Five vanilla sponge recipes, five vanilla frosting recipes, 8 brave testers

I have not gotten the chance to post any new entries for a while as I have been hosting my mom in Germany, but I am back now and ready to give you the latest gossip about my cupcake journey. Leading up to the Cultural Parade in Frankfurt, I organized a vanilla recipe cupcake tasting extravaganza. Five vanilla sponge recipes, five vanilla frosting recipes, 8 brave testers, one day.

The extravaganza prep began weeks before, as I scoured the Internet for the most delectable, most sought after, most highly regarded and reviewed vanilla recipes to use as my basic cupcake base. I was looking to create the perfect vanilla cupcake-light, fluffy and (not to sweet) delicious. In the end, I decided to the test the following recipes:

  • Sprinkles vanilla cupcakes (biggest cupcake chain in America) (baked in orange cupcake cases)
  • Rose Levy Beranbaum’s white velvet cake (baked in white cupcake cases)
  • Rose Levy Beranbaum’s yellow cake recipes (baked in yellow cupcake cases)
  • FairCake’s tried and true vanilla recipe (which I learned at my cupcake classes in London) (green cupcake cases)
  • William-Sonoma’s vanilla cupcakes (blue cupcake cases)

The main difference between the recipes was the use of eggs. While the velvet cake called for just eggs whites, the Sprinkles recipe called for two egg whites and one whole egg for its batter. A few other minor differences included the use of sour cream instead of milk for the yellow cake batter and also the use of self-raising flour and margarine in FairCake’s recipe.

Naked cupcakes ready for frosting. Each recipe is colour-coded with different cupcake cases.

My research continued as I devoured page after page of information about the world of frosting. The perfect frosting needs to be sweet, but not too sweet; stable for creating perfect swirls; and nice and smooth for a clean finish. I decided to enter the world of meringue based buttercreams (anything with the word meringue in it means you add beaten egg whites to the creamed butter) as well as to try out the classic recipes too. In the pictures below, the green frosting was Italian meringue buttercream, pink was Swiss meringue buttercream, the beige frosting was Silk meringue buttercream, pale yellow was normal buttercream and blue was a buttercream with half the the butter replaced with vegetable shortening.

Each frosting colour-coded also.

So the weekend finally arrived and I was ready for the testing. On Friday, I bought all the ingredients and Saturday evening, I spent baking a dozen of each cupcake recipe. I learned a lot and took many notes. I noted the appearance of each cupcake, if it domed nicely or if it turned out rather flat.

After 4 hours of baking, I finished baking 60 cupcakes (took some time as I had to clean all the equipment in between each batch).

Sunday arrived, the day of the taste testing. The testing was scheduled for 16:00, so I used the morning and early afternoon to make fresh buttercreams of all kinds. My friend, who will be from here-on-in known as my Trusty Apprentice, joined the cause and we put our brains together in trying to figure out meringue buttercreams. We decided to attempt the hardest one first, cause you know, we’re brave like that. The secret ingredient to Silk meringue buttercream is the homemade caramel sauce, and after only 3 or 4 failed attempts at caramel we did it! While my Trusty Apprentice mixed the caramel with a thick a cream, I whipped up what I call, ‘normal’ buttercream which consists simply of butter, powdered sugar and vanilla extract for flavour.

With 2 out of 5 frostings complete and starting on the third we felt quite confident, until we began the Italian meringue buttercream and realized that the butter we wanted to work had gone way past room temperature and into its melting stage. We used it anyway and realized that adding melted butter to meringue really just turns everything into a white, flat mess, a far cry from billowy frosting. The next part of the story involves a way to get rid of the bad batch of frosting. The logical person would say, you just tossed it in the bin, well yeah, let me just say to ANYONE reading, don’t ever try to flush your ruined frosting down the toilet because the frosting will always outsmart your toilet. Enough said.

Back to the kitchen (hands washed, twice!) and my determined Trusty Apprentice finally managed the Italian meringue while I whipped up a batch of half and half frosting (half butter, half shortening). At this point the clock struck quarter to 16:00 and we still had the Swiss Meringue to tackle. My tireless and fearless Trusty Apprentice began melting the sugar and separating the eggs for the final frosting. As she whizzed and whirled with my loyal 350 W handmixer, the doorbells and cell phones began to go off and I ran from the kitchen to greet my testers with sweaty welcome hugs and kisses. The Trusty Apprentice’s focus and drive never wavered nor did she once lose her concentration. It wasn’t until all the sugar had been blended in a pink Swiss Meringue did she join the testers in the dining room.

Frosting some cupcakes with the pink Swiss meringue. Not so good for piping, although we did make this one in a rush.

The results:
Once the cupcakes had been frosted and questionnaires distributed, the tasting swiftly commenced. The room was silent, the testers-absolutely concentrated as they scribbled their feedback and ate five cupcakes each. So which recipes won?

Focused tester sampling his first cupcake. 1 down, 4 to go.

Vanilla cake: It was a close call between the Fair Cake recipe and the William-Sonoma ones. Both had just the right amount of sweetness, balanced with a fluffy texture. The William-Sonoma cupcakes called for one whole egg and one egg white. This gave the recipe a good balance, I think. Keeping the cupcakes dense but not too eggy. Another good thing about the William-Sonoma cupcake recipe was that the cupcakes did not dome too much which allows for a flat decorating surface. The good thing about the Fair Cake recipe is that it has a good sugar to flour ratio so the cupcake have a nice balance of sweet. These cupcakes domed more so I know which recipe to use when I want a more domed top. I baked all the cupcakes at a low temperature of 150°C so that they could bake slowly and evenly and to avoid any volcano tops. This happens when the batter on the outside cooks faster than than on the inside and the inside batter ends up being pushed upwards, forming a volcano peak and not-so-awesome surface to add pretty swirls to.

Frosting: Clear winner here. It was the blue, half and half frosting, where I used half butter and half shortening. The cool thing about the shortening in Germany is that it is made form cocoa fat unlike Crisco which is made from soybean and cottonseed oil. There is something very nice in the flavour of cocoa-based shortening and by adding it, instead of more butter, there was nice balance and the frosting didn’t taste terribly buttery. It did not leave a film inside the mouth (as shortening is usually blamed for doing) and it was voted the best frosting by half of the group, whereas the rest of the votes were dispersed amongst the other frosting flavours.

When asked which cupcake and frosting combo was liked the best, the blue cupcake won. That means William-Sonoma recipe plus half and half frosting. So, I have my go-to vanilla recipe!

Once the last calorie-ridden guest had left, I promptly passed out from exhaustion on our perfectly sleep-inducing sofa. The taste testing was a success. I was tired but happy and I fell asleep planning my upcoming weekend when my little babies would make their debut.

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  1. tammy

    What a great experiment. I came across you site, as I was wondering if I could replace half my butter with shortening in my swiss merigue. Which I did 2night….and am hating the after taste.

    That being said, how do I go about get Germany shortening?!?

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