Birthday Cupcakes

Friday was a really, really rough day at work. On top of dealing with an angry parent, leading numerous meetings, and operating on 5 hours of sleep, I hardly had a chance to drink my coffee, and didn’t eat my lunch until 4 pm, long after school was over. All I wanted to do was go home and bake cupcakes for a fellow school psychologist’s daughter’s second birthday, but somehow I found myself in my office at 4:30, listening to a teacher’s tale about how a patient at his previous job (psych unit at a hospital) declared how he was going to shove candy up his butt and drink out of the toilet. With that lovely image in my mind, I bee-lined to the car with my cell phone in hand, complaining to Jarrod about my day, and rushed home to a pound of strawberries and packages of unsalted butter (thank you, understanding husband of mine, who offered to go to the store without question and bought a surplus of ingredients because I, being in my crummy mood after school, didn’t tell him exact measurements of said ingredients). When I saw those glorious berries and pounds of fat, I exhaled a deep, therapeutic sigh, and forgot all about my workday.

I think one of my favorite things about baking is that you can get so lost in the moment. From organizing all of your ingredients to cracking eggs into batter, minutes pass by without footsteps, without any indication that you’ve been in the process of baking for the last half hour. Baking cupcakes is something where it’s especially easy to get lost in time, since oven space is valuable real estate that gets quickly occupied by 24 of them, and rotating in muffin pan after muffin pan in and out of the oven feels hypnotic. The only time I am remotely aware of the passage of time is when I’m setting a kitchen timer. And suddenly it’s 8 pm and you realize you had a weird linner at 4 but no solid dinner that will keep you sated until the following morning (have you ever had a dream where your insides are being torn out of your body by a dinosaur, and you wake up panicking, and stomach howling with hunger? That one nightmare fueled by hunger will really stick with you. Unlike your 4 pm linner…..)? Anyway, I digress. Point is, I made cupcakes Friday night. And a mini birthday cake. I’ve never made a strawberry cake or cupcake that actually tasted like the strawberry cakes I ate when I was a little kid. Then I realized that I’ve been thinking that artificial strawberry flavoring in the cakes I grew up on was what ‘real’ strawberry cakes taste like. The moment I realized this was a sad moment in my life, and I can trace it back to my first Sprinkles cupcake in LA years ago. I was utterly disappointed. All-natural strawberry cupcakes tasted so…. un-strawberry-like. I could only detect the slightest of strawberry-like flavor in the cake itself. In a nutshell, it tasted….artificial. And then it hit me. I had mistaken artificial boxed Duncan Hines strawberry cake mix for the real deal. Knowing this, I point-blank informed my school psych colleague that I might use strawberry Jello (which helps to add that ‘strawberry’ flavor without blatantly using strawberry cake mix) in her daughter’s birthday cake and cupcakes, and thankfully, she was ok with this.

Happy 2nd birthday, Stella!

If you’re not creeped out by Jello (warning: not vegetarian!!) in your cupcakes (don’t worry, the Jello won’t make the cupcakes weirdly gelatinous), I highly recommend adding a bit of strawberry Jello into your dry ingredients. It makes a world of difference, and tastes un-artificially artificial strawberry. Makes total sense, right? Good. Let’s get to making some cupcakes.

Strawberry Buttermilk Cupcakes (adapted from One Sweet Appetite, via Whipperberry)

Ingredients (makes about 30 standard cupcakes)

For the cupcakes:

2 ¾ C all-purpose flour

1 Tbsp cornstarch

1 Tbsp baking powder

½ tsp salt

1 C unsalted butter, room temp

2 ¼ C sugar

1 ½ tsp vanilla extract

3 large eggs + 1 egg white

1 C buttermilk

2 C pureed frozen strawberries

3 oz. box of strawberry flavored Jello®

For the frosting (vanilla buttercream):

1 C unsalted butter, room temp

3 C powdered sugar, sifted

1 Tbsp vanilla extract

2-3 Tbsp whole milk

Putting it Together:

  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Line two muffin tins with paper liners and set aside.
  2. Whisk together the dry ingredients (flour, cornstarch, baking powder, salt, and strawberry jello powder) in a small bowl.
  3. In a bigger bowl (or the bowl of a stand mixer), cream together the butter and sugar until light and fluffy (if using a stand mixer, use the paddle attachment). Add vanilla and eggs + egg white, one at a time. Mix until fully incorporated.
  4. Slowly stir in the flour mixture and buttermilk into the bigger bowl, starting with a fourth of the flour mixture and alternating with a third of the buttermilk. End with the last fourth of the flour mixture. Fold/mix in the strawberry puree.
  5. Fill each cup 3/4 full with batter. Bake for 25 minutes, or until a toothpick comes out clean.
  6. Cool completely.
  7. While you’re waiting for your cupcakes to cool completely, make the frosting!
  8. Using the bowl of your stand mixer (it’s easiest in this, seriously. Wash that bowl and paddle attachment!!), beat the room-temp butter for a few minutes. Add the sifted powdered sugar, a cup at a time, and mix on the lowest possible speed (unless you want your counters covered in powdered sugar) until the sugar is mixed into the butter. Now increase the speed of the mixer and add in the vanilla and milk and mix on medium for 3 or 4 minutes. Check the consistency of the frosting—if you need it thicker, add more sugar. If you need it thinner, add more milk.
  9. Enjoy!!

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