Wednesday, August 29, 2007


I am just bursting with self-congratulation. I used to think I just couldn’t make great cake, but this recipe has proven me wrong. When I saw it at the Smitten Kitchen, it sounded so simple and so good that I had to try making it for my friends’ shared birthday celebration a couple of weeks ago. Since I was planning to bake them on a Wednesday night and tote them around with me the whole next day before meeting the birthday girls for dinner, the fact that I didn’t have to make frosting and then worry about said frosting getting smeared all over the place during the transport process was majorly appealing.

The cake recipe sounded a little odd—brown sugar? vinegar? The vinegar had only given me mild pause initially, but when I was driving home from work on my planned cupcake-baking evening, I happened to hear this story on NPR, in which the interviewer simply could not get over the fact that the “wacky cake” recipe called for vinegar. “Vinegar?” she kept repeating. “Really? Vinegar?!” I started to get nervous. Now, with the levelheaded benefit of hindsight, I realize the interviewer just didn’t know what she was talking about. Both the wacky cake and the black-bottom cake recipes don’t call for milk, butter, or eggs, which means they’re probably rooted in either the Great Depression or World War II. Any elementary-school science student knows that baking soda + vinegar = fizz, so I’m guessing the vinegar helps to leaven the cake in the absence of eggs. Ah, chemistry!

The cupcakes were extremely easy to make. I used Scharffen Berger for both the chopped chocolate and the cocoa (I can’t believe that since embarking on this recent baking spree, I’ve become the sort of person who keeps both Dutch-process [Droste] and non-Dutch-process [Scharffen Berger] cocoa around the house, in deference to the varying preferences of different recipe writers). I used my KitchenAid to beat the cream-cheese filling and then, because Deb had complained that her cupcakes didn’t look as perfect as the originals, and because it was a hot day in Pasadena, I chilled the bowl of filling in the refrigerator while I made the cake batter, in the hopes that the filling would stay neatly in the centers of the cupcakes. I was a bit tense when filling the muffin cups—the cake batter seemed to fill them up almost completely, so I went easy on the filling to avoid overflowing them (also, I was worried the cupcakes would end up too cheesy-tasting, but after trying them I decided the filling was so good, I shouldn’t have held back). I ended up with leftover batter and filling, and my cupcakes still puffed up way above the top of the muffin cups during baking. Maybe I should have made a thirteenth cupcake? The overflowing didn’t do much harm, aside from making the cupcake tops a little hard to peel away from the pans, and making my cupcakes generally resemble toadstools. Chilling the filling did make it easier to work with, but it didn’t make my cupcakes look any better. They were definitely homestyle, maybe a little homely, but I didn’t mind—in fact, it was cool the way each of them turned out uniquely, with different patterns of black and white swirls on top. I do wish my chocolate chunks hadn't all sunk to the bottom, though; maybe I needed to chop them finer?

Anyway, the taste was the important thing: Absolutely delectable, I'm pleased to report. I tried one fresh out of the oven, just to make sure I hadn’t mismeasured, overmixed, overcooked, or otherwise ruined them, and it tasted good, but I was amazed at how much more flavorful they tasted when I ate one straight out of the refrigerator the next day. It was actually better chilled. No one who tried them could specifically taste the vinegar until they were told it was there, but everyone agreed they liked the little tang it added to the cake—it kept it from being too sweet and balanced out the unctuousness of the cream-cheese filling. Best of all, the cupcakes were utterly moist and tender, something I’ve never achieved in a cake before. Even three days later, they tasted fresh. This is definitely my go-to cupcake recipe from now on.

8 ounces cream cheese, regular or reduced-fat, at room temperature
⅓ cup granulated sugar
1 large egg, at room temperature
2 ounces bittersweet or semisweet chocolate, coarsely chopped
1½ cups all-purpose flour
1 cup firmly packed light brown sugar
5 tablespoons natural unsweetened cocoa powder (not Dutch-process)
1 teaspoon baking soda
¼ teaspoon salt
1 cup water
⅓ cup canola oil
1 tablespoon white or cider vinegar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1. To make the filling, beat together the cream cheese, granulated sugar, and egg until smooth. Stir in the chopped chocolate pieces. Set aside. (If you like, chill the filling in the refrigerator while you make the cupcakes—this will make it easier to work with and will help you create a more uniform cream-cheese center.)

2. Adjust the rack to the center of the oven and preheat to 350 degrees. Butter a 12-cup muffin tin, or line the tin with paper muffin cups.

3. In a medium bowl, sift together the flour, brown sugar, cocoa powder, baking soda, and salt. In a separate bowl, mix together the water, oil, vinegar, and vanilla.

4. Make a well in the center of the dry ingredients and stir in the wet ingredients until the batter is just smooth. (Do not overmix, or you will end up with less-than-tender cupcakes.)

5. Divide the batter among the muffin cups. Spoon a few tablespoons of the filling into the center of each cupcake, dividing the filling evenly. This will fill the cups almost completely, which is fine.

6. Bake for 25 minutes, or until the tops are slightly golden brown and the cupcakes feel springy when gently pressed.

Yield: 1 dozen
Time: 45 minutes

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