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.
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.
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.
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?
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 likable 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.
Adapted from: The Southern Foodways Alliance Community Cookbook
For the Cake:
For the Caramel:
For the Buttercream:
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 stirring 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.
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.