The Kid has a pretty dim view of cupcake shops.
After watching many episodes of “Cupcake Wars” on Food Network, a conclusion has been reached; a disheartening percentage of those batter and frosting folk are a mite squirrely.
While they may actually be perfectly nice people, many seem high strung and theatrical. And worst of all, not very good bakers.
But, The Kid (and The Kid’s mom) absolutely adores The Cupcake Bar (101 E. Chapel Hill St.). I asked for an explanation for this exception.
“Because, they’re real. They’re Durham.”
There is absolutely no higher praise that my born, bred, and Bull City super booster can bestow. Besides, it’s true.
What sisters Anna Branly and Katie Braam have created in their odd little triangle-shaped space downtown is nothing short of miraculous. They were pioneers of the downtown renaissance.
The space itself is a sunshine-drenched hybrid of history and sleek modernity. It looks like a bakery and it looks like a slick martini bar, but it also looks like a vintage soda fountain.
The vibe is a combination of casual friendliness and efficient professionalism that works like a buttercream-covered charm.
Then there’s the always scrumptious baked goods.
Each day eight imaginative, playful varieties of cupcakes in both mini and standard-size are baked, frosted, garnished, and put on display. Offerings such as Mexican chocolate, blueberry (!), or cosmopolitan tempt the senses.
Today I got up early to hang out with owner Anna, and baker Jessica Morek at The Cupcake Bar. They kindly allowed me to slow down their well-oiled machine and “help” them. I garnished every cupcake, except for the instructional samples and three minis that I totally missed. I only ruined four, or maybe it was five (don’t ask).
Here are a few things I discovered.
Anna’s vegetarian, and Jessica doesn’t eat wheat. Every Wednesday, and sprinkled throughout the week, there’s a gluten-free option. Vegan show up often, and they’re always meatless.
Co-owner Katie has come up with a genius idea. When the buttercream’s been made, it’s spooned onto a piece of plastic wrap and then closed up into a large lozenge shape. When it’s time to pipe, they just drop the whole capsule into a bag and go to work. The plastic wrap opens inside the bag. This means easier cleanup and no awkward, messy attempts to fill the pastry bag. Plus, it saves probably 30 minutes per batch.
This recipe is inspired by the mad scientists at The Cupcake Bar.
Colonial cupcakes with brown butter frosting
Makes approx. 2 dozen standard-sized or 3 dozen minis.
2 ¼ cups cake flour
1 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons baking powder
½ cup butter, softened
¾ cup sugar
2 large eggs
1 cup milk
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 tablespoon lemon zest
1/8 teaspoon fresh nutmeg
Preheat oven to 375; line muffin cups with papers.
Cream butter and sugar until it’s light and fluffy. Beat in eggs one at a time.
Sift together flour, salt and baking powder. Add to batter alternating with milk. Beat well, then stir in vanilla, lemon zest and nutmeg.
Fill the cups ¾ full and bake for 18 minutes (10-13 for minis), or until toothpick comes out moist but clean. Let cool in pan.
Brown butter frosting
4 cups powdered sugar
½ cup brown butter, softened
¼ cup milk (or as needed to thin to piping consistency)
To make brown butter, melt butter in small saucepan on medium-low. Keep cooking until butter smells nutty and the solids are caramel-colored. Watch it closely; it will go from browned to burned in literally seconds.
Put butter in a bowl and refrigerate until chilled solid. When ready to make frosting, remove from fridge and let come to room temperature.
Mix the sugar and butter well. Add milk a bit at a time and mix on high until fluffy (2-3 minutes).
Spread or pipe onto cooled cupcakes.
I had a full-on blast today, and I shocked myself; rather than devouring a whole bowl, I only had one tiny taste of frosting.
And did you know they’ve only been in their building four years?
I can’t remember a time when there wasn’t a Cupcake Bar in my life.
Or maybe I just don’t want to.
Thanks for your time.