‘CUPCAKES are confectionary metaphors," says Shawna Dempsey. "They’re a fabulous canvas on which to inscribe our hopes and dreams."
Dempsey should know. A longtime Winnipeg artist and co-executive director at Mentoring Artists for Women's Art, Dempsey is helping to organize MAWA's ninth-annual Over the Top Art Auction and Cupcake Party. (This year the event will be held on Sunday, March 17, 2 to 5 p.m. Tickets are $10 advance or $12 at the door. MAWA is located at 611 Main St.)
When you combine butter, sugar and a lot of creative people, the results can be magical. Over the years, MAWA's maverick Martha Stewarts have made everything from flower gardens to mythical beasts to a collection of cupcakes that replicates Van Gogh's Starry Night. This potent blend of art and icing seems to get everyone buzzed. Cupcakes really bring in the crowds.
"They are the medium. They are the message," jokes Dempsey. "They're all good."
Besides looking good and tasting good, MAWA's cupcakes also do good. Along with the event's all-you-can-eat cupcake madness, the fundraiser includes a raffle and an art sale. This year, there will be more than 100 offerings, with works by established artists like Wanda Koop, Melanie Rocan, Shaun Morin and Paul Robles hanging next to pieces by kids straight out of art school.
Last year's event brought in more than 10 per cent of MAWA's annual operating budget, which supports programs in which senior artists mentor emerging female artists. The rest of MAWA's programming, Dempsey points out, including lectures, workshops, classes, exhibitions and performances, is open to women and men.
Sara Porter, a veteran cupcake contributor for the party, works at the Grindstone Bakery in Portage la Prairie. Last year, Porter made lemonade cupcakes and peanut butter and chocolate cupcakes. This year, the 24-year-old "baker supreme," as Dempsey calls her, is planning on adding some red velvet cupcakes with classic cream cheese icing, along with vegan offerings that don't use dairy or eggs.
In Porter's experience, people love cupcakes "because they're a guilty pleasure." A cake can be a big commitment, but a single cupcake is a little treat.
"And they have a lot of eye appeal," says Porter.
With the cupcake's huge popularity and high-profile presence on food TV, the cupcake-industrial complex has been busy churning out expensive accessories like cupcake holders, cupcake carriers, cupcake decorating kits and cupcake sprinkling machines. But getting down to cupcake fundamentals doesn't have to be complicated.
Decorating is the sexy part, of course, but you also need to start with a really good recipe. Porter's version of chocolate peanut butter cupcakes combines a deeply rich chocolate cake with a creamy peanut butter filling.
Be sure not to overbake them, Porter warns, because cupcakes are small and can dry out quickly. In butter-based recipes, make sure you really beat the butter well. In this recipe, vegetable oil keeps things moist.
For icing, Porter often starts with Martha Stewart's vanilla buttercream, an all-purpose base that can be tinted for all kinds of colour effects. For this cupcake, you could also go with chocolate or peanut butter icing.
And if you need decorating inspiration, you can always head down to this year's Over the Top Art Auction and Cupcake Party for what Dempsey calls "the endless MAWA potluck" of creativity and food.
Sara Porter's chocolate peanut butter cupcakes
250 ml (1 cup) granulated sugar
250 ml (1 cup) brown sugar (not packed)
425 ml (1 3/4 cups) all-purpose flour
175 ml (3/4 cup) cocoa
7 ml (11/2 tsp) baking soda
7 ml (11/2 tsp) baking powder
2 ml (1/2 tsp) salt
250 ml (1 cup) whole milk
125 ml (1/2 cup) vegetable oil
10 ml (2 tsp) vanilla
250 ml (1 cup) boiling water
Peanut butter filling:
60 ml (1/4 cup or 4 tbsp) unsalted butter, melted
125 ml (1/2 cup) icing sugar, sifted
175 ml (3/4 cup) smooth peanut butter
1 ml (1/4 tsp) salt
2 ml (1/2 tsp) vanilla
Preheat oven to 175 C (350 F). Fill standard muffin pans with 24 cupcake liners. Sift sugar, brown sugar, flour, cocoa, baking soda, baking powder and salt into a large mixing bowl. (A batter bowl with a spout will allow you to easily pour the batter into the cupcake liners.) Add eggs, milk, oil and vanilla. Beat with a mixer for about two minutes, occasionally scraping the sides of the bowl with a rubber spatula. Add the boiling water, and beat just until blended. (Don't be alarmed -- the batter will appear watery.)
To make the peanut butter filling, in a small bowl, combine butter, icing sugar, peanut butter, salt and vanilla and beat until very smooth. Use immediately.
For each cupcake, pour a layer of chocolate batter, add a spoon of peanut butter filling, then some more batter, and finally a dollop of peanut butter filling. (Overall, the liners should be almost full.) Bake for 20-25 minutes, until the centre of the cupcakes spring back when lightly touched. Cool and frost. Makes 2 dozen.
You can also leave out the peanut butter filling to make plain chocolate cupcakes.
Tester's notes: Wickedly delicious. Don't worry if the peanut butter filling doesn't spread evenly. It is thicker and heavier than the chocolate batter, but it will all work out in the baking.
Peanut butter icing
175 ml (3/4 cup) unsalted butter, softened
175 ml (3/4 cup) creamy peanut butter (not natural peanut butter)
500 ml (2 cups) icing sugar
15-45 ml (1-3 tbsp) whipping cream
In medium bowl, using electric mixer, cream butter and peanut butter. Add icing sugar, 125 ml (1/2 cup) at a time, beating well after each addition, and continue beating until very light and fluffy, about 3-5 minutes in total. Add cream a little at a time, until icing reaches desired consistency.
Tester's notes: This peanut butter icing is light -- not in a caloric sense (obviously!) but in regards to texture -- and not too sweet. Adding the icing sugar gradually means you avoid a cloud of sugar rising up when you turn on the mixer. It also allows you to adjust the sweetness -- you might want to use less or more than the 500-ml amount. Likewise, you can add the cream gradually to reach your desired consistency. (If you're planning to go all out with the decorating, you might need a thicker icing for piping consistency.)