Lemon Cupcakes

My little friend is 5 years old. He arrives on my porch and announces himself with a loud, officious knock. I open the door to his beaming face – he’s run ahead of his mama, who is hauling his scooter and a knapsack full of snacks and toys. I move in for a hug.

Marusya, I have to wash my hands first! He admonishes with indignation, and runs to the sink, proud that he can reach the taps himself.

I’ve been doing childcare recently, for a friend. There’s no school, no daycamps, not even playgrounds – my friend needs a break from this constant hyper-parenting,  and she needs to work.  Her family of three is part of my extended Covid bubble. Having weighed the risks, and taking every precaution, we’ve been sharing meals and their son, and group hugs (he insists on group hugs), since the pandemic began.

So, I’ve been running a 1-kid daycamp of sorts. The boy’s mama goes to work, and we sit down to plan our day. We make a list of things we want to do. I got that idea long ago, from a place called Grindstone Island. I went there for a conference on women’s economic justice. We all brought kids along. They were scooped up the minute we arrived and seated around a flipchart, where they brainstormed their desires and used consensus decision making to plan their days. With me and the kid, there’s usually some negotiating. “Crafts” is always a bit of a struggle, but I ran day camps years ago and I know how to seduce a kid into doing potato prints. “Park” is similarly a challenge. What’s the point of going to the park if the playground’s closed? “TV” is almost always on the list, and so is some form of cooking or baking.

We get caught up. I try to get a handle on how he’s feeling.

I’m angry at the virus he says.

Hunh, no kidding. Still, I ask him why.

Turns out he had a weekly ritual with his dad. They went to church and then they went for lunch to the mall. Then, to the toy store. None of that can happen right now. It’s painful for him to not have that anchor in the week, especially when he’s missing his kindergarten routine with its ordered queues and goddess-like teachers.

I’m glad he told me. I notice his mood for the rest of the day. The way he constantly says no, even to things he likes. No to Play-Do. No to running through the sprinkler on a stunningly hot day. I hate Play-Do. I hate sprinklers. By the end of the day he’s made a stegosaurus out of Play Do and has leapt like a deer through the sprinkler’s plumes of water, again and again.

I don’t regret a minute I spend with this guy, but the days are long, full of minute concerns and a thousand questions. Marusya are you afraid to sleep alone or  Marusya can I watch TV now can we go buy candy can we race. If he could, he would run races with me all day long. He doesn’t yet understand about age, and bodily limitations. I tell him my bones are tired ( I have arthritis) and he seems to accept it but then, negotiating down: Marusya can we play hide and seek.

Still, we’ve managed to do some pretty good baking and cooking. I’ve taught him how to pick lettuce from the garden, how to wash it and dry it and tear it into a bowl. The making of cupcakes was of enormous interest to him, and he iced those moist lemon cakes with great care and concentration.

At the end of the day his mama and sometimes his papa gather at my rickety outdoor table and we eat together, in happy chaos. Something always gets spilled or broken. Grilled corn, grilled chicken, garden salad and cupcakes are noisily appreciated.

After dinner, the kid and I take a plate of cupcakes to my neighbor Kwan’s house. Kwan trimmed the towering branches of my towering cedar tree several weeks ago. He did so in the matter-of-fact way of neighbourhood men during the pandemic, hovering anxiously  in their yards repairing this and that, keeping a steady eye on all things solid and material. Kwan was embarrassed when I offered recompense in the way of baking that day, but we deliver the cupcakes anyway. My young charge rings the doorbell and we stand back and wait for someone to appear behind the screen door. The blue plate of cupcakes, and our expectant bodies, freeze in time.

Sheltering at home, we notice one another. We are suddenly aware of the ragged condition of the cedar, or the solitude of a family unit. Gestures emanate from us, almost involuntarily. The world, fighting angrily against the virus, and against viral racism, is not completely fathomable to us. That there is no escape, that the virus is everywhere, is a like a constant, quietly throbbing headache. A trauma, really.

I did not plan this moment with the cupcakes, it is not curated, the way my evenings of stylish, Yelp-approved restaurant meals, of carefully chosen friends and intelligently selected films, once were. But this, a neighbor, a brick rowhouse, a cedar in need of trimming, an aluminum screen door, a 5-year-old child, a shimmering blue plate of lemon cupcakes –  this moment is where we need to be.


You can do a lot with this simple recipe, make it chocolate or marble, add fruit or nuts, or poppyseed. You can also fold it into a Bundt pan and make a cake instead.

[fyi We ate the cupcakes so quickly there are no photos of them!]

Makes about 15 cupcakes

1 cup soft butter

11/4 c white sugar

2 eggs

1 c sour cream

1 tsp vanilla extract

2 c white flour

2 tsp baking powder

1/2 tsp baking soda

Zest and juice of 1 lemon

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees

  1. In a large bowl, cream butter & sugar together with hand or stand mixer. Beat in the 2 eggs, four cream and vanilla.
  2. In a separate bowl, combine flour with baking powder & baking sod. Combine the dries into the wet. Add 1/2 lemon zest & half lemon juice, and stir well.
  3. Spoon batter into paper lined muffin tins, or a lightly floured Bundt pan. For cupcakes, bake 30-40 minutes or until a toothpick comes out of the centre of a cupcake clean. (For bundt cake, 50-60 mins.)
  4. Allow cupcakes to cool before adding your favourite icing. If it’s a lemon icing, use the rest of the lemon juice and lemon zest.


Add 1/2 cup poppyseed to lemon cake batter

For chocolate swirl cupcakes, omit lemon and mix 1/4 c cocoa w 1/3 sugar, and lightly swirl into batter. For all chocolate, use 1/2 c cocoa mixed with 1/2 c sugar.

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