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August 9, 2008 Cupcake Capers

There’s a PCV in our region who is renowned for her hospitality and generosity, especially around birthdays. She knows all of our birthdays, and bakes us all cakes for them. She’s awesome. :) Her adopted name is the Arabic word for beauty: Jamila.

Her birthday is coming up in a few days, but she’ll be leaving town early enough that we can’t celebrate with her on the day…so we had to conspire to celebrate with her early.

“Fatima”, my sitemate, told her that a meeting she’s been planning had been moved up to Saturday, so would she be able to come then? Jamila said sure, so Fatima and I put our plans in motion.

Fatima has a cupcake pan. I’ve studied cake decoration.

And the rest is history.

We scoured the Souq and several taHanoots, but were unable to find cupcake cups. (We did learn the word for them, though: tawrqt n helawa or tawrqt n gato, depending who you ask.) So we had to grease and flour the cupcake pan. Mashi muskil.

We made up the Yellow Cake recipe from the Peace Corps - Morocco cookbook, adding a few spices to give it a little something extra. (Dashes of cinnamon, nutmeg, and ginger, if you must know.) When we began, I was still measuring out amounts – leftover habit from American cooking – but I quickly discovered that bled cookery involves a lot of guesstimation, not least because the ingredients are usually being adapted slightly. (Margarine being used for butter, powdered milk being used for cream, and powdered sugar that has seen at least two kings…)

When we got to the final step of the recipe – cook at 350° for 20 minutes – we looked at each other and laughed. “In other words, light the oven and put the cupcakes in?” I asked. “Yup,” Fatima confirmed.

We’d planned to mix up the frosting while the first batch of cupcakes baked, but were stymied by the lack of a second mixing bowl. I suppose we could have scooped out the remaining cake batter into a sauce pan or something, but we opted to wait.

After 10 minutes, we began peeking at the cupcakes pretty regularly. They were kind of golden, but not *really* golden… They were starting to brown, but still hadn’t pulled away from the sides of the pan… They still looked damp on top… Finally, we pulled out the smallest cupcake – which involved using the handle of a tea spoon to lever it out of the greased and floured cupcake cup – and ate it. Yup, that one was done…but it was the smallest of them. We put the rest back in for another minute or two.

Then we attacked the pan with tea spoons in one hand and a fota (towel)-turned-potholder in the other hand, for leverage. We managed to get all eleven of the remaining cupcakes out of the pan without too much damage. Then we picked off the stubborn bits of cake (mostly bottom corners) that had stuck to the pan, and ate those. Once the pan was picked clean, I regreased and refloured it, and then we loaded up the second batch of cupcakes.

We didn’t have a full dozen – perhaps due to the amount of raw dough we’d consumed already – but we were close. We loaded those into the afran (oven), then washed the bowl so we could make the frosting.

While the second batch baked, we mixed up the icing. The texture was a little off, probably due to our lack of a mixer (yay for forks and elbow grease!) and the antique sukar glacé, which was grittier than “powdered” sugar ought to be. But it finally combined, and the powdered milk-margarine-sugar-vanilla sugar blend tasted good and had a good consistency (which meant using less "milk" than called for, since we had no fridge in which to let it firm up after mixing).

For the final touch, we planned to decorate the cupcakes to spell out a happy birthday message. I’d originally thought that the recipe would only make a dozen cupcakes, so I’d spent some time thinking about what could fit… “LOVE YA JAMILA” or “HAPPY DAY WE <3>
This is a no-brainer in the States, but had me stumped for a while, here…until Fatima told me that she had one small vial of food coloring. Green. Humdullah! So while I finished putting a white “base coat” across the tops of our cupcakes, Fatima put some icing into a smaller bowl, added a few precious drops of food coloring, and blended it up.

And then came the final hurdle: how do you decorate cakes without decorator bags and plastic tips? I’m spoiled in the States, because my mom has decorated thousands of cakes and has every imaginable piece of equipment. I have since been told that I could have just taken a ziplock baggie and cut off a corner. That would have been…smarter.

I didn’t think of that, though. I’d scoured souq for some plastic-like material from which to make decorator bags, and to no avail. I racked my brain for water-tight material with a big end and small tip…and thought of our surgical gloves. Lovingly issued by the Peace Corps Medical Officer in our well-stocked Medical Kit, a pristine set of surgical gloves was still sealed in its ziplock baggie. (Yes, this means I had a ziplock bag Right There. And it still didn’t occur to me that it would make a fully functional cake decorating bag. Sigh.)

So I rinsed out the gloves – ours aren’t not lined with that dusty stuff like some gloves are, but I wanted to try to clear out the rubbery taste – and then snipped a tiny hole in the end of one finger with the tiny scissors on Fatima’s Swiss Army knife. I rolled the edges of the glove down, filled my chosen finger (and part of the hand section) with green frosting, then pulled the edges back up and squeezed. Some water had lingered in the glove after the rinsing process, so the first thing that spurted out was water. Once that had cleared out of the way, the hole clogged up – it wasn’t big enough to let out frosting. So I widened the hole a tiny bit more with the Swiss Army scissors, and squeezed again. This time, a pale green, watery goo oozed outwards. I kept up the pressure, though, and was soon rewarded with a trickle of green icing. I claimed triumph and brought my surgical mitt over to the first cupcake.
Fatima was a step behind, following my example with the other glove. Not having a cake-decorating fiend for a Mom, she was somewhat less experienced in the fine art of icing cupcakes, let alone doing it with medical supplies.
Soon we were both scripting our message, being careful not to overlap. (“OK, you’ve got D-A-Y? I’ll do BIRTH.” “I did the T-H, too. You’re doing her name? OK, I’ll do HAPPY.” “I finished her name. You still need the Y in HAPPY?”) We finished minutes before she arrived (several hours ahead of schedule – thank goodness she texted us to let us know she was en route!), arranged the cupcakes on oven tray (the only tray big enough to fit all the words – and BIRTHDAY still had to be staggered a bit), and cleaned up the kitchen. Tada!

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