Cupcakes. They have been the trendy dessert for years, despite annual predictions that something, anything is going will displace them. There are entire bakeries devoted to them, you can get them from vending machines, watch competitions devoted to them, and buy countless home decorations and clothes related to them.
Although the ongoing trendiness shows that cupcakes are lovely little pieces of happiness, there are plenty of baaaaaaaad examples out there. Cake and frosting together are the perfect treat but they can easily be ruined by poor execution. Don’t worry, though. I have some tips to ensure you always make the perfect cupcake, as well as my top 5 spots for cupcakes in the Houston area.
Let’s start with the cake. This MUST be moist. Dry cupcakes are the worst. Even raw cupcakes are better than dry ones because the batter is so delicious (side note- don’t eat raw batter. It’s bad for you). It’s really important to pay attention to both the cooking time in the recipe and your oven temperature. If your oven runs hot, make sure to reduce the cooking time. If your oven is spot-on temperature-wise, still be careful about the time. You never know if the recipe maker’s oven temperature was exact or not. When I bake cupcakes, I almost always start checking on them a couple minutes early, or at least at the earlier side of the cooking time range. If a recipe says 20-24 minutes, I’ll check at 18. You don’t want to open and close your oven a ton (it releases heat) but do take a peek at the cupcakes and see if they’re starting to brown or look firm on the top. If so, stick a toothpick in one. If it comes out with batter on it or looks really sticky, leave the cupcakes in the oven for a few more minutes. If there are some crumbs sticking to it but no batter, they’re ready to come out.
Now let’s talk about fillings. They’re not required but they can make a good cupcake phenomenal. You want a nice, complementary flavor to balance or enhance the flavors in the cake and frosting. You can use anything for the filling, including chocolate ganache, jam, whipped cream, lemon curd, or pureed fruit. I even used cookie dough once. Holy moly, was that good! To get the center out of the cupcake, you can use a knife or a spoon, or you can use a tool specially made to core cupcakes. A friend gave me one several years ago and it honestly changed the way I made cupcakes. Most of my cupcakes are now filled and it’s a really fun challenge to come up with new, exciting flavors.
Frosting is literally the icing on the cake and my absolute favorite part of making cupcakes. A good frosting should complement the cake and the filling without drowning them in sweetness. There needs to be a good ratio of cake to frosting, too. Personally, I like about 3 times as much frosting as a normal person, but a good rule of thumb is enough frosting so you have a little with every bite of cake. Texture is also super important with frosting. You need to make sure your butter and powdered sugar are well-mixed and that the frosting isn’t overly oily. Some people really like all shortening frostings because they hold their shape in the heat. The issue is, they’re super oily and often leave a greasy feeling in your mouth that I find super off-putting. Butter tastes amazing and has a great texture for frosting, but it can get a little melty in the heat. Some people like to do a combination of the two to get the benefits of shortening and the flavor and texture of butter. Personally, I just use butter and keep the cupcakes inside when it’s hot (which is pretty much all the time here).
Three of the most classic and popular flavors are vanilla, chocolate, and red velvet. There are a tons of recipes online and in cookbooks for these, ranging from meh to amazing. Here are a few of the recipes I us over and over:
- Hershey’s “Perfectly Chocolate” Chocolate Cake– The cake is super moist, which is awesome, but it does create problems for super detailed decorating. I like to just do a nice, basic swirl to keep the cake from sticking to the frosting.
- Williams-Sonoma Vanilla Cupcakes– You can use this recipe as a jumping off point for lots of flavor varieties by changing the extract used or adding juice or citrus zest, just be careful not to overbake because they do lean toward dryness.
- Southern Red Velvet Cake– I always add extra chocolate to punch up the flavor a little. Try doubling it to start and then adjust as needed for your preferences.
Don’t feel like making your own cupcakes? That’s okay; I have you covered there, too. I took on the oh, so difficult task of scouting for the best cupcakes in the Houston area. It was tough job, but someone had to do it. These are my top 5 (in alphabetical order):
I totally want to hang out and work at Crave. I went to the store in The Woodlands and it’s bright, open, and filled with delicious smells. The employees are friendly and ready to help you choose just the perfect flavor and you can take them to go or hang out at one of their tables and maybe get a coffee to sip while you eat your cupcake. I tried their top 2 flavors- red velvet and double chocolate. Both were really good, but my favorite was the double chocolate. It was super rich and moist without being too dense.
Oooh La La Elite
Tucked into a corner of a shopping center, Oooh La La Elite Cupcakes is a hidden treasure. They have a large, open store with plenty of tables and lots of cupcakes. I got a little crazy here because it was really hard to choose a flavor, so I got three. All were super moist with good flavor. The boyfriend’s favorite was the red velvet, because the frosting wasn’t as sweet as others he’s tried. My favorite was the strawberry shortcake because the cake was moist, the strawberry filling was super flavorful, and the cream cheese frosting was rich without overpowering the cake and filling. I also had a really good wedding cake cupcake, which is one of their most popular flavors. It’s made with vanilla and almond flavoring. I don’t love almond, but if you do you will absolutely love this one.
Petite Sweets is exactly what it’s name suggests- a cozy sweet shop that serves up small (delicious) desserts. They don’t specialize in cupcakes, but they serve mini cupcakes that are just fantastic. They’re little bites of heaven with big flavors. I had the cookies n cream, which had a little cookie at the bottom and a light frosting reminiscent of Oreo filling, and the salty caramel that was rich, caramely, and gooey in the middle and made me crave more.
If I’m being perfectly honest, I was a little nervous about trying Sprinkles because I have had some bad experiences with chains. I feel like it’s hard for them to maintain their attention to detail when trying to mass produce cupcakes. However, I was proven wrong by Sprinkles. I got a vanilla cupcake from their ATM (how fun is that?!) outside the store in Houston on Westheimer. The cupcake was moist and super vanilla-y, which is really important with such a simple flavor. I am definitely interested in going again and trying some of their more unique flavors. They have a long list on their menu, with different flavors available by the day and month.
Treat is a super cute shop in Tomball with big cupcake flavors. I loved the atmosphere inside and had a really hard time choosing. Once again I had a red velvet, which is their #1. I think my favorite part about it was the frosting- creamy, rich, with a really nice amount of cream cheese flavoring. I also went out on a limb and tried the Italian cream, which is not one of my usual favorite flavors. This one really sent me through the roof with the flavors and textures.
Do you have any great cupcake making tricks or favorite places to get a sweet treat?