It’s been summer officially here in California for a few weeks now, and like most seasons in This Great State, it’s peculiarly schizophrenic. Hundred-plus noonday temperatures one week, crisp and chilly overnights the next. They say you can get used to anything, but even the natives here still find time to bitch and moan about the weather instead of doing something about it, like moving. I guess I’m lucky in that I spent a large part of my childhood growing up in the Midwest, a region of the country notorious for its own extremes of climate: jungle-humid summers, savagely cruel winters, and even the springs and autumns were marred by cicada invasions and the odd freak tornado.
For foodies and other gourmand-types, we often mark the changing of the seasons by the availability of our favorite produce, the arrival of which also sometimes serves as a harbinger of things to come. For example, we know it’s spring when we see the first scrawny stalks of asparagus start to appear at the farmer’s market and more “locavore”-minded eateries; we also know that when this unfairly short asparagus season ends, it means that both summer and strawberries can’t be too far off.
Baking also has its own season, but it isn’t summer. Or is it? On one hand, what kind of masochist wants to hang around a hot kitchen on a hot day with the stupid oven on? Summer is for bikini sorbets, barefoot cocktails, and halter top fruit salads, not sweater cupcakes or flannel muffins. On the other hand, baking as an activity may be relegated to the comfort months, but baking as a trend has proven itself lately to be an all-weather sport. In our post-postmodern world, it’s the end result that is often a more accurate expression of our labors; and if there’s anything that’s the antithesis of seasonal produce, but still representative of an American summer, it’s the powdered drink mix.
There’s no real trick to incorporating Tang or Kool-Aid or Country Time into a cupcake recipe; since these mixes are mostly sugar anyway, you can more or less swap them out on a one-to-one basis. However, since they are flavored, you should limit the exchange to only up to half of the sugar asked for in a recipe; any more than that and the resulting cupcakes will be too intense for even the most dedicated sugar addict.
I made two batches of the Tang cupcakes above, using a recipe that asked for 3/4 cup of sugar. For the first batch, I used half a cup of Tang and a quarter cup of sugar; for the second batch I reversed the proportions, a quarter cup of Tang and half a cup of sugar. The second batch, with less Tang, were more, dare I say, delicately flavored than the first batch, which were more like a slap in the face with a rubber glove filled with sugar.
If you’re making your own frosting, simply alternate the regular doses of powdered sugar with smaller installations of the powdered drink mix of your choice, tasting along the way to monitor the level of sweetness. It may actually be easier to use a can of store-bought frosting (don’t be ashamed, we won’t tell) and whip in the mix that way, since store-bought frostings tend to be pretty homogenous and bland to begin with and could use a little spiking.
Finally, it probably goes without saying that this trashy trick works best with vanilla or other light, “summery” flavored cupcakes. Unless you like the idea of Kool-Aid in your chocolate.