If you visit Putney Farm regularly, you may notice an affinity for cupcakes. And this isn’t because cupcakes are all the rage these days (not that there is anything wrong with that), but because we have two boys with lots of friends, birthdays, sports and school events. And everyone knows we cook and are willing to
be dragooned ”volunteer”…. So when we want to feed a horde of crazed kids crowd, cake or cupcakes are very good options. (So is barbecue, but that is for another post.) We often make chocolate cake for a crowd, but there is something about the cupcake that is even more special. People from ages one to one hundred just love a cupcake. It’s sweet and tasty, it’s easy to handle and it’s all yours.
But sadly, many cupcakes really aren’t all that good, the big blob of frosting covers for a dry chunk of cake. The problem, surprisingly, is the overuse of butter in most cupcake recipes. While we love real butter, it has water along with the butterfat and when the water cooks out it makes for a drier, crisper cupcake (the science is pretty solid, btw). This is good for pie crust, bad for cake, and especially bad for small cakes with a lot of surface area vs. mass (that would be the cupcake). The secret to a moist cupcake is to use vegetable oil (no water) and often to add another moistening ingredient. And this recipe not only uses oil but adds mashed sweet potatoes for an extra moist and sweet cake. Yum.
Sweet potatoes in cupcakes? Well yes. They work famously well in biscuits, so why not cupcakes? You don’t taste sweet potato, but mixed with winter spices and orange zest you get a super-moist, caramel-colored cupcake with deep wintry flavors. Topped with sweet caramel cream cheese frosting, this cupcake is good all the way through. And as the oil and sweet potato keep the cake moist, you can easily adapt the recipe for either large or thimble-sized cupcakes with no loss of quality. A neat trick, and something to keep in mind when the size of the crowd may vary.
Making these cupcakes and the frosting is straightforward, but each recipe does have an extra step. For the cupcakes you need to bake, cool, peel and mash a few sweet potatoes. This will take about 90 minutes of mostly inactive time, but factor that into your schedule. Otherwise it is basic cake, mix wet and dry ingredients, pour into cups and bake. For the frosting you need to make caramel, which admittedly is a bit of a fuss, but very much worth the effort. The key with the caramel is to make sure not to overcook it, as you want it to stay soft as you mix it into the frosting. And then the only challenge will be keeping yourself (and your family) from “sampling” too much of the frosting while you bake the cupcakes. But a little discipline will pay off, the frosting is good by itself, but even better with the moist, spicy cupcakes.
(Adapted from King Arthur Flour)
Notes Before You Start:
- You can bake the sweet potatoes ahead of time and store in the fridge. Just let them come up to room temperature before mixing into the batter.
- Remember to remove the cupcakes from the pan after 5 minutes and cool on a rack. If you let the cupcakes cool in the pan too long, they will keep cooking and will get tough on the outside.
What You Get: Very moist and flavorful cupcakes with extra spice.
What You Need: A stand mixer (very helpful with cake baking). Muffin / cupcake pans.
How Long? You need about 2 to 2 1/2 hours. Much of the time is inactive, but this is a project that requires some planning. You can split the work over a few days with no loss of quality.
(Makes 24 cupcakes)
- 2 cups (8 and 1/2 oz.) all-purpose flour
- 2 teaspoons baking powder
- 2 teaspoons baking soda
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1 teaspoon ground ginger
- 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- 1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
- 1/2 teaspoon ground mace
- 1/4 teaspoon ground cardamom
- 1 and 1/4 cups (9 and 3/8 oz.) brown sugar
- 4 large eggs, at room temperature
- 1 cup vegetable oil
- 1 pound (1 large, 2 medium) sweet potatoes
- 1 tablespoon grated orange zest
- 1/2 cup (4 oz.) whole milk
- 1 cup (7 oz.) granulated sugar
- 1/2 cup (4 oz.) water
- 1/4 cup (2 oz., 1/2 stick) unsalted butter at room temperature
- 2 tablespoons (1 oz.) heavy cream
- 1 package (8 oz.) cream cheese, at room temperature
- 1/4 cup (2 oz., 1/2 stick) unsalted butter at room temperature
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 2 cups (8 oz.) confectioners’ sugar
- Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Poke holes in the outside of the sweet potatoes with a fork. Place the potatoes on a small baking dish or foil and bake until tender all the way through, 45 to 60 minutes. Remove from the oven and allow to cool. Peel and scoop out the flesh. Mash the flesh until you get an even consistency. Set aside.
- Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Line your cupcake pan with paper or silicon liners.
- In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt and spices. Set the dry ingredients aside.
- Fit your stand mixer with a paddle attachment. Add the brown sugar and eggs to the mixer bowl and beat at medium speed for 3 to 4 minutes, until pale and fluffy. Add the oil, mashed sweet potatoes and orange zest. Beat until just combined.
- With the mixer on low-speed, add the dry ingredients in thirds, alternating with the milk. Begin and end with the dry ingredients Scrape the sides of the bowl and mix another 20 seconds.
- Scoop the batter into the prepared pan, filling each cup about 2/3 full. Bake for 20 to 25 minutes, until a tester inserted in the center of the cupcakes comes out clean. Remove from the oven and cool in the pan for 5 minutes. Then remove the cupcakes from the pan, place them on a rack and allow to cool completely.
- To make the caramel, combine the sugar and water in a medium (preferably light-colored) saucepan and cook over medium-high heat, stirring, until the sugar dissolves. Using a wet pastry brush, wash down any crystals that form on the sides of the pan. Turn the heat down to medium and cook, without stirring, until the syrup becomes medium-dark, about 10 minutes (err on the side of less cooked).
- Remove the pan from the heat and immediately stir in the butter and heavy cream. The mixture will boil and splatter, be careful. Transfer the caramel mixture to a heatproof bowl or measuring cup. Set aside and cool until just warm.
- To make the frosting, add the cream cheese, butter and vanilla to the bowl of your stand mixer and beat at medium speed until smooth, about 2 to 3 minutes. With the mixer at low-speed, slowly add the confectioners’ sugar, beating until light and fluffy. Slowly add the caramel and beat until smooth and creamy, about 4 to 5 minutes.
- Scoop the frosting onto the cupcakes and serve.
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