Celebrate this Lunar New Year with these very cute Mandarin Orange Cupcakes. A moist and fluffy cupcakes flavored with mandarin zest, then top with a creamy cream cheese frosting, and complete with cute chocolate stems and leaves.
Lunar New Year will start on Tuesday (2/1) this year. It’s the year of Tiger. Instead of making traditional food this year, I’m going with something totally different. I’m making cupcakes with mandarin oranges.
In Cantonese, the word mandarin orange (桔 gat) sound similar to “luck”(吉) in Cantonese and this has come to symbolize good luck. That’s why mandarins are popular during lunar new year. My grandma had a plate of mandarins in her living room every year. She stacked them together into a little hill and kept them there through out the new year. No, don’t think about grabbing a mandarin from that pile. That is for decoration only. You can get a mandarin from the kitchen or from the actual edible fruit pile.
For my cupcakes, they are truly through and through mandarin cupcakes. From the cake itself to the frosting, there’re mandarins inside. And of course the look, they look like cute little mandarins.
The cake is fluffy and full of mandarin flavors. To get the most flavor out of mandarins, start with the zest. All the citrus aroma is on the rind of the fruit. Get them all out and combine with sugar in a food processor. The sugar turned yellow immediately after a few pulse. You can see the flavors and colors infusing into the sugar. Add that to the cupcake batter. You can definitely taste the mandarins.
Make sure all your ingredients are at room temperature or warmed as written. You don’t want the melted butter to solidify when blending into cold ingredients. You want the butter to blend into the batter nicely.
I chose cream cheese frosting for this recipe, because I wanted something a little savory and rich to balance out the tangy citrus. I added zest and juice into the frosting as well. To make sure the frosting looks like the colors of mandarins, I used both orange food coloring and yellow food coloring. I found the orange color a bit too sharp and bold, so a little bit of yellow helped. Be careful not to over beat your frosting. It can get too stiff and won’t look smooth. Add the food coloring before adding heavy cream. Go a little stronger with the colors than you need. Once you add the heavy cream, it will lighten up. If you need more color adjustment, skip the electric mixer and stir with a spatula by hand.
I rarely work with chocolate in decorations. If I did, it was something like throwing on chocolate curls on a cake. These chocolate stems and leaves are no doubt not perfect. They are not shiny or colored properly. Proper temper chocolate should have a nice sheen. For the coloring, I made a mistake of using gel food coloring instead of oil-based. The green didn’t blend too well into the chocolate and you can see little spots of colors in the chocolate if you examine closer. Even though I have all these problems, I’m still happy with the shape and the overall look.
To make the stems, I used straws. Cut the straws into little short tubes, then cut open lengthwise. This will help to remove the chocolate afterward. Pipe chocolate into straws and let them set. It’s best to use plastic straws because it’s nice and smooth. I have made some with paper straws, they looked a little rough and not as good as the plastic ones. Chill them in the fridge for at least 20 minutes. When the chocolate is set, it’s time to unmold. Unroll the straws and use the back of a knife to insert into the slit to push. It should come out easily. Trim off the ends with a warm knife blade if needed.
The leaves are more tricky. I used paper towel tubes as shaping tools for curl leaves. Just cut the tubes lengthwise to open up. To make leaf, dip the tip of a paring knife into chocolate and press down the blade on a small piece of acetate sheet. Pull the knife toward you to create a bigger leaf. Turn the knife to the back and pull toward you again to create a stem. Add a little more chocolate on the leaf to make a little thicker. Lay that piece of acetate sheet in the paper towel tubes, so it can dry in a curl position. Repeat and make many more. You want to have extra, because some may break when unmolding and some cupcakes can get 2 leaves. Chill them in the fridge to set. Once set, carefully peel off the acetate sheet and place on the cupcakes. If you have warm hands like me, I like to wash my hands in cold water or hold an ice cube for a minute or so first. Then dry my hands and touch the chocolate.
Even though these chocolate works were not perfect, I’m glad I did it. They make the cupcakes look really good. If you don’t feel like doing chocolate work, you can decorate with fresh mint or even pipe the frosting into something totally different. The cupcakes will still taste great none the less.
I hope you guys like these cupcakes!
Happy New Year! May this year bring you lots of luck, good health, and happiness! 恭喜發財! 虎年快樂!
Mandarin Orange Cupcakes
Mandarin Orange Cupcakes:
- 213 grams all-purpose flour
- 200 grams sugar
- 1½ tablespoons mandarin orange zest (about 6 mandarins)
- ¼ teaspoon baking soda
- 1½ teaspoons baking powder
- ¼ teaspoon kosher salt
- 2 eggs (at room temperature)
- ½ cup sour cream
- ¼ cup whole milk (warm)
- 170 grams unsalted butter (melted and cooled slightly)
- ¼ cup mandarin orange juice (about 2 mandarins)
Mandarin Orange Cream Cheese Frosting:
- 8 ounces cream cheese (at room temperature)
- ½ tablespoon mandarin orange zest (about 2 mandarins)
- 1 teaspoon mandarin orange juice (about ½ mandarin)
- ¼ teaspoon vanilla extract
- ½ cup powdered sugar
- ⅔ cup heavy cream (cold)
- Orange food coloring
- Yellow food coloring
Chocolate Decorations (optional):
- 113 grams white chocolate (4 ounces)
- Green oil-based food coloring
- Yellow oil-based food coloring
- Plastic straws
- Piping bag
- 2 – 3 Paper towel tubes
- Acetate sheets
- Paring knife
- Preheat oven to 375˚F (190˚C). Line a muffin pans with 12 paper liners.
- In a food processor, add sugar and mandarin orange zest. Pulse until the zest is smaller and the sugar is yellow in color.
- In a large mixing bowl, whisk together flour, baking soda, baking powder and salt. Set aside.
- In a medium mixing bowl, whisk together eggs, sour cream, warm milk, melted butter, mandarin orange juice and sugar until combined.
- Add the wet ingredients into the dry ingredients. Whisk until just combined. Small lumps are ok. Fill the cupcake liners about 2/3 filled. Bake for 5 minutes. Reduce the temperature to 350F and bake for 10 – 12 more minutes. Test the cupcakes with a toothpick for doneness. The toothpick should come out clean. The cupcake should spring back when press lightly. Remove from oven and cool in the pan for 5 minutes. Transfer the cupcakes to a cooling rack and cool completely.
- For the frosting, in a large mixing bowl with an electric mixer fitted with paddle attachment, beat the cream cheese until smooth. Add the mandarin orange juice, zest, vanilla extract, powdered sugar and food colorings at low-speed until combined. Add the heavy cream and whip until the frosting is thick enough to use. Do not over beat.
- To decorate the cupcake, preparing a piping bag with a ½-inch round tip. Fill the bag with frosting. Hold the pipping bag up straight and pipe from the center, squeeze to create a dome of frosting. To increase the diameter of the dome, insert the pipping tip into the dome and squeeze out more frosting. Smooth out the very top of the frosting with an offset spatula.
- For the optional chocolate decorations (stems and leaves), place the white chocolate in a medium heatproof bowl. Heat over a pot of barely simmering water until it is melted. Take it off the heat once it is melted, add food colorings. Use it immediately. If the chocolate starts to harden again, put it back over the simmering water to melt.
- To make the stems, cut the straws into 12 (1-inch) small tubes. Cut them open lengthwise. Even though straws are slit opened, they will curl back to the original position. Put some of the melted chocolate into a pipping bag and cut a small hole (that can fit into the straw). Squeeze the chocolate into the straws. Chocolate may leak out and it can be messy, but don’t worry. Just wipe them off after. Chill in the fridge for at least 20 minutes to set.
- To make the leaves, cut paper towel tubes lengthwise and open them up a little. These will be used as sharping tools. Set aside. Prepare acetate sheets. Cut them into 1×2½-inch pieces. Dip the tip of a paring knife into the melted chocolate. Place the blade of the knife on an acetate piece, gently press down and pull toward you. Carefully turn the knife to the back and pull toward you again to create the stem part. If the leaf looks too thin, patch with a little extra chocolate. Lay the acetate piece inside the prepared paper towel tube to set (chocolate facing up). Repeat and make about 15 – 17 leaves. Chill in the fridge for at least 20 minutes to set.
- When the chocolates are ready, carefully unroll the straws and use the back of knife to push out the stems. Gently peel the leaves from acetate sheets. Place them on the frosted cupcakes. If you have warm hands, you may want to cool them down with cold water or ice cubes first, but dry your hands before touching the chocolate.
- Cupcakes are best served on the same day.
- If you can’t find mandarin oranges, use other citrus like tangerines or oranges. The mandarin oranges that I used was a bit sour, and not really sweet. If you are using a citrus that is sweet, you may want to substitute with a little bit lemon juice to balance out the sweetness.
- If you don’t have a food processor, rub the zest into the sugar and mix for a few times. The mandarin flavor may not be as strong, but this still works.
- If you don’t want to make the chocolate decoration, you can use matcha pocky sticks, fresh mints or pipe the frosting into something completely different.
- When it comes to chocolate work, I’m an amateur. My chocolate work doesn’t look too great. I used gel food coloring instead of oil-based, which is not right. The color didn’t blend too well into the white chocolate, so there were tiny spots in the chocolate. And I didn’t get a good shine on the chocolate. But the shapes of the chocolate came out ok and I’m fine with them this time. Next time, I will need more practices for sure.
- Food coloring enhances overtime. So the frosting and chocolate will get a little brighter and stronger as time goes by.
- For storage, these cupcakes are best to be served on the same day. But if you’re keeping them for longer, keep in an airtight container in the fridge for up to 3 days. Bring them back to room temperature before serving.