One retro cupcake deserves another.
The genesis of these cupcakes was Offbeat Home’s Weekend Challenge: Nerdy Cupcakes or Unicorn Heads?, and yes, I realize there are people who wonder how I could pass up a chance to attempt to build papier-mâché taxidermy. Someday, I shall tell about the Heffalump Head Disaster. But not today.
Haley Reinhart’s sultry, retro-19060s soul/pop debut album, Listen Up! (buy at iTunes or Amazon) seems like a good fit for my urge to try a retro-1960s cupcake recipe. I’m going to go track-by-track, so you may want to mosey on over to Spotify to listen along. Or you can preheat the oven to 350 and prepare for surprises.
Yes, that’s a packaged cake mix. And a packaged pudding mix. Reality is that a true retro-style pistachio cupcake recipe (notably this one from girlwhoateeverything) requires packaged mixes. You can’t have true 1960s glamor cooking without opening a few boxes. (One of the many postmodern literary critics whose name starts with B argues that pink cream sauces are also required, but I’m leaving that one alone.) I’m going to use half a box of each, as there are only so many cupcakes I need underfoot.
The opening track, Oh My!, positions Reinhart in roughly the same nightclub as Adele, only Reinhart seems to be having a much better time. The go-go-dancing-friendly musical style suggests pretty strongly that “every time you touch me right” is not about gently sweeping the hair back from her forehead or softly touching her wrist. We all know that someday, I’m going to have a five-year-old child, and I’m going to forget to not play this song in the car, and my child will be sent home from kindergarten with a note for performing this song on the playground, possibly as a medley with King Missile’s “Detachable Penis.” But at least I’ll be able to send kiddo back with cupcakes. Also: B.o.B. raps.
Free is, of course, Reinhart’s lead single (so there’s a video). The slightly seasick lilt of the music goes so well with the sheer dysfunctionality of the relationship described. Plus “it’s not like I’m invisible, you still wear me under your skin” is a nifty image.
Liar is what happens when Motown girl-group numbers go dark and pick up a snarl, as well as a higher quality of wordplay. Wasted Tears is a disco-era anthem of surviving lost love: it has a beat and not only can you dance to it, you can change the locks to it. By this point in the album, I really want Reinhart to open for Cee-Lo Green (last seen with Moroccan Chicken): both modernize a traditional soul/R&B sound, and Reinhart’s “oops, you were a waste of time!” numbers provide a nice reverse angle on Green’s “I’m such a lady killer” approach.
Now there is better living through science! Add 1/2 cup of oil, 1/2 cup of club soda, and two eggs of undistinguished size. This fizz is so exciting that I almost hate to run the hand mixer through it to make it smooth and glossy.
Ballad time! Undone was in danger of sending me into a no-more-Adele-please coma until it hit the chorus (“tell me where love goes”) and caught my attention, plus the spiraling down of the “undone, undone” repetitions on the far side are interesting. It’s still a ballad, though. With violins.
Well, consider it to be the anguished cigarette break in the alley behind the nightclub. Now That You’re Here accelerates on thumping percussion into disco-infused triumphant lustiness. While I’m of a generation to view disco as something faintly skeevy that I was mercifully too young for… if one’s going to do a retro-style song that’s appropriate for contemporary dance club play, there are worse ways to do it. What’s charming me about Reinhart’s approach is partly that the lyrics are comparatively clever (and suggestive, rather than explicit) and partly that the instrumentation’s retro feel doesn’t undercut the sexiness of sex the way a lot of explicit-on-the-surface songs seem to.
Speaking of sexy, Wonderland veers from cabaret to soul anthem while displaying excellent gams. In some alternate universe, we’re all sitting in stylish dive bars in San Francisco, exchanging hard-boiled dialogue with mysterious strangers, while this song is playing. (Ride the euphoria to fill muffin cups 2/3 full and put the muffin tin in the oven for 18 to 22 minutes.) It’s only after the bullets start flying that the soundtrack switches to Keep Coming Back. The chase scene through Chinatown has to wait for Hit the Ground Runnin’, which actually doesn’t–it has to wait for the chorus.
While the cupcakes are cooling — they rose a cheerful golden brown, but I don’t seem to have photographed that — it’s time to tackle the focus of the Offbeat Home challenge: colored sanding sugar. I have a pack of neon food coloring (last seen here, with psychedelic mini-cupcakes and the Grateful Dead). Three words: incitement to riot.
Okay, incitement to go Neon Preppy. Lacking a jar or ziploc bag, I stirred maniacally. Wonderland is perhaps better for working on the glaze (soon to follow), since it’s an idealistic power ballad with a jazzy feel. Plus, it’s possible to do The Stroll to the chorus. Giant Guy Cat and I may have tried it. One of us has two left feet.
Follow Me (I’m Right Behind You) has a better beat for maniacal stirring. Stir the hell out of that sugar. We’re now in the film noir scene where the dialogue makes no sense but is filled with significance. Spiderweb confirms that yeah, we were probably all talking about sex. Reinhart is definitely having more fun at that nightclub than Adele would.
We also need to talk about a glaze to hold the sanding sugar to the cupcakes. Having never made a glaze, I found a generic recipe at About.com’s Southern Food and sort of almost followed it. I melted a bit less than 1/4 cup of butter (i.e., “the amount of butter I grabbed from butter shelf of refrigerator”) and mixed it with somewhat less than 1 cup of powdered sugar and two tablespoons of orange flower water (on the theory that this flavor should go well with pistachio). Beat violently with hand mixer until smooth and glossy.
What You Don’t Know is excellent for beating violently, since it has urgent percussion. I thought it was going to go down the same path as Liar or Hit the Ground Runnin’, but it’s actually the upbeat, hopeful third angle on the theme of not fully knowing the other person. And I dare you not to dance to it.
Then Let’s Run Away picks up a barn-raising hand-clapping, finger-snapping deal, with 1950s-musical vocals. We may have crossed the line from retro to pastiche, especially as I think I hear a ukelele. It’s cute. It needs to be performed with hula dancers and possibly a cameo by Bing Crosby or Fred Astaire.
I dipped cupcakes in glaze three at a time and tried to sprinkle the sugar in midcentury designs. It would seem from my efforts that the key midcentury modern design was the Amorphous Blob. But they’re festive.
Okay, flavor! As a foodie, I’m supposed to go all “mix cake doesn’t taste as pure as homemade.” Pfui. It’s a light, delicate, pistachio-flavored cupcake, and the orange-flower-water glaze is one of the two or three best things I’ve invented in the kitchen. Look for it to be used on cinnamon rolls. This is a cupcake to be reckoned with.
Reinhart’s a cupcake to be reckoned with, too. What jumps out at me from listening to Listen Up! as a whole is that while she never says a direct word about grrrl power, every lyric is written from the point of view of somebody who’s potentially powerful in her own skin: if the relationship’s failing, she capable of leaving; if she’s unhappy, she can figure out how to stop crying; if there are sparks in the air, she’s in charge of her own sexuality; and her dreams are active ideals of a better future. No wonder she’s having a better time at the club.
Ah, heck — I usually stick to official videos promoted by the artist, but “Let’s Run Away” is such a pitch for buying the deluxe version and so cute that I’ll make an exception this once.