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Perfect Vanilla-Scented Cupcakes, Or Layer Cakes… with an Italian Meringue Icing

If you’re trying to decide on a great dessert for a mixed group of both, kids and adults, you’re in luck! This recipe makes the most wonderful cupcakes and layer cakes. These cupcakes (or cake layers), topped with big swoops of fluffy Italian meringue, tastes and feels like you’re sinking your teeth into a mound of melted marshmallows. I usually either torch the tips of the meringue, or I’ll douse an entire iced cake or the tops of cupcakes in a mixture of plain and toasted shredded coconut. Please read the instructions for making the meringue, from beginning to end, before getting started.

Alternatively, for a vanilla birthday cake or for a batch of cupcakes to tote to school for a child’s birthday, try the buttery, sweet, and smooth as silk Silky White Butter Frosting. My children really love that, too.

Any time I’ve suggested a tool, a piece of equipment, or a culinary term that’s unfamiliar to you, you can go to Kitchen Management for more information.

For the cake batter:

  • Flavorless vegetable spray, for cupcake tins or melted unsalted butter, as needed, for brushing cake pans
  • About 2 tablespoons plain cake flour, for dusting
  • 3 1/4 cups Buttermillk Pancake Mix, or see the end of this recipe
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda (only if using buttermilk)
  • 3/4 cup (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened to room temperature
  • 1/4 cup solid vegetable shortening
  • 1 3/4 cups granulated sugar
  • 4 extra-large eggs, made tepid by submerging in a bowl of very hot tap water for 10 minutes
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract  
  • 1 1/4 cups buttermilk or regular milk, at room temperature or slightly warmed (preferably buttermilk)

For the meringue icing:

  • 3 extra-large egg whites, at room temperature
  • 1 cup superfine sugar, for the syrup, plus 1/3 cup for the egg whites
  • 2 tablespoons light corn syrup
  • 1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar
  • Pinch of salt
  • 1 1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
  • 1 to 2 cups mixed plain and toasted shredded sweetened coconut (optional)
  • Alternate frostings or icings: Silky White Butter Frosting (or chocolate variation)

1) To set up to make cupcakes or cake layers: Spray the tops of two nonstick 12-muffin tins and one 6-muffin tin with vegetable spray and line them with paper liners. If making cake layers brush the interiors of two 9-inch cake pans (2 inches deep) with melted butter and line both bottoms with a round of parchment paper. Grease the paper and dust the bottom and sides with cake flour, tilting to coat the pan evenly, and then shake out any excess flour, by rapping the pan against the sink, hard, several times. Preheat the oven to 350oF. If using a double oven, keep the oven racks on the center shelf. If using one oven, arrange the oven racks on the upper and lower third shelf positions, to accommodate all three cupcake tins. Both cake pans should be able to fit on the center rack. (Best results are achieved when cupcakes and cake layers are baked, undisturbed, in the center of the oven.)

2) To assemble the batter: Whisk together the pancake mix, if using, with the baking powder (and soda, if using buttermilk). Use the paddle attachment on your electric mixer to cream the butter and shortening with the sugar, until light. Add the tepid eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. When very light, beat in the vanilla. Stop the machine and, using a large rubber spatula, scrape down the sides and across the bottom of the bowl, then beat the mixture once more, briefly. With the mixer on low, add the flour mixture, alternating with the buttermilk, beginning and ending with flour. Mix on low, until combined very well, about 30 to 40 seconds. For cupcakes, use a medium-sized ice cream scoop or a large spoon to place the batter into the prepared muffin cups, filling them no more than 2/3 full (if you have a few unused cups, fill those half-full with simmering water). If making cake layers, divide the batter between the prepared cake pans and, using a small icing spatula, smooth the tops.

3) To bake: Bake the cupcakes for 20 minutes (if not baked on the center shelf, switch their positions half-way through baking). Bake the cake layers until the top is golden and a tester comes out clean, 30 to 40 minutes. Layer cakes will begin to pull away from the sides of the pan and will feel springy at the center when done. (Don’t worry if the tops of layers look a bit irregular, since they will be inverted and used flat- bottoms up.) Remove the pans from the oven and, for cupcakes, let them sit in the tins, for 5 minutes, then carefully lift each one out and let them cool on wire racks, before applying any topping. For cake layers, remove them from the oven and let them sit on a wire rack, for five minutes, then invert them onto wire racks. Let the cake layers cool completely, keeping them bottoms-up, before dividing them and applying your filling and any frosting.

4) To dress the cupcakes: Use a small metal icing spatula or a table knife to apply some of the meringue to the tops of the cooled cupcakes, covering them completely. Apply another dollop of meringue on top and use the tip of the spatula to make swirls, or swooping peaks. Either run the flame of a small, hand-held blow torch over the protruding tips of the meringue until caramelized, or lavish the meringue with a generous amount of mixed plain and toasted shredded sweetened coconut. Alternatively, if using either variation of the butter frosting or the glazes, decorate the tops with any of the suggested toppings in The I Love to Cook Book. Let these cupcakes remain at room temperature, covered either with a cake cover or, once the icing is set, with plastic wrap.

5) To cut, fill and stack the cake layers: First place each layer (on a cake disc), bottoms-up, on a rotating cake stand and slice each layer in half, horizontally, using a long sharp serrated knife. After dividing the first, keep the halves together and just move the whole layer to the side. After dividing the second layer, insert a cake disc in-between both halves and lift off the top piece. Working with the bottom of one cake layer, cut-side up, on the cake stand, spread an even layer of the icing on top, using a long icing spatula or a table knife. Don’t go overboard, or the layers will slip and slide off each other, once stacked. Place the top of that cake layer on top of the icing and press down, gently. Spread the top of that layer with more frosting. Place the bottom of the second cake layer on top of the stacked cake layers. Apply more icing, then place the last top layer, which should be the flat, golden bottom of that layer, on top. Use your hand or a cake disc to lightly press down on the top, to help the layers adhere and to level the stack. To coat the outside of an assembled cake evenly, and to pipe on a top and bottom border, see the Silky White Butter Frosting.

6) To store: Store the assembled cake or cupcakes on a platter, at a comfortable room temperature, covered with a wide, high cake cover before serving. If using a butter-cream frosting, refrigerate leftovers and bring to room temperature, before serving. (Rewhip, if needed, to bring to spreadable consistency).

If you don’t have the pre-assembled cake mix:

Whisk together 3 1/4 cups of cake flour, 3/4 teaspoon fine salt, and 1 tablespoon baking powder (and 1/2 teaspoon soda, if using buttermilk) and sift this into another bowl. Increase the sugar to 2 cups. Bake the cake as previously described.

Timing is Everything:

The cake layers can be made a day ahead and kept at room temperature, well wrapped in plastic wrap.

The cake can be fully assembled early on the day of entertaining and kept out, at a comfortable room temperature, until ready to serve.

Although the Italian meringue icing should be used the day it’s made, the vanilla frosting can be fully assembled and refrigerated, for up to three days, before using it. Bring it to room temperature, then whip it until it’s fluffy and of a good spreading consistency.

Click here for

Devil’s Food Cupcakes or Cake Layers

Silky White Butter Frosting… Perfect for a Birthday Cake

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