Today is the second annual gathering of cupcake lovers and bakers known as Cupcake Camp Boston. I went last year and it was amazing – the venue seemed to be overflowing with cupcakes of every size and description. Professional bakeries brought boxes and boxes of their fancy, elegant cupcakes and amateur bakers like myself brought their homemade creations and everyone shares. It was so much fun and James and I got to taste so many delicious cakes! So I was very excited when I heard that Cupcake Camp was happening again.

This year, I decided to make chocolate salted caramel cupcakes. I’m a huge fan of Trader Joe’s box of sea salt caramels that comes out at Christmastime. Those candies are incredibly addicting, the way the salt accents the sweetness of the caramel while exploding the flavor. I knew that those candies in cupcake form would knock my socks off.

But making homemade caramel was a bit intimidating – I never made any sort of homemade candy before. I was afraid of ruining the caramel, and on the first couple of tries, I did. First, I made a Martha Stewart salted caramel recipe from her Cupcakes book and it turned out grainy. It was the texture of the insides of Sugar Babies, if you remember those. And I even though I followed the recipe exactly, the caramel was very pale and didn’t have much of a caramel flavor – I under-cooked it.  Martha’s recipe took three cups of sugar, and I was pretty discouraged to try that recipe again because that is an awful lot of sugar to waste!

Then I tried this caramel recipe from Kate at Grin and Bake It, which uses only a quarter cup of sugar per batch and is therefore much better suited for trial and error, and my first batch of that burned. Making caramel involves a lot of standing around and watching sugar and water boil, and it’s only at the very end that the color goes from clear to pale yellow to darker and darker amber. I let it go to far – once it starts turning amber, it goes very quickly – and it burned. Blech. But then I made it again, and – success! Perfect, flavorful, rich caramel. And now I’ve made several batches without failures. I think it’s like riding a bike – tricky at first, but once you figure it out, you’ve got it.

Here’s how I do it:

First, I stir together sugar and water in a saucepan over medium-high heat. I stir it for maybe 20-30 seconds, until all of the sugar is dissolved and the solution is pretty clear – but it will still appear cloudy. Then, set the time and let it boil away without stirring.

As it boils, the bubbles will go from big and loose to smaller and more densely packed as the solution gets thick and syrupy. It will still be all white/clear.

Finally, as you’re approaching the end of your cooking time, it will almost imperceptibly start turning yellow at the edges. Watch carefully now, because once this starts, it’ll go from pale yellow to dark reddish-brown-burnt in under a minute.

Almost there…

Once the sugar is dark amber, even slightly reddish right at the edges, it’s done. (But I think once it gets very red, it’s burned.) It may smoke a bit and that’s okay. Take it off the heat and slowly stir in the cream.

Start with just a splash of the cream. It will foam up like crazy but just keep stirring, and slowly pour in the rest of the cream. I found that if I dumped the cream in too quickly, if formed a crazy lump of caramel in the middle of the liquid. But I frantically kept stirring and eventually it resolved into a smooth sauce again.

It will keep boiling up until you finish adding all of the cream, just keep stirring and eventually it’ll calm down.

And then you’ll have caramel! At this point, I add some sea salt, but if you wanted plain caramel, you can just leave it as-is.

Now, back to the cupcakes! These babies are amazing. The chocolate cake is dense and rich and tender. The addition of hot coffee in the batter really deepens the chocolate flavor. The frosting is deliciously caramel-y without being overwhelming. The bit of pure salted caramel in the middle is gooey and luscious and packs a big caramel flavor punch. These may be the most delicious cupcakes I’ve ever made!

Chocolate Salted Caramel Cupcakes

From Grin and Bake It

Makes approx. 2 dozen cupcake

1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour

2 cups sugar

3/4 cups cocoa powder

2 teaspoons baking soda

1 teaspoon baking powder

1 teaspoon kosher salt

1 cup buttermilk, shaken (I use powdered)

1/2 cup vegetable oil (I use canola)

3 large eggs, at room temperature

1 1/4 teaspoons vanilla extract

3/4 cup freshly brewed caramel-flavored hot coffee

  1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Place cupcake liners in tin. Combine the buttermilk, oil, eggs, and vanilla in mixer and mix until combined .
  2. In a separate bowl, sift the flour, sugar, cocoa, baking powder, and baking soda together. Whisk in the salt. With the mixer on low speed, add the dry ingredients to the wet.
  3. Add the coffee and stir just to combine, scraping the bottom of the bowl with a rubber spatula. Batter will be very runny. Pour the batter into cupcake liners, fill a little less than 2/3 full.
  4. Bake for 15 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the middle of a cupcake comes out clean.

Salted Caramel

Adapted from Grin and Bake It

1/4 cup sugar

2 Tablespoons water

1/4 cup heavy cream

1/2 teaspoon fleur de sel (or more or less, to your taste)

Briefly stir together sugar and water in a small saucepan and bring to a boil over medium-high heat.  Set timer for 5 minutes. Allow mixture to boil without stirring until it turns dark amber in color. It may take up to 6 or 7 minutes to get to the right color, but I had a batch burn because I was waiting for 6 minutes exactly. Don’t wait for the timer – pull it off the heat when it is dark yellow and the edges are just started to look reddish.

Slowly add the cream, starting with just a splash, stirring with a wooden spoon until completely smooth. Stir in the fleur de sel and set aside until cool.

This recipe easily doubles. Make one double batch for the buttercream, and one single batch for filling the cupcakes.

Salted Caramel Buttercream

Adapted from Grin and Bake It

The original recipe from Grin and Bake It calls for salted butter and does not use fleur de sel in the caramel. I’m sure that’s good too, but I wanted to be able to adjust the saltiness to my liking, and have salted caramel for filling the cupcakes. That’s why I used fleur de sel in the caramel and then use unsalted butter in the frosting.

3/4 cup unsalted butter, at room temperature

3 cups powdered sugar

2 batches of the salted caramel

Beat the butter in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment on medium-high speed until light in color and fluffy, about 3 minutes. Reduce speed and add powdered sugar. Mix until well combined. Turn off the mixer, and slowly add caramel. Beat frosting on low to combine, and then increase to mediium-high and beat until airy and thoroughly mixed, about 2 minutes.

Refrigerate if not using immediately. If you refrigerate the frosting, be sure to whip it up with your mixer before spreading. To frost cupcakes with the swirl (Wilton 1M tip), double the recipe.

To assemble:

Carefully cut a small cone out of the middle of each cupcake. Fill with about a half teaspoon of the salted caramel. Sprinkle with a bit of fleur de sel before replacing the cap. (You may have to remove the bottom of the cone to get the cap to fit.)

Frost with the salted caramel buttercream. Sprinkle with a bit more fleur de sel, if desired, or chocolate jimmies, or drizzle with a bit of extra salted caramel.