Pumpkin Spice Latte Cupcakes

It’s been ages since I have been in the test kitchen. The temperature in Salt Lake City jumped up to 108°F the weekend before July 4th and it remained scorching hot through the summer. Firing up the oven just seemed like a little trip to hell so all cooking the last couple of months has been outside – on the grill or in the smoker.

baking in the summer be like . . .

baking in the summer be like . . .

But fall is finally here and Pumpkin Spice Latte season has arrived. And while I am not one to stand in line at Starbucks for a venti of this deliciousness, I definitely understand those who do. So with temperatures finally coming down, I thought it would be fun to try my own version – PSL in a cupcake. Actually, that wasn’t my first thought when PSL season arrived. My daughter is a wizard at making bath bombs and several weeks ago she gave me a hands-on tutorial. I was thinking about all of the Halloween bath bombs I would make and I thought about creating a PSL version. If only I was any good at bath bombs … But hey, I’m pretty good at cupcakes so I decided to leave the bath bombs to the expert I and I created a Pumpkin Spice Latte cupcake.

What if i were a cupcake?

What if i were a cupcake?

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There were a lot of recipes out there and I was tempted to try the doctored cake mix version because the altitude here shows no mercy. In the end, I settled on a recipe that includes real pumpkin in the list of ingredients and a tweak to my baking technique. The cupcakes turned out perfectly. Was it the perfect recipe? The perfect technique? A little bit of both? I don’t know, but I’m not changing any of it.

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I am in a constant state of stalking recipes and researching techniques to widen my aperture. For me, the perfect cupcake has a slightly domed top out of the oven that doesn’t deflate as it cools. But I have noticed a lot of recipe blogs and videos where the cupcake is slightly sunken in the middle and no apologies. So maybe I’m too hard on myself and a little concavity is okay – just fill it in with frosting. But that’s not good enough for me. And this recipe delivers.

I am including the cream cheese frosting and caramel topping because they are part of the entire recipe, but I opted for a simple buttercream with a little Kahlua to bump up the coffee flavor. Play with the quantity of pumpkin pie spice and espresso to balance your own tastes. I increased the espresso and decreased the spice from the original recipe but you may prefer a lower coffee-to-spice ratio. I put a link to the original recipe below.

Happy autumn, I hope you enjoy the return to your indoor kitchen as much as I have.

               Pumpkin Spice Latte Cupcakes

  • 1⅓ cups all-purpose flour

  • ¾ teaspoon baking powder

  • ¾ teaspoon baking soda

  • ½ teaspoon salt

  • 1 teaspoon pumpkin pie spice

  • ¾ cup canned pumpkin

  • ½ cup granulated sugar

  • ½ cup dark brown sugar

  • ½ cup vegetable oil

  • 2 eggs

  • 1 tablespoon espresso powder, dissolved in 1 tablespoon hot water

Preheat oven to 375 °F. Line two muffin tins with cupcake liners.

Combine flour, baking soda, baking powder, salt and pumpkin spice in a medium bowl; set aside.  Combine sugars with oil and mix well.  Add in the pumpkin, and stir until incorporated. Sift in dry ingredients and mix gently until just incorporated. Add espresso then mix in the eggs, one at a time.  

Fill cupcake liners 3/4 full, and bake for 17 minutes. Remove from oven and place on wire racks to cool. 

Pumpkin Spice Caramel

  • 1 cup granulated sugar

  • 6 Tablespoons unsalted butter, room temperature

  • 1/2 cup heavy cream, room temperature

  • 1/4 teaspoon salt

  • 2 teaspoons pumpkin spice

While the cupcakes bake, prepare the pumpkin spice caramel. Add sugar to a saucepan over medium heat and stir constantly until it begins to melt into a clear liquid. Continue stirring until clumps of sugar begin to form and turn from white to amber in color. Keep stirring until all the clumps of sugar have dissolved, and then turn off the heat. Mix in butter slowly, then stir in cream, salt, and pumpkin spice. Place in fridge to cool for 20 minutes, then pour into desired container. Allow to cool completely before using. The caramel will keep for several weeks in the fridge.

Cream Cheese Buttercream Frosting

  • 1 cup unsalted butter, room temperature

  • 4 ounces cream cheese, room temperature

  • 6 cups powdered sugar

  • 1/2 teaspoon salt

  • 1 Tablespoon heavy cream

  • 1 teaspoon vanilla

Next, prepare the cream cheese frosting. Beat the butter and cream cheese on a medium speed for 30 seconds, until smooth. Slowly add in the powdered sugar, 1 cup at a time. Alternate with small splashes of cream. Once fully mixed, add in the vanilla and salt, and beat on medium low until the ingredients are fully incorporated, and the desired consistency is reached. If the frosting is too thick, add in cream (1 teaspoon at a time). If the frosting is too thin, add in more powdered sugar (quarter of a cup at a time).

Once the cupcakes are fully cooled, pipe icing on top using your favorite tip. Drizzle with Pumpkin Spice Caramel. Lightly dust the cupcakes with pumpkin spice.

Here is a link to the original recipe.

A Perfect Chocolate Cake

The cover photo of the recipe that caught my eye. Compare this with my final result and judge me for my lack of presentation skills.

The cover photo of the recipe that caught my eye. Compare this with my final result and judge me for my lack of presentation skills.

Last year my dear friend, Midge, asked me to create the perfect chocolate brownie. A fair request since I had been a little bragadocious about my perfect cupcakes. Which, by the way, are still perfect. But the perfect chocolate brownie? That's harder - and not just because I don't love brownies. I mean, I also don't love lamb.

What in the world does lamb have to do with brownies, you ask? It's simple. When I cook lamb, I don't know if it is any good because it tastes to me like lamb. Before you tell me that I just haven't had it cooked right, know that I have eaten lamb at some very good restaurants, including a fine Indian restaurant that braised the lamb in delicious spices of curry and masala with tomatoes and cream. It all still tasted like lamb.

It's the same  with brownies. Whether prepared from scratch, made from a box, or created from a doctored mix - they taste like brownies. And to make matters worse, there are your chewy, fudgy brownies and your cakey brownies, and all textures in between. I have found that there is  a division between folks on the chewy side of the brownie aisle and those on the cakey side, and they like to debate about the proper texture of a brownie. You just can't have your cake and chew it, too. So it seems the perfect brownie is destined to fail.

It's not that I didn't try. I love my friend, I love a challenge, I love to create a sweet, chocolatey treat. I also thought it would be fun to decorate a pan of perfect brownies like a pumpkin patch and give large pieces away on Halloween night. I tested recipes from Bon Appétit,  Food Network, and Sally's Baking Addiction. I tested a deceptively difficult recipe featured in a one-minute internet video. I tested recipes from co-workers, including a legendary caramel brownie that sparked Pavlovian responses when it appeared on the pot luck sign-up sheet. That particular recipe calls for 60 caramels and do you want to know how long it takes to unwrap 60 individual caramels? I was baking late on a school night, breaking a long-standing rule that was totally worth it because these would be perfect. Reviews said they weren't. Good thing, too, because perfection would mean days of unwrapping caramels.

I also bought a gourmet cocoa recommended by Epicurious since perfect brownies demanded perfect ingredients. My plan was to get the texture right and then home in on the flavor. But after multiple tries and giving away the results in exchange for mediocre reviews, the cocoa eventually made it's way into this perfect chocolate cake.

I will go back and try again (I have a King Arthur Flour recipe on deck), but I was distracted by a beautifully glossy chocolate cake that popped up in my news feed - the cake that is the cover photo for this post - so you understand the allure. The recipe was sourced from My Recipes which has never let me down, and it included buttermilk.  I tend to have more success with baking at high altitude when the recipe includes an acid like sour cream or buttermilk. And the cake was a bundt configuration and I had a shiny new Pampered Chef bundt pan begging for attention. So I measured out the last of the Scharffen Berger 100% cacao powder and went for it.

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My husband is my biggest fan and the nicest guy in the world, and that means his food reviews are suspect. I have to tune into his honest responses like leaving half of the food on his plate at the end of a meal or going back for seconds. A reaction like, "This is the best cake you have ever made," gets my attention, and that was his review. A review made even sweeter by the fact that chocolate is not his favorite. And I had to agree, my own mouth full of a bite so moist there was no milk required.  So taking a break from the elusive perfect brownie, I bring you a perfect chocolate cake - adapted from the original recipe which is in the link below. 

A few notes. I went to a Pampered Chef party and was promised that their new bundt pan would kick ass on all other bundt pans. It came with a warning from the hostess to be careful lest the baked confection fly right out of the pan en route from oven to cooling rack. I was sold at Pampered Chef and that pretty blue color. I am not sponsored by Pampered Chef - the company doesn't sponsor anyone. I just think their stuff is really, really good. And while I still used a baking spray on this project, it did indeed slide right out of the pan without leaving a crumb behind. I gave away my old pan.

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Modifications to the recipe are standard altitude mods that I do with most recipes. Reduced quantities of chemical leavening and a slightly hotter oven. I did not bake this on convection, just a 25°F temperature bump did the trick. The finished cake did rise above the rim of the pan a bit, but it did not spill, fall or sink.  Perfect.

The final mod is a lesson learned on good chocolate. While I used a premium cocoa, I think that is optional. But the ganache in the original recipe calls for semi sweet chocolate chips and the quality of your chocolate really matters here. Please don't go for those toll house chocolate chips at the grocery store. Get the best quality semi-sweet chocolate you are willing to pay for. I used Ghirardelli because that's the best I could find in my grocery store and it is pretty good. A trip to the gourmet section of a specialty store wouldn't be the worst idea. I hope you enjoy the recipe, and hopefully your glazing skills are better than mine. If not, nobody will notice. They will think the cake is "perfect."

Perfect Chocolate Bundt Cake

  • 2-1/3 cups all-purpose flour
  • 3/4 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1½ teaspoons baking soda
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 3/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
  • 2 cups granulated sugar
  • 1 cup buttermilk
  • 1 cup warm brewed coffee
  • 1/2 cup vegetable oil
  • 2 large eggs
  • 2½ teaspoons vanilla extract
  • 8 ounces semi-sweet chocolate, chopped (I used Ghirardelli)
  • 1 cup heavy cream
  • 1 tablespoon coffee liqueur
  1.  Preheat the oven to 375°F.  Prepare a bundt pan with baking spray.
  2. Sift cocoa into a small bowl to remove lumps. Whisk in the flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt; set aside.
  3. Mix the eggs and sugar in mixing bowl until combined.  Add oil, vanilla and coffee and mix to combine.  Add dry ingredients alternately with buttermilk until fully mixed and homogeneous. Do not overmix. 
  4. Pour batter into prepared bundt pan.  Bake 40-50 minutes, until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.  Remove to a wire rack and cool for 10 minutes.
  5. Turn cake out onto a plate and let cool completely. Meanwhile, prepare the ganache.
  6. Heat heavy cream to almost boiling. Pour onto chopped chocolate and whisk until smooth. Add liqueur and let cool to room temperature.
  7. Spoon or carefully pour ganache over cooked cake, allowing the glaze to drip down the sides and cover cake completely. For presentation, it Is best to do this on a prep plate, and move to a cake stand or serving plate once the ganache has cooled and set completely.

 

A Perfect Chocolate Cupcake

It makes sense to follow up THE perfect vanilla cupcake with A perfect chocolate cupcake. Okay, I'm feeling sassy and allowing for the possibility of multiple perfections here. Remember part of perfection is in the simplicity of the recipe and this particular one has an extra step - boiling water. I know, it's so hard to boil water but all steps matter. To compensate for this extra step I just pretend I am making tea while baking and voila', boiling water. Okay, who are we kidding? I never drink tea when I bake, but maybe I'm on to something.

While this chocolate cupcake was truly delicious with great chocolate flavor and a lovely crumb, the icing was really the star of the show and I was actually unprepared for that. It took me two tries to get the cupcake right. The first recipe I used was a basic chocolate recipe that included vegetable oil, buttermilk, cocoa powder, and a combination of white and brown sugars. I made some minor high-altitude adjustments: slightly reduced baking soda and a temperature bump to 375°F convection. I prefer recipes that contain an acid like sour cream or buttermilk. They usually work out for me and produce moist, tender results. Sadly, not this time.

These little guys tanked so badly it was almost impressive.  I can usually tell if the recipe will fail in the first 5 minutes of baking. The signature lag in rise at the center of the cake is a dead give away but I never give up hope. I usually spend the remaining 15 minutes telling myself a story that the treats will spring in the last minutes of baking just before swapping that tea for something a little stronger. 

We had a family friend in town that weekend and the subject of altitude was tossed around. We talked about the effects of altitude on physical training and later turned the discussion to what a few thousand feet can do to baking. Lucky for me I was able to provide proof although to be honest, it was kind of embarrassing. If there is one thing I have learned as a self-taught and very amateur chef, it is this: an emotionally safe environment is prerequisite to success. Cooking and baking take practice and when your spouse is critical of your results, it is hard to keep going. My husband is outstanding in that capacity and I credit him with any skills I have developed over the years. No matter how bad the failure, he is no critic and eats whatever comes out of the oven. And he sells the hell out of his enjoyment of it. That is what he did with these pathetic, sunken failures. 

I decided against further tweaks to this recipe due to its lack of promise. I switched a recipe from Food & Wine that include cocoa powder and semi-sweet chocolate chips combined with the aforementioned boiling water. The recipe also had butter instead of oil as well as sour cream. The scientist in me really ought to design an experiment to find out whether the choice of fat, acid, or sugars affects the results. 

Right away, I could tell that this batch of cupcakes was not going to fail in the oven. Success would depend on the flavor, but at least I wouldn't need power tools to get them out of the pan. After about 17 minutes, I removed these perfectly domed cupcakes from my oven and felt my ego boost enough to try something new with the icing. I know, I should have quit while I was ahead but I started this entry by saying I'm feeling sassy. 

The chocolate and vanilla swirl icing turned out so much better than I expected that it will be my new standard when really trying to impress with flavor. The combination of buttercreams turned a simple chocolate cupcake into a perfect chocolate cupcake. It tasted like an ice cream twisty cone and looked just as good. 

The chocolate cupcake is definitely on the agenda for Halloween - delicious and foolproof, it would be silly for me to use anything else. However . . . the swirl icing is probably not going to make the cut. I cannot see my way to making two separate batches of icing, combining them into a piping bag and swirling them on top of a cupcake only to cover it with a green monster head, a meringue ghost, or an Oreo-covered graveyard. Nope, this icing needs to star in its very own show with maybe a few sprinkles for support.  Links to the original recipes are included to honor their creators.

Hot Cocoa Cupcakes

  • 1½ cups all-purpose flour
  • 3/4 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 cup natural (not Dutch process) cocoa powder
  • 1/2 cup semisweet chocolate chips
  • 3/4 cup boiling water
  • 1 cup granulated sugar
  • 3/4 cup sour cream
  • 1/2 cup vegetable oil
  • 2 large eggs
  • 1 tablespoon vanilla extract
  1.  Preheat the oven to 375°F convection.  Line two 12-cup muffin tins with cupcake liners.
  2. In a small bowl, whisk the flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt; set aside.
  3. In a large bowl, whisk the cocoa powder and chocolate chips with the boiling water until smooth. Add the sugar, sour cream, canola oil, eggs and vanilla; whisk until no streaks remain. Whisk in the dry ingredients until incorporated.
  4. Fill prepared muffin cups about 2/3 full with the batter and bake for about 17 minutes, until a toothpick inserted in the center of the cupcakes comes out clean. Transfer the cupcakes to a rack and let cool completely.

Chocolate and Vanilla Swirl Icing

Milk Chocolate Frosting

  • 1 and 3/4 cups (210g) confectioners' sugar
  • 1/4 cup (21g) unsweetened natural cocoa powder
  • 1/2 cup (115g) unsalted butter, softened to room temperature
  • 2 Tablespoons (30ml) heavy cream or half-and-half 2
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • salt, to taste

Vanilla Frosting

  • 1/2 cup (115g) unsalted butter, softened to room temperature
  • 1 and 3/4 cups (210g) confectioners' sugar
  • 2 Tablespoons (30ml) heavy cream or half-and-half 2
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • salt, to taste
  1. For the chocolate frosting: sift together the confectioners' sugar and cocoa powder to assure there are no lumps. Set aside. With a handheld or stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, beat the butter on medium speed until creamy - about 2 minutes. Gradually add the sifted sugar/cocoa powder alternately with the heavy cream and vanilla. Beat on low speed after each addition. Once all added, beat on high speed until creamy and combined for at least 2 minutes. Add a pinch of salt if frosting is too sweet.

  2. For the vanilla frosting: With a handheld or stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, beat the butter on medium speed until creamy - about 2 minutes. Add confectioners' sugar, cream, and vanilla extract with the mixer running on low. Increase to high speed and beat for 3 full minutes. Add more confectioners' sugar if frosting is too thin or more cream if frosting is too thick. Add a pinch of salt if frosting is too sweet.

  3. Prepare a piping bag with your preferred tip and place in a tall glass, folding the edges over. Spoon chocolate frosting into one side of the bag and vanilla frosting into the other side of the bag. Remove the bag from the glass and push the icing through the tip to release any air. Twist the top of the bag and pipe with your preferred method.  (This is the method I used, I followed Sally's instructions for making and piping the icing exactly. There are other methods for piping multiple flavors and colors of icing, including special piping tips.)

The Perfect Vanilla Cupcake

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I am always looking for a better cupcake recipe. I would say that I've tried a thousand recipes but that's me being hyperbolic.  Dozens, though - I have tried dozens.  The test kitchen sits at 5000 feet and baking can be a real challenge. I'd never researched high-altitude baking before and chalked sunken cupcakes up to my lack of technique or a crappy recipe. Besides, I always had my good friend, the cake doctor, standing by. When I moved to a new town and added 600 feet in altitude, baking failures became more noticeable. As did my need to crank out a good cupcake from scratch. 

I researched  the dickens out of high-altitude baking. I read "Pie in the Sky," which is recognized by most as the bible of high-altitude baking. I followed that up with another book on high altitude baking. I think it was called "High Altitude Baking." I got cookbooks written by executive chefs at ski lodge restaurants - if you can bake at 10,000 feet then 5000 should be, well, a piece of cake right? I surfed the internet and sorted through countless YouTube tutorials. In the end, I found that some recipes worked - but most did not. I still didn't understand why. I mean, yes the air is thinner and water boils at a lower temperature and yeast-dough rises faster and chemical leavening reacts before the batter is ready - all of that stuff. Yet...why this recipe and not that one? There are lists of "standard" high-altitude baking adjustments. Add more flour, decrease the amount of sugar, reduce the quantity of baking powder/soda, use more liquid, add an egg, increase the oven temperature... Did I leave anything out? I'm sure I did. And in the end, I couldn't consistently produce a perfect cupcake.

By perfect, I don't mean just flavor and texture. Not when I'm cranking out over 100 of those fully-decorated suckers on Halloween night. No, perfect means it can't be too damn hard. So, without further adieu, I bring you my perfect vanilla cupcake. Adapted ever so slightly from Sally's recipe which is included the link below. All ingredients are room temperature. I weigh my ingredients and highly recommend you spring for the $10 on Amazon for a kitchen scale and do the same. Baking failures are way more expensive. Per unit measures are also tricky. Size does matter when it comes to eggs. Also, did you know that in Japan a stick of butter is half the size as it is in the United States? I found that out the hard way when sharing recipes across the Pacific.

Vanilla Cupcakes

  • 1 stick (8 tbs) butter
  • 200 grams granulated sugar (1 cup)
  • 200 grams cake flour (1-3/4 cup)
  • 1/2 tsp baking powder
  • 1/4 tsp baking soda
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • 3 large egg whites
  • 1 Tbs pure vanilla extract
  • 120 grams full-fat sour cream (1/2 cup)
  • 1/2 cup full-fat milk
  • Optional vanilla bean ** 
  • Frosting of your choice (try the fluffy brown sugar recipe below)
  1. Beat the butter on high speed until smooth; add sugar and beat until well combined. Meanwhile, combine dry ingredients and set aside.
  2. Add egg whites and vanilla, beating at medium speed until combined.  
  3. Add sour cream, beat at medium speed until combined.
  4. With mixer on low, slowly add the dry ingredients until just incorporated. Then add the milk, mixing slowly just until all ingredients are combined. 
  5. Fill prepared cupcake liners 1/2 to 2/3 full. 

Now for the hard stuff: the baking temperature. Sally calls for 350°F for 19-22 minutes. I use 350°F convection.  Of all of the adjustments I have made to cure altitude sickness in my kitchen, I believe the convection oven has been the most important. With my oven, that means I set the temperature at 375°F because the convection feature automatically adjusts the setpoint down to 350°F. I set the timer for 15 minutes and increase in 2 minutes if necessary. These came in at 17 minutes and my yield was 18 cupcakes.

This is a standard mixing procedure for cake batters, I left out all of the extracurricular instructions. You know to scrape down the bowl and not to overmix. I've always wondered what that meant - don't overmix. I never overdo anything. I will say that I evolved from dumping everything into the mixer and beating the tar out of the batter at high speed to gently combining the ingredients in stages. Too much or too vigorous mixing can introduce air into the batter and make the cake tough, a less-forgiving property at altitude. I often do the final mix by hand. This batter was beautiful - silky and smooth, I knew I was on to something. 

I know what you're thinking - what about the vanilla bean? Well, there is a reason that wars have been fought over spices. Vanilla beans are both exquisite and expensive. Keep in mind that here in the test kitchen, we look for recipes that are delicious, easy, somewhat economical, and versatile. I plan to use this recipe as a base for other cupcakes like orange and cinnamon and I'll be sending them out the door by the gross. This recipe produced a simply delicious vanilla cupcake without the vanilla bean. But if you make a single batch for your family and friends, scrape the seeds of a whole bean into the batter when you add the egg whites. That's what I do when I make these for just us. Those little brown flecks are like candy hearts on Valentine's Day screaming, "I love you."

For more about Sally, check out the links to my favorite cooking places. Enjoy.


Fluffy Brown Sugar Icing

  • 1 cup brown sugar (packed)
  • 1/4 cup water
  • 1/2 cup light corn syrup
  • 4 egg whites
  • 2 tsp vanilla
  1. Mix brown sugar, water and corn syrup in a medium pan. Bring to a full rolling boil. Boil at medium heat for approximately 10 minutes until syrup drops like a hair from a spoon. Remove from burner and set aside.
  2. Meanwhile, beat egg whites until stiff.
  3. Slowly pour the hot syrup in a thin stream into egg whites, beating constantly.
  4. Beat until icing holds peaks; beat in vanilla.
  5. Let cool to room temperature. Store covered in the refrigerator until ready to use.

A link to the recipe source is included below with photos and a video. I followed the recipe exactly. I recommend refrigerating the icing for a bit before piping it onto your cupcakes. At my room temperature it was just a little bit soft, but as you can see it still held the swirl just fine. The recipe makes a lot of icing. I refrigerated the leftovers and noticed that it started to separate after a few days. I didn't try to re-whip it into shape just because my kitchen is in a state of remodel so I'm off cupcakes for a couple of weeks. 

I got as many compliments on the icing as I did the cupcake. It is a delicious alternative to buttercream when you want something that is a little less sweet. Enjoy.