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Cupcake love affair

Rogue Valley cupcake shops may have crumbled along with the craze for these cutesy desserts. But bakers say that after decades of more modest popularity, the miniature cakes aren’t going anywhere.

“Cupcakes are still one of the main items that I’m doing,” says Rebecca Hill. “They’ve really hung on.”

Ten to 14 flavors of cupcakes crowd onto Hill’s table at Thursday sessions of Rogue Valley Growers & Crafters Market, starting in March. Flavors change with the season, but Hill always has a fresh fruit or lemon cake, “birthday cake” for the kids and a chocolate cake with ganache filling, chocolate buttercream and chocolate shavings.

“We have to have our chocolate truffle, or we get in trouble,” says Hill, who devised the recipe more than 25 years ago.

Fillings, such as jam, pudding, cheesecake, peanut butter and other creamy concoctions have set gourmet cupcakes apart from the previous generation that were mixed up from a box. Along with fillings, spices and nuts have become the norm, as well as flavor combinations that evoke another dessert, dish or beverage.

“You can get just as exotic with a cupcake as you can with a cake,” says Hill, adding that s’mores and spiced chai, are some of her more popular flavors, along with maple-bacon-chocolate.

“The crazy flavors may come and go,” says Hill.

Chocolate with bacon or peanut butter-and-jelly cupcakes make the menu at Medford’s Downtown Market Co. whenever co-owner Nora LaBrocca is “in the mood.” Otherwise, she sticks to classic recipes, such as red velvet for Valentine’s Day, carrot cake in the fall and coconut as a perennial fixture in her bakery case, which also features cream puffs, tarts, tiramisu and other sweets.

“It’s small; you don’t have to commit to a whole cake,” says LaBrocca, adding that because hers, made in a muffin tin, are slightly larger than average, many customers share them.

“They do serve a purpose.”

The self-contained cupcake stays moist a bit longer than sliced cake, say LaBrocca and Hill. And the fact that single-serve cupcakes require no slicing and are more portable than an unwieldy, tiered cake still make them popular for weddings, says Hill, adding that she fielded a number of cupcake requests at January’s Southern Oregon Wedding Show.

“I was really surprised by how many brides brought it up.”

Children’s birthdays continue to constitute most special orders for cupcakes, says Hill. But rather than requesting cupcakes decorated to double as dinosaurs, princesses or teddy bears, most customers are happy with perfectly piped frosting on top and a single fondant flourish in the center, she says. Cupcake-pan liners, previously plain paper or foil, now come in so many colors, patterns and sizes that they’re almost as decorative as the dessert.

All the supplies to bake cupcakes and other specialty desserts are available at Medford’s American Mercantile, where Hill set up her Sweet Stuff baking boutique in 2013. Cupcakes and other perishable items didn’t make the cut when she closed Sweet Stuff’s downtown Medford location in 2012.

Touched off a decade ago in larger cities, the cupcake craze brought no fewer than four cupcake bakeries to the Rogue Valley beginning in early 2011. Ashland’s Larry’s Cakes, Talent’s The Cupcake Daily and Medford’s Cupcake Creations have since closed.

“It’s kind of hard to do one thing,” says LaBrocca. “We just don’t have the population for that.”

Hill shared the sentiment, adding that on the trend’s cusp, she believed local cupcake bakeries would have to diversify to survive. The first of the bunch to open, The Cupcake Company did just that by adding lunch service, she noted.

Thirteen cupcake flavors offered daily complement a hearty menu of sandwiches, soups, salads and other desserts at The Cupcake Company, located in the Larson Creek Shopping Center, off Barnett and North Phoenix roads. See www.the-cupcakecompany.com.

Here are more reasons to love cupcakes:

What’s on top: Frosting can range from gussied-up buttercreams in unexpected colors and flavors, to light and airy meringues or thick, rich chocolate ganache. Beyond sprinkles, candies and the endless array of prefabricated and custom-made fondant toppers, adornment has gone savory with candied bacon, pretzels and potato chips.

The pretty presentation: Craft stores and big-box retailers carry myriad accessories for displaying cupcakes, from holders for cupcakes already in liners to tiers for the center of dessert tables. Cupcakes even can be frosted together to form cakes for any special occasion.

Travel well: These tasty treats can travel in style (not the foil-lined shirt boxes you might remember from decades past). Now, there are a variety of handy cupcake carriers, in many shapes and sizes, for easy transport so there’s less mess and fewer frosting mishaps from cupcakes slipping and sliding along the way.

Chocolate Cherry Cupcakes With Vanilla-Bean Frosting

1 cup dried cherries

1 cup unsweetened cocoa powder

4 ounces bittersweet chocolate (60 percent cacao), broken

2 tablespoons unsalted butter

3/4 cup light-brown sugar

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Pinch of salt

4 large eggs

1/2 cup all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon baking soda

2 vanilla beans, split

1 (8-ounce) package reduced-fat cream cheese (Neufchatel), softened

1/2 cup plus 1 tablespoon powdered sugar

Preheat oven to 350 F. Line 2 muffin pans with 16 paper liners.

In a small saucepan, combine the cherries and 1 cup water. Bring to a boil. Transfer mixture (cherries and water) to a food processor. Add the cocoa, chocolate and butter; pulse until combined. Cool for 1 minute. Add the brown sugar, vanilla extract and pinch of salt; puree until almost smooth.

Pulse in the eggs until well combined. In a bowl, whisk together the flour and baking soda and add to food processor. Pulse until just combined.

Divide batter evenly among pans. Bake in upper and lower thirds of preheated oven until tops are slightly domed and firm to the touch, for 18 to 20 minutes. Remove cupcakes from oven and cool in pans on a rack for 10 minutes. Remove cupcakes from pans and cool completely on rack.

Scrape the vanilla-bean seeds into bowl. Add the cream cheese and powdered sugar and beat well. Pipe or spread frosting onto cupcakes. Makes 16 cupcakes.

— Recipe from Prevention magazine, January 2012 issue.

Chocolate Cupcakes With Raspberry Filling

1 (18.25-ounce) box chocolate cake mix

1 (8-ounce) container frozen nondairy whipped topping, thawed

1 (3-ounce) package cream cheese, softened

1/4 cup seedless raspberry preserves

1/2 cup powdered sugar

Amaretto Frosting (recipe follows)

Toasted, sliced almonds, for garnish (optional)

Fresh raspberries, for garnish (optional)

Prepare the cake mix following box instructions for cupcakes. Let cupcakes cool completely.

In a medium bowl, beat together the whipped topping and cream cheese using an electric mixer at medium speed until smooth. Add the preserves, beating until mixture is smooth. Gradually beat in the powdered sugar until mixture is smooth.

Spoon mixture into a squeeze bottle or use a pastry bag with a narrow (about 1/8-inch) tip. Insert tip into top of each cupcake and squeeze a good tablespoon of filling into each center. It’s OK if some seeps out top. Repeat with all cupcakes.

Frost cupcakes with the Amaretto Frosting and garnish with the sliced almonds and raspberries, if desired. Makes 24 cupcakes.

AMARETTO FROSTING: In a medium bowl beat 1/2 cup softened butter with 1 (7-ounce) jar marshmallow crème using an electric mixture at medium speed until smooth. Gradually beat in 2 1/4 cups powdered sugar. Add up to 1/2 cup additional powdered sugar if frosting is not sweet enough. Add 2 tablespoons almond-flavored liqueur or 1/2 teaspoon almond extract; beat until smooth.

— Recipe from Cooking with Paula Deen magazine, February 2009 issue.

Brown-Sugar Pound Cupcakes With Brown-Butter Glaze

3 cups sifted all-purpose flour

2 teaspoons baking powder

1/2 teaspoon salt

8 ounces (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened

2 1/4 cups packed light-brown sugar

4 large eggs, at room temperature

3/4 cup low-fat buttermilk

Brown-Butter Glaze (recipe follows)

Preheat oven to 325 F. Line standard muffin tins with paper liners. In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder and salt. In a large mixing bowl, cream together the butter and brown sugar until light and fluffy, for about 3 minutes. Add the eggs, 1 at a time, beating well after each addition. Add flour mixture in 3 additions alternating with the buttermilk, beginning and ending with flour.

Scrape sides of bowl. Divide batter among muffin cups, filling each 3/4 full. Bake in preheated oven for 25 minutes.

Set rack with cooled cupcakes over a parchment-lined baking sheet. Spoon the glaze over cupcake tops, and let stand until set. If glaze gets too hard, reheat it gently so you can spoon it. Serve glazed cupcakes immediately.

BROWN-BUTTER GLAZE: In a saucepan, heat 4 ounces (1 stick) unsalted butter over medium heat until golden-brown, for about 5 to 10 minutes. Carefully pour butter into a bowl, leaving sediment behind. Add 2 cups sifted powdered sugar, 2 teaspoons vanilla extract and 2 tablespoons milk to butter; stir until smooth. If glaze is too thick, add up to 2 tablespoons additional milk.

Makes 29 cupcakes.

— Recipe from Martha Stewart Living, February 2009 issue.

Reach freelance writer Sarah Lemon at thewholedish@gmail.com.

Downtown Market Company's coconut cupcake. Mail Tribune / Bob Pennell