Caramel Cupcakes

Woo-hoo! Thanks for all the well wishes and shout-outs about that half marathon business I told you about the other day. The race itself was a success. I had wanted to finish in under 2:15, and made it in 2:05, so I'm really happy with that. For once, I didn't hurt anything, and I only cried three times (from joy, not misery)--at the start, crossing the finishing line, at the halfway point when I saw my friends, mom and husband cheering like crazy people as I passed, with my Little Coach C perched high up on her daddy's shoulders. Waaahhhhh. It was a great experience all around. I highly recommend running more miles than is really necessary with several thousand other insane people before lunchtime.

And then shoving caramel cupcakes into your face when you're done.

This combination is nothing short of dynamite, people. Now, I like a chocolate something as much as the next guy--when the chocolate craving hits, don't get in my way because I will cut you. But at any other time, whether my sweet tooth is already awake or not, I am a sucker for all things vanilla and/or caramel. At a cupcakery, I will always go for the vanilla cake/vanilla frosting combination first. I feel like you can always tell how good a bakery really is by their vanilla cake and icing--with such a pure, uncomplicated flavoring, the quality of the ingredients and technique can't hide. I've been forever searching for the magical recipe that would become my go-to vanilla cake in the Piece of Cake kitchen. And guys, my epiphany has arrived in the form of this completely perfect Vanilla Buttermilk Cake.

It's just so lovely and balanced, all things considered. Perfectly tender. Moist but not sticky. Light but not preciously so. A velvety, tight crumb, but not at all dense. And thanks to the buttermilk, the level of sweetness is so right on and the notes of the vanilla are heightened.

The not-too-sweet cake also creates the perfect canvas for toppings of all sorts, from traditional buttercreams to more sugar-heavy icings that might cause your molars to ache on a sweeter cake, like my great grandmother Ruth Enzenbacher's other-worldly caramel icing. All hail the dark brown sugar gods, this whole thing just got real.

Now, my memories of my great grandmother, who passed away when I was about 7, are fuzzy at best. I do remember her halo of silver white hair, soft cheeks and totally impressive salt and pepper shaker collection. But if this icing recipe of hers is any indication of who she really was, then I can also add to the list of character traits no-nonsense and the ability to turn out something showstopping out of the most humble ingredients. This icing comes together in less than five minutes on the stove top with a wooden spoon, just butter, sugar and a touch of milk and salt--it's a beautiful thing.

But don't let the easy prep fool you here--this caramel icing waits for no one (I am not sure if this was also true of my great grandmother). It may come together in minutes, but you have seconds to work with it before it sets up. Which is why I have no photo of the icing technique for you, which involved forgoing a spatula and instead dipping the tops of the cakes in the hot icing with a quick swirl before flipping them upright. I sort of felt like I was rescuing children from a burning building while icing these cupcakes--"Go, go, go!"--but the faster you can work, the more evenly glossy and gorgeous the icing sets up.

However, the fury of icing the cupcakes was totally worth it in the end. I cannot tell you how delicious the results were. Just like the madness of working up to the half marathon and then rocking it so hard. And can I just say how much I love it when I'm writing and a dorky metaphor just sort of falls in my lap like that?

Caramel Cupcakes (Vanilla Buttermilk Cake with Caramel Icing) Cake recipe adapted from Sky High

Make sure the cupcakes are completely cooled, cold even, before icing them. If they are the slightest bit warm, they will tear when you turn them over to dip them in the hot icing. If the icing begins to harden while you are working with it, just set it over a medium flame and stir it for 30 seconds or so until it loosens up again.

Makes about 18 iced cupcakes

For the cupcakes:

2 whole eggs 1 egg yolk 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract 1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons buttermilk, at room temperature 1 1/2 cups cake flour 1 cup sugar 2 1/4 teaspoons baking powder 1/4 teaspoon salt 1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, cut into 1/2 inch cubes, at room temperature

For the caramel icing:

1 cup dark brown sugar, firmly packed 5 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into a few chunks Generous 1/4 teaspoon salt 1/4 cup milk 1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract 1 cup confectioners' sugar

Place an oven rack to the center position and preheat the it to 350 degrees. Line 18 cups of 2 muffin tins with paper liners.

In a large measuring cup, whisk together, the eggs, egg yolk, vanilla, and buttermilk and set aside.

In the bowl of an electric mixer, whisk together the flour, sugar, baking powder and salt. Fit the mixer with the paddle attachment and turn the mixer on low. With the mixer running, gradually drop in the butter pieces and mix until the texture is uniform and the bits of butter aren't discernable, about 2 minutes. With the mixer still on low, begin slowly pouring in the wet ingredients. When all the wet ingredients have been added, crank the speed up to medium and mix until the batter is light and fluffy, about 1 1/2 minutes.

Portion the batter into the muffin tins and bake until a toothpick comes out clean and the tops spring back when lightly touched, 20-25 minutes. Let cool in the pans for about 10 minutes, then transfer them to a a wire rack to cool completely.

When the cupcakes have cooled, make the icing. Put the dark brown sugar, butter and salt in a medium saucepan, and melt them together over medium heat, stirring often. Bring the mixture to a boil and add the milk and vanilla. Boil for 3 minutes, stirring occasionally. Dump in the confectioners' sugar all at once and beat with a wooden spoon until the icing is thickened and smooth. Quickly ice the cupcakes by holding each by the base and dipping the tops in the hot icing, rolling them slightly to coat evenly. Turn them quickly upright so the icing will even out while it's still warm and will set smoothly. Store any leftovers in an airtight container for up to 4 days.