightly when it comes out of the oven, making it have a flat top or just a slight divot when it’s cooled. It does not need to have a nice dome. It does not need to be pretty, it just needs to be moist.
So I collected all of the fats:
butter (for flavor, duh)
and it’s european style butter (which has 2% more fat than traditional butter, cha-ching)
refined coconut oil (for additional moisture)*
heavy cream (fat and liquid)**
sour cream (for more richness)***
*since the coconut oil is solid at room temperature, it gives it slightly more structure than canola oil. You can use unrefined if you like a hint of coconut flavor. And if you don’t have coconut oil, using canola oil will indeed work.
**heavy cream adds tons of fat and richness, which is what we’re going for. But it adds so much fat that it makes the structure a little on the edge of stability. There’s enough stability in this batter for cupcakes, but not so much for full layer cakes. We’re going to talk about layered butter cakes in a later post. This recipe will also work with whole milk! Using heavy cream will make it richer, but if whole milk is what you have, that's ok.
***I wouldn’t make you clear out the dairy aisle if it weren’t for a good reason. The difference that sour cream makes in this cake is like the difference between the flannel-lined duck boots and the shearling-lined duck boots. You are reading the blog of a shearling-lined duck boot owner. (You could sub this for plain whole milk yogurt. It will be just slightly less rich than using sour cream.)
And put them in with some flour (all-purpose, not cake flour because I prefer the denser texture of all-purpose), sugar, eggies (I didn’t go down the road of adding single yolks, which, yes, will add richness, but I just have this thing right now where I'm trying to avoid using only part of the egg), vanilla, and for some of the tests, almond extract, which I sometimes enjoy in a vanilla world.
I went through dozens of tests (most of which were right before the Eggsis wedding which provided 320 taste testers and some of which are still in my deep freeze… would you like some cupcakes?) and came up with a cupcake recipe that I am so very happy with!! It has all of the moist/dense qualities that I was going for, and even after all of this taste testing, I still make audible “mmmmm” sounds when I have a bite.
I have one major takeaway that doesn’t have to do with ingredients at all though, and that’s that you cannot let these over bake. Over-baking, even by like 30 seconds, will dry these out. So use an oven thermometer, begin checking them when I say, and when your cakes are thinking about starting to brown, and when a toothpick inserted into the center comes out with a few crumbs on it, take em out.
Let them cool.
And then frost them with a good American buttercream that uses a good European style butter. Because, again, we want more fat.
Sprinkles ad infinitum.
Ok I’m done.
For now. Because part two of this saga is that we make a layer cake.
Thank you so much, Land O' Lakes, for sponsoring this post and for providing all of the butter for the endless test batches that were required for this recipe! Land O' Lakes®’ European Style Butter has a fat content of 82%, 2% more than traditional butter in the states, so it has more flavor and a creamier texture. It makes a great moist cake and a delicious buttercream frosting!!
vanilla cupcakes with vanilla buttercream
makes 18 cupcakes
1 3/4 c (222g) all-purpose flour
1 1/2 tsp baking powder
3/4 tsp kosher salt
3/4 c (180g) heavy cream, room temperature
6 tb (90g) sour cream, room temperature
1/2 c (113g) land o' lakes® european style unsalted butter, room temperature
1/4 c (50g) refined coconut oil, soft but not melted
1 c (200g) sugar
2 large eggs, room temperature
1 1/2 tsp vanilla bean paste or extract
1 c (225g) land o' lakes® european style unsalted butter, room temperature
3 c (360g) powdered sugar
1/8 tsp salt
1 tsp vanilla bean paste or extract
1/4 tsp almond extract, optional
3 tb (45g) heavy cream
To make the cupcakes: Preheat the oven to 350ºf. Line two cupcake pans with 18 cupcake liners, spacing them out evenly between the two pans.
In a medium bowl, sift together the flour and baking powder, and then lightly stir in the salt and set aside. In a large measuring cup, whisk together the heavy cream and sour cream and set aside.
In a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, cream together the butter, coconut oil, and sugar on medium high for 3-4 minutes, until light and fluffy. Add the eggs, one at a time, beating well after each. Add the vanilla. Reduce the mixer to medium low and add the dry mixture and cream mixture in 3 alternating additions, mixing until just combined. Using an ice cream scoop, distribute the batter evenly between the 18 cupcake liners.
Bake for 10 minutes and then rotate the pans and continue to bake until the cupcakes are thinking about starting to turn brown and a toothpick inserted into the center comes out with a few crumbs on it; begin checking for doneness 6 minutes after you rotate the pans. If the cupcakes need more time, continue to bake and check them frequently (like every 30-45 seconds). Let them cool in the pans for 10 minutes and then transfer to a wire rack to cool completely.
To make the buttercream: In a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, beat together the butter, powdered sugar, salt, vanilla, and almond extract, if using. Once combined, beat in the heavy cream.
Frost cupcakes as desired and enjoy. These are best enjoyed within a day or two.