It never takes long into the first hot week of the summer for me to get swept up in some sort of dorky nostalgia for a time or place I never knew, in this case, Main Street, U.S.A. with its drugstore soda counters counters, elaborate marble and stainless steel fountains manned by soda jerks serving five cent Cherry Cokes and root beers to bright-eyed youths that always said things like “Sir” and “Ma’am”. Of course, modern times call for modern formats, don’t they? Something you can pack up and bring to a barbecue or picnic? Thus I quickly became consumed with the idea of turning a root beer float into a cupcake; what I struggled to work out were the logistics.
I started with a root beer cupcake, which was actually a chocolate root beer cupcake, adapted from the Root Beer Bundt Cake in one my favorite cookbooks that I so, so eagerly anticipate the follow-up to this fall, Baked. I was hoping it would make a dozen cupcakes. It made 22. Urp.
I then spent a ridiculous amount of time pondering the frosting. Root beer foam? It might have been easier if I were Wylie Dufresne. Whipped cream? I liked the idea of it but the problem is that it’s not the most stable frosting. You get an hour, maybe two at room temperature out of it before it starts to wilt and re-liquefy. But the foamy creamy top of root beer floats always reminds me of whipped cream, so it won.
But something was still missing and so I began digging around my fridge until I unearthed a blazing red jar of maraschino cherries. And I know what you’re thinking, “Deb, don’t you know what is IN maraschino cherries? Are you trying to shorten your lifespan?” but rest assured these are like totally organic and local and maybe even free range. Seriously. All of it. Can’t you tell by the color?
I thought they looked much handsomer with cherries on top but still, couldn’t shake the feeling that these cupcakes weren’t yet accurate representations of root beer floats. And so I got out a melon baller (though concluded, minutes later, that the tip of a knife, cutting a small cone out of the top, worked much better)…
And a tiny
cookie ice cream scoop (though, of course, a small spoon will also work)…
And then more whipped cream…
And finally, finally I was convinced that my cupcakes were fitting enough to bear the “root beer float” title. The only thing I forgot to do was take them with me to any of the barbecues I went to this weekend; they’re all hanging out in my freezer, looking cute and getting stared down by this guy every time I open the door.
Root Beer Float Cupcakes
Cake adapted from Baked: New Frontiers in Baking
A root beer float is a tall glass of root beer with a scoop of vanilla ice cream inside. I tried to turn this into a cupcake a few ways, first with a plain whipped cream frosting (hoping the cream could stand in for ice cream) and then with both whipped cream and a tiny, nested scoop of ice cream. Both are delicious. Neither are particularly portable. The whipped cream is good for two hours at room temperature but the ice cream, only a few minutes. If you’re bringing them somewhere else, I suggest bringing the ice cream and/or whipped cream separately and assembling them on the spot; get others involved, I am sure it could be fun. You could also swap out both toppings for a more traditional, stable frosting such as a Quick Buttercream or a Seven Minute Frosting (my vote, because it tastes like marshmallows).
I also want to note that while the root beer flavor is present in the cakes, it’s not the loudest root beer flavor (unsurprising as most root beers today are pretty subtle). One way to make it more pronounced, as suggested in Baked, is to swap out half a cup of root beer for root beer schnapps, which looks like it is available from a few places online.
2 cups root beer (I used Boylan because it was easy to find and made with cane sugar)
1 cup dark unsweetened cocoa powder
1/2 cup (1 stick or 4 ounces) unsalted butter, cut into 1-inch pieces
1 1/4 cups granulated sugar
1/2 cup firmly packed dark brown sugar
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/4 teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
2 large eggs
1 1/2 cups heavy or whipping cream
3 tablespoons powdered sugar
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
Pint of vanilla ice cream (you’ll have leftover; you’re welcome)
Maraschino cherries (optional)
Make the root beer cupcakes: Preheat oven to 350°F. Line 22 cupcake cups with paper liners. In a small saucepan, heat the root beer, cocoa powder and butter over medium heat until the butter is melted. Add the sugars and whisk until dissolved. Remove from heat and let cool.
In a large bowl, whisk flour, baking soda, and salt together. In a small bowl, whisk the eggs until just beaten then whisk them into the cooled cocoa mixture until combined. Fold the liquid and flour mixtures together in the large bowl. The batter will be slightly lumpy; this is okay. If you overbeat it, it will get tough.
Fill cupcake liners about 2/3 to 3/4 full (a 1/4 cup scoop or measuring cup will filled mine perfectly) and bake cupcakes, rotating trays back to front and top to bottom halfway through, until a tester inserted into the center of each comes out clean, about 17 minutes. Transfer pan to a wire rack to cool completely.
Assemble cupcakes: Whip heavy or whipping cream with powdered sugar and vanilla until it holds soft peaks. You can do this with an electric mixer, but if you do it by hand, not only will you get a killer arm workout (which you can trade in for a cupcake, very soon), it will be nearly impossible to overbeat the cream. (Which I almost always do with a mixer.)
Use the tip of a knife to cut a small cone of cake out of the top center of each cupcake; feel free to snack on these, I won’t tell anyone. Using a spoon or a small cookie scoop, nest a scoop of ice cream in each indent. Surround ice cream with dollops of whipped cream. Top with a cherry, if using. To keep cupcakes in a holding pattern while you assemble the remaining ones, you can put them in the freezer, but try to do so for no more than 5 minutes or the whipped cream will harden.
More excessive detail: The brown paper cupcake liners are from New York Cake and Baking Supply on 22nd Street. They’re also available from many stores online (please do a simple search; I would prefer that the comment section is not filled with links to suppliers). I used a medium round piping tip to make the whipped cream dollops (the size escapes me) but a plastic bag with the corner snipped off will do almost the same job. I used a #70 scoop for the ice cream (about 1 tablespoon) but your 1 tablespoon measuring spoon would do about the same.