Monday night I participated in the pro division of the Brooklyn Kitchen Third Annual Cupcake Cookoff. Although I did not take home the title, it was more than worth the week long preparation that went into my three entries to meet such cool people and feel the thrill of competition running through my veins for the first time since, I dunno, my JV basketball tournament in 10th grade.
Originally, I planned to make cupcakes that could compete in the exotic flavor category. But two days before the competition I found out that as a pro, I was not eligible for any of the themed categories. I would be competing against 5 other pros in a “may the best man win” battle. I went ahead with my exotic themed cupcakes, which may have been a mistake, since the cupcakes that won–while super yummy–were more traditional.
My idea for the Sweet Potato Cupcake with Chai Frosting came to me days before the competition. It popped into my head while I was in the shower.
My friend Sara had just come back from India, and the first thing I had grilled her about was chai tea. She told me that the best chai in India is sold by chaiwallas (tea peddlers) on trains. They get on the train when it pulls into the station, sell the tea they just brewed, and get off before the train departs. So, just by riding the train, Sara got to sample chai from every region. She said that in rural India, they serve the tea in disposable, handmade clay cups! And; that the secret to good chai is not the tea leaves. You can use any cheap black tea. The secret lies in the spices. Every chaiwalla family has their own distinct blend of cinnamon, cardamom, cloves, ginger and black pepper.
And with this wisdom in the back of my mind, I made an infused Swiss meringue buttercream. First, I melted the butter and while it was still hot, stirred in the tea leaves. Following Sara’s advice, I used the cheapest tea from the market which was 87 cents per box. Then, I allowed the butter to steep, strained out the leaves, and placed the butter in the fridge to re-solidify. I learned this tea infusion method from the ever-innovative genius that is Pichet Ong, in his recipe for Thai Tea Buttercream.
While the butter cooled, I concocted and finely ground my spice mix, with white cardamom from Kalustyan’s and an extra dose of peppercorns. I whipped egg whites with cooked sugar until cool, and finally added the tea-infused butter and ground spices. It was the tastiest buttercream I’d ever made. But next time I will make it a day in advance to really let the flavors infuse, because it tasted even better the day after the competition!
I made the sweet potato cupcake with yellow and orange yams–which I cut into chunks, simmered with coconut milk and a vanilla bean, and then whipped. To allow the flavor of the sweet potato to really shine, I left the skins on, and did not add spices to the batter.
I’d come up with the vegan tres leches idea over a month ago, and the cookoff was the perfect reason to flesh it out. I love the taste of oats, nuts and coconut together in chocolate chip cookies, so I thought the combination would also work in a cake–and I was right! To start, I made oat milk by blending oats and water together until milky. I did the same with almonds, and left both milks in the fridge overnight. The next day, I made cake with the oat milk, which had thickened significantly and therefore gave the batter some body without the use of eggs.
To make the condensed almond milk, I simmered it with unrefined sugar, a vanilla bean, and a tablespoon of amaretto liquor until thickened. It was incredibly delicious, and less fattening/more flavorful than canned condensed milk.
The frosting was the cream from the top of a can of sweet coconut cream (I saved the syrup from the bottom of the can for summer coladas!) and a can of coconut milk. I simmered them both with some agar flakes. Agar is a clear, tasteless sea vegetable used in place of gelatin. Once the flakes were dissolved, I scraped the goo into a mixer and whipped until it was the consistency of frosting, and folded in unsweetened coconut flakes. SO, no butter, no oil, and no added sugar = AWESOME frosting!
My third cupcake was inspired by Colombian ingredients. Panela is black sugar that comes in the form of rounded cakes. It is the truest form of sugar that exists–nothing more than boiled down sugar cane juice. Here’s an awesome video that shows how it is made. The only time I used it before this was to flavor canelazo, a warm, aguardiente (sugar cane liquor)-based drink. Since it is not refined, it retains the smoky, caramel flavor of the cooked sugar cane, with aromatic botanical undertones you would never associate with white sugar.
To add a rich coffee flavor, I simmered the milk that would be added to the batter with Colombian coffee to make a strong brew. I left it to steep in the fridge overnight and then strained out the coffee.
For the frosting, I followed the recipe for a traditional buttercream, but instead of adding milk I added concentrated, unsweetened guava puree. It gave the frosting a mouthwatering tartness, like strawberries, with that distinctive guava butteriness. This also tasted better the second day.
I finished the Colombiana with gold dusted coffee beans. The gold dust is $7.00 at New York Cake and Baking Supply and lasts forever because a little goes a long way.
I hope my mom doesn’t kill me for saying so, but I really love the gold beans on top because to me, they look like little gold teeth. I remember my Dad telling me that one of the things about my Mom that drove him wild when they first met was that she had a gold tooth. Gold teeth are common in Colombia, where gold is cheaper than enamel, but to this American boy, it was super exotico.