As is customary come April here on Zelda & Scout (and in our lives in general), we have entered full-on Derby mode. Now we’ve already visited the two biggest culinary traditions of Derby (aka juleps and pie) on the blog, but there are still plenty of thematic treats left to share with you!
On the Eat This side, Scout was really not feeling like cooking this past weekend (Let’s be honest, is she ever? No. No she’s not). But she soldiered through (okay, after some mild whining) and searched for a recipe that would get her enthused. She toyed with the idea of making that trademark Louisville dish — the Hot Brown — but it was more of an involved process than she was looking for (this is also the reason why burgoo remains the only one of Scout’s Southern goal recipes she has yet to conquer — there’s just so many ingredients!). Next she contemplated that signature Kentucky candy, the bourbon ball, but candy making is nearly always a hit or miss process. She needed a way to combine all the flavors of Derby, but in a form that wasn’t overwhelmingly complicated, and that wasn’t pie, because we’ve done pie. Which led to an important realization: Everything is better in cupcake form.
Ah, the cupcake, that personal-sized and adorable wonderl. Scout recently made some snickerdoodle cupcakes that were A+, which has led her to believe that everything that can be cupcaked should be cupcaked, just as everything that can be waffled should be waffled (see: Arrogant Swine Waffle Mac & Cheese). So armed with this recipe from Bluegrass Bites (shout out to fellow Louisville gal, Lindsay!), we set out to wrap up the taste of Derby in a copper-foil casing.
While they’re slated as Bourbon Ball cupcakes, the flavors in these guys are essentially the same as Derby Pie — chocolate, bourbon, and pecans — so we could call them the cupcaked version of either. Bottom line: It’s Kentucky in a tiny cake. Due to time constraints and Scout’s baking inexperience, we chose to cut out the the chocolate ganache center, but in our opinion more chocolate is always good, so you do you.
As per Lindsay’s directions, we started by preheating the oven to 350 degrees and our cupcake tray with Zelda’s very julep chic copper liners. Next, we combined 1 stick of butter, 2 tablespoons of cocoa, ¼ cup of water and ¼ cup of bourbon (with a little extra splash, because why not) in a medium saucepan, stirring until the butter melted and the mixture was smooth. Setting it aside to cool, in a standing mixer (a hand-me-down from Zelda’s baking whiz of a mama), we beat 2 large eggs, ¼ cup of buttermilk, and half a teaspoon of vanilla extract. Once the butter mixture was cool, we added it to the mixer as well, beating to combine.
In a separate bowl, Scout whisked together the dry ingredients: 1 cup of flour, 1 cup of sugar, ½ teaspoon of baking soda, and ¼ teaspoon of salt (singing along to What’s Inside: Songs From Waitress is optional at this point, but highly recommended). This then went into the mixer as well, gradually, so as not to cause a flour explosion in Zelda’s kitchen.
Once all the ingredients were combined, we poured the batter (which should be fairly thin), into our cupcake pan (Note: The recipe says it makes 12 cupcakes. While we were able to stretch it that far, several of our cakes ended up on the smaller side, so we would recommend either dividing the batter among 9 cups, or upping your portions slightly.). Into the oven they went, to bake for 15 to 20 minutes.
Then it was on to step two, pecan frosting! First things first: Toast 1 heaping cup of pecans. Lindsay’s recipe calls for you to do this in the oven, but we did it in a pan on the stove and it worked out just fine. Allow your pecans to cool enough so you can handle them, then finely chop. Next, in a medium saucepan over medium heat, combine 4 tablespoons of butter, 1 cup of firmly packed light brown sugar, and 6 tablespoons of heavy whipping cream. Bring to a boil, stirring consistently, and let boil for about a minute before removing it from heat. Then whisk in 1 cup of sifted powdered sugar. Stir in 1 teaspoon of vanilla extract and your chopped pecans, and set it aside to cool. We got distracted by how good this smelled and looked, basically pralines in a pan (or praw-leens, if you’re Zelda). Excitement levels were, needless to say, high.
While our cupcakes and frosting cooled, Zelda tackled the drink portion of the evening. Now when it comes to Derby, we are 100% Team Julep. But even we can admit that sometimes, just maybe, you want to switch it up for something a little lighter, a little fruitier, a little, dare we say, pinker?
Enter the Lilly, official drink of the Kentucky Oaks — the race for the fillies held the day before Derby and celebrated with much gusto (and no school or work) by the locals. Most of the work for this drink came in the form of procuring the ingredients: We had to go to three stores (one grocery, two liquor) in order to procure the four necessary elements (Zelda was so frazzled that she forgot to buy the garnish. Le sigh.). But once we had all four bottles in hand, it was smooth sailing! The official recipe we used, courtesy of the Kentucky Derby website, is short on instructions, simply saying, “Once the ingredients are mixed, place the pinkish cocktail in [a glass.]”
Left to wing it, Zelda decided to use her shaker, because it makes her feel like a legit bartending badass. So into the shaker went 1 1/4 oz of vodka, 1 oz of sweet and sour mix, ¼ oz of triple sec, 3 oz of cranberry juice, and a few cubes of ice. She shook to combine and then poured the indeed pinkish concoction into her stemless wine glass. Now the recipe calls for a glass of crushed ice; Zelda did her best to improvise with the help of a mallet and some well-placed towels (see above), but not being in possession of an ice maker, her results remained on the cubier side. The recipe also calls for the bartender to garnish with a blackberry and a lemon slice. Having forgotten to purchase either of these items, she threw in a colorful straw and called it a day.
While we remain julep loyalists through and through, these Lillies were mighty tasty! Sweet but not overwhelmingly so (definitely make sure you get cranberry juice and not cranberry juice cocktail, which would throw the whole thing into cavity range), we’ll definitely be keeping this in our rotation for the spring and summer months, especially for those poor souls who have not learned to appreciate the glory of Kentucky’s finest brown liquor, and yet have somehow managed to remain our friends. The mind boggles.
Cocktails in hand, it was time to finish our dessert! We ran into some issues when we attempted to frost the cupcakes. In an unforeseen hiccup, leaving out the ganache had removed a vital glue that is meant to hold the pecan frosting to the cake. We tried a spreader, we tried icing tips, and finally thanks to an old-fashioned plastic bag we managed to dose each cupcake with some praline goodness, smoothing as necessary with our fingertips like true professionals. And while they weren’t as pretty as we had hoped, they tasted fantastic. Even without the filling, the cake was plenty moist, and the frosting gave Zelda all kinds of flashbacks to family trips to New Orleans in days gone by. Which really, at the end of the day, has been the overwhelming lesson of this whole cooking venture: It doesn’t have to look good, as long as it tastes great.