Looking for that last-minute Valentine's Day sweet for your sweetie? Nothing says love — or war — like a cupcake.

At least, that is for the members of The Berkshire Eagle staff who went out of their way — and, for some, out of their comfort zone — to create cupcakes for a cupcake war held Friday afternoon. 

Ten participants competed for the top honor, with all staff members invited to sample a quarter of each cupcake (the equivalent of 2 1/2 whole cupcakes; a tough job, but we were up to it!) and then vote for their favorite. Cupcakes ranged from the very elaborately frosted and decorated to the I've-never-done-this-before rookie frosting spread. And oh, the flavors! Strawberry Dream, Cherry Coke, Apple cinnamon with apple cider frosting, margarita, chocolate mousse-filled chocolate with fresh raspberry buttercream, carrot cake with brown sugar cream cheese frosting, chocolate, maple bacon, chocolate with salted caramel and "not cupcakes," little gems more like brownies topped with fresh raspberries and a chocolate ganache.

When all the ballots were cast and counted, the winning cupcake was the moist, flavorful carrot cake cupcake created by Samantha Ferraro, ad fulfillment coordinator at The Eagle. Who doesn't love a great carrot cake cupcake with cream cheese frosting? Second place went to Joe Wotkowicz, night supervisor of the mailroom, and his wife, Sherrie, for their Strawberry Dream cupcakes. And sweet dreams they were ... luscious white cupcakes, filled with a creamy strawberry filling, topped with cream cheese frosting and white chocolate decorations.

While all of the cupcakes were delicious, there were some who struggled with presentation. Who knew these cute little mini cakes could cause so much trouble and heartache in the kitchen? For help, we called on Linda Tognini Williams, owner or Linda's Pastries in Pittsfield, and a professional baker for six years, to offer would-be cupcake makers some tips.

Williams recently competed in the National Alliance on Mental Illness Berkshire County's fifth annual Cupcake Wars fundraiser, an event in which she has competed each year. In 2018, she won the award for the most creative presentation. Much to her chagrin, the award for the best-tasting cupcake has so far eluded her, "but in the auction part of the event this year, my cupcakes [a chocolate cupcake with movie-theater snacks] went for $45; the winner of the best-tasting award's dozen went for $25," she said.

When it comes to making good cupcakes, Williams said it begins with having quality ingredients.

"Have the butter and eggs at room temperature. At room temperature, they mix easier and make a smoother batter, which makes a moister cupcake," she said.

When mixing the ingredients, Williams warned against over-mixing the batter, which she said results in a dense cupcake. "Mix it until the ingredients are just combined."

To fill the paper-lined cupcake tins, Williams uses an ice cream scoop to do the job. "So they all come out the same size and will bake the same," she said.

She reminded bakers that the oven should always be preheated before popping the cupcakes in to bake. Once the cupcakes are baked, cool them in the pan for a couple of minutes and then take them out of the pan and let them finish cooling on a rack. "If you leave them in the pans, they keep baking and dry out," Williams explained.

 

One of her cupcake tricks is to put the baked cupcakes in the freezer for a couple of days before frosting and decorating them. "It keeps the cupcakes moist," she said. And, also for upping the moistness of the cupcakes, 

she advised using a recipe that has sour cream as an ingredient. Your recipe doesn't include sour cream? That's OK, just "add 1/2 cup sour cream to a recipe for 12 cupcakes." And, to make your cupcakes lighter, Williams suggested substituting cake flour for all-purpose flour in the same proportion.

When frosting cupcakes, Williams said she always uses buttercream frosting. The main thing to remember is to cover the entire top of the cupcake to the top of the paper cup. "Don't leave any cupcake showing," Williams said. And if piping the frosting on, start in the middle and pipe around the cupcake to the edge — and then work your way back to the middle for a higher cupcake.

         CARROT CAKE CUPCAKES  WITH BROWN SUGAR CREAM CHEESE FROSTING

(Recipe from lilluna.com)

Prep time: 15 minutes

Cook time: 20 minutes

Total time: 35 minutes

Servings: 18

 

 

INGREDIENTS:

Cupcakes:

1 1/4 cups flour

1/2 plus 1/8 teaspoon baking soda

1/2 plus 1/8 teaspoon baking powder

1 teaspoon cinnamon

1/4 teaspoon salt

1 cup sugar

2 eggs

1/2 cup canola oil

1/4 cup sour cream

1/2 teaspoon vanilla

1 1/2 cups finely grated carrots

Brown Sugar Cream Cheese Frosting:

8 ounces cream cheese, softened

1/2 cup butter, softened

2/3 cup brown sugar

2 teaspoon vanilla

Dash of salt

3 cups powdered sugar (more or less, if needed)

DIRECTIONS:

Whisk together flour, soda, baking powder, cinnamon, and salt in a small bowl. Set aside.

In a large mixing bowl, beat sugar, eggs, and oil till thick and foamy, 1 to 2 minutes. Add the sour cream, vanilla, and carrots and mix well. Add the dry ingredients and stir till just blended.

Fill paper-lined cupcake pans half full. Bake at 350 degrees for 18 to 20 minutes. Cool completely.

For frosting, beat together cream cheese, butter, and brown sugar till smooth. Let sit for 5 to 10 minutes until brown sugar dissolves completely. Add vanilla, salt, and enough powdered sugar to make a frosting thick enough to pipe. Use a large star tip to frost cupcakes.

***

STRAWBERRY DREAM CUPCAKES

Simple white cupcakes

INGREDIENTS:

1 cup sugar

1/2 cup butter

2 eggs

2 tsp vanilla

1 1/2cups flour

1 3/4 tsp baking powder

1/2 cup milk

INGREDIENTS:

Cream together sugar and butter. Beat in the eggs, vanilla. Combine flour and baking powder, mix well. Stir in milk until batter is smooth, pour into cupcake liners. Bake in 350-degree oven for 20 to 25 minutes.

Filling: Fresh strawberries with cream cheese frosting.

Iced with cheesecake frosting and topped with white chocolate accents.