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Mug cakes: When you just need enough for one

A mug cake makes for a perfect dessert

A mug cake makes for a perfect dessert for one. Photo Credit: Mug Cakes by Mima Sinclair (Kyle Books, 2014) / Tara Fisher

When you want a quick sweet treat for yourself after dinner, you might not immediately think of cake. After all, conventional cake recipes generally take hours to complete, and serve many more than one.

But if you've been paying attention to baking trends in the blogosphere, you may have noticed a proliferation of recipes for single-serving mug cakes, baked in minutes in the microwave. What exactly is a mug cake? Just a few ingredients stirred inside a microwave-safe mug, zapped until baked through, and eaten while still warm.

Mima Sinclair has been paying attention. More than that, she's developed 40 single-serving cake recipes and collected them in an adorable book perfect for the impulsive baker, "Mug Cakes" (Kyle Books, $14.95).

Dissatisfied with the uneven quality of the Internet recipes she tried, she perfected her own basic but delicious mug cake recipe. Then, she went on to create variations including carrot cake, gingerbread, banana bread and Black Forest.

Sinclair wrote the book for a broad audience. For "people who are scared to bake," the recipes build confidence. The recipes are also simple enough (and safe enough — no hot oven) for children to follow. Students with a microwave but no kitchen will enjoy mug cakes on study breaks. You don't need much in the way of equipment. Most recipes require just a mug, a fork and a few measuring spoons. If you loathe waste, you'll love the single serving approach. You'll also love it if you lack the self-control to stop at just one slice.

Unlike the Internet's previous darling, the cupcake, the mug cake isn't available for takeout from your local bakery. It is by definition a homemade treat. That doesn't mean mug cakes can't be Instagram-pretty. Sinclair, a former professional photographer and sought-after food stylist, embellishes her single-serving red velvet cake with a beautiful buttercream rose. Her honey cake is topped with marzipan bees. She'll show you how to turn an apple upside-down cake onto a plate and drizzle it with caramel so it looks like a fancy restaurant dessert.

For mug cake perfection, follow the expert's advice:

USE THE RIGHT MUG

Of course, your mug must be microwave-safe. If you're not sure, place your empty mug in the microwave and heat for 1 minute. "If it's lukewarm or cool, then it should be fine. If it's hot, don't use it," advises Sinclair.

SIZE IS ALSO CRUCIAL

Sinclair speaks from experience when she says, "You can definitely get greedy, and want to put a bit too much in the mug. But if you do, you risk an explosion." Cake batter will bubble up in the mug as it bakes, so follow directions and use a mug large enough to prevent overflow. To be safe, place a plate under the mug before you bake, so if there is some bubbling over you won't have to clean the entire inside of the microwave.

KNOW YOUR OVEN

Sinclair gives baking times for ovens of varying wattage. A 1,000-watt oven might bake a cake in a minute and a half while a 600-watt oven might take twice as long. Even so, every oven is different, and you might have to try a recipe a few times to get the timing just right. Bake your mug cake just until it is risen and springy to the touch. If your cake sinks rapidly once you open the oven door, continue to bake it in 15-second bursts until it rises and remains tall. But it's better to underbake for a moist center than overbake and risk a dry result. Warns Sinclair, "Do not be tempted to keep cooking the cake until it browns or forms a crust — it never will."

REMEMBER, THIS IS STILL BAKING

Even though they are casual and spur-of-the-moment, mug cakes still rely on specific formulas to achieve the proper texture. Just as when you're making a full-size cake in a conventional oven, carefully measure out your ingredients for best results.


MIMA SINCLAIR'S SALTED CARAMEL AND CHOCOLATE MUG CAKE

2 tablespoons butter, softened, plus a little for greasing

1½ ounces dark chocolate, finely chopped

1 large egg

1 tablespoon 2 percent milk

2 tablespoons packed brown sugar

3 tablespoons all-purpose flour

¼ teaspoon baking powder

2 tablespoons dulce de leche or thick caramel, mixed with ¼ teaspoon sea salt flakes, divided

Pinch of sea salt flakes

1. Grease a 1½ cup mug with a little butter.

2. Place remaining butter and chocolate in second mug and microwave for 10 to 20 seconds until melted.

3. Add the egg and milk and beat with a fork until combined. Add the sugar, flour and baking powder and beat again until smooth, then transfer the mixture to the greased mug and spoon a tablespoon of the salty caramel on the top.

4. Cook in the microwave for 3 minutes 20 seconds (600 watts), 3 minutes (800 watts) or 2 minutes 40 seconds (1,000 watts). Leave to cool.

5. Carefully turn cake out onto a plate. Spoon on remaining caramel. Sprinkle with a few sea salt flakes and serve immediately. Makes 1 mug cake.

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