It was my three-word personal mantra during my school years. Every test, every essay, every presentation I gave, I was terrified to prematurely proclaim that I might have actually done well. I far preferred responding to queries with the worst possible scenario, envisioning a paper or report card littered with red marks and a giant unhappy face at the top.
Yet even in the moments when I was fairly certain I'd done better than average, or at least better than what my personal mantra seemed to indicate, I was always a bit stunned to find out that I had, in fact, received an "A." It felt a bit like trickery, "a fluke," if not for the tiny insignificant detail that I, the perfectionist of perfectionists, almost always received an "A."
In my mind, however, the "A" didn't come naturally. It was hard fought. Just like when I broke five minutes in the mile. Just like when I got into Northwestern. Just like when I somehow ended up doing pretty well there too.
Success, in spite of myself.
I'm still terrified of presuming such a thing. As much as I strive for greatness and believe myself fully capable of it, I shudder away from uttering the word out loud, as though daring to articulate the notion of success might jinx its likelihood of happening. I feel much more comfortable quietly working hard, cloaking myself in an aura of modesty, whilst I keep my eyes firmly fixated on my end goal.
My innate propensity to undersell is no less apparent in the kitchen. While I've reached a point in my life where I'd describe myself as a good cook (and better baker) and fearlessly tackle everything from homemade pop tarts to Queen Nancy's Butterscotch Budino, I don't dare pontificate on the matter until the deed is done. I hide behind squeaky voiced exclamations of, "I hope it turns out!" or "It's just something I threw together!" until I'm confident that it actually did, in fact, turn out.
And then I photograph the heck out of it to prove it happened.
In spite of myself.
So when I endeavored to make these cupcakes for a co-worker's birthday, applying the recipe for Gramercy Tavern's Guinness Stout Ginger Cake as inspired by Anjali of "Eat Your Greens," I found myself once again swinging precariously on the pendulum between success and failure.
The scene in my kitchen was not that of the merry Stepford Wife with nary a hair out of place as she glides, smiling, from the oven to the center island with pristine cupcakes in hand. It was an abomination to all things good and true and Martha Stewart. A battlefield of sugar and butter. Flour scattered over the countertops like the first frost of the season, gooey patches of Stout and molasses crusting the stove where the pot had boiled over, and lumpy batter, likely the result of my haste to combine the still hot Stout-molasses goop into my carefully whisked eggs.
In other words, a disaster area the likes of which is supposed to remain unseen, unaired, and certainly not broadcasted over a food blog where it's expected to be all success all the time. At least in the eyes of those who don't subscribe to Martha's train of thought.
And yet, somehow, even with the proposition of failure lingering in the air and on my countertops, the pockmarked cupcakes didn't taste terrible.
They tasted of fall. Of crimson scarfs tucked around the necks of rosy-cheeked children. Of fireplaces filled with crackling logs, and of steaming mugs of hot apple cider. The image on the screen that is never exactly true to life for more than a brief second.
And topped with a few dollops of strategically placed brown sugar cream cheese frosting, the cupcakes miraculously became a success. Became the image on the screen for a fleeting moment. A story to tell. A recipe to share.
In spite of myself.
Guinness Stout Ginger Cupcakes with Brown Sugar Cream Cheese Frosting
Adapted from "The Last Course: The Desserts of Gramercy Tavern" via Epicurious
Yield: Approximately 21 cupcakes
Notes: There are two versions of this recipe online - one that contains double the sugar, a third of the baking soda, and no fresh ginger, and the one that you'll find below. Thrown by the differing quantities of baking soda, I elected to use 1 teaspoon as a compromise between the two varying recipes and suffered no ill fate as a result. Praise be to God.
Now a word on the frosting. Anjali, who bequeathed this recipe onto me alongside the inspiration to turn it into cupcakes, used a lemon cream cheese frosting in lieu of the brown sugar version you see here. While seemingly inherently opposed to the nature of gingerbready sorts of things, the lemon cream cheese was a surprisingly delightful foil to the dark and moody cupcakes, and when I endeavor these again, I fully intend to play around with citrus flavoring, as well. For the purposes of this birthday celebration, however, I selected something slightly more mainstream, and in my mind's eye, no less compelling.
1 cup Guinness stout
1 cup molasses
1 teaspoon baking soda (original calls for 1/2 tablespoon)
3 large eggs
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup firmly packed dark brown sugar
3/4 cup vegetable oil (grapeseed oil also accepted here)
2 cups all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons ground ginger (not a typo)
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
3/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
1/8 teaspoon ground cardamom (not a travesty if omitted)
1 tablespoon grated, peeled fresh gingerroot
Frosting of choice (brown sugar cream cheese frosting below!)
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Line two 12-cup muffin tins with paper liners.
In a large saucepan with plenty of room for boiling action (important!), combine the Guinness and molasses. Bring to a slow boil, watching closely to ensure it doesn't boil over onto the stove and possibly onto the floor. Turn off the heat immediately, and stir in the baking soda. Allow to sit until the foam dissipates and the mixture cools down enough that it won't curdle the eggs in the batter.
Meanwhile, while the Guinness/molasses/baking soda mixture is cooling, set about preparing your other ingredients.
In a large bowl, whisk together the eggs with both sugars, followed by the oil.
In another large bowl (we are dirtying lots of things today!), use a fresh whisk to combine the flour, ground ginger, baking powder, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, and cardamom if you can find it/afford to spend $11 on a ground spice you only need 1/8 teaspoon of in a recipe.
Now, with all the ingredients prepped and the Guinness/molasses/baking soda mix cooled down to a state that won't scald your appendages, combine it with the egg/sugar/oil mixture. Whisk half of this wet mixture in with the flour mix, followed by the other half. Stir in the fresh ginger until just combined.
Pour the batter into the lined muffin tins, about 3/4 of the way to the top. You'll likely get around 21 cupcakes - 22 if you stretch it some.
Bake for 20 minutes or until a toothpick comes out perfectly clean. Cool in the tin for 5 minutes, then remove and cool completely on a wire rack before frosting.
Brown Sugar Cream Cheese Frosting
From Smitten Kitchen
1 1/4 cups light brown sugar
1/4 cup cornstarch
1/2 cup powdered sugar
2 8-ounce packages of cream cheese (at room temperature)
1/2 cup unsalted butter (at room temperature)
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
In a small bowl, whisk together the two sugars and cornstarch, taking care to whisk out any brown sugar lumps. Lumps are not frosting's friend. (Particularly when you're using frosting to hide lumps on cupcakes).
In a separate large bowl, beat the softened cream cheese and butter together until light and fluffy. Beat in the vanilla (adding before other ingredients allows it to better penetrate the butter as per a pastry chef I trust implicitly), and then follow with the sugar-cornstarch mixture. Continue beating until the frosting is completely smooth and light. Chill the bowl in the refrigerator until it firms up enough that it won't slip and slide on your cupcake. Dollop, spread or use a pastry bag to form perfectesque peaks of frosting on each cake.
Take pictures. Because - success! You did it.