Published May 1, 2010.
There’s only so much chocolate you can cram into a cupcake before the texture literally falls apart. To get our fill, we had to think beyond the batter.
A cupcake Catch-22 befalls bakery and homemade confections alike: If the cupcakes are packed with decent chocolate flavor, their structure is too crumbly for out-of-hand consumption. Conversely, if the cakes balance moisture and tenderness without crumbling, the core elements—cake and frosting—are barely palatable.
We wanted a moist, tender (but not crumbly) crumb capped with just enough creamy, not-too-sweet frosting.
Figuring that a cupcake is just a pint-size cake, we made cupcakes using our favorite chocolate cake recipe. Tasters liked the real chocolate flavor, but their crumbly texture made them impossible to eat without a fork. The cake recipe’s texture suffered from too little gluten development (the more gluten, the stronger the crumb) and too much fat (which acts as a tenderizer to create a soft, delicate crumb). In this case, cocoa powder wasn’t providing enough gluten-forming compounds, while the extra fat from melted chocolate was making the cake too tender. Though we were loath to compromise the chocolate’s intensity, we knew that to strengthen the batter, we had to cut back on both kinds of chocolate. We tweaked the ingredients to achieve a perfectly portable batch of cupcakes before we turned our attention to working in more chocolate without disrupting the batter’s structure.
We decided to take full advantage of the one chocolate-enhancing ingredient we were already using: coffee. Mixing the cocoa with hot coffee eked out more chocolate flavor. To make the chocolate even more pronounced, we replaced the butter with more neutral-flavored vegetable oil, leaving us with a butterless cupcake. We knew this bordered on baking sacrilege, but in a side-by-side tasting, even the skeptics picked the oil-only cupcakes, citing a welcome moistness (butter contains about 16 percent water, which can evaporate in the oven and leave the cake dry) and fuller, unadulterated chocolate flavor.
After boosting the existing chocolate flavor as much as we could, we tried toughening the structure of the cupcake that we already had. That would give us a base for adding back extra chocolate without overtenderizing. To do this, we substituted bread flour for all-purpose flour. Specifically engineered for gluten development, bread flour turned out a cupcake that was markedly less crumble-prone, but not tough. With newfound room for more fat in the batter, we added back some of the chocolate. Tablespoon by tablespoon, we traded flour for cocoa powder until we achieved the most unapologetically chocolaty (and still sturdy) cupcakes yet. For a final chocolate burst, we spooned ganache onto the cupcakes before baking, which gave them a trufflelike center.
Finally, we needed a refined frosting to complement our rich base. We opted for a cooked buttercream of the Swiss meringue variety, where egg whites and granulated sugar are heated over a double boiler, then whipped with knobs of softened butter. Velvety, with just enough sweetness, this buttercream crowned the cake perfectly and even lent itself to a number of easy flavor variations.list of recipes