Up until a couple weekends ago, it had been far too long since I’ve had time just to play around in the kitchen. Real life gets so darn busy that sometimes I can barely find time to even cook for myself and thus resort to eating a Cliff Bar for dinner. Talk about the ultimate #PostGradProb.
So when I had to come up with a dish to bring to a trivia night, my mind darted to my favorite thing in the entire world: Baking, duh! Finally, I could spend some time in the kitchen baking the afternoon away. You see, not only is baking a hobby for me, it’s also quite therapeutic. I get a lot of good thinking done in the kitchen, plus it also serves as a creative outlet.
This time, I didn’t want to bake something I’ve made a hundred times before. No, this called for something new. Something different. Something I could create myself and call my own. So I started sifting through recipes for inspiration.
My mind continued to wander when I found myself toying with sweet and salty flavors. Some days, the biggest dilemma I face is whether I want a sweet or salty snack. I know what you’re thinking… #FirstWorldProb. (OK, the hashtagging ends here. Promise!) But you have to agree that it’s a really tough decision! Since sweet and salty is one of my favorite flavor combinations, right behind peanut butter and chocolate, I came up with a genius idea. Why not transform those tastes into a cupcake? Enter what I’m dubbing as the Sweet and Salty Cupcake.
After much more thought and research, I decided on the elements: a fairly neutral-flavored butter cake (so that the toppings could really shine), salted caramel buttercream (foaming at the mouth at this point), chocolate ganache and pretzels. I couldn’t wait to start experimenting in my lab!
The cake was a breeze to mix together. If you’ve never made a cake from scratch before, do so. It’s not nearly as difficult or time-consuming as it sounds. I don’t believe in boxed cake mixes. They’re simply pre-mixed dry ingredients with a handful of preservatives tossed in. Yuck! Please, please, please make your cakes from scratch, people! The batter was fluffy and airy. How do I know this? A girl’s gotta taste test! The batter was so delicious I could have eaten the whole bowl. But alas, there were cupcakes to be made!
Moving on to the frosting. Never have I ever made my own caramel. I’m not going to lie — I was slightly hesitant initially about making candy. Cooking sugar to 240 degrees just sounds like an accident waiting to happen! Fear was not going to get the best of me today though. One noteworthy tip: NEVER. EVER. walk away from the stove when cooking caramel. It’s a fine line from caramelized sugar to burnt sugar, and trust me, nobody wants to eat burnt sugar. The caramel only took about 10 minutes or so to cook. It was so cool to see the ingredients transform into that ooey gooey candy-like syrup. I felt like a mad scientist watching the caramel bubble away.
The finished product was TO DIE FOR. It was so good I didn’t even want to continue with the rest of the buttercream, but thank heavens I did. The caramel was then mixed with even more butter (read in your best Paula Deen voice, “And a stick of butter, y’all!”), flaky sea salt, snowy confectioner’s sugar, a splash of cream and a bit of vanilla just to kick it up a notch. Man oh man, this stuff is good. Try to contain yourself from eating the entire mixing bowl of buttercream before frosting your cupcakes. Easier said than done.
Now you could stop here if you wanted to, but we’re going all out with these cupcakes. So I chopped up some bittersweet chocolate and melted it with some cream. If you can stand it, wait about 10 minutes for the ganache to cool down before drizzling it over the cupcakes. Finally, chop up some pretzels and sprinkle over the top.
Serve to your friends and prepare to be amazed.
“You really made these?”
“Wait, these are from scratch? How do you even do that?”
Or the best one yet… *Silence* while devouring the cupcake in just a few bites. The best compliment someone can pay a baker.
Just a heads up: These cupcakes do take a long time to prepare, so be aware you’ll be spending a decent amount of time in the kitchen. But if you’re like me, that’s a wonderful thing.
SWEET AND SALTY CUPCAKES (Recipe adapted from Add A Pinch.)
Yellow butter cake frosted with salted caramel buttercream, drizzled with chocolate ganache and topped with chopped pretzels
For the Butter Cake:
3 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
Pinch of salt
1 cup butter, softened
2 cups sugar
4 eggs, room temperature
1 cup buttermilk, room temperature
2 teaspoons vanilla
For the Salted Caramel Buttercream:
2 cups sugar
1 cup buttermilk
1 cup butter, softened
1 teaspoon baking soda
½ cup butter
½ teaspoon sea salt
2 cups powdered sugar
½ teaspoon vanilla extract
¼ cup heavy cream or half-and-half
For the Chocolate Ganache:
4 oz. semisweet chocolate (61 percent cacao)
½ cup heavy cream (if using half-and-half, use a bit less)
Pinch of sea salt
For the topping:
Handful of pretzels
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Place 24 liners into muffin tins.
Prepare the cake: Combine flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt with a whisk in a large bowl. Set aside. Cream butter until fluffy and then add sugar, creaming together for about eight more minutes. Add eggs, one at a time, creaming together after each. Add flour mixture and buttermilk, alternately, beginning and ending with flour. Combine each addition of flour and then turn mixer on high to add air into the batter. Add vanilla and beat well, turning the mixer to high for about 10 seconds to lighten batter. Divide batter among liners, filling ¾ of the way. Reduce the oven temp to 325 degrees and bake for 25-30 minutes, or until set. Turn out of tins onto cooling racks and allow to cool completely.
Whip up the frosting: Add all ingredients from the first stage of the buttercream recipe in a 3 or 4-quart pot. Stir ingredients with a wooden spoon while cooking over medium-low heat. Cook to the soft-ball stage (235-245 degrees on a candy thermometer, as well as using the cold water test). The caramel should be dark amber in color. Remove from heat and pour into a large mixing bowl or the bowl of a stand mixer. Using a whip attachment, whip the caramel until it has cooled enough to touch lightly. Add the butter and salt from the second stage of the buttercream recipe to the mixing bowl and whip. Add powdered sugar in ½-cup increments, stopping after each to scrape sides of mixing bowl. Turn mixer to high for about 10 seconds after each addition to incorporate air into the frosting. Adjust the amount of confectioner’s sugar to result in a frosting that will hold its shape. Frost the cupcakes once they have completely cooled.
Toppings time: Chop the pretzels and sprinkle over the frosted cupcakes.
Last but not least, make the ganache: Coarsely chop the chocolate. Set aside in a medium-sized bowl. Bring the heavy cream to a boil over medium-high heat. Pour over the chocolate and add the salt. Let stand for 10 minutes — do not touch, or the ganache will become grainy! Whisk until smooth and shiny. Drizzle over the frosted-topped cupcakes.