Remember how, a couple weekends ago, I mentioned a recent battle with vegan cupcake recipe testing? These are the cupcakes I was fighting for.
They were, and are, so worth the effort and refining it took to get them just right. It wasn’t so much the cupcake batter that gave me a hard time.I used my standard chocolate vegan cake recipe, which I’ve tweaked to foolproof status over time (it’s the base of this dark chocolate pear cake, if any of you have tried it).
Nope, it was the icing, which went through maybe five rounds of testing and then a few extra rounds of piping practice. Luckily, the piping process itself was easy, thanks to a little baking guidance from the folks at Nielsen-Massey Vanillas and their fun, inspiring “Better Your Bake” campaign.
If you love to bake, like I do, then you know that the process isn’t only worthwhile for the finished treats (though it’s certainly a nice thing to have homemade vegan dessert on hand at home). There’s a soothing quality to baking, a way of getting lost in stirring and pouring and measuring flour.
I know that a lot of people — sometimes even the most passionate home cooks — find baking to be stressful because it’s formulaic. If you bake often enough you can learn to improvise and adjust the process as you go, but I think novice bakers tend to find that it really is important to follow a recipe closely in order to get the intended results.
For me, that’s actually what makes baking so soothing! I don’t have to be on high alert as food cooks (and possibly burns) on the stovetop; I don’t have to think about surprises. I can trust in my recipe and go through its motions. Following instructions allows my mind to quiet down. It’s the same meditative quality I find in making my morning pour-over, cleaning my home and preparing recipes that I’ve made enough times for the process to now be truly automatic.
I know better than anyone, though, that there’s nothing less soothing than a cake that never rises, cookies that get scorched in the oven or pie that ends up with the dreaded soggy bottom. #BakingFails can be particularly disappointing precisely because one has actually taken the time to follow a recipe. You go in with the expectation that fidelity to the process will yield good results, and it’s a major bummer when it doesn’t.
The idea behind “Better Your Bake” is that, in order to make baking the Zen activity it truly can be, we have to master certain basic techniques. I love this idea because it resonates strongly with my experience as a baker: I used to just expect baking to work out for me, and when it didn’t, I was always disappointed. Once I took the time to read and teach myself — learning the difference between different types of flours and fats and leavening agents — I started to have better results and a lot more fun along the way.
The “Better Your Bake” website features short, digestible, easy-to-follow videos on baking basics, including how to temper chocolate (coming soon!), how to roll cookie dough and how to fill a homemade pastry bag for piping at home. I decided to home in on the last technique because piping always seems to give me a hard time and because I loved the approach shared, which was to use a regular storage bag as the piping vessel.
There are obviously advantages to investing in a piping and decorating kit: it’s reusable and versatile, and it means that you can reduce your plastic use at home, all of which are very good things. But if you’re just starting out as a home baker, or you bake often but pipe seldom, which is true for me, it can be nice to practice with materials that you might already have in your kitchen. The plastic bag piping trick is also handy if you don’t have a piping kit but want to decorate cupcakes at the last minute (nothing wrong with a spontaneous cupcake baking urge, right?).
I won’t say too much about the process, since the video explains it visually and perfectly. Simply snip the corner of a regular bag, drape it in a drinking glass, fill it, twist it and start piping. It’s as simple as that—but here are some added pro tips from the Better Your Bake website that I found especially helpful for next-level piping success:
- Create custom tips: For smaller, more intricate designs, cut a very small corner of the plastic bag. For a round tip, cut the corner of the bag in a curved line instead of straight across.
- Prevent pastry bag spillage: After you twist the bag closed, use a rubber band to secure the bag and prevent the contents from escaping as you pipe. This tip is helpful when you are piping at different times throughout a recipe.
- Pro puff pastries: When piping cream puffs or other pastries, poke a hole in the bottom of the pastry using a toothpick. Slowly squeeze the filling into the middle of the pastry, being careful not to break the shell.
Speaking of Nielsen-Massey Vanillas, this recipe benefits from two extracts, each with different flavor notes. The Ugandan Pure Vanilla Extract is bold with notes of chocolate, so I used it in the cupcake batter. The Madagascar Bourbon Pure Vanilla Extract has a creamy-sweet flavor and is a perfect “all-purpose” baking option, so I used that in the icing. It’s detectable, but it doesn’t compete with peanut butter as a predominant flavor.
Nielsen-Massey Vanillas is a third-generation family business that has been crafting premium vanillas and flavors for more than a century. Their products are all-natural, allergen-free, Non-GMO Project Verified, and certified Kosher and Gluten-Free. I love how each vanilla origin has its own distinct flavor profile, and it was a treat to experience two of them in this recipe.
Speaking of which, here it is.
For the cupcakes
- 2 cups / 240 g unbleached, all-purpose flour (or whole wheat pastry flour)
- 1/2 cup / 50 g cocoa powder
- 3/4 cup + 2 tablespoons / 170 g cane sugar or coconut sugar*
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
- 1 teaspoon baking powder
- 1 1/4 cups / 10 fluid oz. cold water
- 1 teaspoon apple cider or white vinegar
- 1 teaspoon Nielsen-Massey Ugandan Pure Vanilla Extract
- 1/3 cup / 2.66 fluid oz. neutral vegetable oil (such as safflower, grapeseed, canola, or refined avocado)
For the creamy peanut butter frosting
- 8 tablespoons / 115 g vegan butter of choice, at room temperature
- 8 tablespoons / 130 g smooth, creamy peanut butter at room temperature (for the icing to work, it has to be very smooth, so avoid a natural brand that tends toward any grittiness or separation)
- 2 cups / 240 g powdered/confectioners sugar
- 1/2 teaspoon Nielsen-Massey Madagascar Bourbon Pure Vanilla Extract
- 1 tablespoon / 0.5 fluid oz. non-dairy milk of choice (more as needed)
- Preheat your oven to 350F. Lightly oil or line a muffin/cupcake baking sheet. To prepare the cake, whisk the flour, cocoa, sugar, salt, baking powder and baking soda together in a large mixing bowl. In a separate bowl, whisk together the water, vinegar, vanilla and oil. Add the wet ingredients to the dry ingredients and whisk until batter is shiny and smooth (a few tiny lumps is OK, but do mix until the mixture looks glossy).*
- Pour the batter into the prepared muffin pan and bake for 25 minutes, or until the cupcakes have firm tops and a toothpick inserted into one of them emerges clean. Allow the cupcakes to cool for 10 minutes in the pan, then transfer them to a wire cooling rack and allow them to cool entirely before decorating.
- To prepare the icing, place the butter and peanut butter into the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Add the vanilla and sugar. Mix on low speed for 2 minutes, until you have a smooth mixture. Scrape the sides of the bowl down with a spatula and swap the paddle attachment for the whisk attachment.
- Mix again on low speed, drizzling in the tablespoon of non-diary milk as you go. The icing should stay thick and spreadable but become creamy and loose enough to be able to pipe
smoothly. If you need an extra drop or two of non-dairy milk, use your judgment and add it.**
- Follow the “Better Your Bake” video instructions for preparing a piping bag and decorate your cupcakes. Alternately, you can decorate by hand. Iced cupcakes can be stored in the fridge for up to 4 days. Enjoy!
**If you don't have a stand mixer, mix with a hand-held beater on low speed to incorporate all ingredients except for the non-dairy milk. Then add the milk and whisk by hand (using a regular whisk) to finish the icing.
I know that the icing instructions are a little particular, and normally my baking recipes aren’t quite so precise. What tripped me up along the way was getting my icing to be just the right consistency for piping. I made batches that were too dense and some that were too runny. My first few batches seized up and got oily while I was mixing, which I eventually figured out was because I needed to use a smoother variety of peanut butter. Finally, after a lot of tasting and a lot of piping, I got it right. And I promise that the finished icing is a dream. If you have questions as you go, feel free to comment and ask.
What to say about the cupcakes themselves? I’m always debating vanilla vs. chocolate for birthday cake, seeing the virtues of both. But this combination may really be the dream, since chocolate and peanut butter together are one of my all-time favorite pairings. I can imagine making this recipe for many birthdays to come, my own and those of others. Added bonus? If you love the recipe, you can also bake it as a round or square cake, and you can frost it with an icing spatula instead.
In the spirit of adoration for baking and its amazing capacity to elevate happiness, I’m wishing you a wonderful rest of the week. Happy piping!
This post is generously sponsored by Nielsen-Massey Vanilla and their Better Your Bake campaign. All opinions are my own, and I love these flavor-forward vanillas. Thanks for your support! Make sure to follow Nielsen-Massey on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Pinterest. To learn more about how you can master basic baking techniques, visit BetterYourBake.com and follow along on social using #BetterYourBake.