LIVING

Prairie Girl Bakery Owner Jean Blacklock Is Living The Cupcake Dream

02/19/2016 10:32 EST

TORONTO — Becoming a cupcake mogul might seem like an about-face for a lawyer and financial executive, but for Jean Blacklock launching Prairie Girl Bakery seemed like a natural next step.

She spent a dozen years specializing in estate planning and tax law in Calgary before taking on a post as head of wealth services with the Bank of Montreal and eventually transferring to Toronto. But while planning a second marriage to a co-worker, she decided to take the plunge into a new career after 25 years.

Prairie Girl Bakery, named in an ode to her roots growing up in Saskatoon, was hatched in 2011.

Though she's had no formal training in baking, it's been a hobby since she was a child.

"I knew that I wanted my business to be in an area that I was passionate about, like food. But I also knew that I wanted the business to be large enough that it would actually need professional bakers that would take my recipes," she says.

"Either way it's going to be the same calories, that's what I always think.... I'd rather have something that tastes great."

"The intention was never that I would work in the business, although the recipes are mine. My intention was always to grow it into something that could service downtown Toronto."

Now, with three locations and 25 bakers, it seems her wish has been fulfilled. A couple of years ago she began offering homemade cakes and also brought in cookies, brownies and tarts. Last fall she launched fondant-covered wedding cakes.

As if she's not busy enough, Blacklock, 54, is graduating from the Toronto Institute of Relational Psychotherapy this spring after studying part-time for three years. She carves out a few afternoons a week from Prairie Girl Bakery to see clients as part of her studies.

And she's just published "The Prairie Girl Cupcake Cookbook: Living Life One Cupcake at a Time" (Appetite by Random House), a departure from previous books she'd written on estate planning.

The cookbook contains some 50 recipes for cupcakes sold at the bakery, including the five cake bases — vanilla, chocolate, red velvet, banana and carrot — along with seven standard icings ranging from vanilla bean and chocolate cream cheese to lemon, strawberry, peppermint, peanut butter and classic cream cheese.

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Also in the book is a riotous range of decadent variations, along with gluten-free and vegan options.

The variations stem from the "treats of the week" Blacklock tempts customers with at the bakeries on top of daily fare. The treats are chosen from a menu of 35 rotated throughout the year and include chocolate fudge sundae with ganache filling, tiramisu brushed with marsala and espresso syrup, peanut butter and jelly, pina colada, salted caramel and hazelnut. At Christmas, eggnog and gingerbread flavours are on offer.

All cupcakes are made on the premises and any left at the end of the day are donated to charity.

While Blacklock's favourite flavour is vanilla, many customers clamour for red velvet, her biggest seller.

The first year Blacklock was in business she was astonished at how many people show their love with cupcakes on Valentine's Day.

"It's our busiest week. Busier than Christmas, busier than anything else, and I had no idea about that until I opened and faced it for myself in 2012," she says.

On a typical Friday, bakers whip up about 6,000 cupcakes, but the number swells to four times that for Valentine's Day.

She acknowledges it's not easy developing recipes for business.

"I find that it's necessary to make it again and again and again just to tweak it, a little bit fluffier, should you add just a bit more salt, like you're going for perfection.

"And then of course it needs to be translated into commercial quantities which is all by weight. Most home bakers don't weigh their ingredients. So it takes a while. I was surprised."

Prairie Girl Bakery owner Jean Blacklock is adamant her confections be baked from scratch using fresh eggs, good-quality chocolate and salted butter, not shortening.

"Shortening is very much cheaper, but it has a really different texture and cheaper baked goods use it, but I think it's a real trade-away. It gives you an odd mouth feel and not the same flavour as butter," she says.

"Either way it's going to be the same calories, that's what I always think.... I'd rather have something that tastes great.

"On a real practical basis, one of the keys to success that I find in terms of baking is to try to bring your ingredients to room temperature, especially something like butter," says Blacklock.

"I find even eggs, out of the fridge an hour just to help the whole batter come together and incorporate, is a little tip."

Blacklock's recipes can be used to make three different cupcake sizes. You can make 36 minis, just enough for a sweet indulgence, 18 regular size cupcakes or 12 large Prairie Girl-size treats. The first two sizes require two pans if baking the entire batch at the same time, while the Prairie Girl-size cupcakes are made in crown muffin pans, available at specialty kitchen and restaurant supply stores or online.

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For icing, a piping bag and star tip are used at the bakery, but at home a table knife and offset spatula will work.

Here are some recipes from "The Prairie Girl Cupcake Cookbook" to try at home:

RED VELVET CUPCAKES

This is one of the most popular cupcakes on offer at Prairie Girl Bakery.

Gel-paste food colouring is different than the liquid variety in that it gives a beautiful, deep colour without thinning the batter. It blends really well too. You can find it at specialty food and kitchenware stores.

500 ml (2 cups) cake flour

50 ml (1/4 cup) Dutch-process cocoa

5 ml (1 tsp) baking soda

2 ml (1/2 tsp) salt

250 ml (1 cup) vegetable oil

50 ml (1/4 cup) salted butter, room temperature

300 ml (1 1/4 cups) plus 30 ml (2 tbsp) white sugar

2 eggs

5 ml (1 tsp) vanilla extract

2 ml (1/2 tsp) red soft gel-paste food colouring

125 ml (1/2 cup) plus 30 ml (2 tbsp) 3.5 per cent buttermilk

6 ml (1 1/4 tsp) white vinegar

Preheat oven to 180 C (350 F).

In a medium bowl, combine flour, cocoa, baking soda and salt and whisk together. Set aside.

Using a stand mixer fitted with whisk attachment and set on medium-high speed, cream oil, butter and sugar until smooth, about 8 minutes. Stop mixer twice during that time to scrape down sides of bowl.

One at a time, add eggs and beat for an additional minute on medium speed.

Turn mixer to low speed and carefully add vanilla and food colouring. Stop mixer after food colouring is mostly blended and scrape down bowl again, just to be sure colouring is distributed evenly.

Remove bowl from mixer and, using a wooden spoon, alternately add in flour mixture and buttermilk. Begin and end with flour mixture.

Once combined, add vinegar and whisk once more. Make sure vinegar is completely incorporated, but don't overbeat batter.

Place cupcake liners in cupcake pan(s). Using a large spoon, divide batter equally among liners.

If making mini or regular cupcakes, fill each liner three-quarters full. If making Prairie Girl-size cupcakes, you can fill each liner to the top (the "crown" in the pan allows the cupcakes to rise and not overflow).

Bake in preheated oven for 12 to 13 minutes for mini cupcakes, 15 to 17 minutes for regular size or 18 to 19 minutes for Prairie Girl-size cupcakes. When done, cupcakes will be rounded and the tops will spring back when lightly touched. If there is a raw circle in centre, the cupcakes likely need a minute or two of additional baking time.

Let cupcakes cool in pan(s) for 10 minutes until they can easily be removed to a rack. Let cupcakes cool completely on rack before icing.

Makes 36 minis, 18 regulars or 12 Prairie Girl-size cupcakes.

BANANA CARAMEL CUPCAKES

To make Banana Caramel Cupcakes, prepare one batch of Banana Cupcakes and frost with one batch of Caramel Icing.

BANANA CUPCAKES

500 ml (2 cups) all-purpose flour

10 ml (2 tsp) baking powder

5 ml (1 tsp) baking soda

2 ml (1/2 tsp) salt

6 ml (1 1/4 tsp) ground cinnamon

2 ml (1/2 tsp) ground nutmeg

175 ml (3/4 cup) white sugar

125 ml (1/2 cup) salted butter, room temperature

5 ml (1 tsp) vanilla extract

2 eggs

375 ml (1 1/2 cups) ripe mashed bananas (about 4 large)

250 ml (1 cup) 3.5 per cent buttermilk

Preheat oven to 180 C (350 F).

In a medium bowl, combine flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt and spices and whisk together. Set aside.

Using a stand mixer fitted with whisk attachment and set on medium-high speed, cream sugar, butter and vanilla until fluffy, about 8 minutes. Stop mixer twice during that time to scrape down sides of bowl.

One at a time while mixer is on medium speed, add eggs. Beat for an additional minute or until fully blended.

Stop mixer and add mashed bananas. Mix on low speed for 1 minute, scraping down sides of bowl once. The mixture will look curdled.

Remove bowl from mixer and, using a wooden spoon, alternately add in flour mixture and buttermilk. Begin and end with flour mixture, and make sure not to overbeat batter.

Place cupcake liners in cupcake pan(s). Using a large spoon, divide batter equally among the liners. If making mini or regular cupcakes, fill each liner three-quarters full. If making Prairie Girl-size cupcakes, you can fill each liner to the top (the ``crown'' in the pan allows the cupcakes to rise and not overflow).

Bake in preheated oven for 11 to 12 minutes for mini cupcakes, 15 to 16 minutes for the regular size or 18 to 19 minutes for Prairie Girl-size cupcakes. When done, cupcakes will be rounded and tops will spring back when lightly touched. If there is a raw circle in the centre, the cupcakes likely need a minute or two of additional baking time.

Let cupcakes cool in pan(s) for 10 minutes until they can be easily removed to a rack. Let cupcakes cool completely on the rack before icing.

Makes 36 minis, 18 regulars or 12 Prairie Girl-size cupcakes

CARAMEL ICING

Do not use a dulce de leche or caramel sauce that is ``liquidy.'' If the sauce is really thick, microwave it for a few minutes to loosen it, without heating it.

375 ml (1 1/2 cups) salted butter, room temperature

6 oz brick-style cream cheese, room temperature (3/4 of a 250-g package)

10 ml (2 tsp) natural caramel extract

1.5 l (6 cups) icing sugar

125 ml (1/2 cup) good-quality dulce de leche or thick caramel sauce

In bowl of a stand mixer, place butter, cream cheese, caramel extract and 750 ml (3 cups) of the icing sugar. Using the whisk attachment, beat on low speed until ingredients are combined, about 3 minutes. Stop mixer twice to scrape down sides of bowl with a rubber scraper.

With mixer on medium speed, add remaining icing sugar 250 ml (1 cup) at a time. Stop mixer twice to scrape down sides of bowl, folding from bottom until everything is blended. This should take about 5 minutes in total.

With mixer off, add dulce de leche. Return mixer to medium-high speed and beat icing for an additional 4 minutes, stopping once to scrape down sides of bowl to ensure everything is blended.

STRAWBERRY ICING

Blacklock says she did plenty of testing of this recipe before hitting on the idea of using freeze-dried strawberries, which provide a lovely hue and smooth texture. Dried fruits have too much moisture for icing and she says they may break your food processor if you try to pulverize them.

She says this icing is one of the more popular flavours among bakery customers.

1 batch of your favourite cupcakes

375 ml (1 1/2 cups) salted butter, room temperature

175 g (6 oz) brick-style cream cheese, room temperature (3/4 of a 250-g package)

75 ml (1/3 cup) powdered freeze-dried strawberries

30 ml (2 tbsp) whipping cream (35 per cent fat)

10 ml (2 tsp) vanilla extract

1.5 l (6 cups) icing sugar

In bowl of a stand mixer, place butter, cream cheese, strawberries, cream, vanilla and 750 ml (3 cups) of the icing sugar. Using whisk attachment, beat on low speed until all ingredients are combined, about 3 minutes. Stop mixer twice to scrape down sides of bowl with a rubber scraper.

With mixer on medium speed, add remaining icing sugar 250 ml (1 cup) at a time. Stop mixer twice to scrape down sides of bowl, folding from bottom until everything is blended. This should take about 5 minutes in total.

Increase speed to medium-high and beat icing for an additional 4 minutes.

Frost or pipe icing onto cupcakes.

Makes about 1.5 l (6 cups), enough to generously frost 36 minis cupcakes, 18 regulars or 12 Prairie Girl-size cupcakes.

Source: "The Prairie Girl Cupcake Cookbook" by Jean Blacklock (Appetite by Random House, 2016).

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