Every grownup seems to become a child again as the holidays approach. We're humming carols. We're wearing festive outfits. We're all wondering, at least secretly, what presents we might receive -- while hurriedly finishing up the shopping for the ones we're going to give. And, usually not so secretly, we're dreaming about all the delicious, sweet holiday treats we're going to eat.

Some of those treats we might actually bake ourselves, too. I know so many people right now who seem up to their elbows in sugar and flour, nuts and dried fruits and chocolates. They're pulling all their baking sheets and pans from the cupboards. They're trying to figure out how they're going to wrap everything, and to whom they're going to give it all.

So let me offer one little suggestion that might ease your mind about that last-minute holiday baking: Keep it simple. Bake a batch of holiday cupcakes!

Unlike fruitcakes, on which public opinion will be forever divided, cupcakes are universally loved. Who doesn't want to receive their own individual cake, one they don't have to share, one they can eat in a single sitting? It's like every child's dessert fantasy come true. No wonder so many cupcake shops have popped up in recent years.

But you don't have to go shopping and pay high prices to enjoy great cupcakes. They're so easy to make at home. Whether you have a stand mixer, or just a big bowl and a hand-held electric mixer, you can put together the batter in a matter of minutes. Pretty paper or foil cupcake liners (you can even find them decorated in holiday colors and patterns) eliminate the need to grease the pan -- and they make unmolding and serving simple, and cleanup a cinch.

You'll find my recipe for buttermilk cupcakes easy. The acidity of the buttermilk gives them a pleasant tang, while also helping to keep them extra tender. (You could also substitute sour cream, for an even tangier taste, or canned coconut milk for its unique character.) A whole vanilla bean (you'll find jars of them in the spices section of your supermarket), its tiny seeds and pulp scraped out and included in the batter, adds remarkable flavor. And I can't say enough about how easy, and luscious, the chocolate frosting recipe is from Spago's executive pastry chef Sherry Yard.

Once you've baked, cooled, and frosted the cupcakes, decorating them is easy. Top each with a fresh berry, if you like. Or go wild with your favorite little candies, from traditional rainbow sprinkles to jelly beans or gumdrops to crushed pieces of red-and-white-striped holiday candy canes.

So, what are you waiting for? Make your inner child happy and bake a batch soon!


Makes 20

12 ounces unsalted butter, at room temperature

1 vanilla bean

1-3/4 cups granulated sugar

2 teaspoons vanilla extract

4 large cage-free eggs

1 pound cake flour

1 tablespoon baking powder

1/4 teaspoon salt

1 cup buttermilk