Thursday, September 4, 2014

Apple Cupcakes and Taking It Down a Notch

With all the over-the-top end-of-summer pictures all over social media, paired with the oh-my-word how do you have time to create a fruit sculpture in your child's back-to-school bento box pictures...well...I've done some self-reflection on being over the top versus taking it down a notch.

Because nothing says over-the-top like recreating the cover of a magazine every month. Yikes.

The thing about me is that I simultaneously love to do a little over-the-top stuff in my kitchen every once in awhile, and I also love to wear sweatpants and hit up the Chick-Fil-A drive-thru. Occasionally I fall into the trap of feeling like I have to choose, or somehow define myself as a member of one "camp" or the other. But the thing is, I am neither. I am both. I am a person who loves to get lost in a half-day kitchen experiment, AND who loves to take it down a notch sometimes. One of the most useful things I picked up in grad school was the phrase, "It's not either/or. It's both/and." So simple. So true.

When I decided to write this blog, I worried that people would think I was being too-much. Running a marathon? Baking insane cakes? Going after who knows what will be on next month's issue of Southern Living? Too much.

I hope that what y'all know is that the intentionality behind it is honest. And in that spirit, I thought it would be fun to recreate this month's over-the-top cake with a toned-down version, more true to the type of thing I might actually make. Like, in my real life. Boxed cake mix, apple pie filling out of a can...I'm talking about straight-up not Southern Living cover material. But (spoiler can scroll down for the pics) it was still awesome.

In general, here's the deal on how to make boxed cake mixes taste more homemade:
1) Substitute basically anything more tasty than water in place of the amount of water called for on the box. In the case of this Duncan Hines box, it was 1 cup of water, so I used 1 cup of buttermilk. But depending on the flavor of cake, you could use whole milk, chocolate/vanilla soy milk, buttermilk, chocolate syrup, juice, coffee, liqueur, or any combination of these, totaling the amount of liquid called for on the box.

2) Add 1 box pudding mix plus 1 cup sour cream. For this cake, I used French Vanilla pudding mix, but instead of 1 cup of sour cream, I used 1 cup of apple butter.

3) Add an extra egg, above and beyond whatever was originally called for on the box.

4) Use softened butter instead of the cooking oil called for on the box.

5) Decrease cooking temp from 350 to 325, and bake a little longer than the box calls for.

6) Add 1 tsp. extract/flavoring (e.g., vanilla extract, almond, lemon, etc., depending on your cake flavor). For citrus cakes, you can also add lemon, lime, or orange zest.

7) Optional: Throw in some mix-ins like nuts, chocolate chips, etc.

8) Optional: Y'all are gonna freak out on this one, but it's true. Add 1/4 cup mayonnaise. When you think about it, it makes sense--mayo is basically oil and eggs, which you already throw into a cake anyway. You just have to mentally get past the fact that you are putting mayo in a cake. I actually didn't use mayo in this particular cake, mostly because I was planning on having BLTs for dinner later this week and didn't want to use up all of my mayo. But I've done it sometimes in the past, and it does make a moist cake. So, yeah, do what you want...

In summary, here's the recipe for Take-It-Down-A-Notch Apple Spice Cupcakes
1 boxed Spice Cake Mix
1 box French Vanilla Pudding Mix
4 eggs
1 cup buttermilk
1 cup apple butter
1/3 cup softened butter
1 tsp. vanilla

Mix all ingredients and fill 24 cupcake liners. Bake at 325 for 20-25 minutes. Allow to cool completely, then frost with Cinnamon Cream Cheese Frosting. Top with 1-2 apples for decoration (see below).

Cinnamon Cream Cheese Frosting
2 packages (8 oz each) Cream Cheese, softened
1/2 cup butter, softened
2 tsp. vanilla

32 oz powdered sugar
3 tsp. ground cinnamon
Dash of salt

Beat cream cheese, butter, and vanilla until whipped. Slowly add powdered sugar and cinnamon. I like the balance of a dash or two of salt (to taste) added at the end, and I also use regular salted butter for this frosting (rather than unsalted butter, which most people say to use for baking). The frosting won't taste like a "salty-sweet" concoction, I promise...I just think the salt helps it to have more balance and cuts the sweetness intensity just a dab. 

Note: this recipe makes a double batch of icing, because I like to go a little heavy-handed on the icing, and all the "designer" cupcakes always have a ton of icing on top to look pretty. You could totally cut this recipe in half if you are more of a traditional/light-icing kind of person.

In terms of taking it down a notch, you also could totally substitute frosting out of a can, if you like it. I'm not the hugest fan of it, and mixing up a batch of icing is simple enough that I'm cool with going from-scratch just on this part of the recipe. But you should totally take it down a notch here too, if you'd like!

Apple Topping
And here's where we really take it down a notch. Open a can of apple pie filling. Stir in some cinnamon, to taste, if you'd like. Pick up a baked apple or two and place on top of the cupcake for decoration (and obviously for deliciousness too). Seriously. People will look at the cupcake and be all, like, "Oh my gosh, look at this thing!" And you'll be all like, "Yeah, I can operate a can opener like nobody's business."

Most delicious take-it-down-a-notch-dessert ever. And if you read my last blog post (where I actually recreated the Southern Living layer cake), you could totally substitute that version of the cake recipe and/or apple topping, instead of going fully down-a-notch like I did here.

Love y'all. Thanks for loving me, despite being both over-the-top AND taken-down-a-notch.

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