The BEST Vanilla Cupcake + the BEST Coffee Buttercream

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The BEST vanilla cupcakes with the BEST coffee buttercream frosting. A double sweet treat, for sure!


Happy birthday to my wonderful Mom!!  Yes, today is her birthday, and I just got back from visiting her for her special day.  When I asked her what kind of birthday cake she wanted she replied, “It has to be something small.”  See, our hips and thighs are still recovering from all the goodies she made for her wine tasting party last month.  So she didn’t want a big cake that left her with leftovers to eat!

The perfect treat??  Her favorite cupcakes! … Soft, fluffy-textured vanilla cupcakes with coffee buttercream frosting.  Yum.
Okay, I have a confession.  These are her almost favorite cupcakes.  She actually likes it better when I do these as chocolate cupcakes with coffee buttercream frosting … she loves that mocha combination.  But I was at the very end of my quest for the BEST vanilla cupcake recipe, with just one tiny little tweak to make to the front-runner recipe.  And I’ve been working on this quest for a looonnng time … longer than I’d like to admit.  (How can it be so difficult to find a simple vanilla cupcake that I’m happy with?)    So Mom made a concession and went with vanilla cupcakes to allow me the opportunity to test this final version.  She’s sweet like that.
My quest for the best vanilla cupcake has been quite an involved and fun process of testing and tweaking.  I like a vanilla cupcake that has a fairly fluffy texture, light-&-airy crumb, and a good flavor of vanilla.  Dense, gummy, and tasting of slightly-sweet flour is not for me.  I believe I’ve tested ten different recipes, along with testing several rounds of tweaks to the front-runner recipes of those ten.  I’ve tried cake flour, all-purpose flour, and self-rising flour recipes.  I’ve tried buttermilk, whole milk, skim milk, and 2% milk as the moistener.  I’ve tried a cold-oven pound cake cupcake.  I’ve tried a box mix.  I’ve tried, I’ve tried, I’ve tried …  And now I’m pleased to say that I finally have a result I am happy with!
Before we look at that winning recipe, I’ll share a little glimpse into my process.  I start by choosing three or four recipes of whatever I’m questing for – in this case, vanilla cupcakes.  I bake up a small batch of each one, typically 1/2 the recipe of each so I don’t end up with cupcakes (or cookies, or whatevers) flowing out of every window in my house.  In the case of cupcakes, I use a different color paper liner for each one so I can easily tell them apart and don’t get them mixed up in the tasting step.  Here are the four from my last testing round, all lined up and ready for tasting:
The BEST vanilla cupcakes with the BEST coffee buttercream frosting. A double sweet treat, for sure!

Next, I put them through a blind tasting with my husband and me (well, it’s not blind for me, since I know which recipe went into which paper liner … but it’s close enough!).  Then I involve a friend or two, or my parents, or in some cases – both.  I take all that feedback and decide which recipes need to be scrapped all-together, which are worthy of another try with a tweak or two, or if there’s one that’s spot-on just as it is.  And my friends involved in this process know that I don’t just want them to say, “Oh, that’s good.”  They have to tell me what exactly they like – the flavor?  The texture?  How it looks?  Then they have to compare, saying things like, “I like the flavor of this one, but I like how light and fluffy this one is.”  Then it’s back to baking more batches and re-tasting until there’s a clear winner!

So, here it is … the clear winner of the quest for the BEST vanilla cupcake … ever-so-slightly-modified Vanilla Cupcakes from The Hummingbird Bakery Cookbook.

I was actually very skeptical of The Hummingbird Bakery’s recipe, and considered not even testing it.  Why?  Well, it uses much less sugar and much less butter than most of the cupcake recipes out there.  And doesn’t sugar and butter make everything good??  And their mixing method wasn’t the traditional creaming method.  Instead, you first combine all the dry ingredients with the butter and mix it until you get a crumb mixture … then add the wet ingredients.  The ever-so-slight modification I made was to increase the vanilla, as the original recipe called for only 1/4 teaspoon, resulting in a too-faint vanilla flavor for me.  With this one small change, these cupcakes were vanilla cupcake perfection!
Now … on to the coffee buttercream frosting.
This buttercream is so light-and-fluffy, with a fantastic coffee flavor.  It’s from my all-time absolute favorite cookbook, The Best Recipe by the editors of Cook’s Illustrated magazine.  Beating it the full time called for in each step of the recipe is the key.  It makes it soooo smooth and light … which is exactly how I love my frosting.  Add the coffee mixture into a butter & confectioners’ sugar mixture …
The BEST vanilla cupcakes with the BEST coffee buttercream frosting. A double sweet treat, for sure!

and then keep on beating it until it’s a beautiful light tan color.

The BEST vanilla cupcakes with the BEST coffee buttercream frosting. A double sweet treat, for sure!
Pipe the coffee buttercream onto the cupcakes, top with a chocolate-covered espresso bean, and there you have it!  The BEST vanilla cupcake with the BEST coffee buttercream ever.  Happy birthday, Mom!!
The BEST vanilla cupcakes with the BEST coffee buttercream frosting. A double sweet treat, for sure!
The BEST Vanilla Cupcakes with the BEST Coffee Buttercream Frosting
Source:  Cupcakes adapted from The Hummingbird Bakery Cookbook, frosting adapted from The Best Recipe by the editors of Cook’s Illustrated magazine
(Printable recipe)
Vanilla Cupcakes


  • 1 c. all-purpose flour
  • A scant 3/4 c. granulated sugar
  • 1 1/2 tsp. baking powder
  • Pinch of salt
  • 3 T. butter, at room temperature
  • 1/2 c. whole milk (I also tried it with 2% milk, and it worked fine)
  • egg
  • 1 tsp. vanilla extract



  1. Put the flour, sugar, baking powder, salt, and butter in mixing bowl. Beat on slow speed until everything is combined and you have a crumb mixture with a sandy consistency. Gradually pour in half of the milk; beat until the milk is just incorporated.
  2. Whisk together the remaining milk (1/4 cup), egg, and vanilla. Pour into the flour mixture and beat until all ingredients are just incorporated. Beat for about another 30 seconds to one minute until the batter is smooth. Do not over mix.
  3. Spoon batter into muffin pan cups lined with paper cupcake liners, filling cups 1/2 full. Bake at 325 degrees for 20 – 25 minutes, or until light golden and the cake springs back when lightly touched. Cool slightly in the pan before removing cupcakes to a wire rack. Cool completely before frosting.


NOTE:  This recipe makes 12 cupcakes.  And it really does make 12!  Fill your cups only 1/2 full, as this batter rises quite a bit.  When I divided the batter between only 10 muffin cups, I had several that rose over the sides of the cups way too much.  If you’re like me, you’ll feel like there’s not enough batter to stretch to 12 cupcakes … but there really is
Coffee Buttercream Frosting


  • 1 1/2 T. instant coffee granules
  • 1 1/2 T. water
  • 1 1/2 T. vanilla extract
  • 3/4 lb. (3 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
  • 3 c. confectioners’ sugar
  • 3 T. milk



  • Combine water, coffee granules, and vanilla extract in a small bowl; stir to dissolve coffee. Set aside.
  • Beat butter in bowl of an electric mixer on medium speed until fluffy, about 1 minute. Reduce mixer speed to low. Add confectioners’ sugar, 1 cup at a time, beating for a few seconds between each addition. Increase mixer speed to medium and beat for about 3 minutes.
  • Add the coffee mixture and milk; beat on low speed to combine. Scrape down sides and bottom of the bowl. Increase mixer speed to medium and beat until fluffy, about 4 minutes. Frosts 18 cupcakes.

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