I don’t know when it happened, but at some point over the last 18 months, it’s like someone flipped on a “productive adult” switch inside of me. I wake up earlier than necessary each day for coffee, my devotional, and blog/baking research before work; I no longer possess the ability to sleep in (even on weekends after long weeks or a night out – just ask my roommates about our 7:30am Saturday morning kitchen meet-ups at Club Keurig. It’s obnoxious.); I have the surprising urge to get up and get out of the house early to run errands on days off; and I will now get antsy after a few hours of just doing nothing around the house. I have even started going to the gym in the morning and – GASP – enjoying it. You couldn’t have paid me to do that a year ago (I was strictly an after-work gym kinda gal), but now a Saturday morning Zengo Cycle class (my new obsession! If you’re in DC – TRY IT!) will literally rock my world in the best way possible. Sigh, I guess laying around all day doing absolutely nothing but watching marathon sessions of The Hills is a thing of the past (do not judge me, you know y’all did it too. #teamkristen).
So yeah, I’m getting old. But ya know what? I kinda like it. Change and growth are a good thing, especially when they lead to things like Chocolate Salted Caramel Cupcakes on a random Sunday afternoon. I had just come off of back-to-back long weekends in Charleston and LA visiting sorority sisters from college, and was in desperate need of a weekend to relax and regroup. Since I caved and grabbed drinks with friends Saturday night (and yes this included a C’est Si Bon on the Pearl Dive patio, obviously), I knew that Sunday I just needed to make myself chill out. So, after getting up and making an 8:30am Starbucks and grocery store run (I’m cursed, I tell you), I parked it on the couch for some quality time with my DVR. A few hours later, after taking a nap and exhausting every guilty-pleasure TV outlet Fios would provide, the pre-show for the World Cup Final was finally on. There was just one problem: the antsy crept back in and I got the itch to bake. As those of you who know will attest to, I’m sort of a sports junkie. That being said, this restless little urge to undertake a 3-hour baking project during the final soccer game of an international tournament that only comes around every 4 years was sort of inconvenient (especially because, besides the game itself, I could’ve just watched for, um, the eye candy alone. Ha. But seriously).
Speaking of eye candy – THESE CUPCAKES THOUGH. Since going to the grocery store again would’ve further blown all the “do nothing” parameters I had set myself for the day, if I wanted to bake I had to come up with something that only required what I had on-hand. I was super excited when I managed to piece together a recipe for some salted caramel goodness, complete with a bunch of different flavor and texture elements that would all come together in one big bite. I decided to do a chocolate cupcake filled with just a touch of caramel sauce, and then dipped in melted chocolate that would harden into a little shell as it dried. To add a little bit of depth, I dug out some toffee bits to sprinkle on the chocolate as it hardened, and found a caramel buttercream concoction to swirl on top. For the final touch, each cupcake would be sprinkled with sea salt and drizzled with caramel. I know. Dying. You literally can’t? Me either.
I got down to business with these babies, starting with the chocolate cake. I normally gravitate toward recipes that have milk, sour cream, or some other “strengthening” agent to add density and texture, but since I didn’t have any of that in my fridge, I had to go out on a limb and use a recipe that went without. Turns out I had absolutely no reason to be skeptical, because these things puffed up so beautifully I still can’t stand it. I also learned that the milk I usually incorporate into my recipes may be the very reason why my cupcakes don’t always turn out like this. I was so excited when they came out of the oven with that perfect high-dome silhouette that I almost didn’t want to decorate them. Almost.
Once the cupcakes had cooled down a bit, I cored each one and added a little caramel sauce inside, replacing the cupcake tops when I finished. I melted some milk chocolate, and dipped the top of each cupcake to get a nice even coating. For some of them, it was actually easier to just spoon the chocolate onto the top of the cupcake and spread it around the sides. Then I sprinkled crushed toffee bits onto each one and set aside to cool (I actually threw them in the fridge for a few minutes to speed of the process #impatient). Once the chocolate shells were hard, I piped on the frosting. Given that there was a lot going on here, I was careful to not go overboard with the frosting. I wanted all of the different flavor elements to remain balanced and complement each other, rather than just overpower the taste buds with one big blast of sugar.
I mean, there are just no words for these things. From the fluffy cake, to the crunchy chocolate and toffee-sprinkled shell, and gooey caramel center – each element of these cupcakes comes together to give you the perfect balance of flavor and texture in every bite. You’ll think you died and went to sweet & salty heaven. These really might be one of the best things I’ve ever baked, and they’re gorgeous to boot. Not bad for a spontaneous baking project limited to only the ingredients lying around the kitchen! So much for that lazy Sunday, but since baking is therapeutic and an outlet for me, being on my feet for 3 hours while I made these still counts as “relaxing,” right? Whatever, I might be awful at “doing nothing” these days, but at least we get treats like these out of the deal.
Chocolate Salted Caramel Cupcakes
Chocolate Cupcakes (adapted from Bakers Royale):
1 cup all purpose flour
1 cup plus 2 T sugar
1/3 cup plus 2 T unsweetened natural cocoa powder (I used Hershey’s)
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, melted and warm
2 large eggs
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1/2 cup hot coffee
1/2 cup chocolate covered toffee bits
Caramel sauce, for filling (I just used store bought this time, but feel free to use your favorite recipe)
4-6 oz chocolate, melted
Caramel Buttercream (adapted from Buttercream Couture):
1 cup unsalted butter, room temperature
4-5 cups powdered sugar
1 cup caramel sauce (either store-bought or homemade is fine!)
1. To make the cupcakes, add flour, cocoa powder, sugar, baking soda, and salt in a large bowl and whisk to combine. Add the butter, eggs, and vanilla in a separate bowl, and beat on medium speed for one minute. Add the butter and egg mixture to the dry ingredients and beat for 20 seconds. Scrape the sides of the bowl and add the hot coffee. Beat for 20-30 seconds until the batter is smooth. Note that the batter will be thin enough to pour, so don’t let that make you nervous. Divide it evenly among the lined cups. Bake 18-22 minutes or until a toothpick inserted into a few of the cupcakes comes out clean. Set the pan on a rack to cool.
A little tip – If you prefer lighter cupcakes (which I did for this recipe), spoon flour and cocoa lightly into measuring cups (as opposed to dipping the cups into the flour or cocoa themselves) and then sweep the measures level without tapping or shaking them.
2. Core the cupcakes to prepare them for the caramel filling. You can do this either with a cupcake corer or by using a paring knife to cut a small cone out of the center of each cupcake. Trim the “cone” part off of each these pieces so thats you’re left with just the top, and set next to each cupcake. Fill with caramel sauce as desired (I did this sparingly for these cupcakes!), and place each top back on its cupcake to “seal” it.
3. Next you’ll need to prepare the chocolate for the “shell.” Split chocolate up into small-ish chunks and microwave in 30 to 40-second intervals, stirring after each. Chocolate burns easily, so it’s best to do this a little bit at a time to avoid any issues. Once chocolate is melted, dip cooled cupcakes into the melted chocolate, and twist to let any excess chocolate drip off. Alternatively, you can spoon melted chocolate onto the tops of the cupcakes, and use the spoon to spread it around the sides. I found the later to be easier, but it’s up to you! Sprinkle toffee bits on top while the chocolate is still wet. Side aside until cooled and hardened (you can speed this up by popping them in the fridge for 10 minutes or so).
4. While the chocolate shells are hardening, prepare the frosting. Add butter to a mixing bowl and beat well. Add powdered sugar 1-2 cups at a time, beating after each addition until incorporated. Slowly add the room temperature caramel sauce, and continue to beat well until mixed, light and fluffy. If mixture is not thick enough, add powdered sugar gradually until you reach desired consistency for decorating. Pipe prepared frosting on top of the cooled chocolate shell.
5. Sprinkle with sea salt and drizzle with caramel sauce, if desired.