nosh friday: salted caramel cupcakes
Once upon a time, I went to San Francisco. In the midst of this hilly, fog-blanketed town, I found something lovely tucked away in the Mission. Aside the splendor of Tartine Bakery and Big Sur and spending time with a handful of sincerely beautiful friends, I found and fell in love with Bi-Rite Creamery’s salted caramel cupcakes.
I ate one.
And then I had to leave the next morning.
And I pined. I pined for the cupcakes.
I immediately tried making them at home, to no avail. My favorite vanilla cupcake recipe rendered cake that was too soft to fill with salted caramel cream. And my caramel seized. And I gave up, thoroughly let-down and eating a lot of leftover naked cupcakes in frustration.
Fast-forward to this past week. It was my dear friend Jettie’s birthday and I offered to make her anything she wanted. “VANILLA!” she says. “I love vanilla cupcakes! With vanilla frosting!” Well, of course, in my eagerness to make things extra complicated, I decided I would give re-creating that magical cupcake a second try. I found this recipe for salted caramel frosting on King Arthur’s blog and it gave me confidence: I COULD DO THIS.
And do it, I did. And I have to admit — I think my cupcakes were just as good as Bi-Rite’s. Vanilla bean cupcakes filled with salted caramel cream and topped with a vanilla bean frosting. Not a cupcake for the faint of heart.
I brought a big box of these to Brewery Vivant after the Civil Wars show and it was frenzy. All over the place, people were biting into these cupcakes with their large frosting caps and moaning. It was the textbook definition of why I love baking so much. Those sticky smiles and happy faces were heart-warming. And, of course, the birthday girl was thrilled with her treat, which was the whole point in the first place.
3/4 c. (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter
1 1/2 c. granulated sugar
3 large eggs, beaten lightly
1 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. baking soda
3/4 tsp. salt
2 1/2 c. unbleached all-purpose flour
1 cup plain yogurt, regular or low-fat
2 teaspoons vanilla extract, vanilla paste or 1 vanilla bean, split and scraped
1/2 c. caramel, chopped (I used dulce de leche, with great results)
2 tbsp. heavy cream
1/2 tsp. sea salt
16 tbsp. (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
4 c. confectioners’ sugar
1 tsp. vanilla extract (again, you can also use vanilla bean paste or 1/2 a vanilla bean, split and scraped; I prefer this because I love the vanilla specks in the frosting)
2 to 4 tbsp. milk or cream, as needed
Preheat the oven to 350°F. Line 18 muffin tins with paper cups; spray the cups with non-stick spray.
Beat the butter and sugar in a large mixing bowl until they’re well combined. Add the eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition. Once all the eggs have been added, beat the batter at high speed of your electric mixer for 5 minutes, till it’s light-colored and fluffy. Stop once, midway, to scrape down the sides of the bowl.
Add the baking powder, baking soda, and salt, beating briefly to combine. Gently stir in the flour alternately with the yogurt. Add the vanilla at the end.
Scoop the batter into the prepared muffin cups, using a muffin scoop (a scant 1/4 cup) of batter for each. I love using a spring-loaded ice cream scoop for this; it gives the cupcakes a great dome.
Bake for 22 minutes, until a inserted toothpick comes out clean and they spring back when the top is pressed lightly. Let cool on a wire rack until completely cooled.
To make the frosting, combine the caramel and 2 tablespoons heavy cream in a small saucepan. Heat until the caramel is melted, whisking to combine. Once the caramel sauce is thoroughly combined, turn off the heat and add the 1/2 tsp. sea salt. Let it cool until still warm to the touch, but not hot. It will thicken up considerably, which is what you want.
While the caramel is cooling, beat the butter in a large mixing bowl set with the wire whisk attachment until fluffy. Add the powdered sugar gradually and add the vanilla extract/paste/bean once it is fully combined. If it still seems a little too stiff, add the 2 to 4 tablespoons of milk or cream a tablespoon at a time, until the frosting is light and smooth.
Set aside about 3/4 of the frosting and keep 1/4 in the mixing bowl. Add the warm caramel and whip until fully combined and luscious. It’s probably a good idea right now to eat a spoonful. Go ahead, no one’s looking.
As far as cupcake assembly, there are several ways to do it. This is what I did:
Using an apple corer, remove about a 1-inch deep piece from the center of each cupcake. Taking two pastry bags, one with a medium round tip and the other with a medium star tip, scrape the vanilla frosting into the star-tip bag and the caramel frosting in the round-tip bag. (Only fill the bags half-full. The easiest way to fill a bag is to fold the upper half down, so you can keep the top relatively clean, and fill it using a rubber spatula, scraping it along the side of the bag as you fill.)
Pipe the caramel frosting just to the top of the hole in each cupcake and set the extra frosting aside. You’ll use it again in a few minutes. Starting around the center of each cupcake, pipe the vanilla frosting in an outward circle. Once the cupcake has its vanilla cap, use the caramel frosting to finish filling the center.
For cutting out the center, you can also use a paring knife if you don’t have an apple corer. If you don’t want to pipe or don’t have pastry bags/tips, you could use a large zip bag with the corner snipped off or just use a frosting knife. Or you could just skip the coring, smear the frosting all over the cupcake with your hands and eat it like a barbaric heathen. Honestly, with a cupcake this good, I wouldn’t judge you.
Makes 18 cupcakes
Note: I had serious issues with my vanilla frosting, as I ran out of powdered sugar and hence ran out of frosting. If you find this recipe isn’t enough frosting for all the cupcakes, I apologize!