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Fresh Strawberry Cupcakes

February 19, 2012

Have you ever eaten a Gaviota strawberry?  Chances are, probably not.  The tiny, soft berries are nearly impossible to transport, so they rarely end up in farmers’ markets and never at the grocery store.  But maybe you’ll know what I’m talking about anyway:  you bite into a blazing red berry and it melts – literally melts – into sticky sweet juice on your tongue.  This is the kind of berry you can only dream about until the cool, bright month of June; yet here they are, on my counter, in February!



It’s one of the benefits of living in a place like California that berries grow practically year round, but even this was a special treat.  Seeing them lined up in crimson, and waited for by an equally long line of excited customers at the Thursday Farmers’ Market, I just couldn’t resist.  Even the ridiculously high price ($16 for a 3-pack, of which I bought two) didn’t stop me from bringing them home and immediately scarfing down as many as I could without losing all my dignity.  I just barely pulled myself together in time to reserve a few baskets for these incredible little treats.

The recipe comes from Martha Stewart and was so exactly what I wanted in a cake batter that I made almost no adaptations whatsoever.  The only exception was to add a tiny bit of lemon extract to the frosting.  My otherwise perfect gaviotas are so sweet that they needed the enhanced tartness, but if you’re using supermarket Chandler or Camarosa berries or another local variety, you may not need it at all.  The cakes themselves are reminiscent of velvet cake – they’re dense and tangy, even though they contain no buttermilk or vinegar (by definition, the requirements of a velvet cake). The flavor is imparted by the addition of fresh diced strawberries right in the batter, which melt as they bake and make the cake tender.  Served with a tiny berry on top, they’re the perfect treat for anticipating an early spring!

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Fresh Strawberry Cupcakes
Makes about 24 cupcakes

Ingredients
3 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
4 large eggs, at room temperature
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 3/4 cups sugar 2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
1 1/4 cups whole milk
10 ounces strawberries, hulled
Strawberry Meringue Buttercream (Recipe Follows)

Method
1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line 2 standard 12-cup cupcake pans with paper liners and set aside.

2. Dice the strawberries into small, roughly pea-sized pieces and place them in a colander to drain any excess liquid.  Set aside.

3. In a medium bowl, sift together flour, baking powder, and salt and set aside.  In a large bowl, beat the butter and sugar until light and fluffy, 3 to 4 minutes, scraping down the sides of the bowl as needed. This is probably the most important step in cake making, as the sugar granules get surrounded by air pockets as the butter is whipped, so don’t skimp on this step! Beat in eggs, one at a time, making sure they are well incorporated. Then add the vanilla. Add the flour mixture in three roughly equal parts, alternating with the milk and beginning and ending with the flour. Beat on low until just combined.  Fold in strawberries.

4. Spoon the batter evenly into the prepared cups so that each is about two-thirds full. Bake, rotating the pans halfway through, until the cupcakes are golden brown and a toothpick inserted in the centers comes out clean, about 20-25 minutes. Transfer pans to a wire rack to cool for 5 minutes. Remove cupcakes from pan and cool completely on wire racks before frosting.


Strawberry Meringue Buttercream

Ingredients
4 large egg whites
1 cup + 2 Tbsp sugar
1 1/2 cups (3 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature, cut into tablespoons
½ teaspoon pure vanilla extract
½ teaspoon lemon extract
1 1/2 cups (12 ounces) strawberry jam, pureed until thick and smooth

Method
1. In a heatproof bowl (like that of an electric mixer) set over a saucepan of simmering water, combine egg whites and sugar. Cook, whisking constantly, until sugar has dissolved, egg whites have thickened, and mixture is warm to the touch (about 160 degrees).

2. Using a whisk or whisk attachment, beat the egg-white mixture on high speed until it has cooled and holds soft peaks, about 6 minutes.  At this point, your mixture will greatly resemble marshmallow fluff, because that’s essentially what it is.

3. Switch to the paddle attachment or regular hand mixer. On medium-low speed, add butter several tablespoons at a time, beating well after each addition. (If frosting appears to separate after all the butter has been added, beat on medium-high speed until smooth again, 3 to 5 minutes more.) Beat in vanilla and lemon. Reduce to lowest speed and continue beating to eliminate any air bubbles, about 2 minutes. Stir in strawberry jam with a rubber spatula until frosting is smooth.

4. Pipe or spread frosting onto each cupcake, topping with fresh strawberry slices and a sprig of mint for garnish.

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On Buying and Storing Strawberries.  Commercial berries are grown eleven months of the year and almost exclusively in California, but there are sweeter, more seasonal varieties adapted to suit almost any climate across the United States.  Look for spring berries grown locally, and you’re in for a treat.

A good berry is one that you smell practically before you see, making your mouth water to the point that you can’t (and shouldn’t) resist them.  Berries can be any shade of red, from bright pink to slightly orange, but should be shiny and show no spots of damage.  Matte coloring means the berries have started to turn, but can still be used for cooking or preserving.  Berries with green around the tops, just under the hull, may have been picked too soon or grown in less-than-perfect conditions.  Often, this is a bad sign – indicating a flavorless berry with a texture resembling styrofoam – but not always.  It’s best to get a sample of these before you decide.  Finally, make sure that you look at the underside of a berry basket before you purchase – the delicate berries often rot there first, and can quickly spoil the rest of the batch.

Like any berry, strawberries rot quickly!  Store them without rinsing first in the refrigerator if keeping more than a day or two and use them within a week.  Throw out moldy or rotten berries right away.  If you want to keep them longer, wash and hull the berries, then freeze in a zip-top bag for use in smoothies and fruit sauces.

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