Last winter, I spent lots of hours in my car driving to various residency interviews in other states.  During all these long drives my mind would inevitably wander to the subject of food, and often cupcakes.  On my way to Iowa I was particularly bored, so I tried brainstorming some of my own variations of cupcakes.  I thought up these cupcakes during my drive, but never put my plan into action.  Recently I decided I wanted to bring in some treats to one of the salons I frequent, and I recalled this idea.  These seemed very salon-ish to me, luxurious and all that, so I decided to give them a try.  I made a champagne chiffon cake for the base, dipped the top in a bittersweet chocolate ganache, and topped with a chocolate covered strawberry.  And voila!  Simple and elegant cupcakes.  The staff of the salon was very grateful to receive these and they seemed to really enjoy them.  I think these would be perfect for a bridal shower or brunch!

My original plan was to use the cone method to fill these with a fresh strawberry each, but I experimented with one cupcake and quickly decided that was not the best idea.  The cake is fairly spongy and delicate, and once I removed enough of a cone to fit a berry inside, there really wasn’t much cake left.  I wanted the cake to play a starring role, so I nixed that idea.  I thought these tasted fabulous.  Though the champagne flavor was noticeable before the cupcakes were dressed, it was really muted by the ganache and strawberry on top.  If you want to emphasize that flavor more, you could drizzle the cakes with a champagne syrup before topping them.  I only baked about 16 cupcakes because I didn’t need more than that, and ended up dumping a significant amount of batter.  I think I could have gotten at least 24 out of the whole batch and possibly more.  Same thing with the ganache – I had quite a bit left over, but it would have been used if I had made more cupcakes.

Strawberry Champagne Cupcakes
For the chocolate-covered strawberries:
24 fresh whole strawberries
6 oz. semisweet or bittersweet chocolate, coarsely chopped
3-4 oz. white chocolate, coarsely chopped

For the cupcakes:
2 1/4 cups sifted cake flour
1 tbsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. salt
7 large egg whites
7 large egg yolks
1 1/2 cups superfine sugar (regular is okay), divided
5 tbsp. vegetable oil
1 1/2 tsp. vanilla extract
3/4 cup champagne

For the ganache:
4 oz. bittersweet chocolate, finely chopped
1/2 cup plus 1 tablespoon heavy cream
2 tbsp. unsalted butter, cut into two pieces at room temperature

To make the chocolate-covered strawberries, wash and dry the berries throughly.  Place on a paper-towel lined plate while preparing the chocolate.

Line a plate or baking sheet with wax paper.  Place the chopped semisweet or dark chocolate in a microwave safe bowl.  Heat in 15-second intervals, stirring in between, until completely melted.  (It is best to use a small bowl, so that the chocolate is deep, making for easier dipping.)

Carefully dip each strawberry into the chocolate, coating the lower part evenly and making sure to leave about a third uncoated.  Lift from the chocolate and shake gently to remove any excess chocolate.  Place on the wax paper-lined baking sheet.

When all the berries have been coated in chocolate, place in the refrigerator to set while you prepare the white chocolate.  Place the chopped white chocolate in a double boiler over simmering water.  Heat until melted and smooth.  Transfer to a plastic bag with a very small tip of the corner cut off.  Remove the berries from the refrigerator, drizzle the white chocolate over the chocolate-covered portion of the berries, and return to the refrigerator to set completely.

To make the cupcakes, preheat the oven to 325 degrees F.  Line two cupcake pans with paper liners.  Combine the cake flour, baking powder and salt in a small bowl; set aside.  In the clean, dry bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, beat the egg whites until they become foamy.  Add 2 tablespoons of the sugar, increase the speed to medium-high and beat until stiff peaks form.  Transfer the beaten egg whites to a separate bowl and set aside.  Rinse and dry the mixer bowl and return it to the mixer base, fitted with the paddle attachment.  Add the egg yolks, the remaining sugar (1 cup plus 6 tablespoons), the vegetable oil and the vanilla extract to the mixing bowl; mix until well-combined.  Add in half of the dry ingredients and mix on low speed just until incorporated.  Mix in the champagne, and then the remaining dry ingredients just until incorporated.

Fold in about one third of the egg whites with a rubber spatula to lighten the batter.  Gently fold in the remaining egg whites, being careful not to deflate the batter.  Divide the batter between the cupcake liners, filling them about 3/4-full.  Bake for about 13 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean and the tops are golden.  Allow to cool in the pans 10 minutes, then transfer to a wire rack to cool completely.

To make the ganache, place the chocolate in a heatproof bowl.  Place the cream in a saucepan and bring to a boil.  Pour half of the cream over the chocolate and let stand 30 seconds. Working with a whisk or rubber spatula, gently stir the chocolate and cream together in small circles, starting at the center of the bowl and working your way out in increasingly larger concentric circles.  Pour in the remainder of the cream and blend it into the chocolate, using the same circular motions.  When the ganache is smooth and shiny, stir in the butter one piece at a time.  Don’t overwork it – the less you stir, the smoother and shinier it will be.  Let the ganache sit a few minutes, until it has thickened to an appropriate consistency for dipping the tops of the cupcakes.

To assemble, dip the top of each cupcake in the ganache.  Immediately top with a chocolate-covered strawberry.  Once all the cupcakes have been assembled, transfer them to the refrigerator to help set the ganache.  Serve at room temperature.

Source: cake adapted from Baking Bites, ganache from Baking: From My Home to Yours by Dorie Greenspan