One of my favorite books growing up was The Red Balloon. It’s about a little boy in a bleak Paris neighborhood, who finds a magic, sentient and insistent red balloon. It follows him everywhere. The adults in the book treat the little boy with a severity bordering on outright cruelty. Ladies on the street push him and his balloon out of their way. His mother tosses the balloon out of the apartment window. The principal of his school locks him in a shed for bringing the balloon to class. In the end a bunch of cruel boys destroy the balloon with rocks. Despite all of this, what shines in my memory is the boy finding pleasure in his indifferent little world when he enters a small boulangerie and buys a cupcake. And just like that, for a brief moment, his scowling gray universe is relieved by sweets. I had a cupcake moment here in Mexico just the other day. And a churro moment too. I have them in New York all the time. Sometimes you just need to seek out a small private pleasure to counter all the little hurts a day can bring. The rest will come to you if you open yourself to it.
This recipe was originally supposed to be another mini cake attempt, but they looked so good as cupcakes, I left them that way. I went for vanilla this time and when it came time to come up with a filling I considered vanilla butter cream (next time I’ll do the tops that way), but I KNEW it had to be cannoli cream! The combination of vanilla and cannoli cream is one of life’s great treats. These cupcakes are moist and the icing and filling is not sweet at all because it’s ricotta cheese-based rather than sugar-based. If you refrigerate the frosting it holds up a little better and I kind of love how the bitter-sweet chocolate chips add texture and depth of flavor. I will definitely be making these again.
I’m back in Mexico City for another couple of weeks for work. This time I seem to be all alone and I have to say, I was worried at first. However, a secret piece of me knew that I have come to enjoy my own company. It’s an opportunity to submit to my natural sense of wonder. I was afraid that my default disposition was that of contemplative woe. It might be, but I had to cultivate an inner strength and a positive inner monologue when I first moved to New York City to start law school. I knew no one but my boyfriend (now husband), and oddly, I went to a Jesuit school so sleepovers weren’t really an option. I spent most days and nights alone. I ate out alone, saw movies and ballets alone, negotiated the world alone. If you submit to the pessimist inside, you won’t end up in a good place. So I changed the monologue.
Now I am savoring the alone time, even though I really want to share. This little trip is a return to that world of self with no one to accommodate. So what’s going through my mind as I take it all in? Some pride in having cultivated the ability to appreciate my own company. But also, the idea that I’m right in the middle of things. Having company fosters the kind of thinking that keeps you in the present and helps you look toward the future with a kind of excitement. But being a spectator more than a participant in a country where I have no ties has me reflecting in parsed sentences and a string of imperfect verbs. I’m thinking about how intricately wrought clauses in the past tense will stretch toward the future and I appreciate the precious nature of time. Heavy for a post on cupcakes, I know. #Tranquilizate!
The city is slowly casting its magic spell on me. The nights here gleam. Every minute I spend here changes me in a fundamental way. And again I realize the best of both worlds is having these stolen moments, but letting a deeper desire feed your choices and knowing that there’s a home, in another city, in another person and that all of your experiences are only a part of the measure of who you are. I intend to come home with my heart both full and broken. That’s how we are to live.
VANILLA BEAN CANNOLI CUPCAKES
For the cupcakes:
- 1 1/4 cups cake flour or Canadian bleached all-purpose flour
- 1 1/4 tsp baking powder
- 1/2 tsp baking soda
- 1/2 tsp salt
- 2 large eggs
- 3/4 cup sugar
- 1 1/2 tsp pure vanilla extract or the seeds from 1.5 vanilla beans
- 1/2 cup canola oil
- 1/2 cup buttermilk
For the Cannoli Cream:
- 2 cups ricotta cheese
- 1/2 cup confectioners’ sugar
- 2 tablespoons finely chopped bittersweet chocolate chips
For the cupcakes:
Preheat the oven to 350 °F and line a cupcake/muffin pan with cupcake liners.
In a medium bowl, whisk together 1 1/4 cups cake flour (or Canadian flour), 1 1/4 tsp baking powder, 1/2 tsp baking soda and 1/2 tsp salt. Set flour mix aside.
In another bowl, beat 2 eggs. Add 3/4 cup sugar and continue to beat. Add vanilla and oil.
Slowly add about half of the flour mixture. Add half of the buttermilk, then the rest of the flour mix and the rest of the milk. Beat until just combined and smooth, scraping down the sides of the mixing bowl. The batter should be thin.
Pour batter into a lined muffin pan. Fill to about 1/2 full.
Bake for 12 -14 minutes at 350 °F. Let them cool in the pan for a couple minutes, then remove. When completely cool, fill and ice.
For the Filling and Icing:
With a large wooden or metal spoon, mix the ricotta, confectioners’ sugar and chocolate chips in a medium bowl until combined. Refrigerate until slightly hardened so it’s easier to work with.
When cupcakes are cool cut a small hole the size of an apple core in each cupcake and fill with the cannoli cream. You can do this using a piper or a plastic bag with the tip cut off. Pipe a small amount of icing on the entire surface of the cupcake and spread. Top with chocolate chips and/or toasted almonds. Buen provecho!