It was a big independence day for me this year as I became an American citizen last week! I’m very excited about this because now I have dual citizenship. Now instead of fumbling for a hopefully witty but primarily self deprecating answer when someone asks me if I feel more British or American I can proudly look him / her in the face and declare that I am equal parts both.
So, I am back in LA and have been for just under two weeks. Two changes occur in my life when I’m in LA: The first is that I eat 95% of my meals in restaurants, and the second is that it becomes blatantly obvious that I need to lose 1Olbs. Ironically, the second one would be a lot easier if the first were not true. The stereotype that everyone walking around LA is stick thin is just not true, but there definitely are a lot more stick thin people here than anywhere else I have ever been.
Anyway, back to the point. To celebrate my citizenship, and a very good friend’s birthday, my family and I threw a barbecue on the 4th. I had big plans to learn how to make some classic BBQ staples: the ultimate potato salad, coleslaw, and as a way of uniting my two countries – a 4th of July trifle. I made none of these however, as the day before my mum decided to delegated them to someone who can actually cook… Even the trifle. I recovered from this blow and decided to make patriotic cupcakes instead.
In “How To Be A Domestic Goddess” Nigella Lawson has what she claims to be an incredibly easy recipe for fairy cakes. So easy, she claims, that one can rustle up a batch after dinner and have them ready in time for dessert. I feel I should write to Nigella and tell her this is just a lie. I had six hours to make my cupcakes and they were still not ready in time for dessert. My cupcakes were, to put it bluntly, catastrophic.
It does look easy enough… Nigella lists the ingredients and then just says to chuck them all into a food processor. We have a pretty good blender, it’s old but it still works so I wasn’t worried. Everything started out fine… Eggs – check, sugar – check, butter – check, vanilla – check. I casually look over the ingredients for what to out out in next and realize that it doesn’t say two tablespoons of vanilla, it says half a tablespoon. My first mistake. It’s made even worse by the fact that I couldn’t find tablespoon measures so I made a rather generous estimation when pouring in the vanilla. Oh well, it’s already in there, and everyone loves vanilla. So I persevere and continue to blend. Then I realize I’ve forgotten the flour. That’s not a big deal though, just a blonde moment. I add the flour, blend a bit more, and then put it on pulse and add in the milk… and it’s great. It looks like batter, it tastes like batter, and even the vanilla seems to have mellowed out a bit. It’s so good actually that I just start shamelessly eating it with a spoon. At this point, I’ll be honest, I feel pretty good about myself. Maybe this is my calling, maybe baking is my new “thing.” (I’ll save you the suspense, it’s not).
The cupcakes go in the oven.
Here is a key difference between my life in England and my life in LA – in England I would have been shamed into making the icing from scratch. I would have asked my friends for their recipes and they would have offered tips. As it was, in LA, I had spent the entire morning before in Whole Foods insisting for the tenth time to my mum that I was NOT going to buy cupcake mix. (“But it’s so much easier! No one will be able to tell,” “that’s not the point mum, I’m supposed to be learning how to make them,” “but you can just BUY cupcakes!”) I did however cave and buy icing in a tub. In my defense, even Nigella recommends you do that in the recipe, so I didn’t feel too guilty.
I went to the oven, almost giddy with excitement, envisioning my perfectly fluffy cupcakes… only to find that the stupid things hadn’t risen. They were like little flat rocks. Little, flat, hard, dry, very vanilla-ry rocks.
Here’s a fun fact: all purpose baking flour does not rise on it’s own. In England there is a mysterious, wondrous thing called Self Raising Flour, and it does just that… It raises itself!! Why doesn’t ALL PURPOSE BAKING FLOUR rise????? Why America?? All my revived patriotism of my newest country faded instantly.
Another fun fact: British cupcake recipes are not designed for American sized muffin trays. I think if I had had more batter or a smaller tray they might have worked out better.
Who am I kidding? It’s a poor carpenter who blames her tools. My cupcakes would have been shit even if I had baked them in Nigella’s personal muffin tray.
But neither the flour I used or the tray I baked them in were the real culprits. It is an even poorer carpenter who just flat out uses the wrong tools. Nigella’s instructions call for throwing the ingredients into a food processor. Here in lies my real failure. It turns out that a blender is not the same as a food processor. Two days later I was talking to the chef at our local restaurant and telling him about my cupcake failure. I found myself deep an emotional outburst on America’s lack of self raising flour. “It’s the flour’s fault!” I adamantly declared, and explained that I had followed the instructions and thrown all of the ingredients into a blender. Suddenly the attentive look on his face turned to pure hysteria. Apparently the key to cupcakes has something to do with gluten and by using a blender I had not only sucked all of the air out of the batter but had also completely destroyed the balance of gluten to whatever, causing it all to collapse in the oven. Also, 400 degrees was far too hot to bake them in (even though Nigella specifically said 400) and in an American oven I should have baked them at 350. And P.S. of course you can buy self raising flour in the US.
So they were a disaster. A complete disaster. I showed them to my dad who grabbed my wrist when I went to taste it and shouted “don’t! It’ll make you sick!!” with genuine concern.
I decorated them anyway, and while they came with a “do not eat” warning when I presented them at the BBQ they were well admired… If not as well admired as the trifle, which was beautiful, and, as a bonus, actually edible.