Something you’ve cooked reasonably well time and again just doesn’t turn out right sometimes.

Some fiascos are no surprise to me: rolling pooris, frying them — both efforts are bound to fail. I cannot get them round and of an even thickness and when I occasionally do, I can’t fry them to puff up satisfyingly into weightless golden air-balls. They’re flat, blistered and leaden with oil. But this doesn’t bother me — I expect no better. I’ve watched other experts make them, had other experts watch me make them, and there seems to be no solution. Fortunately I’ve only ever tried making them for family so no one is disappointed and I’m not embarrassed.

But there is food I’ve cooked reasonably well time and again, and one fine day it just doesn’t turn out right. Once my father was visiting town and arrived in time for an afternoon nap. I came home and made tea, smug that I had made chocolate cupcakes the previous day. They were a bit small, but at least they were there because he loves something sweet with his tea. For years my mother had baked twice a week to have large boxes — first brass, then plastic — always full of cookies and cake. This was a recipe I’d watched her make and then gone on to do it myself when I had an oven of my own. So I poured his tea, milk-in-first, and he stirred the sugar, took a sip and a bite of cake. Silence. No comment, compliment, sigh of satisfaction. He ate the entire cupcake, washing each bite down with a mouthful of tea. I asked how it was and he said politely, “Hmm, fine.” By then the children had appeared and started eating and I picked up one so that we all had our first bite at the same time. It was small, dark, dense, slightly salty and very bitter. There was no sugar at all. Never have I eaten anything so vile nor felt so foolish. We taxed him with being phoney so he grinned and said, “Yes, it could have done with some sugar, but it’s ok I’d sweetened my tea.” The cake had decent ingredients: fine cocoa, good butter, finely sifted flour and all the rest, but it tasted and felt wrong not only because it lacked sweetness but because sugar would have given it lightness as well. I realised then that sugar when it’s whipped gains air and traps it, which is probably why we used to beat sugar and coffee powder with a drop of water to make fake “espresso” back in college. The original recipe is faultless: it’s no one’s fault but my own if I omit crucial ingredients. Had I skipped the vanilla, merely the flavour would have been different; at least the cake would have felt and tasted like one.


Makes 16 (21/2-inch) cupcakes or 12 (3-inch) cupcakes

1 cup sifted all-purpose flour

1/4 cup sifted unsweetened cocoa

3/4 cup sugar

3/4 tsp baking soda

1 tsp salt

1/3 cup butter

1/2 cup buttermilk or sour milk*

1 tsp vanilla extract

1 egg

Preheat oven to 190 C (375 F). Grease and flour bottoms of 16 (21/2-inch) cupcake cups or 12 (3-inch) cupcake cups; or place paper liners in cupcake cups. In large bowl, sift flour with cocoa, sugar, soda and salt. Add butter, buttermilk and vanilla. Using portable electric mixer at low speed, beat 30 seconds, scraping side of bowl with rubber scraper. At medium speed, beat two minutes. Add egg: continue beating one minute longer. Spoon batter evenly into prepared cupcake cups, filling about half full. Bake about 20 minutes, or until surface springs back when gently pressed with fingertip. Remove to wire rack and cool thoroughly. Frost if desired.

To sour milk: Place 11/2 tsp vinegar or lemon juice in measuring cup. Add milk to measure 1/2 cup. Let stand a few minutes before using.


1/3 cup soft butter

31/2 cups sifted confectioners’ sugar

3 to 4 tbsp light cream

11/2 tsp vanilla extract

In medium bowl, with portable electric mixer at medium speed (or wooden spoon), beat butter with sugar, 3 tbsp cream and vanilla till smooth and fluffy. If frosting seems too thick to spread, gradually beat in a little more cream.