Feb 9, 2010

Caramel Cupcakes

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Woo-hoo! Thanks for all the well wishes and shout-outs about that half marathon business I told you about the other day. The race itself was a success. I had wanted to finish in under 2:15, and made it in 2:05, so I’m really happy with that. For once, I didn’t hurt anything, and I only cried three times (from joy, not misery)–at the start, crossing the finishing line, at the halfway point when I saw my friends, mom and husband cheering like crazy people as I passed, with my Little Coach C perched high up on her daddy’s shoulders. Waaahhhhh. It was a great experience all around. I highly recommend running more miles than is really necessary with several thousand other insane people before lunchtime.

And then shoving caramel cupcakes into your face when you’re done.

This combination is nothing short of dynamite, people. Now, I like a chocolate something as much as the next guy–when the chocolate craving hits, don’t get in my way because I will cut you. But at any other time, whether my sweet tooth is already awake or not, I am a sucker for all things vanilla and/or caramel. At a cupcakery, I will always go for the vanilla cake/vanilla frosting combination first. I feel like you can always tell how good a bakery really is by their vanilla cake and icing–with such a pure, uncomplicated flavoring, the quality of the ingredients and technique can’t hide. I’ve been forever searching for the magical recipe that would become my go-to vanilla cake in the Piece of Cake kitchen. And guys, my epiphany has arrived in the form of this completely perfect Vanilla Buttermilk Cake.

It’s just so lovely and balanced, all things considered. Perfectly tender. Moist but not sticky. Light but not preciously so. A velvety, tight crumb, but not at all dense. And thanks to the buttermilk, the level of sweetness is so right on and the notes of the vanilla are heightened.

The not-too-sweet cake also creates the perfect canvas for toppings of all sorts, from traditional buttercreams to more sugar-heavy icings that might cause your molars to ache on a sweeter cake, like my great grandmother Ruth Enzenbacher’s other-worldly caramel icing. All hail the dark brown sugar gods, this whole thing just got real.

Now, my memories of my great grandmother, who passed away when I was about 7, are fuzzy at best. I do remember her halo of silver white hair, soft cheeks and totally impressive salt and pepper shaker collection. But if this icing recipe of hers is any indication of who she really was, then I can also add to the list of character traits no-nonsense and the ability to turn out something showstopping out of the most humble ingredients. This icing comes together in less than five minutes on the stove top with a wooden spoon, just butter, sugar and a touch of milk and salt–it’s a beautiful thing.

But don’t let the easy prep fool you here–this caramel icing waits for no one (I am not sure if this was also true of my great grandmother). It may come together in minutes, but you have seconds to work with it before it sets up. Which is why I have no photo of the icing technique for you, which involved forgoing a spatula and instead dipping the tops of the cakes in the hot icing with a quick swirl before flipping them upright. I sort of felt like I was rescuing children from a burning building while icing these cupcakes–“Go, go, go!”–but the faster you can work, the more evenly glossy and gorgeous the icing sets up.

However, the fury of icing the cupcakes was totally worth it in the end. I cannot tell you how delicious the results were. Just like the madness of working up to the half marathon and then rocking it so hard. And can I just say how much I love it when I’m writing and a dorky metaphor just sort of falls in my lap like that?

Caramel Cupcakes
(Vanilla Buttermilk Cake with Caramel Icing)
Cake recipe adapted from Sky High

Make sure the cupcakes are completely cooled, cold even, before icing them. If they are the slightest bit warm, they will tear when you turn them over to dip them in the hot icing. If the icing begins to harden while you are working with it, just set it over a medium flame and stir it for 30 seconds or so until it loosens up again.

Makes about 18 iced cupcakes

For the cupcakes:

2 whole eggs
1 egg yolk
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons buttermilk, at room temperature
1 1/2 cups cake flour
1 cup sugar
2 1/4 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, cut into 1/2 inch cubes, at room temperature

For the caramel icing:

1 cup dark brown sugar, firmly packed
5 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into a few chunks
Generous 1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup milk
1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1 cup confectioners’ sugar

Place an oven rack to the center position and preheat the it to 350 degrees. Line 18 cups of 2 muffin tins with paper liners.

In a large measuring cup, whisk together, the eggs, egg yolk, vanilla, and buttermilk and set aside.

In the bowl of an electric mixer, whisk together the flour, sugar, baking powder and salt. Fit the mixer with the paddle attachment and turn the mixer on low. With the mixer running, gradually drop in the butter pieces and mix until the texture is uniform and the bits of butter aren’t discernable, about 2 minutes. With the mixer still on low, begin slowly pouring in the wet ingredients. When all the wet ingredients have been added, crank the speed up to medium and mix until the batter is light and fluffy, about 1 1/2 minutes.

Portion the batter into the muffin tins and bake until a toothpick comes out clean and the tops spring back when lightly touched, 20-25 minutes. Let cool in the pans for about 10 minutes, then transfer them to a a wire rack to cool completely.

When the cupcakes have cooled, make the icing. Put the dark brown sugar, butter and salt in a medium saucepan, and melt them together over medium heat, stirring often. Bring the mixture to a boil and add the milk and vanilla. Boil for 3 minutes, stirring occasionally. Dump in the confectioners’ sugar all at once and beat with a wooden spoon until the icing is thickened and smooth. Quickly ice the cupcakes by holding each by the base and dipping the tops in the hot icing, rolling them slightly to coat evenly. Turn them quickly upright so the icing will even out while it’s still warm and will set smoothly. Store any leftovers in an airtight container for up to 4 days.

  • I get so excited when I see a new post from you because it is going to bring some new form of moist yummy goodness. Your cupcakes look so perfect it is almost a sin to eat them.

    And congrats on beating your personal goal you set for yourself on time. You go girl!

    So I guess running is the secret to how you can bake all this crazy goodness.

  • What a perfect treat after a half-marathon! I've never had caramel-caramel cupcakes, definitely thinking about giving them a try after seeing your mouth-watering pictures 🙂

  • These look so awesome! Usually if it's not chocolate I don't want to try it – but I might have to forgo chocolate for Valentine's Day and give these a whirl.

  • These look outstanding! I have never seen a pure caramel icing recipe like this one (most of them are modified buttercreams) and I can't wait to try it.

  • Love the smoothness of the icing. You deserve all those cupcakes after your half-marathon!

  • Stunning! the icing is perfection!

  • Hi Shauna,

    It's me Anne, from TV Guide! These cupcakes are so beautiful I think I will have to make them for my mother's birthday this weekend. I love the way the dark cupcake papers look with the light brown caramel icing. Thanks for the recipe.

    Hope all is well!


  • I love the batter shots! Such a beautiful and creamy mixture.

  • Such kind words from everyone! I send you all caramel-iced thank yous. And if you try the recipe, as always, report back and let me know what you think…

  • those are PERFECTION

  • The caramel topping called me to your site. Wow. It looks perfect. How delicious!!

    Congrats on the marathon.

  • I love anything with caramel and these look just about perfect! What a fantastic treat for doing the half marathon!

  • The caramel ontop of that cupcake looks divine!

  • I will definitely try these cupcakes! There is nothing better than a delicious vanilla cupcake, I totally agree!

  • Two of my favorites as well! I cannot wait to try these! Funny, my grandmother has a way with caramel icing too. Here's to not letting the art die!

  • They look so simple but from what you write so impressive, the icing on those is just killer smooth!

  • Those caramel cupcakes look delicious. I will need to make some.

  • I love your blog!!!!!
    I find it in FaceBook and it's wonderful!!!!
    Un saludo, Begoña

  • These are pretty. How did you get the icing so perfect like that?

  • whoa, wow, and a whole lot of other words. must make these delightful gems.

  • Wow, those look really delicious and the icing is so perfect and smooth. I was planning to make some cupcakes for work on Friday, maybe I'll use this cake recipe. Thanks!

  • These look stunning and sound off the charts wonderful! Great blog!

  • I can't wait to test these! Nice photos too.

  • Classic recipe! Perfect for a treat. Thanks!!
    I would like to try it very soon.

  • Pretty cupcakes! Who says you need mountains of fluffy frosting? Yours look just as tempting. I'm so envious of your perfectly equal-height cupcakes! 🙂

  • Oh MY!! These look freaking amazing – and so beautiful!!

  • Wow, these are old school! They are a great treat and you are right, it's a race against the caramel. Super recipe and great pictures. Thanks for sharing!

  • Wow, those came out looking perfect! I bet the caramel is absolutely delicious 🙂

  • Hi! Never usually comment on blogs, but had to tell you I made these tonight, despite the fact that I am usually more drawn to chocolatey things! Made them in mini-form for my law school class tomorrow…very good! Love how the cupcake part isn't overly sweet, and has that buttermilk tang. Also cut up tiny pieces of Skor bar and sprinkled on top of caramel before it set. I'll let you know what the class thinks! Thanks for the great recipe.

  • I just stumbled across this blog and am immediately adding it to my regular reads. This recipe will likely be the first of many of yours that I appropriate. It's good to see another runner who appreciates sweet treats!

  • this is one of the most beautiful cupcakes i have ever ever seen!:) <3 it.

  • Thank you for all the sweet comments–I hope you'll report back if you try this recipe!

    As for the smoothness of the icing, I'd love to take all the credit, but it really couldn't be simpler. Because the icing is so warm when you dip the tops of the cake, it's sort of self-leveling. That's why it's key to rewarm the icing a bit as it starts to cool while frosting the cupcakes. Enjoy!

  • Found your blog on foodgawker, and just finished making these cupcakes. Love them! Can't wait for my three boys and husband to get home to try them (they're not big chocolate lovers, so I thought this recipe was perfect for them). I don't have a stand mixer, but my hand mixer worked just fine. The frosting sort of clumped when I added the milk and vanilla, but I added a teeny bit more milk and kept stirring over low heat, and it smoothed right out. Very easy to dip and swirl the cupcakes into the frosting, too! Yum! Thank you!

  • How yummy. These cupcakes look fabulous!

  • i think i'd love these. that reminds me about a caramel cake recipe i tried that i haven't written about yet

  • Oh my is right! I linked here from DessertStalking. What a great looking cupcake recipe!!!

    I'll be back for sure!


  • Wow! These look like perfection! There is the perfect amount of batter in those muffin cups. You've got some serious skillz.


  • Megan–Thank you! But I can't take all the credit. I use ice cream scoops in different sizes to portion out cupcakes and muffins. Works great!

  • oh these are perfect . I m gonna try these although I m sure mine won t look that nice.

  • Oh Shauna,
    These are perfect. You rock. 🙂

  • I just used this cake recipe as the base for a boston cream pie. It turned out wonderfully! This will be my go-to vanilla cake recipe from now on! Thank you!

  • This caramel cupcake is the best! Just looking at the picture really made me crave for cake. Thanks for sharing with us your recipe. This would really go well with a hot cup of coffee made from my new coffee machine Great post!

  • Well done on your amazing half marathon time! I'm doing my second one this october and you know why I run? So that I can eat lovely baked goods like the ones on your blog to my heart's content! you have a great blog here, I can't drag myself away and I need to go to bed but I'll definitely be popping back!

  • Thank You for this wonderful recipe! The cupcakes were good but became great after I made a few changes. Instead of 1 stick of butter I used 2, the rich butter flavored made a great contrast with the uber sweet frosting. When adding the powder sugar to the frosting I used a whisk to rid the frosting of the powder sugar balls that formed the last time. I also added a half teaspoon more of vanilla extract to the frosting. I'm making my 2nd batch within a week as I type

  • I have made this so many times and it's always a hit! i love this recipe!

  • Just finished making these! It was my first time baking cupcakes from scratch and I had a blast! A warning however; the caramel is obviously extremely hot, and if one isn't careful as they dip their cupcakes and gets any on their fingers like I did, OUCH! About the equivalent of hot wax, burned my fingertips. But so worth it for these sweet sweet cupcakes!

  • I found your blog while I was searching for caramel cupcake recipes. It wasn't quite what I was looking for but I really enjoy your writing and will be lurking around for more of a look. Will be Buzzing you soon on FoodBuzz.
    Thanks to you I also just worked out how to get the "You might also like" widget – so thank you very much! Have a di-licious day!

  • Being 4 months pregnant and having a sweet craving, I'm wondering how awesome this icing would be on brownies? Or for those of you who have tried it would it be too sweet?

  • I made these last night, the icing was the trickiest part, but OMG they are IMMENSE. I took them into work and almost lost a hand when they were handed out. Amazing cupcakes 🙂

  • I made these today. The cake is very moist and tender. My caramel tops dont look as gorgeous as yours but they taste awesome. Thanks for the recipe

  • I made these today. The cake is very moist and tender. My caramel tops dont look as gorgeous as yours but they taste awesome. Thanks for the recipe

  • These caramel cupcakes look awesome! Any chance of developing a Gluten-Free version? I'm a Celiac, and I LOVE caramel, especially frosting my cupcakes…any hints on how to make these GF?

  • Kinggraham321–Check out Gluten-Free Girl's all-purpose flour blend and her tips for using it. I've not used it specifically in this recipe, but I've used it in others and it's terrific. It will probably make for a slightly denser cake, but it's worth a shot!

  • The frosting looks divine. I am thinking I could just pour it over a 9×13 cake and forego the “stress” of having to hurry….same yumminess, right?

  • […] diet and exercise regimen. No, I’m well aware that most people come here looking for cookies. Or cupcakes. Or (YAY!) candy. I don’t blame you. These things make life worth living. But recently I threw a […]

  • These cupcakes look delicious can’t wait to try the recipe. Thanx 🙂

  • My grandmother did the same icing with a white cake recipe. It was my favorite, i have never seen anyone else do it…. Thank you , it bring great memories of my grandmother.

  • Cooked caramel is one of my asbolute favorites. It is nothing like the premade versions you can buy in the store. It is like caramel fudge on top of a cake and nothing is better. And with me too, it brings wonderful memories of my Mom and Grandmother.

    I really wanted to write to tell you that I love the way you not only print your recipes, but share about yourself and your family. I have a tiny, tiny blog with my daughter that we share our favorite recipes and make all our old family recipes available to the rest of our family. We just started it as an easy way for my daughter to get the recipe when she is in the grocery store and can’t remember what to buy when she suddenly gets the idea to make something she loves. Though I loved those phone calls I used to get for the ingredients she forgot, this way she has them when she can’t reach me. Thank you smart phones. We try to share a little about the recipes when we can on the blog. Your’s inspires me to get back on track with our blog. It is not for whole of the internet, just the family and friends who like my food, but it is a joy for this retired school teacher. You have inspired me!

    Congratulations on the half-marathon!!! How wonderful. I am sure you are setting a wonderful example for your daughter. She will learn to set goals and achieve them. I imagine she is quite young, but she will always be pround of her Mommie.


  • I just finished making these cupcakes for my dad’s birthday. This is a great recipe!! The frosting is definitely the tricky part. I made a double batch and didn’t choose a large pot to cook it in (it boils up fairly high so leave yourself some room). I had a hard time getting the lumps out of powdered sugar so I threw it the mixer a beat it with a paddle. This meant that I had to put it back in the pot and on the stove to melt it down again. Make sure it’s melted completely before trying to dip those golden cupcakes. Delish!!

  • These look so perfect. Did you under fill the cupcake batter to only 1/2 full so they stay nice and flat when they bake? What size ice cream scoop did you use?

  • These look fantastic! I just discovered your blog, and I love it! Great looking photos, solid writing, and (most importantly) yummy-sounding recipes. I’ll be back! 🙂

  • I made these today and this is the best cake i have ever made.

  • I have been making this frosting for over 50 years … it’s an old family favorite, but we call it “penuche frosting.” It may be good on vanilla cake, but it is absolutely sinful and to die for on chocolate cake. It is my all-time favorite. Give it a whirl on a chocolate cake (if you make a cake in a 9×13″ pan, you have time to pour the icing onto the cake and spread it before it sets up – no having to save children from a burning building!)

  • The cup cake is i found really good and moist and the top appearance is so touching and nice……

  • My Nana used to make a banana cake with “burnt sugar” frosting every year for my birthday–which is coming up. I’ve lost her recipe, but yours sounds close. I’m going to give it a try. Thanks for posting!

    (congrats on the race! hope you’ve kept it up!)

  • I cannot WAIT to try this combination! They look beautiful & delicious!

  • […] via Piece of Cake […]

  • […] More… […]

  • […] recipe adapted from Piece of Cake originally from Sky […]

  • I don’t understand how one would get a smooth caramel with all that stirring.

    • It’s not a true caramel. Also, the stirring helps to thicken the icing.

  • Could you use this caramel icing to dip cake pops in? It seems like it would be the perfect consistency.

    • That’s a terrific idea! You’d have to work fast, but I bet it would work well.

  • Hi, I’m new to your recipes and I tried the carmel cupcakes today. The cake is seriously delicious. I must confess that I don’t quite understand the “frosting”. I have more of a “European” palate when it comes to sugar content. The frosting elevated the sweetness too far for my taste and I didn’t really like the hard shell. Visually it is a stunning cupcake. Can you tell me your influence in the frosting? Just curious……


  • My daughter-in-law made these & it reminded me so much of the Caramel cake my aunt used to make for family reunions, so I was wondering if this could be used as a cake, say in a 9 x 13 pan?? Could the icing just be poured on & smoothed out & do OK?? Just thinking it would be less time consuming than cupcakes. . . . .

    • Sure could! You’d need to work fast to spread the icing evenly, though. Good luck!

  • Just made these. My first time using cake flour and buttermilk in a recipe and also first time doing caramel. They smell and taste like HEAVEN. Sending some to work with my fiancé tomorrow for his co-workers. Thanks for this amazing recipe!

  • Hello, I recently made this cupcake recipe. I used the cake part, but made my own vanilla frosting. I shared these with my mother, and she said they were the best cupcakes I’ve ever made. They were soft, moist, and fluffy! I will be making these delicious beauties again and again. I’ll also be sure to try your caramel icing next time. I really appreciate this recipe, thank you so much!

  • I just made these and all I have to say is WOW, WOW, WOW! Simplementation and delicious. Thank you for the recipe!

    • Hooray!! So happy to hear you loved them.

  • Just loved these, thanks Shauna!!!!!!!

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