Have Your (Less Sinful) Cupcake And Enjoy It, Too

The good news is, the cupcake craze is not going away. The bad news is that the sweet joy of biting into a cupcake often is diminished by feelings of guilt. Like most treats, cupcakes are hardly a healthful addition to your diet. Most are high in calories and fats because flour, butter and sugar are the main ingredients. Butter cream frosting, after all, is simply whipped butter, sugar, vanilla and sometimes milk.

I want to be able to sink my teeth into the fluffy cake and creamy frosting without having my sugar-coated Zen moment interrupted by reprimanding thoughts. I’d like to serve my guest something I know is not just empty calories.

Once seen mostly at childrens' parties, cupcakes have grown up. For adults, the miniature cakes are recession friendly in cost and satisfying in size.  Often beautifully constructed, cupcakes can be a form of self-expression; if you find a fellow red velvet cupcake lover, an instant connection is made.

Hoping to create a cupcake that both kids and adults will enjoy while improving the nutritional benefits, I began to play with new ingredients: beans, pumpkin, yogurt, applesauce and bananas. I found that it is possible to create a cupcake that no one but I would know was healthful.

About The Author

Eve Turow is a native Chicagoan currently residing in Washington, D.C. Often she can be found wandering the stands of D.C. farmers markets. She has previously written on the topics of food and travel for a local publication in Buenos Aires, and semi-regularly blogs about food, music and travel at Bacchus & I.

While I understand a treat is a treat often because of its decadent ingredients, having another option to send in your child's lunchbox or to snack on with your mid-morning coffee without shame is a treat in itself. Beans add protein and fiber, and yogurt supplies protein and moisture to the cake. Fiber-rich pumpkin puree can act as a replacement for eggs, butter and oil. Bananas and applesauce up the vitamins.

Unlike most fads, cupcakes' popularity shows no sign of fading.  In fact, cupcakes have only gotten more popular since appearing on a 2001 episode of Sex and the City, when characters Carrie and Miranda discussed men over Magnolia Bakery’s frosting-topped treats. The trend has caught on with such fervor that three television networks have added cupcake-related programs to their lineup: the Food Network's Cupcake Wars, TLC's DC Cupcakes and the WE TV's Cupcake Girls.

The history of the cupcake is vague. Some say the name came from the measurement used to create the cake (all ingredients are easily measured in cups), while others claim cups were used as molds for the cakes.  According to food historian Andrew Smith, the cupcake first was seen in American cookbooks in 1826.

In their current iteration, cupcakes have become exceptionally diverse. They can be decorated for any occasion, wearing flowers for weddings, offering hearts to Valentines or four-leaf clovers on Saint Patrick's Day. The list of flavors is endless. The most popular combinations remain vanilla cake with vanilla icing, and chocolate cake with chocolate icing, but bakers have risen to the challenge of gourmet cupcakes with flavors such as strawberry shortcake, pumpkin, Oreo, peanut butter and even tequila. Many cupcakeries arrange cupcakes in the shapes of mascots or logos for teams and businesses. During a recent conversation with a friend about alternatives to a wedding cake, I suggested tiered cupcakes. "Oh, everyone is doing that," she said.

Easily portable, cupcakes are the perfect lunchbox addition for children.  Many associate cupcakes with afternoons of baking with parents, birthday parties and middle school bake sales. I vividly remember eating Halloween cupcakes with plastic pumpkin rings on top. I recall the agonizing choice between vanilla cake with chocolate frosting, or chocolate with vanilla frosting, not to mention the anguish of choosing between jack-o'-lantern rings or spider rings.

As the cupcake has grown up, the food world has become more health-conscious. In an effort to apply new knowledge to an icon, I went through several experimental batches, afternoons of cake-battered aprons and sticky frosting-covered fingers. In the end, I came up with several healthful, friendly recipes. Many are flourless, all skip butter and oil, and some can even be prepared with nothing more than one bowl and a blender. Let the cupcake revolution continue.

Chocolate Espresso Cupcakes

These cupcakes are moist and rich, with added protein, fiber and antioxidants from the black beans and dark chocolate. The frosting provides the perfect chocolate topping to this cake, with a small bite from the espresso. These cupcakes are gluten free. The cake recipe is inspired by one from TheAtlantic.com contributor Margaret Tung.

Chocolate Espresso Cupcakes
Eve Turow for NPR

Makes 1 dozen cupcakes

For Cake

15-ounce can unseasoned black beans

1 tablespoon vanilla extract

6 tablespoons unsweetened baking cocoa

1 teaspoon instant espresso

3 1/2 teaspoons baking soda

1 teaspoon baking powder

4 large eggs

3/4 cup sugar

1/4 cup nonfat Greek yogurt

For Frosting

1/2 cup skim milk

1 tablespoon instant espresso

15 1/2-ounce bag of 60 percent cocoa chocolate chips

Preheat oven to 325 degrees.

Place beans in a strainer and rinse well. Add to a blender or food processor along with the vanilla extract. Mix until smooth.  If necessary, add a bit of water to thin out the batter if it gets stuck in the blender. In a bowl, mix together the cocoa powder, instant espresso, baking soda and baking powder. In a separate bowl, beat eggs, sugar and yogurt together, finally adding the bean puree. Once thoroughly mixed, fold in the dry ingredients.

Grease a cupcake pan or add cupcake holders and pour the batter in, about 4/5 full. Bake 20 to 25 minutes, or until a toothpick or knife inserted into the cake comes out clean.

Place cakes on a rack and cool.

To prepare the frosting, pour milk into a saucepan over medium heat. When the milk begins to slightly bubble, add instant espresso, mixing constantly. Once dissolved, turn off flame and add chocolate chips, a little at a time, stirring constantly. Once the mixture has reached the desired consistency (you can make the frosting as dense as you like) take cupcakes and dip tops into the frosting, twisting. Once finished, top off with a sprinkle of powdered sugar or a chocolate-covered espresso bean. For Halloween, add one piece of candy corn.

Red Velvet Cupcakes With Cream-Cheese Frosting

These cakes are a gluten-free, healthful way to enjoy red velvet cake with extra fiber and protein from chickpeas. Superlight and fluffy, these cakes are perfectly complemented by a subtly sweet cream-cheese frosting.

Red Velvet Cupcakes With Cream-Cheese Frosting i i
Eve Turow for NPR
Red Velvet Cupcakes With Cream-Cheese Frosting
Eve Turow for NPR

Makes 1 dozen cupcakes

For Cake

15 1/2-ounce can garbanzo beans (chickpeas)

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

4 large eggs

1/4 cup nonfat Greek yogurt

2 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder

2 tablespoons (1 ounce) red food coloring

3/4 cup sugar

1 teaspoon baking powder

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

2 tablespoons distilled white vinegar

Red sprinkles, optional

For Frosting

4 ounces low-fat cream cheese

1/2 cup confectioners' sugar

1 tablespoon honey

Close-up of a red-velvet cupcake before frosting i i
Eve Turow for NPR
Close-up of a red-velvet cupcake before frosting
Eve Turow for NPR


Preheat oven to 325 degrees.

Add beans to a strainer and rinse well. Puree beans, vanilla extract and eggs in a blender or food processor. Add yogurt and continue to blend until all lumps are removed. Pour into a bowl and add cocoa powder, food coloring and sugar. In another bowl, mix together baking powder, baking soda and vinegar. The mixture should begin to fizz. Add to batter and mix in.

Grease cupcake pan or add cupcake holders and pour the batter in, about 4/5 full. Bake for 20 to 25 minutes, until a toothpick or knife inserted into the cake comes out clean. Place cakes onto a rack and cool.

For frosting, mix cream cheese, sugar and honey until smooth in a food processor, mixer or blender. Spread on top of cupcakes with a knife or spatula, adding red sprinkles if desired.

Banana Cupcakes With Chocolate Frosting

This is a low-fat banana cake topped with a slightly more indulgent chocolate frosting. The banana adds vitamins, fiber and potassium among several other health benefits. The dark chocolate provides antioxidants, and the applesauce adds a bit of extra fiber and antioxidants as well as vitamin C. The cake recipe is adapted from Bon Appetit Magazine (August 1997).

Banana Cupcakes With Chocolate Frosting i i
Eve Turow for NPR
Banana Cupcakes With Chocolate Frosting
Eve Turow for NPR

Yields 2 dozen cupcakes

For Cake

3 large eggs

3/4 cup sugar

1 1/4 cups smashed ripe bananas (about 3 medium)

1/3 cup low-fat buttermilk

4 tablespoons unsweetened applesauce

1 tablespoon vanilla extract

1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour

2 teaspoons baking powder

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

1/2 teaspoon salt

For Frosting

1/2 cup confectioners' sugar

1 tablespoon unsweetened almond milk, plus more if needed*

1/2 cup dark chocolate (60 to 70 percent cocoa), finely chopped, or dark chocolate chips

*Available at most supermarkets and specialty stores. It is fine to use nonfat milk as a substitute.

Preheat oven to 325 degrees.

Using an electric mixer, beat eggs and sugar in large bowl until thick and light, about 5 minutes. Mix in smashed bananas, buttermilk, applesauce and vanilla. Sift flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt over mixture; beat until just blended. Transfer batter to prepared pan, sprayed or with cupcake holders, filling to 3/4 full.  

Bake cupcakes until golden brown on top and tester inserted into center comes out clean, 18 to 20 minutes. Place cakes onto a rack and cool.

To prepare the frosting, add sugar and milk to a small saucepan over low heat and mix until sugar is dissolved into the milk. Slowly stir in chocolate and mix constantly until fully melted. Finally, take cooled cupcakes and dip tops into icing, twisting. Let icing harden completely, about 10 minutes. May add one slice of banana on top as garnish if serving immediately.

Pumpkin Cupcakes With Cream-Cheese Frosting

I first baked these cakes for a winter brunch, and they were quite a hit.  I did not let anyone know that they were secretly low-fat. These cupcakes are great for fall brunches or as a treat to go along with coffee. Best of all, pumpkin is a power food, rich in vitamins A and C, potassium, fiber and manganese. Also, the cake (not frosting) can easily be made vegan by substituting almond milk for the buttermilk.  The cream cheese frosting recipe is adapted from Eater’s Choice Low-Fat Cookbook by Ron Goor (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 1999).

Pumpkin Cupcakes With Cream-Cheese Frosting i i
Eve Turow for NPR
Pumpkin Cupcakes With Cream-Cheese Frosting
Eve Turow for NPR

Makes 18 cupcakes

For Cake

1 cup whole-wheat flour

1 cup white all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon baking soda

1 teaspoon baking powder

1 cup dark brown sugar

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon cinnamon

1/2 teaspoon ground ginger

1/2 teaspoon ground allspice

1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg

1 cup canned pumpkin puree

1/2 cup unsweetened applesauce

1 teaspoon maple syrup

1 teaspoon honey

1 cup low-fat buttermilk

For Frosting

4 ounces fat-free cream cheese

3 tablespoons confectioners' sugar

1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

Preheat oven to 325 degrees.

Combine flours, baking soda, baking powder, sugar, salt and spices in one bowl. Combine pumpkin, applesauce, syrup, honey and buttermilk in another bowl, mixing until combined. Slowly add liquids to dry ingredients, folding until combined. Spray cupcake pan or add holders and fill 3/4 full with batter. Place in oven for 20 to 25 minutes or until a knife inserted into the cake comes out clean. Place cakes onto a rack and cool.

For frosting, use a food processer, mixer or blender to mix cream cheese, sugar and vanilla until smooth. Scrape sides and bottom and process again. There should not be any lumps. Spread on top of cupcakes.

Orange Cardamom Cupcakes With Orange Yogurt Icing

When I first came across this recipe, I could not believe that these ingredients could create a cake-like consistency. I was wrong. The cake is fluffy and light, and I cannot wait to try it with other citrus fruits. In this recipe, oranges provide vitamin C and antioxidants. Each egg provides approximately 5.5 grams of protein, adding substance to the cake. Lastly, almonds are high in vitamin E and magnesium, acting to lower cholesterol. This cupcake is gluten-free and adapted from one by New York Times food writer Martha Rose Shulman. The oranges can be prepared the day before and refrigerated overnight.

Orange Cardamom Cupcakes With Orange Yogurt Icing i i
Eve Turow for NPR
Orange Cardamom Cupcakes With Orange Yogurt Icing
Eve Turow for NPR

Makes 2 dozen cupcakes

For Cake

2 medium-size, thin-skinned oranges, preferably seedless*

6 large eggs

1 cup sugar

1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder

1 1/2 cup finely ground almonds or almond meal

1 teaspoon ground cardamom (approximately 8 green cardamom pods)

For Frosting

1 cup plain nonfat Greek yogurt

1 tablespoon honey

2 teaspoons orange zest, plus more for garnish

1/4 cup confectioners' sugar

Candied orange peel, optional

* This recipe would also work with 4 to 5 clementines, or 15 to 20 kumquats; or, if you skip the cardamom, 3 lemons

Oranges simmer in water in a pot on the stove

The seedless oranges are simmered in water, then pureed whole. Eve Turow for NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Eve Turow for NPR

Scrub the oranges and place them in a pot with enough water to cover them. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to simmer. Cover and simmer for 2 hours, adding more water if necessary. Drain and, when cool enough to handle, cut the fruit in half and remove all of the seeds (otherwise the cake will be bitter).

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Put the oranges, peel and all, in a food processor fitted with the steel blade or blender and puree. Measure out 1 1/4 cups.

Then, with a food processor, beat the eggs with the sugar and baking powder at medium-high speed until thick and lemon-colored. Add the ground almonds and cardamom and mix well. Slowly mix in the pulped orange. Spray or add liners to your cupcake pan and pour the batter in, about 3/4 full.

Bake for 30 minutes or until a knife inserted into the cake comes out clean. If the top begins to get too brown, cover loosely with foil. Place cakes on a rack to cool.

Combine all frosting ingredients in a bowl, mixing with a spoon until smooth and thoroughly mixed.  Spread frosting on top of cooled cupcakes with knife or spatula. Top with extra orange zest or candied orange peel. For children, orange jelly beans or sprinkles can be fun garnishes.

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