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Listening, Rowing, and Caramel

salted caramel cupcakes

Mary Oliver is a wise woman. I’d love to have tea with her someday. Or take a really long walk. Apparently she loves birds and I could pretend that I really loved birds for that one afternoon (I hate birds). But in all seriousness, she’s one fine poet and has given me great perspective on living life to the fullest and coming to terms with death. I came across one of her poems last week and have been rereading it almost daily ever since. It’s a good one. I want to share it with you and then we’re going to talk light, fluffy cupcakes and salted caramel. Deal?

West Wind #2
You are young. So you know everything. You leap into the boat and begin rowing. But listen to me. Without fanfare, without embarrassment, without any doubt, I talk directly to your soul. Listen to me. Lift the oars from the water, let your arms rest, and your heart, and heart’s little intelligence, and listen to me.
There is life without love. It is not worth a bent penny, or a scuffed shoe. It is not worth the body of a dead dog nine days unburied. When you hear, a mile away and still out of sight, the churn of the water as it begins to swirl and roil, fretting around the sharp rocks–when you hear that unmistakable pounding–when you feel the mist on your mouth and sense ahead the embattlement, the long falls plunging and steaming–then row, row for your life toward it.
~Mary Oliver

salted caramel

I love this poem because I’m such a go, go, go type of person. I’m efficient. I multitask. I get stuff done. But in many ways, this poem is speaking against that way of doing things, because when we’re constantly just rowing along immersed in the everyday minutia of life, we may miss out on “hearing that unmistakable pounding.”

I think what Oliver is saying is that you can absolutely live a life without love, a life where you never feel any tugs or currents or act on whims and whimsies. Where you never allow yourself the chance to rest your oars and listen to your surroundings. You probably know people like this. Maybe you’re a little like this, relishing in the habitual and easy routine of day to day life. “That unmistakable pounding” is a gift that only those who listen or are willing to slow down can hear. And the poem’s not just  speaking about the love for another person–it can be a passion for anything: your job, where you are in life,  maybe even where you want to be. The gist of it is: listen. Be open. And row like mad when you hear it.

salted caramel cupcakes

So what on earth do caramel cupcakes have to do with poems on purpose and passion? Fair question. This particular caramel cake recipe is from The Southern Foodways Alliance Community Cookbook. It’s a really  lovely book that features old Southern recipes from home cooks, church picnics, school lunches and front porch parties. The caramel cake in the book is called “Revelatory Caramel Cake” and it spoke to me because of its old-fashioned, traditional Southern sensibility and because the frosting is notoriously challenging. Many contemporary cookbooks or magazines do a spin-off of a similar caramel frosting using marshmellows or other methods to make it easier and quicker. Because the home cook is busy–they’ve got meals to prepare, kids to tend to, other things to check off the to-do list, yes?

But I wanted to make the old-fashioned caramel icing and soft Revelatory Cake and slow down this afternoon. Instead of just getting this cake done, I wanted to do right by this recipe. This is what the Southern grandmothers would’ve urged me to do, this is what Mary Oliver would urge me to do, and this is what’s been done. So on this bustling beginning to the week, here’s to slowing down, paying attention, and listening. To the creaming of butter and sugar or to whatever stirs you today.

Now a word on these cupcakes: the recipe, as printed, is for a cake. But I’ve promised coworkers and friends I’d bring them treats this week so I wanted something more portable. The thing to know about this frosting: a) you can do it (go, go, go), b) the caramel is mind-blowing and c) as printed, it is so not acceptable for a cupcake. For a cake, it’s the kind of frosting that you pour over the top and spread around a bit and let it harden; for a cupcake, it’s just a flat, sticky mess. So I whipped up an American buttercream and simply added the majority of the caramel to it. The frosting is on the sweeter side, so if you’d prefer to make a simple cream cheese frosting and add the caramel to that, I think that would be fabulous. The good news is that the cupcake is not at all overly sweet, so it all works.

eating a caramel cupcake

The cake itself is light, and subtly sweet with a healthy dose of vanilla. It reminds me of being a kid. I plan on making it many, many more times. It’d be the perfect birthday cake with a good chocolate frosting or a fabulous summer cake with berries and lemon curd in between the layers. You’re going to fall hard for this cake. And the salt on top? It just seemed right. It helps to balance out the sweetness of the frosting and what’s better than caramel and salt together?

Salted Caramel Cupcakes
Adapted from: The Southern Foodways Alliance Community Cookbook
While it’s sometimes tempting to use all-purpose flour for everything, do follow the directions and use cake flour here. You’ll notice a difference in the lightness of the crumb–one of the most likeable features of this cake recipe. Because you won’t add all of the caramel into the icing, you’ll have some leftover. Good news! It’s perfect over ice cream or drizzled atop whiskey coffees in the evening.

Ingredients:
Cake:
1 cup whole milk
4 large egg whites, at room temperature
2 1/4 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
3 cups sifted cake flour
1 1/2 cups sugar
4 teaspoons baking powder
3/4 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 sticks unsalted butter, cut into tablespoons, softened
3/4 cup heavy cream

Icing:
(For the Caramel:)
3 cups sugar
3 tablespoons light corn syrup
1 1/2 cups whole milk
1 stick unsalted butter, softened
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
3/4 cup heavy cream

(For the Buttercream:)
1 1/2 sticks unsalted butter, softened
1 – 1  1/4 cups powdered sugar, sifted
good sea salt, to top

Directions:
Preheat the oven to 350 F. Spray 2 cupcake trays with cooking oil and line with cupcake papers.

In a bowl, mix 1/4 cup of the milk with the egg whites and vanilla extract. In the bowl of a standing mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, quickly mix the flour with the sugar, baking powder, and salt. Add the butter and the remaining 3/4 cup of milk. Beat at a low speed until blended, then beat at medium speed until smooth, about 1 minute. Add the egg white mixture in 3 additions, beating the batter on medium-speed for 20 seconds after each addition. 

In another bowl, using an electric mixer, beat the cream until soft peaks form. Stir 1/3 of the whipped cream into the batter, then fold in the rest with a spatula. Using an ice-cream scoop, spoon out the batter evenly amongst the cupcake tins. Do note that the batter does rise a little, so don’t overfill. Bake for 20-24 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the centers come s out clean. Let cupcakes cool on a wire rack completely.

Make the Caramel:
In a saucepan, stir 2 1/4 cups of the sugar with the corn syrup and milk. Cook over moderate heat, stirring until the sugar dissolves. Keep warm.

Sprinkle the remaining 3/4 cup of sugar in a deep, heavy saucepan. Cook the sugar over moderate heat, swirling occasionally, until an amber caramel forms. Carefully pour the warm milk mixture over the caramel. It will bubble something fierce. Keep stirring–this is normal. Cook over moderately high heat, stirring until the caramel dissolves.

Stop sitrring and cook until the caramel registers 235 F on a candy thermometer–this will take 5-8 minutes. Be patient. Remove from the heat. Stir in the butter, vanilla, and 1/2 cup of the heavy cream. Strain the caramel into the bowl of a standing mixer. Let cool for 15 minutes.

Beat the caramel at medium speed in the standing mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, gradually adding the remaining 1/4 cup of cream, until creamy, about 15 minutes.

Make the Icing:
Using the stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment or hand-held electric beaters, beat the butter on medium speed until light and fluffy, about 2-3 minutes. Reduce speed to low, add the powdered sugar and beat to combine. Slowly add 1/2 cup of the cooled caramel at a time until you reach the consistency and flavor you like, not exceeding 1 1/2 cups caramel. Beat on medium-high until airy and fluffy, 1-2 minutes. Store remaining caramel in an air-tight container in the refrigerator.

Assemble:
Using a pastry bag with a wide circular tip (or just a trusty spoon and an off-set spatula), pipe out the frosting for each cupcake in a circular motion until the top is just covered. A little goes a long way. Top with a pinch of good sea salt.

Makes: 20-24 cupcakes

Store: in an air-tight container; they will keep for 3 days.

  1. Posted October 18, 2010 at 9:32 pm

    When I saw the caramel cake in last month’s Food and Wine the first thing that hit me was to add salt. Duh! So good. I’m making the cake version of this for a friend’s birthday on Friday. So excited! Your cupcakes look super pretty.

  2. Posted October 19, 2010 at 2:38 am

    What a beautiful poem Megan and I can so relate to what you read into it. Thanks for sharing. Oh and these cupcakes? I’ll take a dozen.

  3. Posted October 19, 2010 at 2:39 am

    The crumb of that cake looks fantastic!

  4. Posted October 19, 2010 at 4:04 am

    What a lovely post, and a great recipe. Thank you for sharing both!

  5. Posted October 19, 2010 at 4:32 am

    I appreciate your thoughts on slowing down and doing things right.

  6. Posted October 19, 2010 at 6:25 am

    What a beautiful post… and equally as beautiful cupcakes! It’s always good to have a reminder to slow down a bit… I know I can use it!

  7. Mary
    Posted October 19, 2010 at 8:10 am

    I love Mary Oliver too! Heard her speak @ the Herbst – amazing. And so are these cupcakes. Want to reach through the screen and grab one. Or two. ps. Happy to see your byline everywhere: ReadyMade, KQED, etc. Congrats, Megan!

  8. Posted October 19, 2010 at 8:11 am

    As always a lovely post. The poem is beautiful and so true. Thank you for making me a take a little time today!

    Oh, the cupcakes are pretty darn good too!!

  9. Posted October 19, 2010 at 8:22 am

    Lately, I’ve been been giving myself a break — you know, not writing too many to-do lists or beating myself up about things — and instead focusing on everything that inspires, moves and drives me. Thanks for helping me find a name for the process (“that unmistakable pounding”…love this).

  10. Posted October 19, 2010 at 9:00 am

    What a gorgeous post, Megan. There is so much to be said for slowing down and smelling the roses…or delicious salted caramel cupcakes. I have some birthdays coming up–eyeing these!

  11. Posted October 19, 2010 at 9:51 am

    My southern grandmothers would be proud!

  12. Posted October 19, 2010 at 10:46 am

    I love the fluffy crumb. Yum.

  13. Posted October 19, 2010 at 6:21 pm

    Those look amazing!!

  14. Posted October 19, 2010 at 6:32 pm

    Oh, my…
    Beautiful post and memorable recipe! I am a born southerner and you just dialed home for me. Thanks!

  15. wendy craig
    Posted October 19, 2010 at 7:17 pm

    Hi, Megan. I’m matt’s mom (Rachael’s love interest). I love your website. Can’t wait to meet you when you make it back to the great northwest. I would love for you to come to my place for dinner. You bring the cupcakes!!

  16. Posted October 19, 2010 at 7:32 pm

    they look great. the recipe looks really good. would like one right now!

  17. megang
    Posted October 19, 2010 at 9:39 pm

    Hi Wendy! Oh I’m so glad you like the blog. I like Matt :)
    Can’t wait to meet you, too. I’m sure it’ll be relatively soon…I can’t seem to go too long without a Seattle fix!

  18. Posted October 20, 2010 at 12:38 am

    Oh my god!

    Those look gooooooooooooood I really want to make them!

  19. Posted October 20, 2010 at 5:45 am

    So pretty! I love the salt garnish on top. The crumb looks quite moist and tender. I’ll have to give these a shot, probably as a cake, so I can sample the original icing. Never understood why some people are so scared of caramel.

  20. Posted October 20, 2010 at 5:48 am

    I love poetry and the poem was compelling. Poetry and the Art of Cooking do seem to go together, now that you mention it! :)
    Valerie

  21. Posted October 20, 2010 at 7:50 am

    Mary Oliver is a gem, and your pictures are beautiful :)

  22. Posted October 20, 2010 at 10:24 am

    That poem made me sigh out loud. And then the cupcakes? They made me sigh out loud even harder.

  23. Posted October 20, 2010 at 12:42 pm

    Mary Oliver does seem incredibly wise, so much so she scares me a little. You better be careful with your bird posture. I think she’ll be on to you in a heartbeat ;)

    This is a wonderful poem selection. Thank you. I forwarded it to my husband. I know he’ll love it too.

    As for your cupcakes and slowing down to do it right, I know what you mean. I’m making a soup today that’s going to take hours. I could revise some steps and make it happen more quickly, but sometimes more quickly just won’t do.

    Lovely post.

  24. sharon
    Posted October 20, 2010 at 5:45 pm

    Hi Megan. I am a friend of Wendy (Matt’s mom) and she told me about your site. Your writing, photos and recipes are delightful. I find myself waiting for the next….

  25. Posted October 21, 2010 at 2:29 pm

    My friend just asked for a salted caramel recipe, and it reminded me I hadn’t commented!

    Beautiful words, and beautiful baked goods, per usual, my friend! I need these in my life!

  26. Posted October 21, 2010 at 3:22 pm

    Great pictures, they look delicious!

  27. Posted October 21, 2010 at 9:19 pm

    i’m also one of those people who just goes and fights against the waves… i guess that’s why i’m in grad school, fighting to survive this madness… baking and love, love for science, for people, make it easier

  28. Posted October 22, 2010 at 4:26 pm

    I completely adore that poem and even sent it to one of my friends who’s a rower. he’ll really appreciate it.

    these cupcakes seem mindblowingly glorious. I put salt on some caramel macchiato cupcakes last week and I jsut don’t think I can ever go back to saltless caramel. Ever.

  29. Posted October 22, 2010 at 6:48 pm

    WOW – salted caramel. It took me awhile to get into it but i love it now. I just made some salted caramel brownies a few weeks back and love them. I think this is a recipe i have to try out.

  30. Posted October 24, 2010 at 8:58 pm

    Very beautiful cupcakes! Can’t go wrong with caramel!

  31. Posted October 24, 2010 at 11:42 pm

    I’m all for slowing down and completely relate to the beautiful Mary Oliver poem. Your cupcakes seem to embody the poem’s message. There’s something instantly calming about them. Perhaps its their gorgeous hues of cream. Either way I’m convinced I must make these!

  32. Posted October 25, 2010 at 2:18 pm

    These look so wonderful that I am reeling.
    And, for the record, I might pretend to be a bird nerd for this Mary Oliver too. What a lovely poem!

  33. Posted October 26, 2010 at 7:32 pm

    This is so cute! I can see by the look of the cupcakes that it is oozing with goodness! LOL> I wanna try this out! I am not that good in baking but I earned a degree in eating tasty cupcakes! LOL. Thanks for sharing this recipe!

  34. Posted October 27, 2010 at 6:24 pm

    Aw, a lovely poem and an equally lovely interpretation :)

    Your cupcakes look perfect!

  35. Posted October 28, 2010 at 11:11 am

    I think this ranks among your finest posts Megan (finest of the finest). I love Mary Oliver too, and *all* her poems always seem to resonate, at the right time. Psychic!

    That image of caramel oozing off the wooden spoon – gorgeous.

  36. Posted October 29, 2010 at 7:59 pm

    Beautiful poem, I’ve never heard it before. And this cupcake looks amazing and I now want that cookbook. And cake flour for that delicious looking crumb.

  37. Posted October 30, 2010 at 8:48 am

    I love Mary Oliver. I was introduced to her poetry a few years ago when one of my daughters did a research paper on her.
    Lovely cupcakes too.
    Mimi

  38. Posted October 31, 2010 at 12:59 pm

    Beautiful post! I have one question about the recipe for the cupcakes though… when do you add the egg white/milk/vanilla mixture? It never says and I’m pretty confused.

    Thanks!

  39. megang
    Posted October 31, 2010 at 9:25 pm

    Hi Nicole-
    Hmm, between working from the Food and Wine version and the original version, looks like that was left out. I’m so sorry. It’s updated now…essentially, add them right after you add the 3/4 cup milk. Thank you for letting me know! And let me know how you like them…

  40. Mary Kate
    Posted November 1, 2010 at 5:20 pm

    Love the poem. Thank you, Meg.

  41. Posted November 7, 2010 at 5:27 am

    I love the toppings. Adding some chocolate syrup on it will make it yummier and I think it is perfect for our kids party this coming Saturday.

  42. Posted November 17, 2010 at 6:12 am

    Beautiful and though-provoking post, not to mention mouth-watering recipe – I learned to love salted caramel when my friend’s mum brought us some salted caramel chocolates from Seattle (I’m a Kiwi) and I can only imagine how well the flavour would translate into cupcakes/cake…

  43. Posted December 25, 2010 at 3:35 pm

    This is so cute! I can see by the look of the cupcakes that it is oozing with goodness! LOL> I wanna try this out! I am not that good in baking but I earned a degree in eating tasty cupcakes! LOL. Thanks for sharing this recipe!

  44. Lisa Waldschmidt
    Posted February 28, 2011 at 4:31 am

    Just made the salted caramel buttercream. More time than I usually like to spend on baking, since I am not a baker, but totally worth it. Great reviews from John and Grace too!

  45. Jackie Bratty
    Posted July 14, 2011 at 9:03 am

    Hello! I made the salted caramel cupcakes for our family’s 4th of july party and they were a HUGE hit!! So good! Thank you for sharing!

  46. LisaB
    Posted April 22, 2013 at 6:16 am

    Though you posted this recipe way back in 2010, I only just made it this past weekend. “Salted caramel” is what caught my attention when I went looking for cupcake recipes, but the (unusual to me) methods are what made me really want to try it.

    Can I just say that this was about the best thing I have ever made? The cake was moist. The caramel was to-die-for. The icing was out of this world! Yes, it took quite a bit of time to make, but it was worth it. Thank you so much. I’m sure I’ll revisit this recipe again and again.

    I did find two discrepancies between the listed ingredients for the caramel and the instructions. I didn’t know which was correct so just took a guess. I figured either way I couldn’t go wrong! Maybe you’ll remember and update as necessary.

    1. The list calls for 3 cups of sugar, but the instructions only tell you to use 2 1/4 c. + the remaining 1/2 c.

    2. The list calls for 1/2 c. heavy cream, but the instructions tell you to use 1/2 c. + the remaining 1/4 c.

    Thanks again for posting my new favorite cupcake!

  47. megang
    Posted April 22, 2013 at 11:47 am

    Hi, Lisa! Gosh, I agree and I haven’t made these in far too long so it was nice to see your comment and a good reminder that we’ve got to try them again around here. Also, I so appreciate your eye to detail … I’ll check over the Ingredient List now for discrepancies. Enjoy your week! ~Megan

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