Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Iron Cupcake Competition Flashback

Since later today I'll be roasting away in the kitchen on one of the hottest days of the year preparing cupcakes for tomorrow's cupcake competition, I'm reflecting on my one previous failed attempt at competitive baking.

Earlier this year, my husband and I stumbled upon our local branch of the Iron Cupcake Challenge, a baking competition with a different theme each time where the proceeds go to a different deserving charity. We fortuitously made the discovery through an email newsletter from a local Mexican restaurant that we enjoy. When I saw the little blurb about all-you-can-eat Mexican food and cupcakes I thought my dreams had come true. We were only spectators/cupcake tasters that first time and I assumed there must be some tricky qualification process to be able to compete. But nope; just join the group, pay your entry fee, and you're in! It also probably helps if you show up looking more or less sane and aren't brandishing a bottle of arsenic.

For May's competition the theme was "animals" and we were given a little over a month to prepare. I decided on my flavor right away as I'd recently seen a blog post about baklava cupcakes and had already been tempted to try them. Once I figured out that honey could easily fit the animal theme I knew I had a contender. Working with what inspiration I could find online, and there wasn't much to work with there, I made numerous test batches and relied on my kind co-workers to give me their feedback. After weeks of tweaking my recipe I settled on Nutella Peanut Baklava Cupcakes with Whipped Honey Buttercream.

The cupcakes began with a crispy phyllo dough base, layered with melted honey and butter with a dusting of Nutella to give it a little bee-like stripe. I discarded the traditional baklava filling of pistachios for a peanut and almond combination, something I thought would appeal to a wider audience and would work well with the honey. Inside each cupcake I nestled a dollop of chopped nuts mixed with ooey, gooey honey. On top I piped some heavenly honey buttercream from my own recipe in the shape of a little beehive and adorned each with a marzipan bee made with almond slivers for the wings.

Obviously I spent a lot of time perfecting the taste of the cupcakes and thought the simplicity of the appearance and taste of my decorations would work in my favor since I abhor the taste of fondant. I was pretty disappointed when my cupcakes only got second place. While not a bad result for my first baking competition, since I couldn't think of a way to improve them it was disheartening. Even worse that the winning fondant-covered fish cupcakes weren't anything special flavor-wise (orange cake with plain vanilla frosting) but because they were so pretty and colorful I think that helped clinch it. Indeed, they were the first ones to catch my eye when I walked in.

The event itself was fun even though after a full morning of baking I wasn't in the mood for sweets, but it was interesting to see other people's interpretation of the theme. I especially enjoyed these:

Nutella Peanut Baklava Cupcakes With Whipped Honey Buttercream
Printable version here

For the Base:
1 Tablespoon Unsalted Butter
1 Tablespoon Honey
6 teaspoons Nutella
1 package Phyllo Dough, Thawed (You Will Use 5 Sheets)

For the Honey Nut Mixture:
⅔ cups Chopped Salted Peanuts
⅓ cups Chopped Almonds (Blanched or Without Skins)
¼ teaspoons Ground Cinnamon
3 Tablespoons Honey (Heaping Tablespoons)

For the Cake:
1 cup Granulated Sugar
1-⅔ cup All-purpose Flour
1-¼ teaspoon Baking Powder
¼ teaspoons Ground Nutmeg
½ teaspoons Salt
6 Tablespoons Unsalted Butter, At Room Temperature
⅔ cups Milk, At Room Temperature
1-½ teaspoon Vanilla Extract
2 whole Large Eggs
Additional Honey For Filling Cupcakes

For the Honey Buttercream:
½ cups Unsalted Butter, At Room Temperature
4 Tablespoons Honey
2-3 cups Powdered Sugar
1 Tablespoon Heavy Cream

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line muffin tin with 16 liners.

For crispy phyllo dough base:
In a small bowl, combine butter and honey. Microwave 30 seconds and stir. Continue to heat in the microwave in 10-second increments until butter is completely melted. Stir well to combine. In another small bowl, microwave Nutella for 35 seconds until it’s warm and spreadable.

Carefully unroll thawed phyllo dough onto a dry, smooth surface. Place one sheet of dough on a cutting board or baking sheet. Using a pastry brush, evenly coat dough with the honey butter mixture and cover with a second layer of phyllo dough. Again brush evenly with the honey mixture. Add a third sheet of phyllo dough and dab/spread Nutella as evenly as possible, trying to cover all areas. Repeat with a fourth sheet of phyllo dough and Nutella. Cover with a fifth sheet of phyllo dough. Using a sharp knife, cut phyllo dough into 2.25-inch squares. Discard any remnants. Place one square in the bottom of each liner and bake for 4 minutes until edges become crisp. Remove from oven and set aside.

For honey nut mixture:
Combine peanuts, almonds, and cinnamon and mix well. Add tablespoons of honey and stir to completely coat the nut mixture. Set aside.

For cake:
In a large mixing bowl, whisk together the sugar, flour, baking powder, nutmeg, and salt. Add the butter and beat with an electric mixer at low speed, until the mixture looks sandy.

Combine the milk and vanilla and add, all at once. Mix at low speed for 30 seconds, then increase the speed to medium and beat for 30 seconds. Scrape the bottom and sides of the mixing bowl.

With the mixer running at low speed, add 1 egg. Increase the speed to medium and beat for 30 seconds. Add the second egg, again beating for 30 seconds.

Scrape the bottom and sides of the bowl, and beat briefly, just until smooth.

Add a small scoop of batter (about 1 ½ Tablespoons) to each cupcake liner. Top each with a heaping teaspoon of the honey nut mixture. Then add a final scoop of batter to fill liners ¾ full.

Bake the cupcakes for 20 to 25 minutes, rotating once halfway through. Cupcakes are done when they’ve domed, are a light golden brown around the edges, and spring back when pressed gently on top. Let cool in pan approximately five minutes and transfer to a rack to cool completely.

Using the cone method for filling cupcakes, cut a small cone out of the top of each cupcake and set aside. Squeeze/spoon a dollop of honey into each well, filling it to the top. Let the cupcakes sit approximately five minutes so the honey can seep into the cake. Replace each cake cone.

For whipped honey buttercream:
In a stand mixer using the paddle attachment, cream together butter and honey for 2 minutes.

Add 1 cup of the powdered sugar. Begin with mixer on low speed until sugar is incorporated, then increase speed to medium and beat until smooth and creamy, about 3-5 minutes.

Add another cup of powdered sugar, again mixing on low speed to incorporate.

Add heavy cream at low speed. Increase speed to medium and mix about 2 minutes until frosting is smooth.

You may need to add additional powdered sugar as needed for desired consistency.

Pipe or spread frosting onto cupcakes and enjoy!