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The cupcake in question

November 20, 2009

The Apple Cider Cupcakes from Vegan Cupcakes Take Over the World proved worthy of full investigation. Whether or not they embody “the quintessential fall cupcake,” there is a marvelous—and not simple—coherence in their blend of autumnal flavors, which brings together the comfortingly familiar and the exotic.

Infused with apple cider and apple butter, the little confections are redolent of baked apple. Their light crumb and rich caramelized fruit flavor resemble apple coffee cake, but more potent and complex.

If apple strikes a rich base note, maple syrup picks up the caramel tones by virtue of the natural caramelizing that occurs when it’s boiled down from maple sap. The pairing is warm, rich, earthy, deeply comforting, and definitely a thing of fall. It is familiar to our tastebuds, rooted as it is in North America, in the apple orchards of New England, the elegant maple forests of Vermont. These are the flavors I imagine from Laura Ingalls Wilder’s little house in the big woods.

But this cupcake is not just basking in the earthy caramel-y enchantment of familiar flavors. It has other things going on, namely the tropical spices: vanilla, cinnamon, allspice, cloves—those exotic touches that feel so common we can forget they came to us originally from distance places, often across oceans—from the world of Rudyard Kipling more than Laura Ingalls Wilder.

Luckily the science of flavors creates ties, with vanilla at the center. Maple syrup and vanilla share those caramel tones again, as well as a distinct “vanilla” flavor from the vanillin they both contain as woody plants. (This is why maple-vanilla yogurt, for example, makes so much sense.) Vanilla pulls the cloves in close too, with shared flavor components. Along with the depth of maple syrup and the warmth of the spices, vanilla also has the floral notes of apple. Its flavor ties are like the lines of latitude and longitude crisscrossing a globe. (To pay homage to vanilla’s role, I added an extra dose to the frosting before dusting the whole thing with cinnamon.)

Ultimately, the combination is both native and exotic, comforting and intoxicating. It’s earthy and spicy and delicate at the same time. In many ways it’s a tour de force with the efforts of explorers and so on behind it. But a tour de force in a subtle way, of course. After all, we’re also just talking about a cupcake made with apples and a little sugar and a little spice.

(Note: Harold McGee’s On Food and Cooking offered insight into the science behind some of the flavor harmonies described above, particularly those of vanilla and maple syrup.)

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. November 20, 2009 3:52 pm

    what do you think of pumpkin butter in comparison to apple butter?
    i just wonder how the qualities of the one relates to the qualities of the other.
    thanks.

  2. November 21, 2009 4:56 pm

    They’re very close cousins in that they use the same spices — and in some cases both use apple cider. I do think that because pumpkin itself isn’t naturally as sweet or fragrant, pumpkin butter tends to have more sugar and more spices added. And while making apple butter with Granny Smith apples (or adding vinegar) can add a nice tart complement to the fruity sweetness, pumpkin butter stays in the sweet register. I can’t imagine adding a dash of vinegar; it would veer too much into the savory category. So you end up, usually, with something that does taste quite a bit like pumpkin pie (delicious, obviously); whereas apple butter has more room to take on different forms, some hardly sweetened at all.

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