From Carleton to cupcakes: Hilary Duff finds commonality with another baking enthusiast

Cara Rowlands' Strawberry Basil and Smore cupcakes

Hilary Duff (blog/Twitter) is a quirky 21-year-old who loves multimedia journalism, cycling, food blogging, and churning massive amounts of baked goods out of her cramped student kitchen. She is currently writing an LTOttawa series on her hunt for Ottawa’s perfect cupcake.

Cara Rowlands, baker and blogger at The Polka Dot Apron

Out of all the bakers I’ve met on my search, Cara Rowlands is probably the one with whom I can relate to the most.

Like me, Cara went to Carleton (although she studied film and art history, two disciplines that I will never be exotic or artistic enough to study) and, like me, decided she needed to learn how to cook early on in her student career.  For Cara, this recognition came at the beginning of her second year, when she moved out with two roommates.  Soon coming to the realization that none of them could cook, the three of them set out on a mission to learn how to feed themselves. 

While her roommates focused more on the main meals, Cara fell in love with baking.  Her specialty at the time was cookies and, in preparation for an annual family Christmas party, she used to scan the pages of Canadian Living’s holiday cookbook in search of new recipes.  A love for Canadian Living cookbooks … just one of the other ways I could relate to Cara.

Cara's muffins: Apple pie and Orange blueberry

Since her university days, Cara says she has come to appreciate the value of unconventional flavours and ingredients.  Example: at the 2010 Capital Cupcake Camp, Cara won the “tastiest twist on the original” category for her five spice chocolate cupcake filled with tamari caramel and wasabi buttercream.  Her love of flavour profiling has also been fueled by pastry chef Elizabeth Falkner’s Demolition Desserts baking book. 

Cara is also known around town for her muffins. 

Members of Ottawa’s online scene will recognize her as the woman with fierce pink hair who has been baking her muffins for the city’s Social Media Breakfast since October.  It was at a SMB event at the beginning of April where I actually approached Cara to be involved in the challenge, after shamelessly hovering around her muffin table for the majority of the morning.

Outside of baking for SMB, Cara is a freelance illustrator and animator.  She says a career like this gives her plenty of time for baking.  Her food blog, The Polka Dot Apron, has muffin recipes galore, ranging from apple pie muffins to gluten-free, dairy-free orange blueberry muffins (I chose to mention these ones since I scarfed down both flavours at the last SMB).  Her most popular muffin at the moment?  A maple date and bacon cupcake.  She says it’s the perfect balance of flavours and sounds like a delicious way to start any morning.

Today, however, was not a muffin-testing day.  Today, it was all about the cupcakes.

Cara brought me two very different kinds of cupcakes to sample. 

Strawberry basil lemonade cupcake

The first was a strawberry basil lemonade cupcake with a lemon curd filling.  According to Cara, a drink she once had that featured these flavours was what inspired her to recreate the taste in cupcake form.  To contrast the fruity, cocktail quality of this cupcake was a s’mores cupcake with a whole wheat flour base, a rich fudge filling and homemade marshmallow icing tinted with Lagavulin scotch (to taste like a real toasted marshmallow, Cara says).  As a bit of an aside, I’m actually surprised that this is the only s’mores cupcake I’ve had on my search – it seems like a popular flavour and I thought people would jump at the opportunity to try their hand at homemade marshmallows. 

Alex and Ariel, my cupcake-testing friends

Since my trusty cupcake testing comrades Ariel and Alex were now back in Ottawa for the summer, they jumped at the opportunity to try out Cara’s cupcakes with me. 

We started with the strawberry basil lemonade cupcake.  I really liked the lemon curd filling, and wished my cupcake could have had a bit more.  I love fillings and always think they offer a nice balance from the cake itself.  The strawberry lemon icing was whipped to perfection.  Likewise with the s’mores cupcake, the chocolate filling could have made more of an appearance.  The homemade marshmallow that was piled on top was blissfully toasted and tasted like campfire and childhood. 

S'mores cupcake

The one thing the three of us thought could have been improved with both cupcakes was the cake itself.  It was clear that Cara’s expertise is in muffins, since both cupcakes were more hearty than sweet.  The flavours in each would have worked really well for muffins, but since they were cupcakes I could have used just a bit more sweetness.  Like I said before, however, Cara gets major points for her decadent and tasty toppings.

And so, while Cara’s cupcakes were good, I think her real title rests already determined: Ottawa’s best muffin queen.

PS: she’s looking at starting to cater – keep your eyes peeled!

Cupcake personality: ***

Cake: ***  

Icing: ****

Cupcake overall: ***  

Hmmm, maybe a muffin challenge could be in the works, too. Any takers, local tourists? Thanks Hilary!