Like most people, I definitely have my favorite flavors. Cinnamon, vanilla, anything citrusy: I always tend to gravitate toward recipes that incorporate the tastes that I love. More often than not, those recipes call for expected combinations: cinnamon with nutmeg and vanilla, lemon with fresh berries, rolled oats with brown sugar. They’re classic combos because they work so well and blend so seamlessly. And we love them because of it. But every once in a while, a flavor combination jumps out from the panty and surprises us in the very best of ways. This is one of those recipes.
Unlike a lot of cakes in which the flavors blend together, this cake gives the molasses and lemon equal, uninterrupted stage time. They’re sweet and bitter all in one, with the lemon zest adding just the right amount of zing. I covered half of my dozen cupcakes with the lemon icing and added a simple sprinkling of powdered sugar to the rest (I’m not a very big icing fan, though the lemon extract helps cut the sweet in this recipe). A tiny peel of lemon zest as a topper, and they are as pretty as a picture.
Molasses Cupcakes with Lemon Icing
Adapted from the New York Times Essential Cookbook (Amanda Hesser, p.745)
• 2 cups all-purpose flour
• 2 teaspoons baking powder
• ½ teaspoon baking soda
• 3 teaspoons cinnamon (the original recipes calls for 1 ½, if you’re cinnamon-shy)
• ¼ teaspoon salt
• ½ cup unsalted butter (the original calls for vegetable shortening, which could make for a lighter cake)
• ½ cup sugar
• ½ cup molasses
• 1 large egg
• ½ cup milk (the original calls for whole; I used skim)
• Grated zest of 1 lemon (or 2, if you’re feeling zesty)
• 6 tablespoons unsalted butter
• 2 ¼ cups powdered sugar
• About 2 teaspoons whole milk or heavy cream (I used cream)
• ¾ teaspoon lemon extract
Heat oven to 350 degrees, and line a muffin tin with 12 cupcake papers. Sift together flour, baking powder, baking soda, cinnamon and salt, and set aside.
Melt the butter (or shortening) in a saucepan over low heat or in the microwave. Transfer to a bowl, and let cool.
Add sugar, molasses and egg to butter, and blend well. Add half the milk at a time, alternating with the flour mixture. Add lemon zest. Pour into prepared muffin cups, filling three-quarters full.
Bake until toothpick inserted in center comes out clean, about 16 minutes. Cool in pan for about 10 minutes, then transfer to wire rack to cool completely.
For icing, beat butter in electric mixer (or by hand) until fluffy. Gradually add sugar, beating well. Add enough milk so mixture is the right consistency for spreading. Beat in lemon extract. When cupcakes are cool, spread tops with icing.
I think the flavor of the cake itself is reminiscent of lebkuchen from the German Christmas markets. It’s dense without being too heavy, and it’s slightly moist on the inside with a thin chewy crust on the tops. Perfection.
What are your tried-and-true flavor pairings? Any favorite recipes that call for unexpected combinations? Let’s hear it!