vanilla muffin cakes

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 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.

more cupcakes

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 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

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

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.

Shanna Mallon

Shanna Mallon started Food Loves Writing back in 2008, as a way to remember her grandma and write about her life through food. Since then it's become a place leading her to a lifestyle of eating whole foods, a new home in Nashville and the love of her life, Tim. Follow Shanna on Twitter @foodloves, keep up with Food Loves Writing on Facebook and stay inspired with the monthly newsletter.

This Post Has 18 Comments

  1. Carrie

    I know people are inspired by your recipes, but you should know your words (stories, advice, etc.) are even more inspiring. Great post! And… yummy muffin cakes.

  2. susan

    I totally agree with Carrie – I am very happy I found your blog.

  3. Stephanie

    Thank you for the great recipe AND for properly managing my expectations 😉 I’m a firm believer in under-promising and over-delivering!

  4. Zo

    Yay, nice to know I’m not the only one who perhaps sets overly-high expectations of recipes or the result of food made up on the spot. Sigh, I needed that.

    Thanks, and also…these muffins sound perfect to me!

  5. Lan

    so sorry that your big plans didn’t pan out! :(

    you’re so right about setting the right amount of expectations, that way there’s no disappointment. but i think a healthy dose of disappointment keeps things in perspective. that’s just me tho.

    at least you stuck by the cupcakes and still ate them. i’ve been known to just chuck an entire batch if they didn’t stand up to muster.

  6. ingrid

    I recently was totally disappointed in something I spent a lot of time and effort making after drooling over everyone else’s fab photos and descriptions. I can’t tell you how depressed I was afterwards. Like your cupcakes in a day or two it was better but still not great and certainly not what I hoped for.

    Your cupcakes look and sound yummy.

  7. Hayley

    Vanilla cupcakes are my absolute favorite, and yours look so lovely and simple. Thanks for sharing!

  8. Kate

    I totally understand. I get it. I’ve had the same unrealistic expecations on several fronts, both with recipes, and with websites as well.

    On the recipe front, there was a streusal topped muffin recipe making the rounds, with a great back story of litigation and theft and all sorts of hype, and finally the revelation: Here it is, the Lawsuit Muffin Recipe, just for you. That muffin was no better or worse than any other muffin I’ve ever had. Certainly not worth any degree of monetary damages.

    Then there is the entire Artisan Bread in 5 movement. I admit I’ve tried and tried and tried to love that method, but I just don’t. It’s *okay* but not *fantastic* and the “in 5* pisses me off. There is nothing at all that qualifies this to be called a method which only takes “… 5 minutes per day.” I call shenanigans.

    On the website front, there is a pair of very popular blogs by the same author who wins all sorts of awards. Granted, I like reading the recipes, but I wish I could shake her hard and tell her to knock off all the self-deprecating comments (sorry for the smudge on my finger in this photo, sorry for the wrinkle on my hand in that photo) which appear to be intended to make her sound humble and “one of us” but really just serve to make everyone pat her and compliment her, and they are just not witty or funny in either case. There is just something about the trite and juvenile writing which is supposed to pass for witty banter which just drives me crazy, and yet there are literally thousands of commenters (well she does give away big prizes so that’s partly the reason), and numerous awards by everyone under the sun telling me I’m supposed to love those blogs more than I do. I keep going back hoping to fall in love with them again, and I just can’t. There’s my rant for the day. I feel better.

  9. Belle

    I love how your tie your recipes into stories. When I flip through my cookbooks, I always remember what I made things for — a first date, holdiay dinners, goofing off in the kitchen with my best friend, cheering a friend up. That’s what makes cooking so fun. I wonder, if my 16 year old self was a cupcake, what would she be?

  10. The Duo Dishes

    To be honest, we’re not huge fans of muffin style cupcake…just too dry and spongy for us. But the frosting sounds just great. Why not try it on something else!

  11. Shannalee

    Carrie & Susan – Thanks! (And thanks especially, Carrie, for being a taste tester!)

    Stephanie: I love the way you put that, underpromising and overdelivering. I’m going to remember that.

    Thanks, Zo. PS: Your photos are GORGEOUS. Simply stunning.

    Lan, I really thought about what you wrote, and you’re right. I guess it’s all about balance, you know?

    Ingrid, It is SO nice to know I’m not alone. Thank you!

    Hayley, I have to ask, since you said vanilla cupcakes are your favorite: do you have a go-to recipe? Will you share it? Please?

    Kate, I loved your long comment and really appreciate the advice about ABi5. Like I e-mailed you, I had just been thinking of buying it, but with my luck (and weird oven), it would be disappointing, so I think I’ll wait and maybe get it at the library.

    What a nice thing to say. Thank you, Belle (and stories are the best part of everything).

    LOL, DD. Well, at least you’re honest. If you try this frosting with something else, tell me, OK?

  12. Gemma

    Salted caramel frosting can surely only be a good thing? I’m very good at setting unfair expectations and built up tea flavoured cupcakes in my head to become the ideal cream tea in cupcake form. When they just tasted of vanilla I was so disappointed that I am yet to revisit the idea. Maybe for spring…

  13. Shannalee

    Gemma – Your first question was exactly what I thought, the moment I heard of the recipe. In truth, the frosting was very good, just a little more buttery than I’d expected. Thanks for telling me about your tea/vanilla cupcakes, BTW – It’s so nice to know other people have had similar experiences!

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    I found the best and I mean BEST cupcake recipe from another blog. It’s under coconut cupcakes. You could leave out the coconut and have yourself the best vanilla cupcake in the world. Now I hate to build it up, but it’s the one recipe (baking) that I’m sure of. The cake is dense and needs to really be whipped up. I think the caramel would be great with it.

    I have made caramel frosting over and over and over to get it right. It is still not posted because I obsess on perfection and have many burnt caramel trails in trash to prove it. Determination or kitchen insanity?

  17. Shannalee

    Angela – As soon as I read your comment, I ran over to your site to find the cupcakes you’re describing (which look amazing!) and print out the recipe. I cannot wait to try them! THANK YOU!

  18. Stefanie Schmidt

    These cupcakes look so delicious, thanks for sharing.

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