In 2010, I was without a romantic Valentine for the first time in 15 years (lest that sound like the worst ever humble brag, lit-rally all of those long ago Valentines make me look back and shake my head at my younger self, so, there’s that). And I was really feeling it; getting used to living by myself and fighting not very successfully to stay optimistic about whatever might be next. My lovely seester called me on VDay, and asked about my plans. I told her that I was going to keep it low key, maybe Thai and Netflix, but that first I was headed to Kitchenette for one of their awesome hot chocolates. She agreed that this was a solid plan, and we hung up. When I got to Kitchenette and placed my order, the gal behind the counter said, “Oh, Jessica?” and gave me not only my hot chocolate but also a cupcake. Joie, in her infinite wonderfulness, had looked up the restaurant’s info, called ahead, given them a description of me, and ordered me an extra treat. I was so touched, but not exactly surprised. My seester is incredibly thoughtful and kind hearted. And, she knows the power of a really great cupcake.
I’ve written before about feeling connected to my sister though cooking, even when we’re far away from each other. This Valentines Day she’s extra far: Joie has just started a truly awesome adventure, taking a postdoc position at the Swedish Museum of Natural History in Stockholm for at least year. She is a brave genius, in other words. And I am missing her like crazy. I don’t yet know enough about her new neighborhood to call in a treat for her, so for a little from afar Valentine I made our favorite chocolate cupcakes in her honor. Though I sadly can’t actually share them with her, I know she’ll know exactly what they taste like, because we’ve shared them so many times before.
This recipe, originally from my aunt Carolyn, who makes delicious and beautiful wedding cakes, is the number one birthday cake in my immediate family (excepting my father’s birthday cheesecake, of course). Joie and I got it for our birthdays every year–my cake often in the shape of a Christmas tree with green icing, for my late December birthday, Joie’s a traditional two layer cake–and now I look forward to making it for our mother’s birthday whenever I’m home. The cake is extra moist, thanks to both coffee and buttermilk in the batter, the icing has a delicious kick from Tia Maria, and that combination adds up to something definitely more interesting than a regular ole chocolate + chocolate treat. Frankly, this is just an absolutely delicious cake. I know nostalgia is at least part of the equation, but I’ve never found a chocolate cake recipe I like more. Bold statement, I know, but oh so true.
The smell of these cupcakes baking is one of my absolute lifetime favorite smells. Opening the oven to check their done-ness in my Brooklyn kitchen, I’m sent right back to my parents’ house in Virginia, getting ready for something celebratory. And beyond the fantastic smell and taste (I’m not overselling it, am I?), these are also delightfully easy. The end result definitely out-weighs the minimal effort. They’re perfect for a birthday, of course, either in cupcake or layer cake form, but I also love them for a dinner party, to add a little extra festivity, or just as a treat to share with your favorite people. I brought the extras in for my students today, to spread the Valentines goodness around.
I unabashedly love Valentines Day. Yes, it’s a cheesy holiday and yes it can carry a lot of pressure, like it did for me back in 2010. But I love the hearts and glitter and general silliness, and especially the excuse to be extra sweet to the people who mean the most to me. I look forward so much to making cards for my family and best girls every year. But this year, a card for my far away seester didn’t feel like quite enough (though I’ve already been very impressed with the Brooklyn to Stockholm mail system, for getting her card there on time). So, to my beloved seester, who has been my Valentine since she was born, who is brilliant and loving and hilarious and generous and oh so talented and just the best of everything: I miss you madly, and I saved you a cupcake.
favorite chocolate cake
makes 24 cupcakes, or a two layer cake
1 3/4 cups flour
2 cups sugar
3/4 cups unsweetened cocoa powder
2 teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup cooking oil
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 cup coffee (my mother usually fixes a cup of instant espresso, I’ve started using the leftover coffee Hal stores in quart containers in the fridge)
1 cup buttermilk
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Stir together dry ingredients in mixing bowl. Add all wet ingredients to dry ingredients. Best 2 minutes at medium speed. Pour batter into cupcake tin (or, divide batter between two 9″ cake pans that have been greased and dusted with cocoa powder). Bake for 20-25 minutes, checking at 25. Let cool ten minutes in pan on cooling wrack, then remove from pan and let cool completely before icing.
2 2/3 cups confectioners sugar
1/8 teaspoon salt
2/3 cups unsweetened cocoa powder
6 tablespoons softened butter
2 1/2 tablespoons milk
2 tablespoons Tia Maria
1 teaspoon vanilla
Sift cocoa powder and confectioners sugar together. Cream butter in mixing bowl. Add 1/3 of dry ingredients to bowl, stir to mix. Add 1/3 of milk and Tia Maria. Beat til smooth. Continue alternating dry and wet ingredients (including vanilla), beat until smooth and spreadable. Note: I’ve often had to add some more wet ingredients to get to the right consistency.