Lemon Cream Cupcakes

Hooray! Ahh, it's good to be back. I've missed you!

Now that we've settled in San Francisco and have been out of L.A. for a few months, I'm able to selectively remember only the things I love about having lived in Santa Monica. One of those things is the whimsical and utter delight that is Vanilla Bake Shop. I had the pleasure of meeting Amy Berman (co-owner along with her husband, how cute is that?!) right before the shop first opened, and boy, is all the hype well deserved. Everything in there is totally inspired and completely delicious, my favorite cupcake being the Meyer Lemon Raspberry. And wouldn't you know it, this morning I heard Amy is appearing tomorrow on The freakin' Martha Stewart Show to make Meyer Lemon Raspberry cupcakes with Martha! Too much! The craving hit me full force after seeing the preview. And even though I have my Tivo set to find out what the real recipe is, I am just way too impatient and so I cobbled together my own version today, using some of my favorite components from different recipes.

To me, lemony desserts of all kinds just scream Spring!--like sunny days, tea parties and a smattering of flowy skirts on the sidewalks (okay, so I'm understanding I probably won't ever see weather consistently balmy enough for flowy skirts here in San Francisco, but whatever). These cupcakes turned out to be the perfect Spring celebration, with my very favorite soft white cake recipe as the base, billowy vanilla buttercream atop, and a filling of just-tangy-enough lemon pastry cream that has a bit more of a dreamy character than Vanilla Bake Shop's lemon curd filling. Success! I opted to make them pretty Vanilla-style with a layer of pastel yellow sanding sugar, which also adds a nice crunch to the perfectly smooth buttercream beneath. A little cheery button of a fresh raspberry finishes off the cupcake, and you can almost hear it chirping, "I'm too cute to eat!", but guess what, it's not. Nom, nom, nom.

Lemon Cream Cupcakes
Makes about 24 cupcakes

If you can find Meyer lemons, absolutely use them in the lemon pastry cream, but regular lemons will work just fine. To use this recipe in a different way, omit the lemon pastry cream and make a classic vanilla cupcake with the cake and frosting recipes, adding a bit of interest to the buttercream with a scraped vanilla bean in addition to the extract. All three elements can be made a day ahead and refrigerated and the cupcakes assembled the day of serving, just set the pastry cream out to soften before using.

For the cake:

1/2 cup unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 1/4 cups granulated sugar
2 1/4 cups cake flour
3 teaspoons baking powder
1 cup milk
1 teaspoon good vanilla extract
4 egg whites

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Line two 12 cup muffin tins with paper liners.

Sift together the flour and baking powder in a small bowl. In a glass measuring cup, combine milk and vanilla. In yet another bowl, beat the egg whites to stiff peaks. Set all three elements aside.

In the bowl of an electric mixer, cream together the butter and sugar until soft, creamy and pale in color. Alternately beat in the milk and flour mixtures in three parts, blending well after each addition. Fold in the beaten egg whites at the very end, making sure no traces of whites remain in the batter.

Fill lined cupcake pans 2/3 full. Bake for 18-20 minutes, when the tops are just set and beginning to turn a light golden brown. Do NOT overbake.

For the lemon pastry cream:

This recipe makes more than you'll need for 2 dozen cupcakes, but trust me, you'll find a way to use the leftovers. Like eaten from a spoon straight from the bowl.

1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
3 whole eggs
1 egg yolk
Pinch of salt
3/4 cup sugar
1 cup unsalted butter, cut into 10-12 pieces

Fill a medium saucepan with a few inches of water and set to a simmer over medium heat. Whisk together the lemon juice, eggs, egg yolk, salt and sugar in a stainless steel bowl that just fits into the saucepan without touching the surface of the water. Continue whisking the mixture over the heat until it is thickened and it registers 180 degrees on a candy thermometer, about 10 to 12 minutes. Remove it from the heat and cool to about 140 degrees, stirring occasionally to help release the heat.

When the lemon curd is cooled, pour it through a fine sieve to remove any bits of cooked eggs or lemon pulp, using a rubber spatula to coax it through, into a blender (or a clean bowl if using an immersion blender). Blend the butter into the lemon curd, one piece at a time at a low speed until all the butter is completely incorporated.

For the buttercream:

For the second addition of confectioners' sugar, use anywhere from 2-4 cups more sugar and add more heavy cream as needed to get the consistency your prefer for buttercream.

1 cup unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 teaspoon good vanilla extract
4-6 cups confectioners' sugar
1/2 cup heavy cream (perhaps a bit more to adjust the consistency)
Fresh raspberries, for garnish (optional)

In the bowl of an electric mixer, cream the butter and vanilla together until the butter is very soft. Add just 2 cups confectioners' sugar and beat for 2-3 minutes, until it starts to appear fluffy. Add the rest of the sugar and the heavy cream (adding more sugar and/or cream as desired), and mix on high for another 5 to 7 minutes until the buttercream is whipped, light in texture and shiny.

To assemble the cupcakes:

Use a pairing knife to cut a small cone shape into the center of each cupcake, making a well for the filling, being careful not to cut the wells too deep. Trim a bit of cake from each "cone" to make room for the filling. Fill each cupcake with a small spoonful of the lemon cream and replace the trimmed tops. Alternatively, use a pastry bag to pierce the top of each cupcake and fill them.

Frost the cupcakes with the buttercream. To decorate, coat with colored sanding sugar, add a small dollop of buttercream atop the sugar, and finish with a fresh raspberry.