Grand Marnier cupcakes with
strawberry buttercream


Note: I wrote this piece for my friend Tuffer’s magazine project. I’ll post the link to it soon!

Last weekend was a crazy pop cultural roller coaster. After wallowing in an endless rotation of Jackson 5 singles and seriously epic music videos, I came up for air to do some baking. And what better way to escape a pop-induced funk than baking cupcakes?

My cake of choice was a butter cake spiked with Grand Marnier. I matched it up with a classic buttercream made with strawberries. Let’s say the buttercream icing is the “Rock With You” of the combo: sweet and fluffy, the roller skates, smoke machines and disco of desserts. Then, think of the cake as the “Wanna Be Starting Something” of the pair. That song was my jammy joint – it makes me want to put on a zipper jacket, break in some of those white and red stiff-leather Nikes and make a mix tape with my sister. The song seems bubbly and innocuous at first, but then you listen to the lyrics and are like, “WTF?” For the cake, the hit of booze is your little WTF moment: a little dark, a cupcake for grownups.

Alright, I’ll admit the analogy was a stretch, so let’s talk about strawberries instead. June rolled around and earlier this week, I started seeing Wimbledon on the tube. All the snooty tennis snobs on the grounds hogging down strawberries and cream always remind me that it’s time to buy the sweetest strawberries of the year.

For this recipe I decided to compare two types of buttercream: Italian meringue versus Swiss meringue. I had previously done a comparison of American butter icing (butter and powdered sugar) and Swiss meringue buttercream; the meringue being my clear favorite. After buying the excellent baking book, CakeLove (a cookbook from Warren Brown’s famed CakeLove bakery in DC), I decided to finally try Italian meringue buttercream. I had never tried it before because, frankly, it is kind of a pain in the neck to make. With Swiss buttercream – shall we call it the Federer of icings? – you heat and whisk sugar and egg whites together, then add butter. Simple elegance (Federer).

Let’s say Italian buttercream is more like the icing Nadal: it seems like an unnecessary amount of effort, but completely thrilling in the end. (He’s injured and skipping Wimbledon this year, but work with me here.) You have to make a sugar syrup, heat it to softball stage, and add it to already whipped egg whites. Timing is of the essence. (And the tennis analogy was even more of a stretch, so I promise I will stop now.)

I prefer the Italian buttercream, but I guarantee, either one will be killing it. Go simple and use a spatula or butter knife to spread the icing, top with a beautiful little local strawberry, enjoy the June weather, blast “I Want You Back”, tune in to Wimbledon, and have your cake and eat it too.

Grand Marnier cake
adapted from CakeLove
Makes 24 cupcakes or 2 9-inch cake rounds

7 ounces (200 g) AP flour
1-1/2 teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoon salt
13 ounces (375 g) caster sugar (extra fine sugar)
8 ounces (225 g) butter
4 large eggs
½ cup (150 ml) whole milk
½ cup (150 ml) heavy cream
1 tablespoon (25 ml) vanilla extract
2 tablespoons (50 ml) Grand Marnier

  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F (175 degrees C). Line muffin tins with cupcake paper, then spray surface with a little non-stick cooking spray. If making a large cake, line the bottom with parchment paper (don’t grease the sides).
  2. Sift together the flour, baking powder and salt in a medium bowl. Set aside
  3. Combine the milk, cream, vanilla and Grand Marnier in a measuring pitcher. Set aside.
  4. With the paddle attachment on a stand mixer, cream together the butter and sugar for about 3 minutes on medium speed.
  5. Add the eggs one at a time, making sure each egg is fully incorporated before adding the next. When all eggs are added, continue mixing on medium for about 3 minutes.
  6. Lower the speed to low. Alternate adding the flour and the milk mixture in 2-3 additions, starting and ending with the flour.
  7. Spoon out into the muffin tins. Bake for 18-20 minutes, rotating the pan halfway through baking. (For a large cake, bake for 25 minutes.) Check with a skewer to make sure there are only crumbs clinging to it, not batter. Cool on a baking rack to room temperature while you prepare the icing.

Strawberry Italian Meringue Buttercream
The key here is that you have a candy thermometer – it is essential that the sugar syrup come to 245 degrees F (118 degrees C), otherwise the icing will be too soft. For either of these icings, make sure to serve at room temperature; just like butter, it hardens up and becomes unappetizing straight out of the fridge.

whipped egg whites
Egg whites almost done whipping

4 large egg whites
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons fine sugar (7-1/2 ounces, 200 g)
¼ cup water (50 ml)
12 ounces butter, (350 g) at room temperature
1 cup strawberries (250 ml) pureed (will have about ½ cup, or 125 ml of puree)

adding butter
Adding the butter

  1. Prepare the egg whites in a stand mixer with the whisk attachment. Don’t start mixing just yet – you will be making the sugar syrup first because that takes longer.
  2. In a small saucepan, add the 1 cup of sugar and pour the water over it. On low heat, tilt the pan gently until the sugar and water start combining (don’t stir it!).
  3. When the sugar has mostly dissolved (you will see it becoming less and less gritty), raise the heat to medium-high.
  4. Wait for the mixture to come to a rapid boil, then cover immediately for exactly 2 minutes.
  5. In the meantime, start beating the egg whites on high speed.
  6. Uncover the sugar mixture after the 2 minutes. Continue tilting around the pan – you are going to bring the mixture to 245 degrees F (118 C, use a candy thermometer).
  7. As the sugar mixture approaches 245 F (118 C), add the remaining 2 tablespoons sugar to the egg whites.
  8. As soon as the syrup reaches 245, immediately remove from heat, and with the mixer running, slowly pour the syrup into the egg whites. Try not to get any on the side of the bowl because it will just harden there.
  9. Continue mixing at medium-high speed for 5-7 minutes, until the mixture has cooled to room temperature.
  10. Lower the speed to medium. Add the butter one tablespoon at a time until it is fully incorporated. If it starts looking curdled, don’t worry, continue beating the daylights out of it and it will come back together, I promise. (Beat it? Okay, I couldn’t resist.)
  11. Add 1/3 cup of the strawberry puree and beat until incorporated.
  12. And now you ice.

Strawberry Swiss Meringue Buttercream
In this recipe, you will also need a thermometer to make sure the egg mixture comes to 140 degrees F. This has a tendency to separate during the butter addition stage. Don’t panic: just keep beating the mixture and it will come together after a while. (It’s actually amazing to watch.) Again, serve this at room temperature. You can store it in the fridge before icing a cake, but if you do, take it for a quick whirl in the stand mixer before you start icing.

4 large egg whites
¼ teaspoon cream of tartar
½ cup sugar (100 g)
2 tablespoons (50 ml) water
12 ounces butter, (350 g) at room temperature
1 cup strawberries (250 ml) pureed (will have about ½ cup, or 125 ml of puree)

Heating the egg white and sugar mixture

  1. Prepare a large saucepan that will fit your mixer bowl filled with water. Heat until it is simmering. Keep it over about medium heat.
  2. Combine the egg whites, sugar, cream of tartar and water in the mixer bowl. Have a thermometer handy for when you will have to take its temperature.
  3. Set the mixer bowl in the simmering water. Use a whisk to whisk the mixture constantly until it starts becoming foamy. (Make sure you don’t stop whisking, otherwise the eggs will start curdling and cooking). When the foam seems thick (I describe it as latte-like foam), remove from heat and take its temperature. You should bring it to 140 degrees F. If it’s not at 140 yet, continue heating and whisking (make sure to wash off the thermometer for measuring again later and preventing contamination.)
  4. Remove to your mixer fitted with the whisk attachment. Whisk on high for 5 minutes, until it is at room temperature.
  5. Add the butter 1 tablespoon at a time. Again, if it starts looking curdled, don’t worry, just continue beating the tar out of it and believe me, it will magically come together again.
  6. Add 1/3 cup of the strawberry puree and beat until combined.
  7. Start icing!

Booze for your cupcakes

Crispywaffle: Vanilla cupcakes with chocolate buttercream