Saturday, October 29, 2011

My Tips for Great (Cupcake) Success and Halloween Recipes Round-up!

More Black Widow Cupcakes
It's an unfortunate truth that sometimes you put in hours of work on a recipe only to have it do a complete belly flop on ya. Today was one of those times as I tried to make Jell-O Shot Brain Cupcakes for the 4th and final post in my Halloween Cupcake series. The Jell-O was too soft, the frosting curdled, and a heavy gray blanket covered the sky from dawn til dusk. Sure, the cupcakes tasted alright, but when I realized I'd choose real Jell-O shots over those anyday, there was no way I was gonna send this recipe into the vast interwebs with my stamp attached to it!

Though I'm no expert, I take a lot of pride in everything I do and wouldn't want to share anything less than the best with you guys. So instead of my original post, I'm going to share some general cupcake tips which have helped make most of my other cupcake experiments successful. Plus a quick round-up of all my Halloween recipes for you last-minute planners =p.

XIAOLU'S CUPCAKE TIPS:
  • Use a good muffin pan. I recommend one that's nonstick and has some weight (like this one). A sturdier pan will be less likely to warp (become misshapen) easily. I recall using my new pan for the first time 3 years ago and noticing an immediate difference. My cupcakes rose at least 1/4 inch higher and baked more evenly.
  • Buy an oven thermometer (or even 2!) and always preheat at least 25 minutes, ovens (even brand new ones) are notorious for being inaccurate as to temperature. Buy your own thermometer and rely on it rather than your oven's. If your oven tells you that it's up to 400 degrees F only 5 minutes after you turned it on...it's lying...
  • If it's your first time making a recipe, try to read it a few days in advance in case you need to buy/prepare anything ahead of time. At the very least, try to read it before you start making the cupcakes.
  • Lightly grease the top of your cupcake pan BEFORE putting in liners. Especially if you overfill the cups with batter later, this will make it much easier to lift the cupcakes out later. I've found that the grease seems to reduce the "muffin-top" effect and encourages the cakes to rise up and not outward.
  • Use good-quality baking liners. Especially if you bake cupcakes/muffins a lot, this should be a no-brainer. I usually buy basic solid liners (white, brown, black) in bulk online so that I'm never low -- I usually search for the lowest prices on Etsy. Cupcake Social is one seller I've had a good experience with. If you're a fan of those paper souffle standalone baking cups (similar to those Wilton nut cups except that those aren't oven-safe), you can get a LOT of them for cheap here. Unsuitable liners can take a lot away from your final product. For example, I bought white liners at the grocery store when I was nearly out of my usual liners. Luckily I didn't need to use them because when I placed one into the pan, it wouldn't even fit without a big fold forming along the top. Liners can also differ in their non-stick coating. Some are so non-stick that they tend to pull away from the cupcake. Trust me, this is NOT a good look!
  • When measuring flour for cakes, it's best to go by weight OR to stir the flour, spoon it into the measuring cup, then level it with a knife or other straight edge. The method of measurement can make a big difference. Scooping up the flour with your measuring cup will compact the flour, result in you using too much flour, and the cake being too dry.
  • Sift dry ingredients together, it helps minimize the formation of clumps of dry ingredients when they're being mixed into the batter later.
  • Unless the recipe specifies otherwise, use room temperature eggs and butter. Obviously if you'll be heating up the butter or eggs as part of the recipe, you don't need to worry about the starting temperature. But if you'll be creaming the butter with sugar, you'll need it to be warm enough to properly incorporate the air that will make your cake fluffy. Room temperature eggs are also important if the eggs are to mix in evenly in the batter. You can speed up their warming by placing them in a bowl of lukewarm water. Once the water becomes cool, replace it with more warm water. Do this until the eggs no longer feel cool to the touch.
  • If whisking by hand, beat eggs separately (or with other wet ingredients) before adding to batter. I always pre-beat my eggs even for one-bowl recipes because of one incident. When crumbling up my favorite chocolate cake to make cake pops one time, I noticed there were chunks of something rubbery in the cake. I realized these were from streaks of egg white that didn't get totally mixed into the batter. Referring back to the bullet point above, it's important to use room temperature eggs as well to avoid these streaks.
  • If whisking by hand, whisk in one direction only when first combining wet and dry ingredients. Once the 2 are fairly combined, you can change directions, but I find that changing directions before the dry ingredients are mixed in results in more clumping.
  • Unless the recipe instructs otherwise, always stop mixing as soon as the added ingredients have been mixed in. Overmixing will result in developing the gluten (proteins that make bread chewy) in the batter too much = tough cake!
  • For even and clean distribution of batter, use a cookie/ice cream scoop. I love love LOVE this scoop -- it makes dividing up batter a cinch and is also great for cookies and ice cream, of course.
  • Don't overfill your baking liners. I've rarely seen a recipe that calls for filling more than 3/4 full. Most cupcakes recommend somewhere between 2/3 and 3/4 full. A few batters rise exceptionally high, so if the recipe says to only fill 1/2 full, follow the directions!
  • After filling pan with batter, slam pan directly down on counter from a height of 2 inches. Don't do this though if the batter is exceptionally delicate. Otherwise, it helps push any big air bubbles to the top and out. This way you won't have big holes and tunnels in your finished cakes.
  • Don't open the oven door before the last 5 minutes of baking. Cakes can be very sensitive to temperature changes and drafts. Especially opening the door during the first 1/2 of baking can have big consequences such as the cake collapsing.
  • Always check in on your cupcakes about 5 minutes before the baking time listed in the recipe. Due to variations in ovens, pans, altitude, and whatever else, it's a good idea to check your goods a little early. Better that than dry, overbaked cakes (ew). For most cakes the toothpick test is fairly accurate; the cupcakes are ready as soon as a toothpick stuck into the middle of the cupcake comes out mostly clean (a few moist crumbs are usually ok; wet batter or a lot of crumbs are not).
  • Regardless of what the recipe says, move cupcakes from pan to cooling rack no more than 5 minutes after they come out of the oven (but be careful not to burn yourself!). After persistent issues with cupcake liners separating from the sides of the cake (as mentioned above), I did some research and found 2 main culprits. First was the type of baking liner used, and second was steam formed when cupcakes sat cooling in their pans for too long. After figuring these out, I haven't had this problem again.
  • Let cupcakes cool on racks COMPLETELY before frosting unless the recipe says otherwise. Even if your cupcakes feel just barely warm, that bit of heat is probably going to be enough to melt your frosting if you try to put it on too early.
  • To fill cupcakes, I prefer the "cone method" or using a cookie cutter. The cone method simply means using a paring knife to cut a cone about halfway down into the cupcake, then using the tip of the knife to help pop the cone out. Or you can use a 1-inch wide round cookie cutter. Press the cutter down into the center of the cupcake, left it up and out, then use the tip of a knife to help you pull out the round of cake you just cut. With either method, you can spoon/pipe in the filling at this point. Now you can either put back the cone/round of cake on top of the filling or frost directly on top of the filling.
  • Cupcakes with any perishable ingredients (like whipped cream or cream cheese frosting) should be stored in the fridge. Other cupcakes can be stored, well-covered, at room temperature. They are usually good for several days this way.
  • If you make cupcakes ahead of time and want to keep them fresh/moist, wrap or place them in an airtight container and freeze them. Defrost before frosting and serving.
  • Share the joy of cupcakes with friends and family. I promise, they taste better when enjoyed together ;p.
Well, that's all I can think of for now. Please feel free to add your own tips or any questions you may have for me in the comments! In the meantime, if you're still looking for a fun and tasty Halloween treat, I've gathered all of mine in one convenient locations (...in Africa...brownie point if you get this reference ^-^).
Oreo Cookies & Cream Owl Cupcakes
Creepy Pumpkin Bug and Mummy-cakes (Cupcake Hero::October)
Happy Halloween XD
Devilishly Delicious! (My Favorite Red Velvet Cupcakes)
Black Widow Chocolate Rum Cupcakes
Spooky Graveyard Cupcakes for Halloween!

35 comments:

  1. Great tips and amazing cupcakes! Thanks for sharing.

    Cheers,

    Rosa

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  2. I don't bake many cupcakes nor cakes but your tips are very useful. I'm gonna keep in mind all of them, especially to slam down the cake pan to reduce the holes.
    Thanks for sharing Xiaolu

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  3. Thanks for doing this Xiaolu!! So many great cupcakes and amazing tips. This is bookmarked for sure :)

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  4. Excellent tips and such a cute halloween cupcake roundup. Thanks!

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  5. wow that is perhaps the one single longest post on cupcake tips I've ever since, and all so useful too! :)

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  6. Some fantastic tips Xiaolu!!! I never thought about greasing the top of the muffin pan. I will definitely remember this one.

    Sorry to hear your last Halloween post didn't turn out the way you'd hoped. :( I feel your disappointment as the same thing happens to me now and again too.

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  7. Thanks for great tips. Your Halloween cupcakes look amazing.

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  8. Sips and SpoonfulsOctober 30, 2011 at 6:19 AM

    Great tips my friend....a rather helpful post!

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  9. I love the "death by chocolate" one!!! Happy Halloween! :)

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  10. Great tips Xiaolu! Love the round-up too, my fav is also the 'death by choc' :D

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  11. This is a great post Xiaolu. You are always so generous with your knowledge!

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  12. I actually kind of live and breathe by most of these tips, although I do have crappy warped cupcake tins. I definitely need to change that, though it hasn't affected my cupcakes so far!

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  13. Wow, those owls are about the cutest thing I've ever seen.

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  14. Thanks for the great tips! I will be putting them to use the next time I bake cupcakes! :)

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  15. Wonderful,just wonderful tips Xiaolu!:-) Thank you so much for sharing!
    I have a little question:What do I do if I want to leave out the eggs from a cake/cupcake/cookie(any baking actually) recipe?Is there a substitute?
    Here in India,a lot of people are vegetarian.N vegetarianism by Indian norms means not eating eggs either(usually).
    There are many eggless recipes on the internet,and they work very well,but perhaps there is a way to convert a usual recipe to an eggless version?

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  16. Thank you for the tips. I can never seem to get my cupcakes to rise. I will try your tips. Thanks!

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  17. Billy Witch Doctor, dot com!

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  18. Thank you for helping us make less disasters in the kitchen. I am having this printed (in bigger fonts) and pasted right on my kitchen whiteboard...Very helpful! Heaven sent! thanks thanks!

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  19. Wow I am especially impressed by your bones and graveyard cupcakes - so creative! And thanks for all the tips, I consider myself to be pretty proficient at baking, but cupcakes are not always my forte. ;) I especially like your tip for greasing the top of the baking pan, I would have never thought of that!

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  20. Your cup tips is awesome ;-) Xiaol'u you are so creative, I'll be obvious, tarts, pies and cupcakes for me is difficult, I like more non sweet food :-) As you can see from my recipes :-)

    It is always interesting to look at people cuisine , who live far a way from me and to compare how is different food and cooking skills.

    I like your blog! ;-)

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  21. Really enjoyed reading this, hopefully your post will encourage people to have a go. You're right that investing in quality cookware is really worth it and will give you much better results.

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  22. Thanks for the positive feedback, everyone! So glad you find this helpful :).

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  23. the perfect inspiration for all of us in the kitchen!! thanks for the tips!!

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  24. You mentioned you buy your liners in bulk but you did not say which brand you prefer. Is there one that you like to use? I keep having trouble with the ones I buy at the craft stores.

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  25. excellent tips and i love the little devil cupcakes!!! ...and the owl cupcakes... sorry you had a fallout with the jell-o...i've had some no=go projects as well. The good thing is that we don't have to report to anyone! yay! :)

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  26. Ali -- I've now added a link for an Etsy seller I've had good luck with. Thanks for the question!

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  27. Great cupcake roundup. :) I think my favourite is still the owl, but they're all amazing.

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  28. first time here and loved the cupcake round up!! my fav was the owl....its so cute

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  30. Thanx Xiaolu for all the cupcakes tips and your reply on my comment. I was a bit low after baking bad cupcakes, but your tips have been very encouraging. I will make them again following one of your recipe(from this site).Your pics are super gr8 and ur site is excellent. Thnx again!!!

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I love hearing from you all! Please leave me a message if you have questions, advice, or just to let me know you stopped by. Your feedback is always very much appreciated. Thanks! <3 Xiaolu