I totally want to tell you about these cupcakes for the obvious reasons: The cake is uber-moist, the caramel is salty, sweet, and slightly runny, and the frosting is billowy, creamy, and intensely chocolate-y. And the combo of the three — big surprise — is amazers. (Yes, I am playing around with tween slang — just tell me to shut up whenever it gets to be too much.) I mean there clearly is no dearth of things to say about these cupcakes.
I am hoping you’ll indulge me while I tell you just the tiniest bit about the origins of the recipe, the process I went through while developing it, and why I’d recommend you try your hand at it . . . asap. First, the origins: this recipe owes everything and then some to Matt and Nato’s sweet and salty cake (on the off chance you have read any of my prior posts, this should come as no surprise). I worked at Baked back in the day, and prior to doing so it was slices of the sweet and salty (a chocolate cake layered with caramel) that drew me to the bakery in the first place. And the technique for filling these here cupcakes with caramel (make a hole by sticking a large frosting tip into the top, twist and pull up — see the pic below — and then fill with caramel) is all baked, all the time.
Now, as for the process of developing the recipe for these beauties, although I’ve been making sweet and salty-inspired cupcakes (or the cake version) for the almost 12 year old resident tester’s bday for more years than I can count, this is the first time I have made them using my own recipes for each of the components. The cake recipe you already know: It is the one for my extra moist and chocolate-y birthday cake, and the salty caramel is right out of my book, Icebox Cakes (used therein in the salty milk dud, the chai ginger, and the lemon caramel). The frosting recipe, however, is brand spanking new. In the past, when a yearning for chocolate frosting struck, I used this foolproof chocolate frosting recipe, and it’s totally spectacular, by the way, and baked always uses a whipped caramel ganache. But when it came down to developing my own, I kind of wanted the chocolate version of my (vanilla) old-school buttercream frosting (ie: a light and fluffy butter and confectioner’s sugar frosting).
I turned first to Hershey’s (I mean, does it get more old-school than that?), but the Hershey’s recipe called for melting the butter and cocoa powder together at the start, and for whatever reason (sometimes you just don’t know) I had trouble creating the fluffiness I was after. i then looked to a few recipes that were super simple and similar in technique to my old school buttercream. I added a bit more butter than some might think necessary, and a bit less than others might call for, as much cocoa powder as I thought said butter could handle (for uber-chocolate-y flavor), a hearty glug of vanilla, heavy cream (rather than milk) for richness, and just enough powdered sugar to make it sweet, but not cloyingly so. And voila: the final component of my own take on the caramel filled chocolate cupcake was complete (and utterly delish). And there you have it, the perfect remedy to that hankering for the chocolate-caramel combo, which we all know is kind of the best combo around. Or just the perfect cupcake. One that solicits oohs and aahs from a crowd of 12 year olds, and blissful silence from their elders.
Salty Caramel-Filled Chocolate Cupcakes
For the salty caramel
- 2 cups granulated sugar
- 1/2 cup water
- 1 1/4 cup heavy cream warmed
- 2 Tbsp unsalted butter
- 2 tsp pure vanilla extract
- 2 tsp kosher salt
For the chocolate cupcakes
- 2 cups cake flour
- 1 tsp baking powder
- 1/2 tsp baking soda
- 1 1/2 tsp salt
- 2 3/4 cups dark brown sugar packed
- 1 cup sour cream
- 1/4 cup heavy cream
- 3 yolks
- 2 large eggs
- 1 Tbsp vanilla paste or extract
- 1 oz unsweetened chocolate
- 1 scant Tbsp espresso powder
- 1 1/4 cups Dutch-process cocoa powder plus 1 tbsp black cocoa powder, if you have it, regular cocoa powder, if you do not
- 1/4 cup oil
- 1 cup boiling water
- 1 stick/8 Tbsp unsalted butter melted and warm
For the chocolate buttercream
- 1 3/4 stick 14 Tbsp unsalted butter, room temperature
- 3 1/2 to 4 cups confectioners' sugar
- 1 cup dutch process cocoa powder
- 1 Tbsp pure vanilla extract
- 1/2 cup heavy cream room temperature
- Maldon sea salt
To make the salty caramel
- Combine the sugar and water in a small saucepan and whisk until combined. Place the saucepan on medium heat and cook until the sugar has dissolved. Increase the heat to medium-high and, without stirring, cook the sugar mixture until it changes to a deep amber color, occasionally holding the pan with pot holders, and gently swirling the mixture to ensure that the sugar cooks evenly and that the color is to your liking (the deeper the color, the stronger the flavor of the caramel).
- Watch the mixture carefully as it cooks, as caramel goes quickly from brown to burnt. If sugar crystals form on the sides of your pan, use a wet pastry brush to wipe them away.
- Remove the saucepan from the heat, and carefully pour the warm heavy cream into the pan. Be very careful; the hot mixture may splatter. Stir with a wooden spoon or heatproof spatula and then add the butter, vanilla, and salt, stirring until incorporated. Warming the heavy cream should prevent the caramel from hardening and becoming clumpy (seizing), but if it does, return the saucepan to the heat and melt the hardened bits, stirring gently, until the caramel liquefies.
- Transfer the caramel to a heatproof container and let it cool until room temperature and slightly thickened. You can also place it in the refrigerator to speed up the cooling process, and cold caramel is slightly easier to fill cups with than room temp. While the caramel is cooling, make the cups.
To make the chocolate birthday cupcakes
- Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Line three 12 cup muffin pans with paper liners. Set aside.
- Sift the flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt together into the bowl of a stand mixer and then briefly whisk the mixture to ensure the leavening is incorporated. Add the sugar and place the bowl on the stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Mix on low speed while preparing the rest of the batter.
- In a medium-sized bowl, whisk together the sour cream, heavy cream, yolks, eggs, and paste and set aside.
- In another medium-sized bowl, add the chocolate, espresso powder, cocoa powder, oil, and boiling water to the melted butter. Whisk vigorously until the chocolate melts and the mixture is smooth. the butter may separate from the chocolate a bit once the water is added. do not worry: after the chocolate mixture is added to the rest of the batter it will all come together.
- Keeping the mixer on low speed, slowly add the sour cream mixture to the dry mixture in the bowl. Once added, stop the mixer and scrape down the bowl with a rubber spatula. Now slowly add the chocolate mixture. Once added, stop the mixer and scrape the bowl with a rubber spatula again, making sure to scrape up from the bottom of the bowl to ensure the chocolate is thoroughly integrated with the rest of the batter. Mix on low speed for an additional 15 seconds and remove the bowl from the mixer. Mix once by hand with a rubber spatula to ensure complete incorporation.
- Use an ice cream scoop to fill each liner 2/3 of the way full. Place one tray at a time in the middle rack of the oven and bake for about 20 to 22 minutes, rotating the pan every 7 minutes. Begin checking for doneness at about 18 minutes (no one likes over-baked cake). The cupcakes are done when a cake tester comes out with a few moist crumbs. Repeat with the remaining two pans.
- Let the cupcakes cool in the pan for about 10 minutes before removing them to a cooling rack. Let them cool til room temperature. While the cupcakes cool, make the frosting.
To make the chocolate buttercream
- Place the room temperature butter in the bowl of a stand mixer, fitted with the paddle attachment. Mix on medium speed until the butter is smooth. Meanwhile, sift the confectioners' sugar and cocoa powder together in a large bowl. On medium-low speed, add a little of the sugar/cocoa mixture to the butter.
- Once incorporated, stop the mixer and scrape the bowl with a rubber spatula, and continue to add and stop and scrape, until all of the dry ingredients are incorporated. Add the vanilla and then slowly add the cream. Stop the mixer and scrape the bowl again. Then beat the mixture on medium-low speed until the frosting is light and fluffy, about 3 to 5 minutes. Don't be afraid to beat longer than you might think necessary, this ensures an airy frosting.
To assemble the cupcakes
- Using a large frosting tip, press the small end of the tip into the center of each cupcake, then twist the tip as you pull it out. This will remove the center of the cupcake and provide you with a spot for your caramel.
- Using a small spoon, place a spoonful or two of the caramel into the hole on the top of each cupcake. You can spoon some in and then wait until it is absorbed a bit, and then put a little more in. Once all the cups are filled, place about 1 1/2 Tbsp of frosting over the hole on each cup. I used an ice cream scoop, but you could use a pastry bag fitted with the largest tip. Use a small offset spatula to decoratively frost the cupcakes. Or, if using the pastry bag, you can just leave a large dollop of frosting on the top of each cup, as they do at baked.
- Once all of the cups are frosted, sprinkle the tops with the sea salt and serve. cups will keep loosely covered on the counter for up to 48 hours.