Have you ever noticed when your life is stressful, sometimes a person waltzes in full of life and positive energy? Someone who just by their presence brightens up a room? A person who seems to glow from within? There was a woman who worked with me at IBM in San Francisco that was just like this. She would come in full of smiles, making everyone she met smile too. She loved making other people enjoy life as much as she did. And every once in awhile, when work was especially stressful and tense, she would bring us all a treat … homemade chocolate cupcakes!
Cupcakes make me smile. They are cute, small, manageable, and always a welcome indulgence. When we are watching our weight, they provide automatic portion control. They come individually wrapped, like a present just waiting to be opened. For me, it is more about the cake than the frosting, but I know I am in the minority. And it really doesn’t matter what flavor they are, I just love cupcakes. It is as simple as that.
There is nothing better than intense chocolate when we are stressed. Actually there is scientific evidence that the consumption of chocolate boosts the levels of endorphins and neurotransmitters in our brains, triggering our body’s natural mood elevators. Eating chocolate can increase feelings of euphoria as well as decrease stress and pain. The darker the chocolate, the stronger our response. And as if that wasn’t enough, chocolate is also cholesterol-free. No wonder we love it so much!
One of America’s most popular chocolate desserts is the molten chocolate, lava, or volcano cake. Extraordinary chef and restaurateur Jean-Georges Vongerichten is said to have discovered this treat by mistakenly pulling a chocolate sponge cake out of the oven before it was done baking. The outside of the cake was firm but the center was hot liquid … and a national treasure was created.
Today’s cupcakes work on the same principle but are safer and more transportable. One of the challenges of lava cakes is that when you pull them before being fully baked, you run the risk of serving undercooked eggs. Creative chefs have gotten around that possibility by inserting either chunks of chocolate in the center of the batter like today’s recipe, or by using a tablespoon or more of firm ganache. Either option works very well.
This recipe comes from the cookbook “Spago Chocolate.” Packed full of amazing desserts, if you are a chocoholic, this is one book you definitely need to own. Running the gamut from cakes, pies, and tarts to souffles, brulees, cookies, and frozen desserts, there is something for everyone in these pages. Since it first opened, Spago, Wolfgang Puck’s restaurant in Los Angeles, has been thrilling the Hollywood elite as well as us ordinary folks. When I lived in LA, I would drive up Sunset Boulevard just to see who might be lingering outside of Spago. You never knew whom you would see. Spago’s menu has changed a lot over the years, from shrimp cocktail and iceberg lettuce to his now legendary pizzas and putting his personal spin on “California” cuisine. He also introduced the first “open kitchen” in a restaurant, demystifying the mystery of fine cooking.
And from day one Puck placed an unusual emphasis on the dessert options. Trained as a pastry chef as well as classical French cuisine, he knew what he wanted to offer. With such pastry virtuosos as Nancy Silverton, Sherry Yard, and the author of Spago Chocolate, Mary Bergin, Spago’s final course was just as impressive as the rest of the meal. They were able to add a classical elegance to commonplace desserts such as strawberry shortcake, chocolate cake, and lemon meringue pie. Every year at the post-Academy Awards dinner he hosts, the desserts are the most talked about items on the menu. Known for outdoing themselves year after year, you never know what might be served. From gold leaf covered miniature chocolate “Oscars” to tiny bites of perfection, the who’s-who of the entertainment industry are never disappointed.
Spago means a string with no beginning and no end, an appropriate concept when you think of Puck, recognized as 2010’s Restaurateur of the Year. With over 35 restaurants and cafes scattered across the world and a Wolfgang Puck Bistro in nearly every airport in the country, you can easily call Puck one of the most successful and influential chefs in history. If you have the opportunity to visit one of his establishments, you will certainly be glad you did.
Enjoy today’s cupcakes – Happy Chocolate Monday!
Jane’s Tips and Hints:
When a recipe calls for butter to be cut into small pieces, start with butter that is very hard or even partially frozen. It is much easier to work with and will warm to room temperature much more quickly than a whole stick. Also, butter stays fresh in the freezer for months! My freezer is always chock full of boxes of butter just waiting for me to get motivated for a barrage of baking, LOL!
- 1-1/4 cups all-purpose flour
- 1/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
- 1/4 tsp salt
- 1/8 tsp baking soda
- 4 oz (1 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature, cut into small pieces
- 1 cup granulated sugar
- 3 eggs
- 1 tsp vanilla extract
- 1/2 tsp grated orange zest
- 1/2 cup sour cream
- 4 oz milk or semisweet chocolate, cut into thick chunks
- Position the rack in the center of the oven and preheat to 350°F. Butter, spray with vegetable spray, or line 12 large muffin cups with paper cups.
- Sift together the flour, cocoa, salt, and baking soda. Set aside.
- In the large bowl of an electric mixer fitted with a paddle or beaters, on medium speed, beat the butter until softened. Gradually add the sugar, turn the speed to high and continue to beat until fluffy, several minutes.
- Add the eggs, one at a time, then the vanilla and orange zest. Beat until well incorporated. Add 1/3 of the flour mixture and beat in. Then beat in 1/2 of the sour cream. Continue adding the flour and sour cream alternately, ending with the flour.
- Fill each muffin cup about halfway up. Place a few pieces of the chocolate in the center of each cup. Fill with the remaining batter, almost to the top of each cup.
- Bake 25 minutes. Do not overbake. Set the pan on a rack for about 5 minutes and then remove the cupcakes, placing them on the rack to finish cooling. Can be made several hours ahead to this point.
- You can dust the tops with a little powdered sugar, sprinkle with very finely chopped orange zest, or top with the following chocolate frosting.
- Yield: 12 large cupcakes
- 12 oz bittersweet chocolate, cut into small pieces
- 8 oz (2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature, cut into small pieces
- 1/2 cup Confectioners’ sugar
- 3/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
- 1/2 cup strong coffee, espresso, or water
- In a medium heatproof bowl set over a pan of simmering water (do not let the water touch the bottom of the bowl), melt the chocolate. When almost completely melted, turn off the heat. Stir occasionally until thoroughly melted.
- Meanwhile, in the large bowl of an electric stand mixer fitted with a paddle or beaters, beat the butter and sugar until fluffy, stopping the mixer occasionally and scraping down the sides of the bowl and under the beaters as necessary with a rubber spatula. Start on slow speed and, when combined, turn up to high speed.
- In a small saucepan, over low heat, dissolve the cocoa in the coffee, stirring until smooth. Remove from the heat, scrape the melted chocolate into the saucepan and stir to combine thoroughly. With the mixer on low speed, slowly pour this into the sugar-butter mixture. Stop the mixer and scrape down the sides and under the beaters as needed. Beat until smooth and shiny. Transfer to a medium bowl and set aside until of spreading consistency. Use as needed.
- Can be made up to 1 day ahead. Refrigerate, covered, until needed. If you like a fluffier frosting, use the whisk attachment on the mixer and beat until light. For a beautiful presentation, use a piping bag and star tip to apply to the top of each cupcake.
- Yield: about 2-1/4 cups; enough to frost one 8 or 9-inch layer cake