Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Sprinkles All Around (No Need To Waste Them)

I sing of arms and the man, fated to be an exile.

The arms in question are this author’s own, and though they are no longer spattered with crimson, they maintain a Lady Macbeth-like series of psychological spots – mostly blemishes on the ego. The exile is not from his home, or from a nation, or indeed from anything desirable: it is an exile from the cult of the cupcake.

Let me begin at the beginning, by which I mean with a series of disclaimers.

I do not come of baking stock. My father, though an accomplished chef, has always regarded it as more chemistry than cookery, more trouble than worth. While an uncooperative chicken marsala can be solved with a touch of cornstarch to thicken the sauce (or – in my case, let’s be honest – by insisting on a few rounds of stiff aperitifs), a fallen cake is beyond salvation, as are scorched cookies, and any recipe which calls for amounts measured by an instrument the size of a coke spoon just seems demanding and unreasonable (famous last words re: my disrespect for the extremely specific vocabulary and equipage of the baker; retribution to follow).

In short, a wise woman named Nancy Cohen once wrote: “Baking is for freaks; muffins cost a dollar in the store. “

In this case, the tiny baked goods are cupcakes, and they cost something in the neighborhood of $3.50 per.

Disclaimer two:

I think it has as much to do with my contrarian culinary nature than anything else – rather than debate the merits and deficits of your recent choice to go vegan, I’d prefer that you sit idly by with your Zip-loc of celery while I make a beef bourguignon for one) – but I am not a cupcake person. Not only do I not make them, I don’t eat them. The oven-warm wares of the Los Angeles boutique bakeries leave me cold. It’s not that cupcakes are terrible, it’s just that I don’t care for them. I do not like them from Joan’s On Third. I do not like them from Sprinkles. I do not like them from Magnolia. I do not like them from Sweet Lady Jane. I do not like them from Toast.

In short, cupcakes to me are like bad crème brulee: why fucking bother?

Anyway, I got a canister of Sprinkles Red Velvet cupcake mix for Christmas, from my mother. Her reasoning, I’d wager, was three-pronged:

1.) I’m not hyper-vocal about my complete and utter indifference to cupcakery, because that generally encourages people to try and change my mind. Unfortunately, “Who doesn’t like cupcakes?!” is more the prevailing logic, as opposed to the correct logic (viz. “Does Spencer like cupcakes? No, he does not.”)

2.) Making cupcakes from a boxed mix provides me with an Alternative Christmas Break Activity (viz. not snitting around La Jolla with high school friends).

3.) Making cupcakes from a boxed mix is a productive activity, specifically productive of cupcakes. And who doesn’t like cupcakes?

At any rate: the packaging was twee, the instructions simple, and the mix an appealing color I can most accurately describe as “dusty rose” – convenient, since it was, indeed, dusty. And so, after my father left the house in search of speakers for the upstairs living room that were both attractive and effective (easier said than done, apparently), I set out some ingredients.

Which included a stick and a half of butter.

Not that I mind butter. Just saying, is all.

The instructions told me that I should whip butter that was cool, but still firm, but not cold, until it was fluffy. Okay. They specified a standing mixer with the flat beater attachment.

I’ve previously emphasized that we are not a baking family. We used to have a standing mixer, but because my father eschews kitchen gadgetry and is a lapsed Catholic, he does whatever whipping, frothing, mixing, integrating, et cetera with a fork. In extreme circumstances, he utilizes one of a carefully-edited collection of whisks.

Have you ever tried mixing butter with a fork? With a slight hangover? With an end goal of producing confectionary goods you have no great reason to make, other than the fact that there’s very little else doing in your neck of the woods on this sunny December mid-morning?

I mean, it’s not the most pleasant of tasks. Nor is it the easiest. I reached for the whisk.

The whisks fared little better. An entire stick of butter insinuated itself into the space inside the whisk, like a fat dairy bird in an undersize stainless cage.

The third tool I utilized: the kitchen telephone, to call my father and ask why the hell we lived like Mennonites. He explained that there existed a small electric hand blender he had been given as a gift and never really cared to use.

(Of course he didn’t. This from a man who “throws together” a crown roast of pork with root vegetables, pommes duchesse, a full turkey dinner rivaling most normal families’ Thanksgiving spreads, on mere whims and usually with about four hours advance warning – the man has nerves of steel, which apparently skip a generation.)

So, I found the beater, which looks very much like one I have had several disagreeable run-ins in my own Santa Barbara kitchen, fitted it with a whisk attachment, and took it to the butter. The butter hardly reciprocated, electing to splinter, shred, and fill my eye sockets and hairline with dairy product.

Sputtering and watched (from the safety of the doorway) by Deuce the Loyal Family Australian Shepherd, I groped for paper towels, wiped the butter from my eyelashes and sideburns, and removed the whisk attachment.

Realizing that I was covered in butter flecks and was wearing dark brown cotton pique, which does not (FYI) take well to grease stains, I decided to remove my shirt. In trying to do so without leaving buttery handprints (which I imagine to be the perpetual dilemma of the well-dressed obese), I put undue strain on the placket and lost two buttons.


Taking what I now know to be an immersion blender attachment, I snapped it into place and began whirring away. Same basic result, but directed in perpendicular flumes rather than a butter blowback from hell. So I hacked away for a while, alternating fork and immersion blender and manual whisk, until the butter seemed pretty damned fluffy, at least to my beginner’s eye.

In went the mix. The powder didn’t, so much, combine with the butter, despite my half-hearted ministrations with a variety of implements. Perhaps, I reasoned, the milk and eggs would loosen things up.

Remember how I mentioned that the powder mix was a dusty rose color? Well, when the milk hit it, it turned a rusty red. Think kidney beans. I seized the mixer and applied it, hoping (as I always do with baked goods) that my innovative approach would yield a specific reward – you know, the “if I curse a lot, then the meringues will totally form ‘stiff peaks’ under my stewardship” approach.

Well, instead of yielding, it…did the opposite. Imagine, dear reader, the oleaginous reaction described previously. Now, apply that, but in a goopier, more human-muscle-colored, and…more…extensive…fashion.

My face. My torso. My jeans. The buttercream-colored walls of my parents’ kitchen. The framed poster/invitation to the second anniversary of Chez Panisse (cassoulet, ½ litre wine, salad, $5.25, and a film de Marcel Pagnol), obscured with a Jackson Pollack of Red Velvet Cupcake dough.

I set down the mixer, slowly. I picked up the bowl, calmly. I placed it in the triangle of sun entering via the kitchen window, gently.

And then I entered the realm of the paranoid serial killer. Not the blatant Ed Gein belt-o’-nipples kind, but the socially functional kind, the kind the neighbors describe as "such a nice man", the kind that needs to get those ovaries out of the ashtray and colons off the chandelier STAT because there are def-i-nite-ly guests for dinner.


And so: there I was, shirtless, scrubbing muscle-colored spatters from every facet of my parents’ kitchen, a task that comprised the complete cleaning of an entire canister of obscure implements intended for stovetop use which the unhappy spray had befouled.

After the disconcerting debutante experience of scrubbing the walls while praying oh god please praying that the police don’t, for some reason, ring the doorbell, I had a quick lie-down in the living room. The dog sympathetically (or perhaps self-interestedly) licked my hand.

I recomposed myself (as much as one with incarnadine cuticles and roseate forearms, wearing a hematomic wifebeater, and generally disillusioned as to one’s own culinary abilities can, of course) and reprised the kitchen.

I slogged the cannibal batter into cupcake tins and pitched them into the oven. And I then decided to attempt the frosting.

It called for a stick and a half of butter. For reals, right now, thought I, as I added it to a Pyrex. I added the requisite ingredients, thanking Sprinkles aloud for their leniency in the mechanics of measurement and composition.

And then the frosting didn’t loosen. I checked the instructions again, looking for specific advice, something along the lines of “when X doesn’t happen, do Y.” The advice is comprised specifically of a “try it if you dare” as to Frosting A Cupcake Like A Sprinkles Employee Would. And so I sought my own counsel.

Milk. Lots of milk.

Now it won’t solidify.

Cornstarch. Just…a little bit…of cornstarch.

Maybe…a little…more.

Maybe…just a little…more.


In the interest of not having the cupcakes squeak when people bit into them, I stopped adding cornstarch. Squeaking cupcakes would be amusing, but unpleasant, and also a total invalidation of my mother’s thinking (that is: my son can cook, but is very thin because he is so busy and important). While contemplating the pluses and minuses of admitting defeat, I realized that the cupcakes were probably burned. Eff my life. I chucked the frosting into the fridge, removed the cupcakes from the oven (they weren’t burned, at all), and – in the name of sanity -- left the house for an hour, allowing Deuce the Dog to sniff every last perennial bed planted alongside a mile-long cul-de-sac nearby.

Returning to the house: the cupcakes were cooled (and, from the piece I sampled, rather delicious); the frosting had the consistency of marinara sauce. The chunky kind.

I leaned back onto the counter and considered my options. I bit into one of the Sprinkles Signature Dots, presuming that the delightful little circles of chocolate brown, scarlet, and white would be made of marzipan or somesuch.

Dear reader – not so! Not even edible, really! At all!

After spitting several valued fillings and veneers (as well as the remnants of the decidedly non-toothsome cupcake topping garnish) into the sink, I de-lumped the frosting and transferred it to the freezer. Perhaps. I reasoned, it would gel there.

By this time my father and mother had come home, and were variously occupied in parts of the house that weren’t the kitchen. I plodded upstairs for another quick lie-down.

Dinner was Chicken Cordon Bleu on a bed of mushroom orzo, served in those mini-casseroles in which one serves Lobster Thermidor, with a steamed broccolini side.

Dessert was cupcakes…with ramekins of liquid frosting. I mean…they were both rather good, but -- as I attempted to clearly set out at the beginning of this entry -- I don't so much like cupcakes.

Worth it? I mean...maybe. My initial call would be that Sprinkles wants to prove its market dominance with something along the lines of "Of course you can have the impossible recipe for this dish! Good luck!"

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