Vanilla Cupcakes

Today marks my 24th year of life. Twenty-four seems like one of those unusual ages that's neither here nor there. I'm not old (though some days I may feel it), but I'm not so young anymore either. I have a bit of that sneaky thing called life experience that only career changes, extensive traveling, and a familiarity with the "real world" can bring. Even so, every year when my special day rolls around, I'm not sure whether I feel old enough to embrace that extra number.

Happy birthday to me.

Since becoming a baker, I've grown acquainted with a phenomenon known as The Baker's Dilemma. The dilemma poses a simple, but curious question: should a baker be expected to make his or her own birthday cake? It's true that a baker may bake a better cake than a friend or family member. It's also true that if they do make the cake themselves, they can have precisely the flavor they would like, elaborate or otherwise. I've debated this question back and forth with friends and fellow bakers alike.

Family and friends tend to agree that it is not only okay for a baker to make his or her own cake, but it's encouraged. I've heard confessions ranging everywhere from "I want to eat good cake, not my cake" to whispered fears that their own cakes wouldn't live up to a baker's expectations ("It's too much pressure to bake for a baker").

On the other hand, professional bakers seem to come to the opposite conclusion. After making a thousand cakes, baking a cake is no longer a novelty. It's work (with the added pressure to meet everyone else's expectations of what a baker's birthday cake should be). To a baker, it's the thought that counts, not the taste. It doesn't matter whether the cake is homemade or a boxed mix with canned frostingโ€”both are loved and equally appreciated.

This year my mother and sister got together to make me my favorite cake, strawberry shortcake. It's a cake I've requested on my birthday a dozen times in my life and I couldn't be more excited to take a fork after it.

It took me two years to find this reliable, light, and moist vanilla cupcake recipe, but it is definitely a keeper. The cupcakes have a delicate crumb, but are tough enough to frost or fill with whatever delights that may strike your fancy. This is a true vanilla cupcake, made with pure vanilla extract (though if you are lucky enough to have vanilla beans on hand, a bean can certainly be used in place of one tablespoon of the extract). Watch the oven closely around 12 minutes; these cupcakes can over-bake rather quickly.

One Year Ago: Citrus Roasted Rhubarb
Two Years Ago: Sour Cream Sugar Cookies

Vanilla Cupcakes
Adapted slightly from Cupcake Project

Yields about 16 cupcakes

1/4 cup (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, room temperature
1 cup granulated sugar
2 large eggs
1/3 cup sour cream (or plain, non-fat yogurt)
1/4 cup vegetable oil
2 tablespoons vanilla extract
1 3/4 cups cake flour
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
2/3 cup milk

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F (180 degrees C). Line a cupcake pan with baking cups.

In a large mixing bowl, cream together the butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Add the eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition. Beat in the sour cream, vegetable oil, and vanilla extract. Gradually add in the cake flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. Stir in the milk, mixing until batter is uniform and smooth.

Fill baking cups about 2/3 full (or a little less) and bake for 12-14 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean. Remove from the oven, transfer cupcakes to a cooling rack, and allow to cool to room temperature before frosting or serving.