These cupcakes were the product of my imagination, running wild, and trying to come up with the perfect way to use a really awesome caramel sauce that I made recently. Funny how something as multi-step as a cupcake could be born from something so simple as caramel, but that's exactly what happened. Of course, there are many, many things you could do with this caramel sauce; it's actually quite versatile. But for my blogging purposes today, we're just going to talk about it in this recipe.
So what is this magical caramel I speak of, anyway? Well, it's Apple Cider Caramel Sauce, and it is heaven. Instead of making this caramel with lots of butter or cream, or both, you add lots of fresh apple cider. Then, to make it even more apple-y, you throw in a bunch of diced apple pieces and allow them to get all soft and mushy in there. Once the caramel has had a chance to come together, you puree the mixture, so the apple pieces actually become part of the sauce. Oh, my, is it good! After it's had a chance to chill in your fridge, it thickens up nicely, almost becoming a cross between a caramel sauce and an applesauce. Then, you're ready to use it!
The cupcakes I decided to make were from Cooking Light. I found a special issue that I snatched right up at the bookstore; it was a Fall Baking edition! I flipped through it before purchasing and realized I could see myself making over half of the recipes; I thought it would be a good investment! (Okay, that's what I told myself so I'd feel better about buying the more expensive special edition.) I'd probably have to put these cupcakes in the sorta cupcake/sorta muffin category. I mean, they're delicious and everything. They're moist, with nice chunks of apple throughout, but they did remind me of a muffin more so than a cupcake. Still, I suppose that's to be expected when it's a "light" recipe. And, besides, the frosting would more than make up for the healthiness! So I forged on.
I whipped up a Swiss Meringue Buttercream for the cupcakes, using Martha Stewart's basic recipe as my guide. I did have a little bit of trouble with the buttercream, as is usually the case when I make this tricky frosting. But I managed to get everything under control, and the frosting came together quite nicely.
So now it was time to add my Apple Cider Caramel Sauce! I wanted to transform my ordinary, muffin-y apple cupcakes into Caramel Apple Cupcakes, and I knew that adding the caramel to the frosting would be divine. I wasn't sure how much caramel to add to the buttercream at first, so I started out with about 2/3 cup and kept checking the flavor. It took a little over 3/4 cup caramel total before you could really taste the sauce in the frosting. Once I had enough caramel in there, the frosting turned a lovely light caramel color. It was silky and smooth, and you could detect the hint of apple flavor in the caramel sauce. It was pretty amazing.
Just to take these over the top, I finished them off with a drizzle of the caramel sauce over the buttercream. The piping on some of these were really weird, sorry about that (I was trying a thing. It didn't work), but I think for the most part these were a rousing success. I love it when a crazy notion in my head turns into delicious reality!
Caramel Apple Cupcakes
cupcakes adapted from Cooking Light (the original recipe had a streusel topping and a glaze, which I omitted due to my addition of buttercream frosting)
makes 12 cupcakes
6.75 oz. all-purpose flour (about 1 1/2 cups)
1/2 tsp. baking powder
1/4 tsp. salt
1/4 tsp. baking soda
3/4 cup granulated sugar
1/4 cup (2 oz.) 1/3-less-fat cream cheese, softened
1/4 cup butter, softened
2 Tbsp. amaretto (you can use 2% milk, which I did)
1 tsp. vanilla extract
1 large egg
1/2 cup reduced-fat sour cream
1/4 cup 2% reduced-fat milk
3/4 cup finely chopped Gala apple
1 Tbsp. all-purpose flour
1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Place muffin cup liners in 12 muffin cups; coat with cooking spray. Weigh or lightly spoon 6.75 oz. flour into dry measuring cups; level with a knife. Combine this flour with baking powder, salt, and baking soda in a small bowl; stir with a whisk.
2. Combine granulated sugar, cream cheese, and 1/4 cup butter in a large bowl; beat with a mixer at high speed until well blended. Add amaretto or 2 T. milk, vanilla, and egg to sugar mixture, and beat with a mixer at high speed until well blended. Combine sour cream and 1/4 cup milk in a small bowl, and stir with a whisk until well blended. Combine apple and 1 T. flour in a small bowl, and toss well.
3. Add flour mixture and sour cream mixture alternately to sugar mixture, beginning and ending with flour mixture. Beat just until blended. Fold in apple mixture. Divide batter evenly among muffin cups. Bake at 350 for 27 minutes or until a wooden pick inserted in center comes out clean. Cool in pan for 15 minutes on a wire rack; remove the cupcakes from pan and allow to cool on racks.
Caramel Swiss Meringue Buttercream
adapted from Martha Stewart (I made just half the recipe)
makes about 2.5-3 cups
1/4 cup plus 1 Tbsp. sugar
3 large egg whites
Pinch of salt
1/2 pound (2 sticks) butter, softened and cut into tablespoon-sized pieces
1/2 tsp. pure vanilla extract
3/4 (or more as needed) Apple Cider Caramel Sauce, recipe follows
1. Whisk together the sugar, egg whites, and salt in the heatproof bowl of a standing mixer. Set bowl over a pan of simmering water, whisk until sugar is dissolved and mixture registers 140 degrees on an instant read thermometer.
2. Return bowl to mixer; fit mixer with whisk attachment. Beat on medium-high speed until stiff. Reduce speed to medium-low; add butter, a few tablespoons at a time. Continue whisking until smooth.
3. Switch to paddle attachment. Add caramel and vanilla; beat on lowest speed until combined, 3 to 5 minutes. The buttercream can be made several days ahead and stored in the refrigerator. Before using, bring buttercream back to room temperature; return to mixer and beat with the paddle attachment until smooth.
4. To assemble cupcakes, pipe the frosting onto each cupcake in the desired pattern. Drizzle with leftover caramel sauce and serve. (The frosted cupcakes do keep well in the fridge; just bring to room temperature before serving.)
Apple Cider Caramel Sauce
from The Craft of Baking
makes about 2 cups
2 1/4 cups sugar
1/2 cup light corn syrup
1/4 vanilla bean, split lengthwise, seeds scraped out, bean and seeds reserved
2 small tart baking apples, such as Mutsu, Cortland, or Granny Smith, cored, and cut into 1-inch pieces
3/4 cup apple cider
1/4 tsp. kosher salt
1. Combine the sugar, corn syrup, 1/2 cup water, and the vanilla bean and seeds in a medium saucepan. Cook over high heat until the sugar becomes a medium golden caramel, about 15 minutes. Add the apples and stir to combine. Reduce the heat to low and cook until the apples have softened, 2 to 3 minutes. Carefully add the cider and stir to combine. Continue to cook until the sauce is sticky, about 5 minutes more.
2. Remove the pan from the heat and remove the vanilla bean. Rinse and recycle the vanilla bean for another use. Whisk the salt into the mixture.
3. Transfer the mixture to a blender and puree until smooth. Strain it through a fine mesh sieve into a bowl. Serve immediately, or store in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 2 weeks. Reheat the sauce in a saucepan over low heat.