Spring in New York is an adjustment – we’re midway through April, and the trees behind my house are just starting to bud. In the last week or so the tulips, daffodils, and hyacinths started blooming – a welcome spot of life and color in a city that’s still mostly winter-brown. I’m finding myself quite homesick for spring in Georgia – I miss the blooming azaleas and forsythia, the green-gold cast of sunlight through new leaves, strawberry picking with Mom early in the day, evening thunderstorms, and the early-season March heat that catches you in the sun and slowly warms you from the inside until everything feels hazy and slow and perfect.
Maybe that’s why all I want to make right now is bright, punchy desserts that remind me of sunshine. And these lemon-curd-filled, blueberry-studded cupcakes are the sunshiniest of all.
They are based on my go-to yellow cake recipe, punched up with lemon zest, frozen blueberries, and buttermilk. Plain, they make a fabulous breakfast on mornings when I’m feeling a bit indulgent (after all, what is a muffin but an unfrosted cupcake?)
But it’s the lemon-curd center that makes these cupcakes shine.
Bright and tangy, it cuts through the richness of the cake and frosting without being cloying or overly sweet. Plus it’s incredibly simple to make and keeps well – which means I get to slather any leftover curd on biscuits, drizzle it over ice cream, or swirl it into yogurt for at least the next week.
It’s the perfect dessert to tide me over until spring arrives here in earnest – and to help ease the homesickness just a little bit.
I can’t say I miss the pollen, though.
Yield: 12 cupcakes Time: about an hour and a half Source: The Eighth Street Mess
The mixing times on this cake are going to seem long. Please don’t panic – you aren’t going to make a tough cake. Because the butter gets added to the flour at the beginning, the fat coats everything and makes it harder to form gluten – and you need at least some gluten to give the cake enough structure to rise. And, because there isn’t a traditional creaming step, you still need to get air into the batter so that the leavening has little bubbles to inflate.
Also, because it gets mixed into the flour right at the beginning, it is vital that your butter is soft. If you’re in a rush, you can cube it up into small pieces and let it sit while you measure everything. If that’s not moving fast enough, fill a glass measuring cup with boiling water, let it sit for five minutes to heat through, dump out the water, and invert the hot measuring cup over the cubed butter. Just check occasionally to make sure things aren’t melting.
- 199 grams (1 cup) granulated sugar
- Zest of one lemon
- 189 grams (1 1/2 cups) cake flour, or 165 grams (1 1/4 cups + 1 tablespoon) all-purpose flour plus 24 grams (3 tablespoons) cornstarch
- 2 grams (1/2 teaspoon) baking powder
- 1.5 grams (1/4 teaspoon) baking soda
- 1 gram (heaping 1/8 teaspoon) salt
- 114 grams (1 stick) butter, softened
- 85 grams (generous 1/3 cup) buttermilk
- 1 large egg
- 3 large egg yolks
- 7 grams (1 1/2 teaspoons) vanilla extract
- 155 grams frozen blueberries, the small wild ones if you can find them
Preheat your oven to 350°F (176°C), and place a rack in the center. While you’re at it, line a standard 12 cup muffin tin with paper cupcake liners. The liners are optional – you can totally just grease each muffin cup – but I like the insurance against stickage for cupcakes especially.
Place the sugar and lemon zest into the bowl of your stand mixer. Using the tips of your fingers, massage the zest into the sugar until the sugar turns pale yellow and starts to feel like moist sand.
In another bowl (I like a glass measure with a spout) whisk together the egg, egg yolks, and vanilla.
Add the flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt to the bowl with the lemon sugar, and give that a quick mix to get everything blended. Add the softened butter, and pour in half of your wet mixture.
Get your mixer going gently to start – nobody likes cleaning up a flour cloud – and once the batter seems unlikely to floof everywhere, increase the mixer speed to 3 and beat for three minutes. Please use a timer for this – if you don’t mix this cake long enough, it will fall in the oven.
Stop the mixer, scrape down the beater and the sides of the bowl, then pour in half of the remaining wet mixture. Again, turn your mixer on slowly to start, then increase the mixer to speed 2 and beat for two minutes. Repeat with the remaining wet ingredients.
Add the blueberries and stir briefly, just until they are completely worked through. I like folding them in with a rubber spatula because it gives me fewer purple streaks in my batter, but you could totally just run the mixer for a few more seconds.
Scoop three tablespoons of batter into each muffin cup – this corresponds to a #20 scoop or a quarter cup measure filled 3/4 of the way up.
Bake the cupcakes until the tops are golden and a toothpick inserted into the center comes away clean, 20-30 minutes. Turn them out of the pan and allow the cupcakes to cool completely on a wire rack.
Once your cupcakes have cooled, cut a well into the center. I used a 1 1/4 inch circle cutter and pried out the little plug with a pairing knife, but you could just cut a cone out of the center as if you were hulling a strawberry. Honestly, as long as you don’t cut all the way through the bottom, it doesn’t really matter.
Cut the top off the plug of cupcake and save it to make a little hat to cover up the hole you just made. This is completely unnecessary, by the way, but makes me happy to know the finish under the frosting is nice and neat.
Fill each cupcake with enough lemon curd to come almost all the way to the top of your well, and put the little cupcake hat on top. It should sit more or less flush with the top of the cake.
Frost your cupcakes however you like – I prefer to pipe frosting on filled cupcakes because spreading frosting with a knife has a tendency to rip the little hat off or mix filling and crumbs into the frosting. This isn’t an actual problem, of course, it just makes the final product look a little less pretty.
These cupcakes should keep at least three days, covered, in the refrigerator. They should not be stored at room temperature as the lemon curd will spoil.
Yield: 1.5 cups Time: 20 minutes Source: Adapted, barely, from Smitten Kitchen
This lemon curd thickens as it cools – please don’t keep whisking expecting a texture change. You will have a bad time.
As a warning, this recipe is always delicious, but I find that it can be a little bit inconsistent – sometimes it comes out runny, and sometimes it comes out very thick. This is probably because different lemons produce different amounts of juice. I’m working to figure out a quantity of juice that I like, but I’m still playing with it to nail the texture. I’ll update this recipe when I get it perfect.
- 4 large egg yolks
- 148 grams (3/4 cup) granulated sugar
- 1 1/2 lemons, zest and juice – you should end up with about 3 tablespoons of lemon juice (pro tip: zest the lemons before juicing)
- 28 grams (2 tablespoons) unsalted butter, cubed
In a medium heatproof bowl (preferably metal – glass will work, but it’s insulating so the curd will take longer to cook), whisk together the egg yolks, sugar, lemon zest, and lemon juice until thoroughly combined. Add the butter and stir through.
Place the bowl over a pan of simmering water. The bowl should sit snugly over the pot, but the bottom of the bowl should not be touching the water. Cook the curd, stirring constantly with a whisk or spatula, until it reaches 180°F (82°C) – it may thicken slightly, but most likely it will look identical to when you started, only without the butter chunks.
Remove the curd from the heat and cool before pouring it into airtight containers or covering with plastic wrap. Refrigerate until thickened.
The curd will keep in the refrigerator for up to a week.
Lemon Italian Meringue Buttercream
Yield: 5-ish cups Time: 20 minutes Source: Adapted from Baking and Pastry: Mastering the Art and Craft, third edition
Italian meringue buttercream will play with your emotions like the sort of manipulative ex who shows up in trope-happy rom-coms. It will curdle, it will weep liquid, it will look like soup – ignore all of this, be emotionally strong, and keep beating the hell out of it. I promise you, unless your meringue was hot enough to melt your butter to start with, it will eventually come together into the silky frosting of your dreams.
Also, a word of caution. If you refrigerate this frosting, you must let it come back to room temperature before you eat it, or it will feel (and taste) like eating a stick of hard, sweet, lemony butter. Which, despite what you might think, is decidedly unpleasant.
- 226 grams (1 cup + 2 tablespoons) granulated sugar, divided
- 113 grams (about 4) large egg whites
- 56 grams (1/4 cup) lemon juice
- 340 grams (3 sticks) unsalted butter, cubed and softened
- 1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract
In the bowl of your stand mixer, combine the egg whites and 56 grams (about ¼ cup) of the sugar.
Mix the remaining sugar with the lemon juice in a small pot and bring to a boil over medium-high heat. When the sugar starts to boil, begin whipping the egg whites with the whisk attachment on your stand mixer. I have only once had a problem with my sugar syrup crystallizing, but if you’re worried about it, you can brush down the sides of your pot with a wet pastry brush occasionally.
When the sugar hits about 230°F (110°C), you’re going to really want to put the spurs to the egg whites and increase the mixer speed to maximum – they should hit stiff peaks about the same time the sugar finishes cooking at 235 – 240°F (113 – 115°C). If it’s a little short, that’s fine – your frosting will still turn out ok. You just don’t want to overwhip your egg whites.
Drop your mixer speed to low, and slowly (and carefully) stream the hot sugar syrup into the space between the bowl and the spinning whisk. Once all the syrup is in, increase the speed to high (between 8 and 10, depending on your machine) and whip until the meringue is glossy and the bowl is cool to the touch. This can take 10 minutes or so, so be patient. If you’re in a rush, you can wrap flexible ice packs (or Ziplocks filled with ice cubes) around the bowl to help things cool down faster.
Once the meringue is cool, begin adding in the butter. It is super important that your butter is at room temperature – you want it soft enough that it’s not going to just bounce around and deflate your meringue. Plus, the closer your butter and meringue are to the same temperature, the more likely it is that your frosting will skip the terrifying soup-to-curdled-goop phase. Add the butter a few pieces at a time, making sure they are fully incorporated before you add the next batch.
Once all the butter is in, keep whipping until the mixture forms a silky smooth, fluffy, spreadable frosting. It may do this right away. It may look soupy* to start with, then get curdled-looking. It might just go straight to curdled. No matter what it does, keep beating the hell out of it until you get a silky-smooth, fluffy frosting.
Store the frosting in an airtight container in your refrigerator for up to a week, or in your freezer for up to three months. Just make sure you let it come all the way up to room temperature before you try to use it!
*If your frosting stays soupy for more than 10-15 minutes of beating, your meringue may have been too hot and melted your butter. Sometimes it can be too far gone to fix, but most of the time you can rescue it by sticking the soupy frosting in the refrigerator for 30 minutes to an hour and beating it again.