The idea for these cupcakes started out as a very conceptual ode to “Rosie the Riveter”, the cultural icon who represents the role of women in the economy of World War II and, nowadays, serves as a ubiquitous symbol of feminism. The real Rosies were the working women who comprised the industrial labor force during the war, filling the positions usually occupied by men (welders, riveters, taxi drivers, soldiers, etc.). One of the most iconic images of her, and perhaps the most widely recognizable today, is this Westinghouse poster by artist Howard J. Miller.
Notice the bandanna? Let me tell you, trying to make a buttercream bandanna is no easy feat. I do like the way they look but I’m not sure, without context, they would be instantly recognizable (as was my hope). Not every idea goes as planned, which brings me to my next point…
The cake. I wasn’t going to write about the particular trials and tribulations of this experiment but I decided it’s a good insight into my process of finding and testing recipes, if nothing else. As I said, the idea behind these cupcakes was conceptual so the cake needed to tell its story as well. I came across a recipe for “World War II Chocolate Mayonnaise Cake” from America’s Best Lost Recipes, a collection of recipes from the editor’s of Cook’s Country magazine. It fit the bill. Intrigued, and slightly put off, I dug a little deeper and found out that there are actually many iterations of this type of cake from the war era, made without oil or eggs as these were commonly rationed commodities. Necessity, they say, is the mother of invention thus mayonnaise became an affordable and needful substitute. I’m not exactly sure what it is about mayo but it kind of has a bad connotation attached to it (maybe all those summer picnic salads sitting out in the sun). I like mayonnaise and even I get queasy about the idea of plopping it into cake batter. Then I realized it really isn’t that crazy of a “secret” ingredient–mayonnaise is, after all, and emulsion of egg yolk and oil. So I self-assuredly cracked open a jar.
I didn’t like it, but not for the reason I expected. While I could detect the scent of mayonnaise (yes, I said scent of mayonnaise) in the uncooked batter, once the cupcakes were cooked they looked and smelled just like any other chocolate cupcake, delicious (I did substitute the water in the original recipe for coffee which may have helped its cause). The reason that I couldn’t confidently post the recipe was the texture of the cupcakes. First bite, fine. Second bite, glue. The cake had an extremely fine crumb and subsequently broke down into a really sticky, heavy texture upon chewing. No good.
Test #2. I became, once again, suspicious of jarred mayonnaise. Maybe the recipe has changed since the 1940’s? Maybe it used to be less processed? So, intent to make this recipe work, I decided I needed to make mayonnaise from scratch and use that in place of the store bought stuff. What a magical thrill! I whisked up a batch using an egg yolk, canola oil, a little lemon juice, a pinch of salt and also every ounce of energy I possessed. However fun it was to make my own mayonnaise, the cupcake, unfortunately, came out only slightly better than the first (and my whisking arm is still sore, days later).
Test #3. Okay what about just plain old eggs and oil? At this point I just needed to compare the first two with a conventional cupcake. So I did what I always do when making cake, whipped the eggs, oil and sugar until the moisture lightened and gained a little volume and then proceeded with the rest of the recipe. They turned out, unsurprisingly, great. You could visually see the difference in structure; the real-egg cupcakes were spongier, punctuated with lots of little air pockets that the mayonnaise cupcakes almost completely lacked.
I really, really wanted the mayonnaise cupcakes to work so I could write about how surprisingly great they were. I was, at first, disappointed that they weren’t as good as the real thing. Though in reflection I realize that, really, they were never supposed to be as good as the real thing. They were a substitute (and a perfectly edible one). I guess if it came down to making a birthday cake during a time of austerity you really wouldn’t complain about unconventional ingredients slightly throwing off the texture. You’d be thankful that you had a cake to celebrate with and thankful for the Rosie who made it for you.
Rosie Chocolate Cupcakes
- 2 cups flour
- 1/2 cup cocoa powder
- 1 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
- 1 teaspoon baking soda
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1 cup sugar
- 1 teaspoon vanilla
- 2 eggs
- 2/3 cup vegetable oil
- 1 cup freshly brewed coffee
Preheat oven to 350°. In a large bowl, sift together flour, cocoa powder, baking powder, baking soda and salt. In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat sugar, vanilla, eggs and oil on medium speed for 1-2 minutes, until the mixture has lightened in color. Slowly pour in the coffee. Add dry ingredients and continue to mix until fully incorporated. Line a cupcake tin with liners and fill each cup to 3/4 full. Bake for 18-20 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Set pans on cooling rack to cool.
- 2 1/2 cups unsalted butter, softened
- 2 1/2 cups powdered sugar, sifted
- pinch salt
- 1 teaspoon vanilla
- red food color of choice
Beat butter and powdered sugar in the bowl an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment until completely combined and fluffy. With mixer on, add in vanilla and salt. Add food color until desired shade of red.
When cakes are cool, use a #125 Wilton petal tip to pipe base of “bandana” (two triangles that meet in the center). Use a #199 Wilton tip to make a small “U” shape for the knot, and then use a #366 Wilton leaf tip to pipe the ties. Decorate with white pearl sprinkles.