cupcake catastrophe 2013.

 Illustration by Kendra Gokey

Living abroad, it's expected that I'll miss out on events - weddings, baby showers, birthdays and even holidays. Access to my past life in the States is experienced as a voyeur who browses online photo albums, blogs and catches up on once a month Skype dates where a running list of topics to tackle sits beside me.

It's understood that Christmases will most likely be spent every year here in France (one holiday CDG to JFK hustle is more than enough for me in this lifetime), but one gathering that pains me to miss is funerals. Being so far from my family during a loss makes me feel uncharacteristically disconnected. This weekend was no exception and experienced sporadic waves of emotions almost as if they were being transported directly from New York. Also in my family's case, funerals are the only time where everyone is actually nice. Weddings? Forget about it. That's war season. And don't even get me started on the arrival of new babies. 

Despite the differences I have had with my family these past few months, believe it or not, I wanted to be with them this past weekend as they all said farewell to my uncle. Unfortunately having a Monday through Friday job that I heavily rely on for income, jetting back to New York for 48 hours is no longer possible, even with my mom's airline travel perks.

Knowing that I needed to be surrounded by family, instead of heading out to Fontainebleau on Sunday to celebrate Gilles' "Rock n' Roll" themed birthday, Aurelien arranged for us to spend the entire weekend out in the country. 

Gilles who has always wanted cupcakes on his birthday used the opportunity of having a real live American in the house to whip up these tasty delights.

"Being American, you must know the recipe by heart," Gilles said leading me into the kitchen, "So I didn't bother printing out the recipe."

While I don't know the exact measurements by heart, everything is printed on the box, so I knew I'd manage just fine. 

Famous last thoughts....

Gilles, who doesn't spare a single detail when he has a concept that he wants to see actualized, pulled out a large wooden wine box containing all of the accouterment for the project. There were bags of mini marshmallows, sprinkles, pearled sprinkles, heart sprinkles, baseball bat sprinkles, edible glitter, food coloring, and magazine clippings of cupcakes that he would like to have replicated.

In another box to its left were flour, eggs, yeast, powdered sugar and vanilla beans.

Yeast? Vanilla beans?

Looking left, then right, then in front of the box and under, I realized...there was no pre-made mix. I was making these puppies from scratch....including the frosting.

Of course, I was. How could I have possibly thought that I wouldn't be making them from scratch? Gilles would never make a trip into the city to spend 7 euros on a box of Duncan Hines at one of the obnoxiously overpriced American épiceries. Side note: I know a lot of people love them here but spending the equivalent of six bucks on a box of Stove Top to me is pure highway robbery. Call me cheap.

Okay, so for those of you who bake, you're probably chuckling at how simple the recipe is and that I don't need Duncan's help. But I was supposed to be flexing my American muscles by whipping up a batch of one of the national treasures with ease. It was evident that that was not going to happen, and I was left with no choice but to confess to Gilles exactly how I "bake" cupcakes in the States: dumping a box of powder in a bowl, adding water and mixing. 

"Does the "box" come with little men to turn on the oven too?" Gilles playfully mocked.

No. But it should.

We couldn't print out a recipe because SFR had cut their internet (which by default segued into the next project of getting the internet back up so we can work on Gilles' new blog), so we had to wing it by going on our baker's instincts. 

In truth, the batter itself came out delicious; sweet, rich and creamy. The look of absolute horror consumed Gilles face when he caught me picking at a private bowl of raw batter that I had set aside for myself. I guess that doesn't happen here in France. What's the point of baking if you're not going to consume raw ingredients masked with copious amounts of sugar? Am I alone here?

While the batter itself was a success, the actual cupcakes....

Hmmm, how do I put this? I'll quote Gilles who commented several times "C'est catastrophe!" or "Oh là là, quel bordel!"

Off the top of my head, here are some things that went wrong:

Mistake #1: For the first batch, we thought it would be a good idea to add red food coloring to the batter to make pastel pink cupcakes. Cute, right? Well, we got the food dye combination wrong, as well as forgetting to consider the already yellow batter and black dots from the vanilla bean. Instead of Marie Antoinette pink batter, we instead created a dull armadillo grey color (enter Steel Magnolias reference here).

Mistake #2: Because Gilles didn't have a proper cupcake baking mold, we first tried to use a muffin machine which in theory sounded like it could work. Well, what the machine produced was dark grey deflated cupcake stubs that were steaming from the center with burnt black bottoms.

Mistake #3: Not adding egg whites to frosting for a fluffy texture. Our frosting, while it tasted decent, its consistency was gummy, runny and flat.

Mistake #4: Forgoing the entire idea of a cupcake baking sheet and filling up cupcake wrappers with batter and placing them in the oven. At least I knew better not to fill it to the top!

The finished product:

Bordel, indeed. Gilles figured if we merchandise them up a bit, no one would notice their dumpy shape, waxy frosting, and gummy texture.
He also served them several cocktails into the party. Smart move.

Cupcake catastrophe aside, spending the afternoon with Gilles while Aurelien napped in the guest room, and Françoise was at the coiffeur getting her hair done for Sunday's rocker party, was exactly what I needed. It reminded me a lot of some of the kitchen disasters I trapped my own father in the back when I was a teenager and wanted to prove that I was self-sufficient and could prepare a meal for two. He'd struggle for a bite or two of dry turkey burgers, runny eggs or clumpy rice before relieving us both with a treat at the downstairs pizza parlor.

It's not about the food, it's about the experience and last Saturday afternoon with Gilles was just that.

So now you must be wondering, what exactly did this Rock n' Roll themed birthday party entail? To be continued...


  1. What a wonderful memory and so beautifully told !!!

    1. Thank you!! It was a lovely memory. I'm lucky to have such an awesome future father-in-law! Thank you for commenting. :)

  2. well I for one don't think they look so bad...the colours are tres belle.

    but you are brave..I've never made them from scratch...that's what Betty Crocker is for.

    too funny.

    1. Oh but you didn't taste them! They were gummy and weird tasting, but still not too shabby for making them from scratch without a recipe. We're going to give it another try with the cupcake pan and pre-made mix that my mom is bringing to France in 2 weeks! To be continued...

  3. Come on Ella, they don't look bad at all! I can't wait to hear about the party and I am very glad that you found some well-deserved comfort. I know how hard it is to be overseas in such situations. Hug.

    1. That was why we spruced them up with all the colors and frou frou to distract from the weird taste! It was the perfect way to spend the weekend considering the circumstances. Thanks, Heather...the hug from Provence was received. :)

  4. Well... they do look good! Looking forward to what a smash (ha) they were at the party.

    I hope that this festive weekend out in Fontainebleau helped with your feelings of disconnect. I was far from home during a big family loss a few years back so I know how consuming it can be. My mom told me this: he knows your thinking of him and honoring him from where you are, and as for your cousins you want to support, they have it now, in these moments you can be there in the near future when they'll need it most. It helped me feel more at ease and hopefully it does you :).

    1. Thank you Danielle, making a catastrophe in the comfort of a home with my second family was exactly what I needed.

      It is hard to be away when you know back home everyone is mourning. A lot of my friends who were studying abroad during 9/11 felt like this, and I never understood why they wanted to be in NY during such a sad I understand.

      Thank you so much for your comforting words. It's little things like this that help, so I thank you.

  5. Gilles is a blast! And it is an American tradition to lick the spoon/bowl. ;-) Print out that recipe. Whip up a few batches so next time you see Gilles the two of you can make some bona fide American style cupcakes. Considering you didn't use a recipe, yours look pretty damn fine.

    How wonderful that a part of your beloved uncle lives on in you. And in his beloved Paris. Bet he also liked cupcakes. My condolences to all your family, Ella.

    1. He really is a blast! I love spending time with him. He's so funny and dry, and didn't think twice when I was skipping in place while mix up the batter with a whisk and singing Devo!

      The next time, we're getting some help from my pals Betty or Duncan, I can tell you that! Those always come out so good. Packed with chemicals I'm sure but so, so, soooo good!

      My uncle did like cupcakes! I remember a few dozens of Magnolias being present at his birthday party several years ago.

      Thank you so much for your comment.

  6. I'm sorry to hear that this weekend was a sad time for you and I know what you mean about funerals being the hardest ones to miss. It's one event that I've always told myself I'll never count the cost of getting to, but my family is all on the same continent, so it's different.

    I love the fact though, that Seb's family are the people you turn to for comfort when you can't be with your own. I'm sure it's a sign of a great future together!

    1. Funerals are the hardest to miss as well as the toughest to get to when you're so far because all of the plans seem to come into place within hours. You're lucky to have everyone on the same continent, which means you probably don't miss out on the good stuff too!

      His family really reached out and let me stay a day later, even after Seb went off to work Monday morning. I just needed that extra day. I couldn't have asked for anything more given the situation.

      Thank you!

  7. "I can't begin to imagine how you make grey icing.";)) I love that movie! I can still see Olympia Dukakis saying to Shirley MacLaine: " This is Jackson's aunt. The one who made the groom cake", and Shirley MacLaine turning to the aunt and askng in a flat voice: "You're responsible for that?":) Love it!:)

    Darling, ask your mom to send you DH mix before the wedding, I beg you;)

    Glad the family weekend was therapeutic for you:) It's so great that you have such funky, warm and welcoming in-laws:)

    1. Last night I was watching Bored to Death and Olympia Dukakis (which incidentally is my YouTube screen name) was on as a home-wrecker to a couple in their 30s. It was genius! She's so fantastic!! I need to watch Steel Magnolias before the wedding...well at least the first 45 minutes of it.

      Yes! My mom is bringing mix actually in a few weeks to do another test batch. We should be in tip-top shape for the wedding!

      I couldn't have asked for anything more in my in-laws. I really scored with this guy...he's the entire package.

  8. ROFLMAO, sorry, the combo of the cupcake disasters and Steel Magnolias was too much! I'm glad you got to spend a family weekend together anyway, and hope it helped a bit (I know exactly what you mean about your family choosing their times to be nice, mine seems to behave at funerals too, the rest of the time, not so much...)

    PS, I always leave a decent amount of batter for cookies and cakes in the bowl for a snack ;o)

    1. Hahaha I knew you guys would get a kick out of a little Steel Magnolias. That film is such a classic! Shirley MacLaine is so crotchety! The armadillo cake with the red velvet filling! So good!

      I'm glad you understood what I meant about families being on their best behavior during a crisis. It's good to know that it's not just my family who are a little, shall I say, off? Thanks, Katy!

  9. They actually look super cute!! Would never have thought they were dumpy. I'm sure they tasted better than you thought!



    1. They are dried up, poorly made patisserie but just in a cute outfit. Don't be fooled by these little devils! Batch two will be a success...I can just feel it!!

  10. Really? I think they look kind of cute too. But sprinkles are always a positive thing, non? And glad to hear that the afternoon gave you a much-needed boost. Can't get much better than that.

    1. Sprinkles, marshmallows and pastel colored icing can be deceiving. But you know what, after a few cocktails, they tasted just fine!

      The laughs we had making them made the disappointing outcome so worth it.

      I'm so excited that your House Hunters Episode is airing!!!! Please tell me what you think!! And if you can a bootleg copy like I did, please send me an email!

    2. Cocktails solve all. At least that's been my experience.

      I'll let you know for sure if I can find something! Unless of course, it's awful. haha.

  11. They look cute! And baking without a recipe is crazy talk, you did way better than I would have under the circumstances. I've never heard of this egg whites in frosting trick - I use just icing sugar, cocoa and water - I find the French are usually justs amazed by the whole concept of icing, it's hard to believe they would notice if yours wasn't 100% perfect anyway!

    Oh and there's a picture of me c. 2 years old where I'm licking cake batter or something off my FOOT, so licking the mixing bowl is definitely a grand Anglo-Saxon tradition in my book!

    1. Baking without a recipe IS SO crazy talk! It's a miracle that I was able to get this fair. I'm by no means a "baker"!

      I will try you recipe. Does the frosting come out airy yet creamy? I only guessed on the egg white bit because that's how other recipes get fluffed, so I'm assuming it would have the same effect on icing....or maybe the sugar will weight it down? Hmmmm, deep, thought-provoking questions here....

      Licking batter off your foot?! You're my hero!! Bad ass Gwan...even at age 2.

    2. Butter icing usually comes out pretty fluffy - twice as much icing sugar as butter and beat it with a fork.

      Gwan, I knew there must be a reason for small children being able to get their feet in their mouths!

  12. I think you and Gilles bonded over the catastrophe ( I agree they dontvlook that bad!)

    ......and now for your wedding cake you must have one of those made from piled high individual cupcakes, just for your future Fatef-in-law

    Glad this helped you get through the weekend

    Love Denise

    1. We really did bond. His side comments were the best. I was just going to go with it, until he announced what I was thinking that it was a disaster, and I just burst out into uncontrollable laughter. After that, we just improvised and made the best of it.

      It helped a lot this weekend. Thanks for reaching out, Denise.

      And I'm serious! If you want my on-line workout routines, let me know. I'm going to hop over to your blog to see if you're interested!

  13. Eating raw batter is one great American tradition I think the whole world would benefit by adopting!

  14. You totally pulled it off! I don't even think I would have attempted it.
    And yeah, what's the point in baking something if you can't lick the bowl after?? That's dumb. x.