Birthday Cupcakes

I’d like to start this post by wishing my little munchkin a very happy birthday! I cannot believe it’s been 2 years already, and at the same time I can’t believe how grown up she is – talking and singing, jumping and climbing, and even knowing enough to get excited about her own birthday party 🙂

In honor of the munchkin’s birthday, we hosted a small party with some of her friends at a local play space. Rather than have the party during a meal time, I decided to just serve a snack – cupcakes, pretzels, animal crackers, and water. The party place would provide all the food if we wanted, but I couldn’t resist the opportunity to make some cupcakes that were a little more wholesome than what’s typically served. You may recall that I also decided to make cupcakes for the muchkin’s first birthday last year, but fortunately I’ve learned a lot about healthier baking in the past year, and was able to spare my guests hidden blueberries and spinach hidden this time ;).  After a lot of internet searching and thinking, I decided to make 2 kinds – vanilla cupcakes with vanilla frosting, and chocolate cupcakes with chocolate frosting. 

But before I get to the recipes, I wanted to share some thoughts on frosting – did you all know that frosting is actually really easy to make??  I didn’t!  For most of my life, I was convinced by Duncan Hines and Betty Crocker that frosting only comes in a round container with scary ingredients.  If you don’t believe me, see for yourself – here is the ingredient list for some “home-style” vanilla frosting:

Sugar, Vegetable Oil Shortening (Partially Hydrogenated Soybean And Cottonseed Oils, Mon-And Diglycerides, Polysorbate 60), Water, Corn Syrup. Contains 2% Or Less Of: Corn Starch, Salt, Colored With (Titanium Dioxide, Yellow 5, Red 40), Natural And Artificial Flavors, Rum, Caramel Color, Preservatives (Potassium Sorbate), Sodium Acid Pyrophosphate, Citric Acid, Sodium Citrate.

Ack!  How many of you have those ingredients in your home??  Impressively, this includes every ingredient category I try to avoid…trans fats (a.k.a. partially hydrogenated oils), artificial flavors, artificial colors, and preservatives.  But I believed that you have to be an expert baker to actually make frosting at home, and that it required a lot of effort.  I was SO wrong and will never go back…even without efforts to lower the fat and sugar, home-made frosting is way more wholesome in that it will include real ingredients like butter, sugar, and pure vanilla extract, and can be made in minutes by anyone who owns a mixing bowl and a hand mixer.  Plus, I have also discovered that a few tweaks can help the fat and sugar content quite a bit without sacrificing taste. 

The first trick is to use cream cheese!  Cream cheese is not exactly a low fat food, but tablespoon for tablespoon, even the full fat variety has half the fat and calories as butter, which is the traditional base for frosting.  Sub a low-fat variety (like Neufchatel) and you’re now at less than half the calories and one quarter the fat of butter.  As you’ll see in the cupcake recipes, I actually used a combination of cream cheese and butter so that the frosting would taste a little more traditional, but would have some of the benefit of the substitution.  The second trick is to add sugar slowly.  I found I was able to reduce the sugar in both recipes I found and still have a frosting that was plenty sweet by starting with about 1/2 to 2/3 the recommended amount and increasing only as needed.

For the vanilla cupcakes I actually just adapted 2 recipes I already have – for the base, I made my Whole Wheat Apple Muffins, eliminating the apples and cinnamon, upping the sugar to about 3/4 cup, and adding 2 teaspoons of vanilla. And for the frosting, I used the Cream Cheese Frosting from my Pumpkin Cake, but replaced 4 ounces of the neufchatel cheese with 1/2 cup of softened butter to tone down the cream cheese flavor for the little ones. Both parts of the cupcake were delicious and went over really well, but next time I will probably look for a different recipe for the base – I loved the buttery vanilla flavor, but the texture is dense and, well, muffin-y! Until they were frosted, I didn’t realize how much lighter cupcakes generally are.

The chocolate cupcakes required a little more research and testing, but were a huge success!  Check this post for the complete story and recipe 🙂

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