Thunder now. I’m loving the endless precipitation in this otherwise stifling furnace. When trivialities seem to take hold of life, there are always certain important people to bring me back down to Earth, and there’s, well, cake. Hey, childhood fancies, it’s been a while. I think it only de rigueur to celebrate a special occasion with something a little more elaborate. ‘F’ and ‘L’ are the initials of someone pretty damn special in my life, and special people deserve something a little more elaborate, more celebratory, more.. regal if a little rustic. Chocolate and salted caramel has been done before, tried and tested, stamped with approval, signed off in girlish curlicues. But I daresay this endeavour is a bit more wild, and not quite so predictable in taste and texture with the addition of crushed meringue and lavish drizzles of homemade salted caramel. The waterfall effect of the buttercream frosting does a bit of justice to the ‘naked’ cake; I here term it as such because the ridges and painfully thin outer layer of frosting allow the bottom halves of each chocolate cake layer to be seen, for a subtle gradient effect, the salted caramel running slowly between the ridges, cutting through the purposeful flaw. Mimicking the movement of pale frosting. Godspeed. If you are wondering why the two pictures above look a mess, I’d gladly point the finger at that solo stack of plates. An unfinished crumb coat was almost completely wrecked when the stack of three layers, frosting in tact between each, toppled over and collided into the side of the stack. But this cake held its own, unflinching. Sometimes, failures or mishaps really do prove someone, or something’s worth. Despite the delicate moisture of the cake, its sweet and slightly bouncy crumb, the collision underscored a hidden robustness, making me hold this cake in the highest regard. It deserved to be treated right, after not letting me down. This amalgamation of flavours imparts subtle, simple decadence. The chocolate cake of our childhoods is wrapped with the familiar indulgence of sweet and salty caramel, with a bit of zip thanks to a squeeze of lemon and fresh Maldon. The first time I tried the cake with all its components, I did think the salted caramel crème fraîche frosting lacked oopmph, my tongue betraying the anticipation of a more sophisticated flavour profile. Hence, I did a mini batch of frosting after this cake was made, altering the salt and creme fraiche content to taste. In all honesty, a slice of this stuff is good warm or cold, and can be stored for at least a week in a fridge, or a couple of days at room temperature. And finally, I really don’t know what could possibly beat fresh, homemade salted caramel…? Moist Chocolate Cake With A Salted Caramel Creme Fraiche Frosting (makes a three-layer, 8-inch wide cake) For the cake: (cake recipe adapted from here) 300g (3 cups) cake flour, or all-purpose flour if you don’t have cake flour on hand 300g (3 cups) white caster sugar 150g (1 1/4 cups) cocoa powder 3 tsp baking soda half tsp of fine salt 1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder 380ml (around 1 1/2 cups) buttermilk 180ml vegetable oil 3 eggs at room temperature 2 tbsp vanilla extract 1 1/2 cups (370ml) freshly brewed coffee For the salted caramel frosting: 340g salted butter 4 tbsp créme fraiche 980g powdered sugar 180ml (slightly less than 3/4 of a cup) of salted caramel (ingredients for this down below) For the salted caramel (recipe adapted from personal trials): 1 tbsp light corn syrup 5 tbsp (75ml) water 1 tsp vanilla 125ml (around half a cup) of heavy cream 110g (1/2 cup) white sugar juice of half a lemon (approximately a teaspoon) 1 tsp fine sea salt Preheat the oven to 177C (350F) and line three 8-inch circular cake pans with parchment paper (trace around each pan with pencil on the parchment paper and then cut out neatly). Spray the bottoms of the pan before laying on each piece of parchment, and then spray lightly again. Set these pans aside. In the large bowl of an electric mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, sift in the dry ingredients– cocoa powder, flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda and salt. Stir on low speed until combined. The same can be done with just a large bowl and a whisk if you don’t have an electric mixer. In a separate medium bowl, whisk together the buttermilk, oil, vanilla and eggs. Stir in the fresh coffee. With the mixer on low speed (or without a mixer), add the wet mixture into the dry. Use a spatula to scrape down the sides of your bowl and make sure everything is well combined. The batter should be sticky, dark, glossy and liquidy. In fact, the wetter, the better. If your bowl of batter looks too dry, or drops off the back of your spoon or paddle too slowly (it shouldn’t really ‘drop’ at all, really), add at least 2 tablespoons of milk. Drop each pan on your counter to knock out excess air bubbles. Use a weighing scale to ensure there’s an equal amount of batter in each pan. For this recipe, there was around 750g of lush chocolate batter in each pan, and each layer is rather thick. Place the pans in the oven (you can place 2 in first if your oven can’t fit three, which is usually the case, and then pop the last one in afterwards). Bake for 35-40 minutes, before removing from the oven and let cool on wire racks. Mine took 36 minutes, and a wooden skewer inserted into the centre of the pan should come out dry, with a few moist crumbs clinging to the very tip. While the cakes bake, make the salted caramel. Put the corn syrup, water and sugar in a saucepan and place over medium heat. Stir together with a wooden spoon and let the mixture come to boil. In a separate medium bowl, mix together the lemon juice (add less if you like your salted caramel less ‘lemony’), vanilla and cream. Once the mixture in the pan comes to a boil, stop stirring (to prevent crystallisation) and let boil for a while. This will take at least 5 minutes or so. If it looks like one part of the pan is turning darker faster than the other parts, then gently swirl the pan to distribute the heat and quicken the chemical reaction. Slowly, the sugars will all caramelise and the whole mixture will suddenly turn a dark amber. At this point, turn off the heat and add the cream mixture. Stir in the salt to taste. The mixture will bubble almost immediately, before lightening and turning a lighter caramel shade. If the mixture seizes, don’t fret!! Simply put the pan back on a low heat and stir until everything amalgamates nicely again, which will take 2-3 minutes. All is good, all is good. Make the buttercream. In an electrical or handheld mixer, beat the salted butter, which should be slightly cold but not too frigid, and the créme fraiche, until pale, creamy and fluffy. Sift in the icing sugar in thirds, and beat well to combine. Add half a cup of salted caramel (125ml, or slightly more, all to taste) and beat briefly to distribute the caramel’s colour and flavour. The buttercream should be smooth and not too runny, so I suggest adding the salted caramel bit by bit to get the right consistency. Once the cakes are cool, assemble. Remove the circular pieces of parchment from the bottoms of the cooled cakes, and place one in the middle of a cake stand. Using a third-cup measurement, measure out a third of a cup of buttercream and spread onto the first layer. Place a little more on top if the layer of frosting doesn’t look thick enough. Place the second layer on the first, and do the same. Repeat with the third layer, but this time, spread more buttercream down along the breadth of the cake, creating a thin crumb coat to catch any excess crumbs. Let the whole cake set in the fridge with the crumb coat for at least a couple of hours, or overnight. After this period, use more buttercream to cover up any obvious bits of brown on the outside. Use the blunt edge of a butter knife to create the ridged, naked, waterfall effect, going from the bottom up. It’s much easier than how it might read here, I promise! In any case, the decoration is entirely up to you. Once you have run the butter knife up along the sides for the entire circumference of the cake, do the same for the top, but direct the butter knife movement towards the centre, so you get the ‘wheel’ effect, as can be seen in the third last photo above. Drizzle the top with leftover salted caramel and, if you wish, crumbled biscuits of meringue.
I include two different nut butter options here– pistachio and almond. Oh yes, and two special frostings. I guess you have to read on if you want to know the specifics *annoying seductive winky face*.
The first time I made these cupcakes, I relied purely on instinct and an old, old recipe found deep in the recesses of my dusty and grainy mental archives. The second time round, I modified a recipe from Cupcake Jemma, and they turned out absolutely perfect. No really. I hate these sorts of exaggerations, all the ‘reallys’ and ‘trulys’, so I’m officially going against personal principle for the sake of emphasis and honesty. These are the lightest, fluffiest little things, and I adore how the flavour of green tea is pronounced, and not hidden like some odd side element.
Anyways, it was a lucky shot. I always start a baking experiment with some wild or novel idea, but the initial framework always ends up being littered with side details and spontaneous ‘wait, I should use this instead of that!’ moments. They speckle the total perfection, so whatever I end up with is never what I meant it to be. Take this, for instance. I’ve recently been on a slight matcha roll (note to self: try out matcha rolls) because of its subtle green tea flavour. The bitter aftertaste lingers on the back of your tongue, never quite overwhelming it, making whatever you’re tasting just that much more sophisticated. Almost healthful, and no, not just because of that deceiving light green hue. I could list all the healthy characteristics of a teaspoon of matcha powder, but let’s face it, we’re talking about cupcakes here. I guess it’s further redeemed by the soft, oozing, rich dollop of almond butter right in the centre, but I haven’t gotten on to the frosting yet. Life is about balance. This is balance.
I was a little afraid of making cupcakes for two reasons.
1. I’ve made them (well, everyone makes them a lot) so many times that I was afraid the repetition bug would strike out against me and unleash a sudden curse on my beauties. Call me deranged.
2. They could very well and most likely be sub-par cupcakes. People want astounding, not average things.
That second point got me thinking. So if I made a good cupcake, it has to be made even better by some novel pairing or ingredient.. we’ve all been down the red/blue/green velvet path at least once, or maybe tried that wonderful chocolate or vanilla buttercream frosting to up the ante a bit, but something an inch more atypical would work better. That’s when I thought of matcha and almond (not quite novel just yet)… topped with salted caramel cream cheese frosting, topped with crushed speculoos biscuits (Lotus biscuits as everyone knows them here) and drizzled with more salted caramel. Think soft matcha sponge encasing a large dollop of creamy, rich nut butter, topped with lightly salted caramel cream cheese swirls and light, cookie-based crunch on top, or, in another case, delicate swirls of thick and fluffy matcha buttercream. The crumb is soft and firm, and the best part of these cupcakes is that post-baking, you get this wonderful sugar-crusted, crumbly top, which breaks away easily when you want to stuff the little holes with nut butter. I do love this matcha and almond/pistachio pairing, the upper-class rigidity of the flavours totally offset by the playful done-it-before frosting options.
Nut Butter Stuffed Matcha Cupcakes
For the cupcakes (makes 10-12, adapted from Cupcake Jemma):
125g self-raising flour
135g soft, unsalted butter
125g white sugar
2 eggs, lightly beaten
1 teaspoon vanilla
quarter teaspoon bicarb soda
1 teaspoon matcha powder
Option 1: Matcha buttercream
270g icing sugar
150g softened, unsalted butter
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 teaspoon matcha powder, dissolved in a splash of whole milk
Option 2: Salted caramel cream cheese frosting (after many personal trial and error stints):
170g cream cheese, at room temperature
150g brown sugar
75g icing sugar
75g butter, softened
1 tbsp salted caramel sauce (store-bought or homemade)
for the topping: crushed speculoos biscuits and extra salted caramel sauce for drizzling
Preheat your oven to 170C (350F) and spray a muffin tin. In a large bowl and with a normal or electrical whisk, beat the butter and sugar together on high until pale and fluffy. Beat in the eggs and vanilla. In another smaller bowl, whisk together the dry ingredients- flour, bicarb, matcha powder and salt. Using a spatula, fold the flour and matcha mixture into the wet mixture.
Place the cupcake tin into the preheated oven and bake for 20-22 minutes. I took mine out at the 21-minute mark. Leave them to cool on a wire rack. The tops will be crusty and a light golden, and will look relatively flat. Leave to cool on a wire rack before removing to dig holes and stuff them silly.
Salted caramel cream cheese frosting:
Whilst they cool, make the frosting. Beat the brown sugar and butter together using a handheld electrical whisk, then beat in the cream cheese, icing sugar and salted caramel sauce. This is my favourite salted caramel cream cheese frosting which uses more brown rather than icing sugar, so it’s handy when you’re running low on icing sugar. Put the mix into the fridge until ready to use.
In a large bowl, beat together the icing sugar, softened butter, teaspoon of vanilla, and matcha/milk mix. Beat until visibly light, thick and fluffy. Stuff a piping bag with the mix and leave in a cool place (I put mine in the fridge overnight and let thaw for around 15 minutes the next morning) until ready to use.
When the cupcakes are mostly cool (around 15-20 minutes post-baking), take a teaspoon and dig right into the heart of the cupcake, before scooping out some cake. This part is mostly up to you; if you want more nut butter per mouthful (you lovely hedonists) then go ahead and dig deep, but if not, a teaspoonful of cake will suffice. Using another teaspoon, spoon in a heaped (or however much you want) of nut butter into the hole. I used homemade almond and pistachio butter; my mum makes batches in the kitchen all the time and it’s the most divine thing in the world. Using a large spoon or piping bag, frost the cupcakes with the salted caramel frosting or matcha buttercream. For the former, add crushed speculoos biscuits and more salted caramel drizzled on top. For the matcha buttercream, pipe the buttercream on top, whizz up some pistachios in a food processor and sprinkle on top. I also added salted caramel to this version because, well, why the heck not.