Margarita Cupcakes (Searching for My Lost Shaker of Salt)

The question of how to celebrate a 21st birthday when you don't drink can be a little bit tricky, and a whole lot-a-bit anticlimactic. Around me, everyone is excited for their turn to legally hit the bars and otherwise keep doing what they've been doing for years. The hype surrounding turning 21, therefore, seems a little silly to me; but nonetheless, I wanted something at my family gathering that would acknowledge that I can now be turned loose on the alcohol scene, if I so chose. Immediately, I thought of these little gems - well, okay, not these exactly. I actually had my heart set on strawberry daquiri cupcakes but couldn't find a recipe that I was satisfied with. So, immediately after that realization, I thought of these little gems. These margarita cupcakes are from Annie's Eats, which I must have stumbled upon as a result of Food Buzz or some other happenstance search. I don't actually follow her blog, but judging by the beauty and flavor of these cupcakes, I should probably start!

I chose to miniaturize the cupcakes, simply because it was only a luncheon and we were already having fruit and cookies. As attached as I am to the idyllic, giant layer cake for my birthday, I found the individual cupcakes and cookies to be much more of a hit. Think about it: no one wants that big slab of cake, really. I mean, everyone wants it, but no one will take it in public. Everyone says to the cake cutter, "just give me a small piece. No, not even that big. A little smaller, a little smaller, a little...there! Thanks!" and they walk away with this little tiny sliver. At least, that's been my experience. So, baby cupcakes it was.

The other modification I made was in keeping with Annie's suggestion that the tequila flavor didn't come through too well. Now, ordinarily, this wouldn't faze me, since the more something tastes like alcohol, the less I like it, anyway. However, she makes the very good point that without that hint of tequila, there's nothing to make the cupcake special; it's just a lime cupcake - delicious, but certainly not margarita-inspired. So, I brushed the tops of the cupcakes liberally with tequila, and think that I could have been a little more generous in the icing, even.

I found these margarita cupcakes to be intensely flavorful, yet far from heavy. The lime came bursting through, the tequila shyly let you know it was there, and the cupcake remained moist even after refrigeration. I actually just finished up the last one last night (I know, almost two weeks old, gross), and I really wasn't disappointed. I certainly wouldn't serve anyone else two week old cupcakes, and the safety of consuming the meringue frosting may have been a little questionable - and I may not advise you to let these little suckers hang on for so long before they're devoured (mine only did because my family really doesn't eat homemade baked goods when they're sitting in the kitchen) - but the point is, they were not stale.

Margarita Cupcakes complete with Swiss Meringue Lime Buttercream, courtesy of Annie's Eats
Yield: 24 regular cupcakes (I halved the recipe to get 48 minis)
The Ingredients - The Cupcakes
3 C all purpose flour
1 Tbsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. salt (I use salted butter, so I omitted this)
1 C / 2 sticks butter, room temperature
2 C sugar
4 eggs, room temperature
3 limes, zested and juiced
1/2 tsp. vanilla extract
1 C buttermilk (alternatively, 1 C milk & 1 Tbsp. lemon juice, allowed to sit on the counter for a bit)

The Ingredients - The Icing
*I halved this and still wound up with an extraordinary amount. I think I could have eighth-ed this and been fine.
2 C sugar
8 egg whites
pinch of fleur de sel (coarse salt)
1 1/2 C unsalted butter, at room temperature (I used salted, but didn't omit the salt mentioned above because I was worried it would have an effect on the chemical processes going on)
2 1/2 Tbsp. freshly squeezed lime juice
2-4 Tbsp. tequila, plus extra for brushing the tops of the cupcakes

The Method - The Cupcakes
1. Preheat the oven to 325 degrees and line or grease muffin tins.
2. Combine the flour, salt and baking powder in a medium-sized bowl and blend with a fork.
3. Separately, cream the butter and sugar on medium-high until light and fluffy, roughly 3-5 minutes.
4. One at a time, add the eggs, making sure to pause between each time for adequate blending.
5. Add the vanilla and lime zest and juice, then lower the mixer speed to low.
6. Working in additions, incorporate the flour and buttermilk alternately, beginning and ending with the flour. Be sure to allow everything to mix thoroughly before pouring the next addition.
7. Spoon or ladle the batter into the muffin tins, filling each one approximately 3/4 of the way full. I was hesitant with mine and don't think I filled them enough, resulting in some pretty small/short cupcakes - so don't be afraid! Fill 'em on up!
8. Bake regular cupcakes for 20-24 minutes or smaller ones for roughly 10-12 minutes, testing centers with a toothpick for doneness (it should come out pretty clean). Let the pan cool for 5-10 minutes before transferring the cupcakes to wire rack to complete cooling.
9. Optionally, brush the cooled cupcakes with a little tequila.

The Method - The Icing
1. Set a pot of water to simmering, being sure to keep the water level relatively low. While the water is heating, add the sugar, egg whites, and salt in a heatproof bowl, and place over the water once it's ready. Whisk the mixture frequently until it reaches 160 degrees and the sugar has dissolved.
2. Pour this mixture into a stand mixer (due to the length of time and power needed for this recipe, I would not recommend a hand mixer at all) and, with the whisk attachment, beat on medium-high until it forms stiff peaks and the mixture has cooled down, roughly 8 minutes.
3. Reduce the speed to medium, then add the butter - 2 tbsp. at a time - waiting, again, to add the next "block" until the previous one has had a chance to incorporate itself. At this point, the frosting may thin out and look a little soupy or curdled, which is normal. Continue to beat on medium-high until it thickens up again - a process that could take anywhere from five minutes all the way up to thirty. Patience is key.
4. Once the desired consistency has been reached again, stir in and fully incorporate the lime juice and tequila. I used the lower end of tequila, but might add an extra tablespoon next time.
5. If using the same day, the icing can be left at room temperature. Otherwise, place it in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 3 days or the freezer for up to 1 month. Note that if not using that same day, you might have to re-beat the icing after refrigeration/freezing just to smooth it out again (this is quick, not the up-to-30-minute time frame of before).
6. Frost the cupcakes and garnish with lime slices and/or zest, if desired. I tried this, but the zest dried out overnight and honestly looked more like a certain illegal substance than lime zest, so I left them plain and simply scattered some mint leaves around the arrangement.

I have but one complaint with this recipe. That swiss meringue frosting that looks so stunning and pristine in Annie's pictures, was the absolute bane of my existence that night in the kitchen. I heated the eggs and I added them to the mixture and beat them into beautiful stiff peaks, and then I added the butter and journeyed on and I beat, and I beat, and I beat, and I beat that frosting for forty minutes, to no avail. Now, my birthday is in the dead of August, that part where humidity around here just comes in for the kill, and it has for two years now been merciless with my cakes. Excessive heat and humidity are not conducive to baking, and I blame the weather entirely for my failure.

So there I was, the night before my party, the day I got home from vacation and driving for hours on end, staring into the bottomless pit of deceivingly angelic-white, liquidy meringue. I stuck it in a bowl in the fridge overnight and prayed that it would all work out in the morning. Of course, the morning brought little more than a slightly-firmed-but-liable-to-melt-back-again frosting that could in no way be piped. So, I piped it anyway. Naturally. And it came out in a little blob in the center of the cupcake.

And you know what? They looked absolutely adorable! I love how they turned out, and although they look less impressive than they would have had I been able to pipe them with an actual tip, I'm very happy with the end result.

So, in the end, I urge you to try these cupcakes. They are perfect little morsels of citrus and summer contained in little cupcake wrappers. The frosting is a pain, and I firmly believe that no frosting is worth the time and aggravation that went into this recipe. That being said, it can take less time than what I experienced, so if you're ambitious and curious, or just downright stubborn, give it a shot. But next time I personally plan to modify a less tempestuous butter cream recipe to embody the margarita flavors instead of repeating this one, and see no shame in it.

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