You're looking at a prize-winning recipe. About a month ago I entered Good to Know Recipes' Strawberry Tea competition, which involved designing a strawberry cake or pudding - the winner would receive a lot of beautiful pink Le Creuset, which was my main incentive for entering. Yesterday I received an email telling me my entry had been voted runner-up (you can see it on the Good to Know website in all its glory here). Although I was not to be the proud owner of all that gorgeous kitchenware, I still won a copy of Bake and Decorate by Fiona Cairns, who designed Kate and William's Royal Wedding cake. Which, come to think of it, is far more practical, as I had no idea where I was going to store all that Le Creuset. Also, being pink, it would have clashed with the turquoise Le Creuset collection I am already well on my way to establishing. We couldn't have that.
I have to say, I'm really glad my entry won something, because it involved quite a lot of stress. I was working in London the weekend before the deadline, and only found out about the competition with two days to go. Meaning that I started baking these little beauties in the evening after the commute home, was icing them in my pyjamas at midnight, and had to get up at 5.30 the next morning in order to photograph them and still catch my train on time. Let it never be said that food blogging is all relaxation, freebies, and stuffing one's face.
Coming up with a recipe for this competition was a bit of a struggle. I had so many amazing (well, in my head they were amazing) ideas, but so little time - only one evening. A lot of great concepts went out of the window simply due to this lack of time - I couldn't risk a cheesecake not setting overnight, or wait for an ice cream mixture to chill. I wracked my brains for all the different flavour combinations involving strawberries, and my mind kept settling on strawberries and basil, which worked so well the last time I tried them together in tart and ice cream form. Again, I mentally put this combination into all sorts of forms - cheesecake, tart, loaf, mousse - but I don't really know why I settled on a cupcake.
I think it's because the competition called for a recipe that could be served both as dessert and as 'tea'; cake, in my opinion, is good eaten at any time of the day. Cupcakes are also quite easy to make, they look quaint and pretty, and they can also be made in quantities as large or small as you like. When I thought of a 'Strawberry Tea' (the idea is to hold such a party to raise money for Breast Cancer Care), I imagined dainty little cake stands piled high with scones and little cakes. I could just see these cupcakes on such a stand, preferably in the middle of a lovely white tablecloth, surrounded with pink flowers.
Yet I never bake cupcakes. I don't really like them, if I'm honest. They're far too sugary and unnaturally coloured. Beautiful to look at, sure, but I think I'd get far more pleasure from gorging myself on a big wedge of baked cheesecake or a simple fruit cake than I would a synthetic, fussy little cupcake. Perhaps my main problem with them is they're small and self-contained. I'd much rather have a whole enormous cake that I can keep coming back to and cutting progressively smaller pieces from, telling myself that if you eat a quarter of a cake in little slivers, it doesn't count. The same goes for those horrific 'cake pops', like lollipops but with a ball of cake on a stick. What on earth is the point of them? They actually disgust me a little bit. I can't think of anything more ridiculous. Why would you mess around with cake by cutting it into tiny orbs and putting it on a stick? The mind boggles at the sheer absurdity of these creations.
These cupcakes, however, are quite restrained. The hint of basil in the sponge stops them from being cloying and over-sweet. The icing is sugary but quite plain. The little strawberries on top add a refreshing fruitiness. The only concession I made to gimmicky decorations is the addition of pink homemade strawberry sugar, which I think looks just beautiful sprinkled on top of the plain buttercream icing. It was this stroke of genius, apparently, which made my cupcakes stand out from all the other cupcake entries.
Not bad for someone who never bakes cupcakes, I think. I'm looking forward to receiving my prize in the post!
Strawberry basil cupcakes (makes 6 large or 12 small):
120g plain flour
150g caster sugar
1.5 tsp baking powder
40g butter, at room temperature
A large bunch of basil
250g icing sugar, sifted
1 tsp vanilla extract (optional)
80g butter, at room temperature
Strawberries, to decorate
Granulated sugar, to decorate
Put the 130ml milk in a saucepan with the basil, roughly torn. Bring to the boil then remove from the heat and leave for an hour or two to infuse, then remove the basil.
Pre-heat the oven to 170C.
Mix the flour, sugar, baking powder and butter with an electric whisk until just combined. Pour in the basil-infused milk and the egg and beat until just incorporated, then mix for another couple of minutes until smooth.
Spoon the mixture into 6 muffin cases or 12 cake cases, so they are two-thirds full. Bake in the oven for 20-25 minutes, until golden brown and the sponge springs back when touched. Cool on a wire rack.
For the icing, beat together the icing sugar, vanilla and butter with an electric mixer until well combined. Add the milk and beat for 5-10 minutes until light and fluffy. Using a piping bag, pipe circles of icing on top of the cupcakes, or just spread it on with a knife.
Decorate with basil leaves and fresh strawberries. If you want to make strawberry sugar, simply press a strawberry through a tea strainer to extract the juice, then put this in a blender with a few spoonfuls of granulated sugar and blitz until the sugar is pink and fragrant.