Friday, April 3, 2009

Creating Cupcakes with Anita Chu at Tante Marie

Last week was cupcake heaven for me as I had the good fortune to take a class with Anita Chu at San Francisco’s Tante Marie – a cooking school located in North Beach.

Anita writes the Dessert First blog and is the author of the recently released, Field Guide to Cookies. She is also a graduate of Tante Marie’s Professional Pastry program. But this was her first teaching gig at the school.

Anita taught a Cupcake Technique class for three days. Unlike other classes I have taken at Tante Marie that were primarily attended by experienced bakers, this class was a mix of novice bakers, dedicated home bakers and at least one professional baker. I fell into the dedicated home baker category.

I mention this because it was an unexpected pleasure to witness a novice baker acquire enough basic skills in only three days to be successful at baking cupcakes. And I mean good looking and great tasting cupcakes! One woman had never used a stand-mixer and in fact talked about she almost sold hers at a recent garage sale! Now, of course, she couldn’t wait to fire that puppy up and bake!

Many of the students left with a spark in their eye and a bounce in their step – this could have been caused by all that sugar we were consuming but I have a feeling cupcakes were only going to be the beginning for them of many future baking experiments and accomplishments.

I had signed up for the class because although cupcakes aren’t that difficult to master, I had never had good luck with a good-looking final product. Some of my cupcakes turned out with a big domed top and others with a flat top or some that had a dense crumb and some that were light.

I also wanted to expand my knowledge on how to fill cupcakes with caramel, marshmallow, and other fillings that I’m sure I hadn’t even considered yet.

Anita covered all that plus she taught us how to include infusions to our cupcake repertoire. Infusions refer to steeping a dry ingredient with a liquid. For example, we paired saffron that had steeped in milk with a vanilla cupcake batter. The frosting was a buttercream that had a bit of rose syrup added to it.

I’ve been to several of the new cupcake shops that seem to offer the strangest flavor combinations but this combination worked. The saffron added a very subtle flavor to the basic vanilla batter. Topped with the rose petal buttercream – it was a revelation.

While I enjoyed the vanilla and saffron combination, the espresso powder infused in milk was more my cup of well, coffee. This resulted in a cupcake Anita called appropriately enough, “cup of coffee.” I topped this creation with a bittersweet chocolate ganache and sprinkled an almond praline on top. Yum!

So although I tend to be a plain chocolate or vanilla cupcake girl, I was inspired by many of her creations.

Most of Anita’s cupcake recipes resulted in a small–sized cupcake with a fine crumb texture. The top was smooth and not overly domed.

Anita is clearly an accomplished baker who can produce just about any pastry or bread you desire. But I think she really shines when she is developing new taste combinations while keeping the integrity of the product intact.

While all the cupcakes had an excellent taste, I wondered where were the more domed cupcakes of my youth? Like most bakers in the sixties, my mom used a cake mix – Betty Crocker or Duncan Hines were her favorite mixes to use.

While I didn’t like the slightly chemical taste produced by a commercial cake mix, I did like the impressive presentation of a sturdy cupcake with a slightly cracked and domed top.

In the interest of research, I thought a field trip to my local Sprinkles cupcake outlet was in order.

I ordered a cinnamon sugar cupcake, which is a lightly spiced buttermilk cake, dusted with cinnamon sugar. My husband selected a chocolate marshmallow cupcake, which is a Belgian dark chocolate cake and marshmallow cream with bittersweet chocolate ganache.

My cupcake was similar to a breakfast muffin and his was a blast from the past – it tasted just like a hostess cupcake albeit an organic version! I was smug in my knowledge that thanks to Anita, I now knew how they had filled the cupcakes and obtained that uniform look to their cupcake offerings.

But their cupcakes were also not the texture and look I was searching for.

I spent a few hours searching through my cookbooks at home and surfed various baking sites online.

The ingredient that kept coming up that was different from Anita’s recipes and from Sprinkles was sour cream.

A recipe from Ina Garten’s Barefoot Contessa at Home cookbook seemed to have all the ingredients I was looking for. I decided to test a batch.

The finished batter was pretty thick and made about 18 cupcakes. The cupcakes were light in texture but had a nice cracked domed top. The flavor had a smooth roundness to it most likely from the sour cream and buttermilk.

This looked like a cupcake from my youth but tasted much better.

Using Anita’s swiss meringue buttercream frosting and fleur de sel caramel filling recipes, I filled the cupcakes and gave them a twirl in a chocolate glaze (from Dorie Greenspan’s Baking from My Home to Yours) or a swirl
of buttercream frosting on top – sometimes both!

I was pleased that in les
s than a week I felt more confident about trying new flavor
combinations and I also had found the look and texture I wanted in a cupcake.

What more can you ask from a cooking class – new skills and the inspiration to become an even better baker.

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