Cupcakes are a touchy subject with me. I have actively eschewed them for about four years…about the time all the “Cupcakeries” started sprouting up. There seemed to be a cupcake shop on every corner, in every town I visited. I don’t like to follow the herd in baking matters, so my cupcake liners have laid fallow in their drawer. Though I love cupcakes, I switched gears and began dabbling in hand pies, mixing up trifles, and experimenting with souffles. Until two weeks ago.
My daughter plays travel softball and it was her coach’s birthday. It was an occasion screaming for cupcakes! Not just any cupcakes though, s’more cupcakes. The kind of cupcake that embraces all the great things about summer- campfires, simple foods, lazy evenings with groups of friends, vacations. The kind of cupcake that brings back all those golden childhood memories. The kind of cupcake that lingers with you not just for the flavor, but also the experience. That was the cupcake we needed.
A little backstory, Liv has been playing travel softball for three years and much of our summer is spent in the shadow of a backstop with swirls of red field dirt floating around. When your child plays a sport, you want them to have a good coach who they respect and will learn from. Enter Vanessa. She is a twenty-something, sassy, former D1 college softball player who took on our group of young ladies- I use the term ladies loosely- this season. She is one of those beautiful souls who tells it like it is, always. She has inspired Liv with her knowledge of the game, passion for playing, and easy-going humor. Vanessa is one of those rare people who come into your life and you hope they will stay.
Vanessa’s birthday happened to fall on a weekend we had a local tournament. She willingly gave up birthday plans to coach our girls. Liv and I decided we needed to do something to celebrate and whenever we decide that, it usually results in baking. We have ten girls on the team plus parents and siblings, so cupcakes were the logical confection. We wanted to do something different though; something you could not just pick up at the local cupcake shop. We talked about flavor profiles and what V. liked, but we were struggling. As we got on the subject of dinners with Vanessa, it struck me that all of our pre-game rituals involved a Starbucks stop. V. has been on the S’mores Frappucino pretty heavily lately and from that the idea was born. We would bake s’mores cupcakes, bruleed marshmallow and all. With Liv doing the torching…maybe.
We started our adventure searching the internet to get an idea of what others had done. This is always a good starting point when I bake with Liv since it forces me to think concrete recipe, not just wild experimentation. We found a number of riffs on s’mores as cupcakes, but none were exactly what I envisioned. We discussed what we liked about various ones, and came up with a chocolate base- my old standby, go-to recipe from Nanny, a marshmallow meringue frosting- bruleed of course, topped with a mini hershey bar and bit of graham. I could picture its perfection in my head.
My main issue going into this was the frosting. I can make a rockstar, solid-peaked meringue, but how to incorporate marshmallow was the sticky wicket. I thought about melting marshmallows down like I do for Rice Krispie treats, but I worried it would solidify too fast to incorporate. Then a thought from my childhood came to me- Fluff! That gooey, goes best on peanut butter but is good friends with jelly ambrosia of my younger years. I mentioned it to Liv and she gave me the puzzled look. I realized at that moment I had fallen down as a parent. My child had never experienced Fluff. No fluffernutter sandwiches, no banana fluff snackies- how could I have let this happen. Now it could be because she hates peanut butter or that I spent a decade of her life banning all processed foods, who knows but it was getting remedied that afternoon. She was dubious; I was excited.
After our jaunt to the grocery store and the great hunt for Fluff, which by the way is now called “marshmallow cream” and no longer resides in the peanut butter and jelly aisle, we got to work. I gave Liv Nanny’s no-fail chocolate cake recipe and let her have at it. Hard to believe a year ago she barely knew how to make pasta. Now classmates clamber over her cookies and brownies when she brings them to school. They often don’t make it past the bus. Pretty cool! I set about the more delicate process of creating a marshmallow meringue frosting worthy of Vanessa. It was actually fun to be working off-recipe again for a little while.
We both finished our tasks about the same time. I put the frosting in the fridge to set, and we lined our pans with cupcake liners and filled them with the cake. By the way, use parchment cups always. Don’t question. Just do it and trust me. After about 10 minutes, the yummy smells began to permeate the kitchen and we knew we were on track.
After some cooling time, wrangling of the chocolate bars because you know the store did not sell mini hershey bars, and some mangled graham cracker cracking; the cupcakes were frosted and adorned. Of course we tried one because as responsible bakers we could not let things leave our kitchen without a taste test. They were delicious, gooey, and more importantly, Vanessa loved them. Another success for Liv and I!
Nanny’s No-Fail Chocolate cake (makes one layer cake or 24 cupcakes):
1 2/3 cups all-purpose flour
2/3 cup Hershey’s dark unsweetened cocoa powder
1 1/2 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. baking soda
dash of salt
3/4 cup room temperature butter
1 1/2 cups granulated sugar
1 1/2 tsp. pure vanilla extract
1 1/3 cups sour cream
Marshmallow Meringue frosting:
4 egg whites
1/4 tsp. cream of tartar
1/2 cup sugar
8 oz. Fluff
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Spray muffin pans with non-stick spray and line cups with parchment cupcake liners (you can get them anywhere, including Kroger).
In a large bowl. whisk together flour, cocoa, baking powder and soda, and salt. In a stand mixer, beat the room temperature butter with the sugar until incorporated and fluffy. Add the eggs for the cake one at a time. Add the vanilla extract and on low speed, begin adding the flour mixture. Alternate the addition of the flour mixture with the sour cream. Once combined, grab your ice cream scoop and fill the cups about 3/4 full. Bake for about 18 minutes, depending on how fast your oven cooks. You want a toothpick to come out clean when inserted. Remove from oven and cool completely.
Meanwhile, let’s make the frosting. Using a clean stand mixer bowl (clean is really important for meringue), beat the egg whites and cream of tartar on medium speed until soft peaks form. I will say I mistakenly added the sugar prematurely, but everything came out okay so don’t freak out if you make a mistake. Sometimes some of my best recipes come from mistakes! Add in the sugar on high speed until the meringue looks glossy and stiff peaks form. You can judge the peaks by stopping the mixer and lifting the whisk out. If the meringue does not move and holds the peak shape, you are good to go.
Time for the Fluff! Fold the Fluff into your meringue. Most people will say you need to be gentle here, and that is preferable, but if you get a little impatient and fold too quickly, just use a hand whisk and bring the meringue back. Once combined, put your frosting in the fridge for about 30 minutes to set.
Once cupcakes are completely cool and frosting is set, get out the piping bag and frost the cupcakes. For the brulee, I like a hand torch. They are inexpensive and readily available at most stores. You could also use your oven at high heat. Torch each cupcake to light golden brown color. Insert your mini hershey bars and graham pieces, and voila, S’mores Cupcakes!