The story of these vanilla bean cupcakes with salted caramel frosting is bittersweet—a perfect example of what you shouldn’t do, and I don’t just mean with recipes.
It’s the same thing I’d tell my teenage self, that cocky girl who felt she had the future in her control. Looking her square in the eyes, my hands tight on her shoulders as I shake them slightly, I’d tell her, whatever you do, if you can just remember this one thing: Don’t set unfair expectations. (On my way out, I might also add that a little styling product could do wonders for your wavy hair, but that has nothing to do with these cupcakes.)
Those simple words would have saved me a lot of heartache, trite as it sounds. If I could have learned then that when someone hurts your feelings, it’s possibly unintended; or that when it is intended, that person could be coming from a very dark, unhappy place that deserves your pity not your anger; and that, most importantly, whatever hurt your feelings, you’ve probably said and done something very similar or worse—maybe I would have learned to cut people some slack—that, and spent a few less nights listening to depressing music or whining on the phone.
From where I sit today, I know setting someone or something on a pedestal is probably the absolute worst thing you can do to it. The moment you demand things must be, you set yourself up to be devastated when they aren’t. With some things—a job that provides paychecks, for example—it’s fair to be demanding; with others—a friend that forgets to call you back or never returns your e-mails—it’s not.
But now I’m getting carried away with myself. Back to the cupcakes. From the moment I got the Chow.com e-mail, luring me with words like “irresistible” and “flecked with vanilla,” I built these vanilla bean cupcakes up to be the most marvelous I would have ever had.
And, turns out, these cupcakes aren’t bad. They’re good, actually, with a dense, vanilla-flavored base that resembles a muffin or cornbread in texture and is topped by a slippery butter frosting with a hint of caramel and a touch of saltiness. At first bite, you might think of popcorn, but as you continue eating, the taste becomes more complex, turning into something heavy and rich, salty and sweet, caramelized and soft. I’ll also add, they get much better over a few days in the refrigerator.
In fact, the only real problem with these cupcakes has nothing at all to do with the cupcakes; it has to do with me. They weren’t what I expected, not as fluffy or airy as I’d pictured, not as melt-in-your-mouth. They were tasty, and I ate them, but I was disappointed.
Monday, I brought four into work, giving them to Carrie in a white bakery box with a FoodLovesWriting.com sticker on top. (And now that I’ve brought up the white bakery boxes, I really ought to tell you another bit of disappointing news: my big plans have fallen through, and if you have another idea for hundreds of pretty boxes, please let me know.) She took them home and shared them, and she swears everyone who ate them liked them, too. “A buttery success,” she said.
By Tuesday, eating a cupcake out of my brown lunch bag, I’ll admit it was growing on me. I liked it more, with all the maturity of a 26-year-old who’s not as unlike her teenage self as she thought, trying to abandon preconceptions or, at least, to release them, slowly, bite by bite.
Vanilla Muffin Cakes with Salted Caramel Frosting
Adapted from CHOW.com
2 cups cake flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
2 teaspoons salt
12 tablespoons unsalted butter (1 1/2 sticks), at room temperature
1 1/2 cups granulated sugar
1 Tablespoon vanilla extract
2 large egg whites, at room temperature
2 large eggs, at room temperature
3/4 cup whole milk, at room temperature
Salted Caramel Frosting*
Heat the oven to 350°F and arrange a rack in the middle. Line 2 (12-well) muffin pans with paper liners. Alternatively, coat the wells with butter; set aside.
Combine flour, baking powder and salt in a medium bowl and whisk to aerate and break up any lumps; set aside.
Place butter in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment and beat on medium-high speed until very light in color, about 3 minutes. Add sugar and continue beating until mixture is airy, about 3 minutes.
Scrape down the paddle and the sides of the bowl, turn the mixer to medium speed, and add egg whites one at a time, beating well after each addition. Then add eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition.
Add milk and vanilla extract, and mix until combined (the mixture may look curdled, but it’s not). Scrape down the sides of the bowl. Reduce speed to low, add flour mixture, and mix until just combined, about 15 seconds.
Fill the muffin wells about halfway, and bake cupcakes until golden brown and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean, about 18 minutes. Set the pans on a wire rack and let cool for 5 minutes. Remove cupcakes from the pans and let cool completely before frosting.
*Salted Caramel Frosting
Taken directly from CHOW.com
1/4 cup granulated sugar
2 Tablespoons water
1/4 cup heavy cream
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
12 Tablespoons unsalted butter (1 1/2 sticks), at room temperature
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup powdered sugar
Briefly stir together granulated sugar and water in a small saucepan and bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Continue cooking, without stirring, until mixture turns dark amber in color, about 6 to 7 minutes.
Remove from heat and slowly add in cream and vanilla, stirring with a wooden spoon until completely smooth. Set aside until cool to the touch, about 25 minutes.
Combine butter and salt in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment and beat on medium-high speed until light in color and fluffy, about 3 minutes. Reduce speed to low, add powdered sugar, and mix until completely incorporated.
Turn mixer off and scrape down the sides of the bowl, then add caramel. Beat frosting on medium-high speed until airy and thoroughly mixed, about 2 minutes. Cover and refrigerate until stiff, about 45 minutes, before using.