23 March 2006

Cuppycakes galore

Is there a discernable difference between Madagascar, Mexican and Tahitian vanilla when whipping up a big cake or little cupcakes?

Oh gawd...I can't believe I actually wrote that. Wonder what Pete Wells would think of that...no wait I know ... and I agree :)

I’m not going to kid you…most other people don’t stay up worrying about this stuff and, quite honestly, neither do I.

This month’s vanilla post is just a good excuse to make and eat iced fairy cakes …


I mean, this moment in time presents me an excellent opportunity to compare the phenolic qualities of vanilla varietals in extract form.

Yeah right.

I wouldn’t dare call this a scientific study. It’s more of a “what’s yummy?” question with “yummy” loosely defined.

As luck would have it, the taste-test was also an exercise in “will a six-year old girl resist the lure of pink cupcakes when presented with yellow and blue ones?” (the answer is no—she chose pink as both her answers).

Using vanilla beans (instead of extracts) in cakes and biscuits provides a much better vanilla-y flavour. Heat, of course, evaporates alcohol and whatever flavour it carries. Seeds will continue to emit their flavours for days, increasing the treat’s deliciousness.

I made some vanilla-bean cuppycakes as a general “how great is the difference in flavour intensity between bean and extract”…but (and I’m embarrassed to admit this) I forgot about them after I baked them (crazy, scary, hectic time). When I rediscovered them, they were really quite stale.

But trust me... a cake made with a vanilla pod’s seeds is more flavourful than one made with one dessertspoon of extract. If you can afford to buy beans whenever you bake, then do so. My “everyday” cakes are made with extract and vanilla sugar—not quite as intense as with a pod’s black gold, but much more affordable.

I didn’t screw up testing cupcakes and icings made with extracts. Really.

Here’s what I did
I mixed one batch of vanilla-less batter. I divided it (by weight) into thirds and added one teaspoon of extract per batch. After they were baked and cooled, I colour-matched the icing flavours to the cases—same block of butter, same packet of icing sugar, same milk container, so the only flavour difference should be the extract. Mexican vanilla cuppycakes were in yellow cases, Tahitian were in blue and Madagascar in pink; they all baked in the same 12-cup tin.

The testers: me, the exbf, The Fussy Eater, Kim and her daughter Isabel…two adult males, two adult females and one pink-obsessed girl…three are bakers and home-cooks (Kim, the exbf and me) all five love cakes...

The testers were asked to let me know what colour of cake and what colour of icing they preferred. I was the only one who knew the colour coding.

Here are the results:

Madagascar -1
Mexican - 0
Tahitian – 0
No difference: 4

Madagascar – 1
Mexican – 2
Tahitian – 2

So…what does this prove? Not much. In heated preparations, there really doesn’t seem to be a flavour difference; Mexican and Tahitian vanillas were preferred in cold preparations (okay, ‘bel liked the Madagascar varietal…but it was, well…pink). I must admit that I was half-expecting things to work out like this.

But that’s okay…because I was able to nibble on cuppycakes for a good cause.

Here’s my standard vanilla cupcake recipe—it started life out as Nigella Lawson’s Fairy Cake recipe on p40 of How to Be a Domestic Goddess.

125g ap flour
2tsp baking powder
pinch of vanilla salt
125g butter

125g vanilla sugar
2 eggs
2 tsp vanilla extract
60ml milk

Putting it together
Preheat oven to 400F and paper a twelve-bowl muffin tin.

Sift together dry ingredients and set aside.

In separate bowl, cream together butter, sugar and vanilla. Add eggs and mix well. Mix in sifted ingredients. Add in enough milk for a soft, luscious consistency. Quite honestly, at this point I always find it a shame to actually bake the cake…the raw batter on its own is so wonderful.

Divide out the batter between the muffin bowls. Give the tray a tap and then bake for 15-20 minutes or until done. Cool in tin for about five or ten minutes and then remove to a rack.

Eat them plain or tart them up as you will.


Timmys count:
Before the nonsense: 44 cups; 3 free coffees, 1 free doughnut

Now: 11 cups, 0 winnings


K and S said...

'kay now I'm craving some cupcakes!! :) These look great!

Heather said...

what a yummy study!

Anonymous said...


What a tremendous post! First of all the cupcakes look great and I would have just eaten them all.

I love the taste test ... another great post in your vanilla series!

Anonymous said...

Yum - I'd like to volunteer to be one of your tasters!

jasmine said...

Hi all

Kat: They filled the kitchen with the most amazing aroma!

Heather: Welcome back! Hope you try this out.

Ivonne: Thanks! I was kinda worried how it read after I got some sleep...given how my week went, I'm pretty pleased :)

Rorie: I have a crew at work whose collective e-id is "guinea pigs" -- the most effective punishment I can give them is to take them off the list. They weren't happy when they found out I tested these without them!


Culinarily Obsessed said...

What a wonderful experiment! I love it..and I think cupcakes are even more delicious when they're called "fairy cakes" I just love that name =)

Anonymous said...

I'm seeing a cupcake theme around the blogosphere lately. Hmmm, me thinks I'll have to whip up a batch soon. These look divine Jasmine and I love the taste test. BTW I will be getting around to that meme you tagged me for soon (I hope) I've been crazy busy lately. (no actually is it is not I that has been busy but my 20 month old daughter who has now dropped all naps and is literally driving me to drink).

Sam said...

I really enjoyed your vanilla cupcake test. Thanks for reminding me that vanilla beans also taste great in cakes.

little pomelo said...

Interesting post!
I was just skimming through, but you made me think twice about not using vanilla pods. The problem is, I don't often come across vanilla pods though I love the idea of it!

jasmine said...

Hello all

Hey Jaay! Yes, I adore the term fairy cake...the problem is, some people have problems with the name...sigh.

Hi Jenny -- I know-- I keep reading that "cupcakes are back"...I ask where did they go...except in my tummy...afaik, they've always been in.

Hi Sam--Welcome! Glad you liked the post and I hope you'll be back.

Hi Paz -- Welcome back...you should have sniffed my kitchen that weekend -- utter heaven :)