mike kostyo

I know food.

root beer cupcakes w/ root beer buttercream

The greatest infomercial ever created is for a product called the "Magic Bullet." It is not actually a bullet (nor is it a sex toy), but it is magical in that it can quickly chop tiny amounts of food.

I like to watch infomercials, and particularly infomercials for food-related appliances. I can never tell how serious they are about the comically awful problems they are trying to solve. They show a woman hacking away at a tomato, slimy red gore spraying all over the kitchen, her face twisted in pain for some reason - "How many times has this happened to you?!" "Zero." "Well you need the Laser Tomato Slicer XL!" Or you have a cabinet full of other crap appliances you've bought from the television that fall on your head every time you open the door, but you can throw all of those away because the Laser Tomato Slicer XL is also a mandoline, food processor, slow cooker, cigar cutter and waffle cone maker!

What makes the Magic Bullet infomercial rise above the rest, however, is that it takes the best parts of all infomercials - insane claims, answers to problems you didn't know you had, overexcited British people - while adding a ridiculously wacky cast of sitcom-like caricatures. Where we would normally expect to see an audience of skeptical people slowly coming around to the idea that the product is indeed life-changing (usually portrayed by a shot of someone in the audience nodding in amazement to the person sitting next to them), the Magic Bullet gives us Berman, the town drunk, and Hazel, a chain-smoking woman in a muumuu.

See, all of the action takes place the morning after a group of neighbors had an out-of-control party where they all got crazy wasted. As the infomercial opens, they are all wandering, cranky and hungover, into the kitchen of Mick and Mimi to listen to the couple extol the virtues of the Magic Bullet for about a half an hour.

You already know this product is great because Mick and Mimi don't seem to be hungover at all. In fact, they are downright exuberant over the fact that you can whisk eggs in your Magic Bullet. Mick is a big, goofy, British guy who says things like, "And as quick as you can say, 'Bob's your Uncle, Betty's your Aunt,' you have homemade fettuccine alfredo sauce!" Everyone loves him.

Through it all, Berman gets overexcited by any talk of the alcoholic beverages you can make in the Magic Bullet, all while drinking from a coffee mug that he's apparently spiked with something before he arrived. He's wearing a dirty, disheveled shirt with an untied tie hanging around his neck and is clearly only a few years away from becoming a perpetually drunk hobo, but he doesn't seem to mind when they playfully but constantly call him an alcoholic. 

Hazel, on the other hand, practically steals all the thunder from the Magic Bullet itself. She should get her own show. She shuffles and wobbles around the kitchen in her purple frock, dropping ashes on people, saying incoherent things in a heavy Brooklyn accent and flipping out about how horrible chopping garlic is. I find it hard to believe that Hazel actually lives in this neighborhood, and not a trailer park, but I think maybe she is some other neighbor's crackhead mother who lives in the extra room.

There are also some other characters, like a floozy who is astounded by everything that goes on throughout the entire commercial, but really, when you've got Berman and Hazel, who can be bothered to care about them?

So, all of these crazy characters sit around, watching Mick and Mimi make a breakfast that consists of muffins, omelettes, spaghetti, nachos, smoothies, mixed drinks, guacamole, chicken salad, chopped garlic, chocolate mousse, salsa and grated Parmesan cheese. At one point, Mick makes some broccoli juice, which prompts Berman to say, "Yuck! I hate broccoli!" and everyone goes, "Oh, Berman," but the magic bullet has magically transformed the broccoli juice into whiskey, so Berman loves it. 

After everyone has decided that the Magic Bullet is indeed a "kitchen magician" (don't tell them that blenders and food processors do the same thing, and without restricting you to chopping only a tiny amount of food at a time), they are ready to start partying again, and really, it is 9:30am, so they should have started an hour ago. As it is, I have watched this commercial at least 15 times, and I'm physically incapable of moving on if I happen across it while flipping through channels.

And if you think that's good, wait until you see the sequel, for the Magic Bullet To Go, where everyone goes camping (these neighbors spend an unusual amount of free time together, drinking), Hazel wanders out of a tent, everyone seems surprised to find that they brought Hazel in the first place, and then Hazel thanks Berman for a night of wild sex (actually she thanks him for "socks, big boy," but in a suggestive way).

What does any of this have to do with root beer cupcakes? Well, the first time I learned that you could make powdered sugar from regular granulated sugar was from one of these magical chopping appliance infomercials, which came in handy when the time came to make these root beer cupcakes and I was out of powdered sugar. At least the thousands and thousands of hours spent trying to get America to spend three easy payments of $39.95 on a redundant kitchen appliance haven't been all for naught (not counting the entertainment value).

To make about a cup of powdered sugar, add one cup of sugar and one tablespoon of corn starch to your blender and blend until the sugar is powdery and light. I've read you can use your food processor, but I tried this without great results and have heard others have had the same problem.

These cupcakes are based on a root beer cake recipe from Saveur magazine. They have a large, moist crumb with a light root beer flavor. I grated some nutmeg over the cupcakes, but you could also take a hint from the original recipe and add a root beer barrel candy to the top of each one.

root beer cupcakes

adapted from saveur magazine

+ 2 1⁄2 cups cake flour
+ 2 1⁄2 teaspoons baking powder
+ 1 teaspoon kosher salt
+ 1 cup non-diet root beer
+ 2 teaspoons root beer extract
+ 1 cup butter (2 sticks)
+ 1 1⁄2 cups brown sugar
+ 4 room-temperature eggs
+ nutmeg

special equipment
+ 18 cupcake liners

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Place 18 cupcake liners into muffin tins. Lightly spray each one with nonstick cooking or baking spray.

In a large bowl, sift the cake flour, baking powder and salt together. Set aside.

In a small bowl, whisk the root beer and root beer extract together. Set aside.

In the bowl of an electric mixer, beat the butter and brown sugar together until the mixture is light and fluffy. Add the eggs one at a time, incorporating for a moment after each addition. Alternate adding the flour mixture and the root beer mixture, incorporating after each addition. Scrape down the sides of the bowl and mix until the mixture is smooth and even.

Fill each cupcake liner about 3/4 full with the batter. Bake, rotating once in the middle of cooking, until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean, about 20-25 minutes. Let them cool completely before frosting with the root beer buttercream. Top with freshly grated nutmeg or root beer candies.

makes about 18 cupcakes

root beer buttercream

+ 1 1/2 cups butter (3 sticks)
+ 3 1/4 cups powdered sugar
+ 2 tablespoons root beer extract
+ 2 tablespoons root beer

Put the powdered sugar and butter into the bowl of an electric mixer. Beat until fluffy. Add the root beer extract and root beer and continue beating until it is the consistency of a light, fluffy buttercream frosting. Add more root beer extract to taste if necessary.