The Wisdom of Cupcakes

I have learned much from my vegan cupcakes in the last two weeks. I finally arrived at a recipe after a surprising amount of experimentation (and an embarrassing kitchen mishap), and showed up on Thursday afternoon for my first shift as baker prepared to bake three dozen of my final product (wearing my pink-and-green-birds-and-flowers apron, above).

As you may recall from the conclusion of Vegan Cupcake Challenge: The Sequel, not only did Vanilla Cupcake: Recipe One win, but the owner asked if I could try a gluten-free version. First I read the label on the package of gluten-free flour. It said I could replace regular flour with gluten-free 1:1, and recommended adding xanthan gum for best results. So I used the vanilla cupcake recipe and added 1 tsp. of xanthan gum to the dry ingredients.

At first things looked promising, as the cupcakes looked particularly perky.

But then an interesting reversal of fortune occurred: the problem was no longer texture, as the cupcakes were soft and fluffy, but rather taste. The cupcakes tasted like…beans. It is probably because the gluten-free all-purpose baking flour includes sorghum flour, tapioca flour, potato starch, and garbanzo and fava bean flour. But before I could taste the cupcakes, I first had to drop them with my clumsy oven-mitten hand onto the open oven door. I was not going to document this incident but my husband grabbed the camera. “A good journalist does not avert his gaze,” he said.

Photo courtesy of William

After the mishap, the quandary. How could I make the cupcakes taste less like legumes and more like dessert? William suggested a fruity flavor, and the Gluten-Free Goddess inspired me to consider citrus – specifically orange zest and lemon. So I threw together a new recipe using fresh-squeezed orange juice in place of soymilk, lemon instead of vinegar, plus orange zest, nutmeg, vanilla, and agave syrup.

The cupcakes smelled light and citrusy and retained most of their fluffiness. At first I was excited about the transformation.

They tasted quite good, but William pointed out they were very citrusy, bordering on too acidic. I think he has a particularly discerning palate, trained over many pints of various artisan beers (they all taste the same to me). So it was back to the drawing board.

I stared and stared at my recipe, waiting for divine intervention. I was scared of making a change, but felt I had to try. So I reverted to soymilk and apple cider vinegar, decreased the amount of orange juice, upped the orange zest, and kept the nutmeg. And it… worked. After two weeks of baking dozens of cupcakes, I had inadvertently stumbled upon my own recipe. I felt like I had started out with the intention of writing a poem and had accidentally written a novel when I had thought I was capable of neither. I think I squealed and hopped around the apartment a little.

These cupcakes turned out tender and fluffy, with a subtle yet pronounced fruitiness to accompany a surprising hint of butter.

Gluten-Free Vanilla Citrus Vegan Cupcakes

Makes 12 cupcakes.

1 3/4 cups Bob’s Red Mill gluten-free all-purpose flour
1 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. xanthan gum
1/2 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. ground nutmeg
1 cup brown sugar

1/2 cup canola oil
1 cup unsweetened soymilk
1 tbsp. vanilla extract
1 tbsp. apple cider vinegar
1 tbsp. fresh-squeezed orange juice (approx. half of one small navel orange)
2 tsp. orange zest (approx. two small navel oranges)

Preheat oven to 350°F. Whisk the dry ingredients in a large bowl. Whisk the wet ingredients in a smaller bowl. Pour the wet ingredients into the dry ingredients and stir together. Fill cupcake liners three-quarters full of batter and bake for 12 to 15 minutes, until tops are set and begin to brown. Cool. You can double the amount of batter to make an 8-inch cake:

My last two weeks with vegan cupcakes have unexpectedly handed down some life lessons. I had begun the process nervous and unsure of what I was getting myself into. I am normally not a fan of experimenting in the kitchen and thereby wasting food (like throwing away cupcakes you accidentally drop and that happen to taste like beans, too). But now I am rather comfortable with making a half-batch of six cupcakes and tossing them if they turn out funky. I did not think I could ever change ingredients in an existing recipe and end up with a recipe that does not implode or turn to sludge. My little cupcakes have given me some — dare I say — confidence. It is a glimmer, but it is there.

At the restaurant on Thursday I emerged several times from the kitchen to ask where the spoons or baking soda are, in my apron and baseball cap, holding my citrus zester. I was introduced to a couple regulars as “the baker,” and a new kind of excitement rippled through me. I felt like a painter who had been invited to paint a mural: I had been asked to mix together these ingredients and create something. “There is no need to hurry,” my yoga teacher said recently. “You will have wonderful new experiences, you will meet many interesting people. You will get there. But you are not there yet.”