there’s an old farm field, a mile or so south of the town where we live. when it rains, large pools of water form in the middle of it. a frequent condition in nearly-always-drenched western Washington. i never thought there was anything extraordinary about that former pumpkin patch—until one dark night in November.
my sister, nieces and i were headed home from hospice, after a visit with my mom. along the stretch of highway between the hospital and the house, we drove with heavy hearts, in silence. suddenly, a great blue heron arose from the field, crossed in front of my windshield—lanky legs dangling in my line of vision—and headed west toward the sound. the next day, my mom passed away.
mom would have found it ironic that i believe she’s been channeled by a stunningly bright blue heron. blue was her least favorite color, an aversion that seemed totally irrational to me: i just don’t like it, she’d say emphatically. yeah, i don’t like beets, but there’s a darn good reason for that; they’re completely disgusting. it took me about 10 years to coerce her into even considering wearing blue jeans. but once she warmed up to the idea—and later in life—she rarely went out in anything else on her bottom half.
now, pink. pink was a color my mom could get behind. she gravitated toward all shades of pink equally. so for birthdays and holidays, i kept an eye out for pink gifts: handbags, hats, tank tops, fleece jackets, even candy (who could resist Godiva dark chocolate filled with raspberries??). whatever the season, whatever the reason, pink was in. to celebrate mom this year, i set out to make pink cupcakes loosely based on a revered childhood snack: Hostess Sno Balls. it seemed like a fitting tribute to my mom and to a now-struggling company whose treats had been the shining stars in my Twiggy lunchbox.
lesson learned: my skill sets lay in something less demanding than cupcake creation, like making pies. but i’m sharing the recipe here, for those of you who can hold on to a pastry bag and aren’t challenged by Pantone color-matching frosting. the cupcakes tasted great, but the all-natural food coloring i incorporated lost its rosy glow.
every time i drive by the old farm field, i watch for my blue heron. sometimes i see her there. like i did this mother’s day. i break into a smile and wave. and i get a little teary-eyed. but i was always kind of a sap, right, ma?
Not-So-Pretty in Pink Cupcakes
inspired by a Back in the Day Bakery recipe
a combination of chocolate cupcake and coconut frosting recipes from Joanne Chang’s flour cookbook (as i’ve said previously, an absolutely fabulous, gotta-have volume)
makes 12 moist dark chocolatey cupcakes
for the cupcakes
2 ounces unsweetened chocolate, chopped
1/4 cup Dutch-processed cocoa powder
1 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup (1 stick) butter
1/3 cup water
1/2 cup whole organic milk
1 egg yolk (save the egg white)
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 cup organic all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
for the frosting
3/4 cups sugar
3 eggs whites (use the egg white saved from the batter recipe)
3/4 cup (1 1/2 sticks) butter, at room temperature, cut into 2-inch chunks
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/8 teaspoon salt
1/3 cup coconut milk
for the topping
2 cups sweetened shredded coconut
- place paper cupcake liners in a standard 12-cup muffin tin.
- in a medium-size heatproof bowl, combine the chocolate and the cocoa powder.
- in a small saucepan, combine the sugar, butter and water.
- over medium-high heat, whisk until the butter is melted and sugar dissolved, around 3 to 4 minutes.
- pour the hot butter mixture over the chocolate-cocoa, and whisk until the chocolate is completely melted, and the mixture is homogenous.
- then whisk the milk, egg, egg yolk and vanilla into the chocolate mixture, until thoroughly combined.
- in a small bowl, whisk the flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt.
- dump the flour mixture on top of the chocolate mixture, and whisk until the dry ingredients are completely incorporated into the chocolate mixture.
- let the batter sit at room temperature for at least an hour. or transfer to an airtight container, and store in the frig for up to three days.
- preheat the oven to 350F.
- spoon the batter into the prepared cups, dividing the batter evenly.
- bake on center rack of oven for 20 to 30 minutes, until the tops spring back.
- cool completely on a wire rack.
- to make the frosting, in a small heatproof bowl, whisk the sugar and egg whites to form a thick slurry.
- place the bowl over simmering water (should not touch the water) in a saucepan and heat, whisking occasionally, until the mixture is hot to the touch, around 6 to 8 minutes.
- remove the bowl from the heat, and scrape the mixture into the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a whip attachment.
- whip on medium-high speed for 6 to 8 minutes, or until the mixture becomes a light, white meringue, cool to the touch. (i whipped until soft peaks just began to form, which seemed to work.)
- on low speed, add the chunks of butter, a few at a time.
- increase the speed to medium, and mix for 4 to 5 minutes, or until the butter is completely incorporated; the mixture should look smooth and glossy. at first it looks as if it’s curdling, but don’t panic. just keep going until it smooths out.
- add the vanilla, salt and coconut milk, and whip until the coconut milk is completely incorporated, and the frosting is smooth. you may need to scrape the bottom of the bowl in the process.
- remove the cupcakes from the muffin tin.
- hollow the center with an apple corer, going down a little shy of 1 inch.
- fit a pastry bag with a round tip, fill the bag, then pipe the frosting into the center of the cupcakes.
- if you’re brave and have the appropriate kind of food coloring, add to the remaining frosting until you’ve achieved the appropriate shade of pink.
- for prettier cupcakes, fit the pasty bag with a star tip, refill with the pink frosting, and decorate the cakes.
- alternatively, spread the frosting on the cupcakes with an icing spatula. (i employed this method as it made the cupcakes look more like Sno Balls.)
- place the shredded coconut in a small bowl.
- gently roll the frosted cupcakes in the shredded coconut.