Teachable Moments, Brought to You by Strawberry Lavender Buttermilk Cupcakes

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For every few projects that go smoothly and turn out exactly as planned, there will be a couple that just throw me for a loop and give me hell all the way from “preheat oven to 350” to “store in airtight container.” Well, the baking projects I took on this weekend definitely proved themselves to be of the latter variety, these Strawberry Lavender Buttermilk Cupcakes included. Let’s just say this post could have been entitled “How to Salvage Unfortunate-Looking Cupcakes 101,” but I opted for the more optimistic “teachable moment” tone.

These things were certainly a journey. They also, however (in hindsight, of course), were a really great learning opportunity. I tend to get disappointed when I can’t execute an idea perfectly (again, #typeA), but these little “failures” (which isn’t even entirely accurate because, I mean, look at these things) actually have the silver lining of making me a better baker – and that’s ultimately the goal, right? This project definitely opened my eyes to some baking science and technique that I was previously unaware of, and gave this Type A stronghold a good lesson in improvising when the unexpected happens. Come to think of it, that’s probably one reason I enjoy baking so much – it pushes me out of my comfort zone and facilitates thinking more creatively about problems that arise than I otherwise tend to. Look at me, I’m growing. Ok, enough of all that. Onto the real reason y’all are here: these cupcakes.

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I initially came across this recipe on a blog I’m slightly obsessed with called Sweetapolita. When I was toying with the idea of starting a blog, this was one that I got tons of inspiration from. The styling, photography and overall feel of her site are just so gorgeous, and everything she posts is so sophisticated, unique and, of course, mouth-watering. So when summer rolled around and I saw this recipe for a beautiful Strawberry Lavender Buttermilk cake, I immediately put it in the baking queue. I had a vision for the most adorable way to decorate a cupcake version of this cake, so – surprise, surprise – I opted to go the cupcake route.

Now, I normally don’t have issues with the cake aspect of a recipe itself; historically, the other elements (e.g. the curd and the glaze) are the ones that have given me minor panic attacks. So when these came out of the oven looking, shall we say, homely, I was a little bummed. I had been so excited about this recipe for a month, so when I saw things begin to go awry in the oven, my hopes were more deflated than the tops of the cupcakes themselves became during the cooling process. More often than not, you can generally take a cake recipe and use it for cupcakes without making any real changes. This was no exception, but without directions written specifically for cupcakes, I had overlooked a couple of minor cupcake conversion considerations and made some silly mistakes. Amateur hour over here, for real.

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The primary “oopsies” that took place was failing to take into account the effect this recipe’s particular cake flour/cold butter/two-stage mixing technique combo would have on the composition and texture of the cake; namely that it would be extremely tender, light and fluffy. I have absolutely nothing against light and fluffy, and it was perfect for this recipe (while still staying moist!), but it didn’t occur to me that these would puff up a lot during baking. In my blissful ignorance, I filled each cup in the cupcake pan 3/4 of the way full (and, if I’m being honest, maybe even a tad more). Because of all the air incorporated into the batter during the mixing process, these things started to puff up like balloons in the first couple minutes, and I could see the disaster unfolding. The batter totally spilled over each of the individual cups while they baked, and I ended up with something like one big uni-cupcake top when it was all said and done. Ok, maybe it wasn’t quite that bad, but the tops of each of the spilled-over cupcakes were definitely all touching each other in some form or another. No pretty, clean, round (i.e. normal) edges here, folks. Then, to top it all off, they all significantly deflated within a minute or two of removing them from the oven – some even sinking a tad in the middle. Womp womp. After giving myself a pep-talk and banking on the fact that they’d still taste good, I moved on to the filling and decorating process.

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Now this filling, a sweet & savory strawberry-lavender compote, was – aside from some pretty legit decorating, if I do say so myself – the shining star of this recipe. I had never baked with lavender before, so I was super excited to try it. I didn’t know what to expect, because lavender had always just meant “aromatherapy” to me, but once I smelled the compote coming together on the stove, I knew it would be delicious. You need to make it a few hours ahead of time, but it’s simple and straight-forward and oh-so-yummy. Since I’d only be filling cupcakes as opposed to a layer cake, I opted to just pair it with Cool-Whip instead of something more complicated. There would only be a drop of it in each cored cupcake, so the difference would be negligible, if noticeable at all.

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Once the cupcakes were cored and filled, it was time for the fun part – the decorating. This would make or break my vision for these cupcakes. After the disaster that was the cupcake-baking itself, this was my only hope. It was all riding on the icing. No pressure (or melodrama, clearly). A few weeks back, I had seen a quick “ruffle icing” video tutorial by Trophy Cakes on Instagram, and loved the overall effect. When I thought of how to style these cupcakes, the ruffle technique immediately came to mind. I could tint the icing a pretty lavender color, pipe ruffled layers onto the cupcake, then top them with a dollop of Cool-Whip and fanned fresh strawberry slices. It was my first time trying this icing technique, but I mimicked what I saw on the Instagram video and it came out great! I sort of just learned and improvised as I went, and ended up with unique, colorful, summery cupcakes that looked almost identical to the vision I had in my head before all of this even started. And the best part? You couldn’t tell that the cupcakes underneath were even the slightest bit unfortunate-looking. It sort of reminded me of how makeup can work wonders on those days us girls wake up looking slightly less ravishing than we may have hoped (oh come on, you know there’s a connection). Needless to say, I was pretty excited. So excited that I almost forgot about the overflowing batter baking fiasco altogether. Almost.

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Regardless of everything it took to get them there, these cupcakes were a huge hit. They were sort of reminiscent of a sophisticated, dessert version of a sweet & savory “buttermilk biscuits and jam” concept – like a bite straight out of the South. Oh and this buttercream? Like a cloud (the flavor sort of resembles Publix icing!). And besides being delicious, these Strawberry Lavender Cupcakes were chock full of teachable moments, serving as a great reminder that A) things don’t always go according plan; B) that’s totally okay; and C) patience and a good decorating job can really save the day. Write that down. Now go make these beauties before summer runs out!

Strawberry Lavender Buttermilk Cupcakes

Adapted from Sweetapolita

INGREDIENTS

Buttermilk Cake:
4 whole eggs, room temperature
2 egg yolks, room temperature
1-1/4 cups buttermilk, shaken
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
3 cups cake flour, sifted
2 cups sugar
1 tablespoon plus 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup unsalted butter, cold and cut into small even pieces

Strawberry-Lavender Compote:
2 cups fresh strawberries, washed, hulled and sliced
1/2 cup sugar
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 teaspoon dried culinary lavender
Pinch of salt

Whipped Cream Filling:
1 8-oz tub of Cool-Whip

Whipped Lavender Frosting:
1/4 cup whole milk
1 teaspoon dried culinary lavender
3 sticks + 2 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened and cut into cubes
4 cups confectioners’ sugar, sifted
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
Pinch of salt
Few drops purple gel food coloring

INSTRUCTIONS

1. Several hours before baking (or the night before), do your compote and frosting prep!

To prepare the lavender milk for the frosting, add the lavender blossoms to 1/4 cup whole milk, cover, and refrigerate overnight (or at least several hours).

For the Strawberry-Lavender Compote, combine the strawberries, sugar, lemon juice, lavender and salt in a small saucepan over medium heat until the berries start to break down, stirring often. This should take about 10 minutes. Lower the heat and simmer until compote is thick enough to coat a spoon, about 15-20 minutes. Remove from heat and let cool down slightly. Use a handheld masher to blend the berries into the mixture (you can also use an immersion blender, carefully pulsing a few times). Cover and chill completely before filling the cupcakes (this can also be made ahead of time and kept covered and chilled for up to 3 days).

2. To make the cupcakes, preheat the oven to 350° F and line 2 cupcake pans with liners. In a large measuring cup with a spout, lightly whisk the eggs, yolks, 1/4 cup of the buttermilk and the vanilla, and set aside. In a large mixing bowl (or bowl of a stand mixer fitted with paddle attachment), whisk together the flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda and salt. With the mixer set to low speed, add the cold butter one piece at a time, about 10 seconds apart. Continue mixing on low speed until all of the butter has been blended and there are no clumps. Mixture should have a fine, crumbly, cornmeal-like texture.

Add the remaining 1 cup buttermilk to these dry ingredients, and mix on medium speed for 4 minutes. Scrape the sides and bottom of the bowl to ensure all of the ingredients are well incorporated. Reduce the speed to low and gradually add the egg mixture. Once all of the mixture has been added, increase speed to medium and beat for 1 minute, but no more. Gently fold batter once or twice (but no more) to ensure the egg mixture has all been incorporated.

Transfer batter to cupcake pans, filling each cup halfway (don’t make the same mistake I did and overfill!). Bake for 16-18 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean. This is a more delicate cake, so be sure to check them at the lower range of the baking time to make sure the tops are not browning. Remove from oven and allow to cool in pan for 5-10 minutes. Remove to wire racks to cool completely.

3. Now for the frosting. Strain the prepared lavender milk into a clean bowl or glass. In a large mixing bowl (or bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment), whip butter for 8 minutes on medium speed. Butter will become very pale & creamy. Add sifted icing sugar, vanilla, salt and lavender milk, and mix on low speed for 1 minute, then on medium for 6 minutes. Frosting will be very light, creamy and fluffy. Tint with a few drops of purple gel food coloring.

4. Here’s where it all comes together: assembly! Core the cupcakes with a paring knife, reserving just the cupcake tops (you’ll replace them later). Transfer half of the Cool-Whip to a piping bag (or ziplock bag) with the end cut off (this is just for the ease of the filling process, so no pretty tips are necessary!). Squeeze a small dollop of Cool-Whip into each cored cupcake, followed by a small spoonful of compote, and another dollop of Cool-Whip. Replace each cupcake top once filled. Transfer your tinted frosting to a piping bag fitted with your tip of choice. Pipe frosting onto cupcakes as desired, and garnish with fresh strawberries.

5. Enjoy the prettiness (and deliciousness)!

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