It wasn't that long ago that boxed mixes and canisters of frosting were a thing for me. Eight years if I'm going to be precise about it. George Bush was President, "How I Met Your Mother" was in its second season (may it RIP), and I was harboring an arsenal of trans fat and complacency in my pantry.
It's all very shocking to me now - that I dared to not only buy cake mix and frosting that I had not personally whipped into delicate peaks, but that I would actually serve it to someone for their birthday. Proudly, my arms extending the 13 x 9 sheet cake with a greeting I'd spelled out in multi-colored flower-shaped sprinkles as if that would somehow make it spectacular. Or at the very least better than a baked bastion of trans fat and complacency.
This was, of course, back in the days when college was not too far away in the rear view mirror, and many of the memories I clung to revolved around the boxed mix. Triple chocolate brownies that would be consumed straight from the pan while my roommates and I watched "Center Stage" for the 22nd time that quarter, sometimes with the assistance of ice cream, and sometimes with the assistance of ice cream and hot fudge because we erroneously thought our youthful metabolisms could handle it.
And then there were funfetti cupcakes, capsized five at a time alongside tepid Miller Lights during birthday celebrations with nary a speck of guilt. Because we were in college and guilt-free living is what college students do best.
Naturally things have changed quite a bit in recent years - pride and passion eroding away my complacency in favor of fanaticism. First from-scratch brownies, then from-scratch cupcakes, and then a need to make each baked good that emerges from my kitchen the most superlative iteration that its consumer has ever, well, consumed.
I had a reputation to uphold after all.
Or perhaps, more accurately, a reputation to reconstruct from a past that is not too particularly far gone.
It's funny to think how quickly one's perspective changes. Something like homemade buttermilk strawberry cupcakes would have blown my mind back then, without even considering the white chocolate cream cheese frosting. I would have shouted it to the moon, danced around in giddy circles that I could be that clever without the assistance of a back panel breaking things down into carefully choreographed 1-2-3 steps.
And would you know that I was actually embarrassed to serve these? My cheeks burning hot as my colleagues began unwrapping their respective specimens, because I was convinced they were terrible. The worst ever. Too this. Too that.
Too not perfect?!
Ultimately, my embarrassment was all in my head (or rather, my cheeks, if we, again, must be precise about it). Because these cupcakes taste nothing of complacency. They taste like heart - like passion, and like the long, not particularly lazy summer stretching ahead of us.
Strawberry Buttermilk Cupcakes with White Chocolate Cream Cheese Frosting
Makes 20-24 cupcakes (my batch yielded precisely 20)
Notes: Because of the moisture content of the strawberries, these are best eaten the day they are baked. Fruit can often cause baked goods to take on a bit too moist a texture, so something to keep in mind! If you are concerned about this, you can use freeze dried strawberries, or perhaps swirl in a bit of strawberry jam into each cupcake before baking. Also, a note on the frosting - you'll likely have quite a bit leftover, but in my mind, extra frosting is never a bad thing.
Strawberry Buttermilk Cupcakes
From Taste of South Magazine
½ cup unsalted butter, softened
1 cup sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 large eggs
1 cup whole buttermilk
2 cups cake flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
¾ teaspoon salt
2 cups chopped strawberries
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line two muffin tins with cupcake liners.
In a large bowl, combine the butter and sugar. Using an electric beater, whip together until light and fluffy. This should take around a minute or so, maybe longer if your butter isn't particularly soft and you are trying to rush it along like I've heard, ahem, some people do. Once at the appropriate texture, beat in the vanilla (adding it before the eggs will help it to better penetrate the butter, meaning more vanilla bean flavor in the final product). Then add the eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Reduce speed to low, then add the buttermilk, beating until just incorporated.
In a separate bowl, sift together the flower, baking powder, baking soda, and salt.
With the beater set to low, gradually add the flour mixture to the wet ingredients. Beat until just combined, then carefully fold in the chopped strawberries with a spoon.
Spoon batter into prepared muffin tins, filling each cup 3/4 of the way to the top. (Overfilling the cups will result in cupcakes that spill over the top… like, well, a muffin top.)
Bake for approximately 20 minutes or until a toothpick comes out perfectly clean. Remove from the oven and set on a cooling rack to cool for a good 10 minutes before even attempting to remove. (Nobody likes a dented cupcake!) Carefully use a knife to run around the edges of each cupcake and gingerly lift it from the pan and set on the rack to cool completely.
Store in an airtight container - at room temperature if serving that day, or in the fridge if planning to keep around for a bit longer.
White Chocolate Cream Cheese Frosting
From Carla Hall via ABC's "The Chew"
8 oz cream cheese (room temperature)
1/2 stick unsalted butter (room temperature)
1 cup white chocolate chips (melted)
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 cups powdered sugar
In a large bowl, combine softened cream cheese and butter. Beat together with an electric beater until smooth. Beat in the vanilla, then the melted white chocolate. (Note: The melted chocolate should be allowed to cool a bit before adding lest you melt the butter in the process!)
Begin adding the powdered sugar a bit at a time, beating until the frosting is light and fluffy (this can take a few minutes, so be patient). Frost completely cooled cupcakes using a handy-dandy knife, or place the frosting into a piping bag, or, better yet, a frosting bowl bag, to add a bit more decorating pizazz to the final product.