On Sunday, I spent a few hours with my teenage daughter talking through the University application process. She is currently doing her A/S levels (equivalent to Junior year in American high school) and the pressure is mounting as to what she is going to do after she finishes next year.
English literature is her favourite subject and she is keen to study it at University. This is unfortunate for her, as in England this is a very competitive course in terms of applicants versus places. Many Universities might have 40 places but close to 600 applicants. So this means the grade requirements are very high and even then, without an attractive and varied extracurricular “life”, your chances are slim.
However, University should be about studying something that stimulates you academically. With popular courses, this places the prospective student under huge pressure if they want to attend a Russell Group (UK’s equivalent to Ivy League) University or a top-notch red brick one. I’ve listened to many a parent argue that unless your child makes it in to the “top 20” you might as well not bother. Once you’ve heard, “the degree’s not worth the paper it’s written on” chanted at you a number of times it begins to take shape in your head.
Stories circulate about prospective students finding unusual courses with fewer applicants in order to get places at top Universities. A degree in David Beckham studies anyone? I don’t want to go down this route but nor do I want my daughter getting a series of rejections. I have to be careful too, how I handle this with my teenager. On the one hand she is adamant that she is not going to do well; but when I suggest applying to Universities with lower acceptance grades, she barks back at me “what you think I’m not good enough?”
Funny thing is I have all the confidence in the world that whatever University she chooses it will be a positive experience for her. Whether she has the academic ability to make it to the top or not.
After all, what is University really about?
Sure it’s great to get the degree at the end of it. Hopefully, but not always these days, it will lead to some decent career opportunities. Let’s not forget, though, the all important other facet of University life: the part where you emotionally and socially develop and mature. Isn’t it as much about the amazing friendships you make and the independence and freedom that transform you into a young adult when you leave. (Okay and let’s not forget the drugs, drink and sex but I am not going to think about that just yet!) Surely that comes from any University that suits your needs, that “gels” with you so to speak, and not just a “top 20”.
If you are ever lucky enough to meet her (and some of you reading this already have) you will find a knock your socks off special, all too sensible and very stylish chick who will make the most of whatever comes her way. So while she is working hard to move herself that bit closer to the next stage in her life, I’ve made her some devil’s food cupcakes. They are her favourites you know. See she’s got good taste already!
Devil’s Food Cupcakes with White Chocolate Icing
The great thing about this cake is it actually tastes like chocolate but at the same time isn’t too rich. The flavour is intense but not bitter. The cake’s texture is melt in the mouth moist. This taste and texture comes from the process of mixing the unsweetened dutch process cocoa with boiling hot water and leaving it to sit before adding it to the cake mixture. It is vital to use this type (and in England I have only found it in the Green & Black’s variety) as it contains alkali which normal cocoa does not. The presence of alkali stops the cocoa from reacting with the baking powder and creating that bitter flavour so often found in chocolate cakes.
Okay enough of the science bit. Now for the fun part.
For the cupcakes:
1/2 cup (2 1/2 ounces) unsweetened dutch-process cocoa powder (Green & Blacks in the UK)
1/2 cup (4 ounces) plus 1 cup (8 ounces) water
1 1/2 stick (6 ounces) unsalted butter at room temperature
1 cup (7 ounces) granulated sugar
3/4 cup (6 ounces) light brown sugar firmly packed
2 teaspoons vanilla
2 cups (7 ounces) cake flour*
1/4 cup (1 1/4 ounces) plain flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
For the icing:
4 1/2 ounces white chocolate, finely chopped
1 3/4 cups (4 3/4 ounces) confectioners’ sugar
1/4 cup milk (2 ounces)
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
3/4 stick (3 ounces) unsalted butter, softened
Pinch of salt
Preheat oven to 350f. Line cupcake tins with paper cupcake liners. Makes 2 x 12.
Mix cocoa powder with 1/2 cup of boiling water (straight from kettle is fine!). Whisk it together. Mixture should be smooth and like a paste. Add 1 cup of tepid water and mix until there are no bits. Leave cocoa mixture until it cools down.
Using a stand up mixer beat together the butter, granulated and brown sugars until light in colour. This takes around 5 minutes. It will take slightly longer if you use a hand-held mixer. Make sure you scrape down the sides of the bowl before adding the eggs and vanilla.
Add the eggs one at a time and mix well after each addition. Then add the vanilla.
Mix the cake flour*, plain flour, baking powder and salt into a separate bowl and whisk together.
With the mixer on the lowest speed, alternatively add the cocoa mixture and the dry ingredients. You want to add one-third of the flour mixture first and then half of the cocoa mixture. Repeat this again and then finally add the remaining flour mixture. Beat until just combined.
Fill each cupcake liner half full with batter. Bake for 15-20 mins or until the tops are firm to touch and a toothpick/fork inserted comes out clean. Transfer to rack to cool completely.
While the cupcakes are cooling, melt the white chocolate in a double boiler or microwave. Stir until smooth. Leave it to cool to room temperature (otherwise you will melt the butter when it is added).
Sift the confectioners’ sugar into a medium bowl. Stir in the milk and vanilla. Add the butter and salt and beat until smooth. Stir in the cooled white chocolate.
Now you can get on with frosting your cakes! I added some chocolate curls to the tops of mine.
*Cake flour is only available in America. There is some debate on the Internet as to whether it is in fact just self-raising flour. It isn’t. To make cake flour add 1/4 cup of corn flour to 1 3/4 cup of plain flour. This will equal 2 cups of cake flour.