Baking basics

When a dear friend chose Boston Cream cupcakes for a birthday surprise, it gave me an excellent opportunity to try my hand at several basic baking techniques I’ve been wanting to learn. Blame a stress-coping binge of Great British Bake Off. So with wild abandon – and GBBO reruns on my laptop – I threw myself into learning basic vanilla sponge cake, pastry cream, and chocolate ganache.

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Imagine my delight when all three worked beautifully! I especially appreciated the tips and advice from Sally’s Baking Addiction on working with temperamental chocolate for the first time. These are basic techniques I’m thrilled to develop and incorporate into my ever-growing kitchen skills. And that pastry cream might be the single best thing that has ever come out of my kitchen.

NOTE: These recipes have been sized down for my small family, namely 4 cupcakes. Click on the original recipe links for larger quantities.

Vanilla Sponge Cupcakes
(Original recipe: Dessert For Two)

4 TBSP unsalted butter, softened
1/4 cup granulated sugar
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 large egg white, room temperature
2 TBSP sour cream, room temperature
6 TBSP flour
1/2 tsp baking soda
Pinch of fine salt

Preheat the oven to 400°F, and line four cups in a muffin pan with paper liners.

In a medium bowl, beat with an electric mixer the butter, sugar, and vanilla. Beat until light and fluffy, at least 30 seconds. Add the egg white and beat until combined. Next, beat in the sour cream. Finally, sprinkle the flour, baking soda and salt evenly over the batter, and then beat until just combined.

Divide the batter between the cupcake liners, and bake on the middle rack for 16-19 minutes. When done, the tops will spring back, and a toothpick inserted will come out clean.

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Pastry Cream (Crème Pâtissière)
(Original recipe: Life Love and Sugar)

1 egg yolk, gently beaten
3 TBSP sugar
3/4 TBSP cornstarch
9 TBSP milk
1/2 TBSP salted butter
1/2 tsp vanilla extract

Add the sugar, cornstarch, and milk to a large saucepan and mix until smooth. Cook, stirring continuously, over medium-high heat until mixture begins to thicken and bubble. Reduce heat to medium and simmer for 2 minutes. Remove from heat.

Add a little bit of milk mixture to the egg yolk and whisk together, then add egg mixture to milk mixture. Place the pan back on the heat and bring to a light boil. Allow to boil for 2 minutes, stirring continuously. Remove from heat and add butter and vanilla extract. Stir until smooth, then set aside to cool to room temperature.

Chocolate ganache
Look at that shine!

Chocolate Ganache
(Original recipe: Sally’s Baking Addiction)

4 ounces quality semi-sweet chocolate, finely chopped (I used Guittard chips that I chopped to make smaller)
4 ounces (1/2 cup) heavy whipping cream

Place chopped chocolate in a medium glass bowl. Heat the cream in a small saucepan over medium heat until it begins to gently simmer. (Do not let it come to a rapid boil.) Pour over chocolate, then let it sit for 2-3 minutes to gently soften the chocolate.

With a metal spoon or small rubber spatula, very slowly stir until completely combined and chocolate has melted. The finer you chopped the chocolate, the quicker it will melt with the cream. If it’s not melting, do not microwave it. Place the glass bowl over a small saucepan of simmering water. Do not let the surface of the simmering water touch the bottom of the glass bowl. Stir the ganache constantly over the indirect heat until it’s smooth.

Ganache can be ready to use as a drizzle or you can let it sit at room temperature to cool and thicken. It will fully cool within 2 hours. Refrigerating speeds this up, but the ganache will not cool evenly. Stir it a few times as it sets in the refrigerator so it remains even and smooth.

Once completely cool and thick, the ganache can be piped with a piping tip or scooped with a spoon. You can also beat the cooled thickened ganache with a handheld or stand mixer fitted with a whisk attachment until light in color and texture, about 4 minutes on medium-high speed.


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If you’re interested in making the cupcakes themselves, simply cut out the center of each cake, spoon in some pastry cream, and top with whipped ganache frosting. They’re delicious!

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