Autumn has got to be one of my favorite times to bake. Fall flavors lend themselves perfectly to baking: warm spices like cinnamon and nutmeg, pumpkin, fresh local apples, and rich caramel. Besides that, nothing warms me up on a crisp day like turning on the oven.
Now let's talk caramel apples. I adore them. You know, the big ones that are also dipped in chocolate and rolled in chopped nuts or candy? I love those things, but can almost never justify the price. I mean, it's an apple! But my love for caramel apples inspired me to create a caramel apple cupcake.
I started with an apple cake recipe. I found one in an old Better Homes and Gardens cookbook (Pies and Cakes, 1968), and adjusted it a bit. It is chock full of apple flavor, using chopped fresh apples and apple juice, and has just a bit of spice to add warmth to the flavor. I used apples from my in-law's tree, but any kind will do.
Next I needed a caramel frosting. I looked at loads of recipes. Several cooked butter and sugar, like penuche frosting. I adore penuche, but it is a heavy thick frosting and I don't know that it would pipe very well. Other recipes called for prepared caramel sauce or dulce de leche in varying amounts. Some used a few tablespoons, while others called for entire jars of caramel. I wanted a rich caramel flavor, but I didn't want to compromise the texture of the frosting. I ended up using a recipe from Real Simple that called for 1/2 cup. Instead of buying caramel sauce I made my own, and it turned out wonderful! I made dulce de leche in my electric pressure cooker using canned sweetened condensed milk, and had some leftover for fresh apple dipping (yum). I also increased the salt to 1/2 teaspoon to give it more of a salted caramel taste.
Spiced Apple Cupcakes with Dulce de Leche Buttercream
For the cake:
2 c flour
1 c sugar
1 1/2 t baking soda
2 t salt
1 t cinnamon
1/4 t nutmeg
1/4 c dark brown sugar
1/2 c butter
1 c apple juice
1 1/2 c apple, peeled and finely chopped
For the frosting
2 c unsalted butter
3 3/4 c powdered sugar
1/2 cup dulce de leche (make your own in your crockpot or pressure cooker*)
1 t vanilla
1/2 t salt
toppings, as desired (chopped nuts, sprinkles, pretzel bits, etc.)
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Mix together the flour, sugar, baking soda, cinnamon, nutmeg, and brown sugar. Add the butter and apple juice, mixing well, Add in chopped apple and beat until ingredients are incorporated. Add eggs and beat well until batter is fluffy.
Fill cupcake liners 3/4 full, and bake for 15-20 minutes, or until cupcakes are golden and test done.
For the frosting, beat the butter, caramel, vanilla, and salt until fluffy (approximately 2 minutes). Gradually add powdered sugar, then beat on medium high for 4 minutes.
Give each cupcake a generous piping of frosting. I used a large round tip to mimic the look of an actual caramel apple. If you'd like, roll the edges of the frosted cupcakes in your favorite caramel apple topping and finish off with a paper straw "stick." You could also top with an apple slice or drizzle with more caramel.
*A note on homemade dulce de leche: the crockpot method for making dulce de leche takes 6-8 hours, so it will take a little planning ahead. The pressure cooker method took 18 minutes, plus the time to reach pressurization and to depressurize, and to cool down in the fridge. You may want to start making the dulce de leche before you start baking. Also, the finished sauce is too thick to drizzle, but you may be able to thin it down with milk if you want to top your cupcakes with more caramel.