Lemon Cupcakes

As you probably all know, cupcakes are the sweet treat du jour so when I was invited out for a rather girlie teaparty this Sunday, it seemed like the perfect excuse to use the copy of The Hummingbird Bakery Cookbook I was given for Christmas since this bakery is one of the hottest cupcake spots in London.

I flipped through this stylish little number several times for inspiration before deciding that since there would be many other sweetmeats at the tea party, I would go for lemon cupcakes as hopefully the citrus would be sharp and cleansing after tonnes of sugar. Plus I had accumulated a lot of lemons in the fruit bowl…

The recipe seemed straightforward, except that it calls for an electric mixer or whisk to make the batter. I don’t usually bake this way, so I was a little bit apprehensive about how easy this would be since I only have the whisk attachment to my handblender. I feared it would make more of a mess (and washing-up!) than the usual hand made method, but I figured there was only one way to find out!

To make you will need:

120g plain flour

150g caster sugar

1.5 teaspoons baking powder

2 tablespoons lemon zest

40g unsalted butter, softened

120ml whole milk

1 egg

Preheat the oven to 170°C. Put the dry ingredients, lemon zest and butter together and beat on a slow speed with an electric mixer or whisk until you get a sandy consistency and everything is combined. Gradually pour in the milk and beat until just incorporated.

Add the egg and continue beating until just combined, scraping any unmixed ingredients from the sides with a spatula. Continue mixing for a couple more minutes until the mixture is smooth. Do not over mix.

Spoon the mixture into paper cases until 2/3 full and and bake until a skewer comes out clean or the sponge bounces slightly, usually 20-25 minutes, before allowing to cool slightly.

I zested 4 medium lemons to get just over 2 tbsp of lemon zest. I would have done more, but my arm was starting to hurt. I didn’t have whole milk, just my normal semi skimmed. Other than this I followed the recipe exactly.

Almost immediately I was struck by the fact there was actually more sugar than flour in the recipe. This made me glad I was using slightly more lemon zest than suggested. I was also surprised by the meagre amount of butter, especially when mixing the first ingredients together. My sandy consistency was only really the top layer of the mix because there just didn’t seem to be enough fat to coat all the flour. I swallowed my concerns and added the milk, mixing as little as possible. I then beat the egg in a cup before adding to the batter even though no hint as to whether I needed to or not was given. Again I mixed the batter as little as possible upon adding the egg, declining to mix for several minutes for fear that would stretch the gluten in the flour like Mr Tickle’s arms.

When I was finished mixing everything, the batter was an appealing yellow from the yolk of the organic egg I used and the lovely lemon zest, but the batter looked quite thin and runny. The recipe states it will make 12 cupcakes if using American cupcake or muffin liners, but more if you use the smaller British bun case like I was. I put one dessertspoonful of batter to each case, filling them about 2/3 full to allow for rising and got 16 cakes for the oven. I popped them in for 18 minutes, thinking the timings would need reduced slightly for the smaller size.

Cupcake batter ready for the oven...

I then promptly forgot about them as I got distracted by Radio 4 and don’t have an oven timer. This meant they got about 22 minutes and were lovely and golden on top and completely cooked. They had hardly risen however and were very flat on top compared to cupcakes I have made before. I feared the flour had become overworked despite my best attempts and the lack of fat hadn’t helped matters.

Barely risen, but fully cooked.

I was delighted that I had chosen to ice the cakes to hide their slightly deflated look. The book suggests a buttercream icing, but I thought this might be too sweet so I decided to opt for a cream cheese frosting instead to add a slight tartness to the cakes. I made this by mixing full fat cream cheese with butter, sugar, lemon zest and lemon juice. I don’t usually make it with the butter but various online recipes suggested it so I though why not, especially since the cakes had so little fat in them.

A little taste of heaven.

The cakes were fully cooled and I put a good big teaspoon of the cream cheese icing on each of them to make them look a bit fuller and less flat. The recipe suggested decorating with some lemon zest, but I didn’t have time to zest yet more on top of the two extra lemons I had denuded for the icing, so I went kitsch and used silver balls for cake decorating instead to make them look cute…

Cupcake in full glory!

I then snaffled the two cakes that wouldn’t fit in my tin to take to the party and realised it was just as well they looked cute, because they really weren’t very tasty. The sponge was rather dense and bouncy and barely tasted of lemon. In fact, it was hard to get any citrus flavour over the sheer sugary-ness of the cake. The normally sharp cream cheese frosting was slightly flat and cloying with the addition of the butter and added very little other than moisture to the rather bland cakes.

I took the cakes to the tea party and waited to see what some hungry cupcake connoisseurs would say about them. They flew off the plate almost as soon as they were put out, but received no compliments or enthused umm-ing or aww-ing upon eating with conversation continuing as normal as people ate. This confirmed my thoughts that they weren’t a baking disaster, but simply a low fat cupcake that tasted just as joyless as you’d expect such a thing to taste!

I probably won’t make the lemon cupcakes again from the book, as I’m not a huge fan of lemon, but I’ll certainly try another variety from the same book. I won’t be using the electric mixer method again as it seemed to really overwork the flour resulting in a flat cake (although was mercifully unmessy as a method) and I’d be tempted to replace some of the sugar with more butter to make the cupcakes less sickly sweet next time. Hopefully a few tweaks will save me from joining the chorus of people leaving one star reviews for this book on Amazon…

3 replies
  1. Carolyne
    Carolyne says:

    As the Hummingbird bakery is my favourite cake shop in London (Patisserie Valerie aside) I bought the cookbook in order to replicate their goodies at home.
    Have baked my way through a dozen or so recipes in the book and have been disappointed every time. While they’re not disasters, indeed, they always look/taste nice, they’re never the same as the ones I’ve eaten at Hummingbird. Not a single cake I’ve made using one of their recipes has ever risen yet other cake recipes I’ve followed always do, beautifully, so now I tend to use the Hummingbird book as inspiration while adjusting my own recipes to suit.
    Oh, you’re completely right about how much sugar they use too, it’s pretty shocking.

  2. miss_south
    miss_south says:

    I had a Red Velvet cupcake at Hummingbird recently and it was divine. But comparing the bakery ones and the ones from the book is like comparing apples and oranges. I’ll be copying you and simply using the book as an inspiration for my own. I’ll also be cutting the amount of sugar hugely. I value my teeth…

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