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Spiced Cupcakes with Rosewater Frosting


Spiced Cupcakes with Rosewater Frosting

Fashionable Julia Titi lived in the 1st century AD and was the daughter of Roman emperor Titus. She was quite a wild child in her day and had an affair with emperor Domitian, her uncle, who divorced his wife and lived openly with her. She must have been quite a seductress.

Portraits of woman like Julia set fashions throughout the Roman Empire. Traces of paint on her dramatic curls suggest she was a fiery redhead. A hairstyle worn by an imperial woman would soon appear all over the court and spread through the rest society as a sign of taste and status. (If you were a part of Julia’s high society, you’d better forget about the blow out and pull out the curling iron.) Her diadem was originally inlaid with gold, silver and/or gems. The sculpture, which has pierced ears, would have worn gold earrings.

Now, take a close look at her neck. Yes, those are rolls you see and no, they’re not from saggy skin. (Julia was only 30 when she died.) They’re rolls of fat. Fat? Yes, fat. Those perfect little rolls are called “Venus rings” named after Venus, the Roman goddess of sex, love and beauty. Like her Greek counterpart Aphrodite, she represents a sexuality free from anxiety and self-consciousness. These rolls tell us that she not only had abundant wealth and power, she was well fed and confident. I hope she also had love.

The rose was the favorite flower of Venus and in Julia’s day people often ate rose pudding to revitalize their sex lives. Cinnamon and cardamom were very expensive and known for their sensual appeal in the ancient world from the Middle East to Europe to Asia. With that in mind, the flavor profile of the following recipe makes me think she would have liked them. And they remind me of her curls.

For the cakes:
2 ½ cups flour
2 ½ teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoon salt
1 ½ sticks unsalted butter
1 ¾ cup sugar
3 eggs, room temperature
¼ teaspoon vanilla extract
1 ¼ cup milk, room temperature
1 teaspoon lemon zest
1 teaspoon ground cardamom
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

For the frosting:
4 ounces cream cheese, at room temperature
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 ¾ cups powdered sugar
¼ teaspoon rosewater (Taste and add a little more if you’d like, but use it with caution as it can go from tasting sublime to tasting like perfume very quickly. Consider yourself warned.)

Preheat oven to 350° F. Line 12 large cupcake or 24 small cupcake molds. If you’d rather make this as a cake, butter and flour an 8-inch cake pan.

Add vanilla extract to the milk and stir.

Mix flour and baking powder together in a bowl and set aside.

Beat butter with an electric mixer at medium speed until creamy, about 2 minutes. Slowly add the sugar and beat on medium speed until the mixture is fluffy, about 2 minutes. Add eggs to batter one at a time beating for an additional 2 minutes.

Beginning and ending with the flour, mix one third of the flour into the wet mixture at a low speed, then half of the milk, alternating until all ingredients are mixed. Add lemon zest, cinnamon and cardamom.

Transfer batter to cake pan filling until cavity is about 3/4 full and bake about 40 minutes – until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.

While the cakes are baking make the frosting. Place the cream cheese, butter and rosewater in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Mix on medium speed just until combined. Add the sugar and mix until smooth.

Remove the cakes from the oven and let cool completely before frosting.

Makes 1 cake, 12 large cupcakes or 24 mini cupcakes

image: Portrait Head of Julia Titi, Roman, about 90 AD, marble with polychromy, J. Paul Getty Museum