I firmly believe that all celebrations require cake. Cupcakes are one of my favorite celebratory desserts because once the party has started, no one needs to stop to cut the cake. They are also the perfect bite-sized vehicle to experiment with different flavor combinations. I especially enjoy making cupcakes with fillings because you can add an extra flavor and texture to your desert.
I like to make what I call “semi-homemade” cake batter – it involves a boxed cake mix and then my special blend of wet ingredients that, without fail, produce a perfectly moist cake (or cupcake). It is super easy to do. I made a slightly salted thick caramel sauce to fill these cupcakes: anything too thin and it will just be absorbed into the cake, anything too hard will leave you with a difficult-to-eat, chewy cupcake. This caramel filling has just the right thickness to create a delightful surprise in the center. I’ve also created a semi-homemade recipe for the filling. Caramelizing your own sugar does create a delightful flavor, but it can also be a recipe for a burnt caramel disaster. The frosting, which is adapted from America’s Test Kitchen, is the first peanut butter frosting I’ve come across that truly captures the salty creaminess of peanut butter while still having a light, fluffy texture. It is a cooked frosting, based on a Swiss meringue buttercream, which sounds like a lot of effort considering the cake and filling are both “semi-homemade”. But I promise, once you discover that rich, salty peanut butter can be whipped to an almost lighter-than-air consistency, you’ll agree it’s worth the extra work.
I recommend baking the cupcakes first, and then making the caramel sauce while they are in the oven. Both the cupcakes and caramel sauce can be cooling while you make the frosting. Once the cupcakes are cooled, I make a core in the top using a pairing knife in a circular motion similar to how I remove stems from strawberries. I put a small (or giant) spoonful of caramel in the cupcake and then replace the cake I removed, as shown in the photos below. The frosting is light, making the cupcakes quick to frost with the help of a pastry bag.
1 box yellow cake mix
2 ounces instant chocolate pudding
6 tablespoons cocoa powder
5 large eggs
½ cups butter, melted
1 cup buttermilk
½ tablespoon vanilla extract
½ cup unsalted butter
1 cup packed dark brown sugar
½ cup light corn syrup
7 ounces (½ can) sweetened condensed milk
2 teaspoons heavy cream
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 cup granulated sugar
4 large egg whites
24 tablespoons unsalted butter (3 sticks) at room temperature
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 ½ cups creamy peanut butter
- In a large mixing bowl whisk together cake mix, chocolate pudding, and cocoa powder. I find some cake mixes can be very lumpy. If I notice lumps, I sift all the dry ingredients before proceeding.
- Add eggs, melted butter, and buttermilk to the dry ingredients. Mix on low until all ingredients are wet, then mix on medium high for two minutes. Add vanilla extract and mix until incorporated.
- Add liners to your cupcake pan and fill each about ¾ full with batter. The recipe should yield 26 to 28 cupcakes. Cook according to cake mix packaging, using a toothpick to determine when cupcakes are done. If under baked, they will cave in after being removed from the oven.
- Let cooked cupcakes cool on a wire rack to room temperature before filling and frosting.
- Heat first four ingredients over medium heat, while stirring constantly until mixture reaches soft ball stage (235° F) on a candy thermometer.
- Remove from heat and immediately stir in heavy cream.
- Let cool 10-15 minutes, then stir in vanilla.
- Wait until caramel is cool enough that you can touch it, and stir in kosher salt until it reaches your desired level of “salted”, approximately 1-2 tsp.
- Place egg whites and sugar in a heatproof mixing bowl over a pan of boiling water. Gently whisk the mixture until it reaches 150°.
- Remove from heat and beat on high speed for about 1 minute until thick foam forms. If the mixture is still hot and steamy, cool the mixture off by placing the bottom of the bowl in cool water.
- Continue beating the mixture on high for another 2 minutes.
- Slowly add the butter, about 1-2 Tbs at a time, while beating on medium high. The frosting may look lumpy, don’t be alarmed.
- Continue beating; add the vanilla and salt, followed by the peanut butter. The frosting should have a creamy appearance once the peanut butter is thoroughly mixed in.
For the frosting I like Skippy Natural, very smooth and good peanut flavor.