This spice cake recipe from Cooks Illustrated is one of my favorite cake recipes this year. Aside from the great flavor and texture, it really is a versatile recipe that I could play with to transform it into something even more wonderful. By incorporating pear and ginger, it takes on a whole new flavor with chopped pears added for texture. I used canned pears in this recipe because the pears were already soft and I didn't have to worry about cooking fresh pears first. I suppose if you wanted to use fresh pears instead, you could chop them up and saute them in the browned butter and spices. Another thing I used was some of the syrup from the canned pears. I specifically used pears packed in light (lite) syrup since the cake had enough sugar. The syrup added another touch of pear flavor into the cake batter. For the ginger, I decided not to add it with the other spices. Instead, I added it to the batter separately to preserve it's flavor. I figured if it was combined with the rest of the spices, it would get lost somehow.
For the frosting, I used a simple Vanilla Bean Buttercream out of convenience since I had 3 other cupcake flavors to frost using the same flavor as well. An idea is to reserve some of the spices used in the cake and stirring that into the buttercream to match with the cake. However for the frosting I made, I decided against working with a vanilla bean as called for in the original recipe. Instead, I used one of my favorite vanilla bean shortcuts, which is to use vanilla paste. It's a vanilla product combining the seeds of the bean with a thick, intense vanilla extract. I like the convenience of this product and I get the same flavor with specks of vanilla too. You can find vanilla paste online and at other gourmet retail shops. My preferred brand is made by Neilsen Massey. A buttery caramel ice cream topping finished these cupcakes off with a generous and sweet drizzle.
Caramel Pear & Ginger Cupcakes
recipe adapted from Cooks Illustrated
2 1/4 cups unbleached all-purpose flour (11 1/4 ounces), plus extra for dusting pans
1 tablespoon ground cinnamon
3/4 teaspoon ground cardamom
1/2 teaspoon ground allspice
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
16 tablespoons unsalted butter (2 sticks), softened
2 (15 oz) cans pears, packed in light syrup
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon table salt
2 large eggs at room temperature
3 large egg yolks at room temperature
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 3/4 cups granulated sugar (12 1/4 ounces)
2 tablespoons light molasses or mild molasses
1 tablespoon grated fresh ginger
1 cup buttermilk , at room temperature
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Line 2 (12-cup) muffin pans with cupcake papers. Combine spices except the ginger in a small bowl.
Heat 4 tablespoons butter in 8-inch skillet over medium heat until melted, 1 to 2 minutes. Continue to cook, swirling pan constantly, until butter is light brown and has faint nutty aroma, 2 to 4 minutes. Add spices and continue to cook, stirring constantly, 15 seconds. Remove from heat and cool to room temperature, about 30 minutes.
Drain the pears and reserve 1/3 cup of the liquid. Finely chop the canned pears and set aside.
Whisk flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt in medium bowl. In another small bowl, gently whisk eggs, yolks, and vanilla to combine. In standing mixer fitted with paddle attachment, cream remaining 12 tablespoons butter with sugar and molasses at medium-high speed until pale and fluffy, about 3 minutes, scraping down sides and bottom of bowl twice with rubber spatula. Reduce to medium speed and add cooled butter and spice mixture, ginger, reserved liquid from canned pears and half of egg mixture; mix until incorporated, about 15 seconds. Repeat with remaining egg mixture; scrape down bowl again. Reduce to low speed; add about one-third flour mixture, followed by half of buttermilk, mixing until just incorporated after each addition, about 5 seconds. Repeat using half of remaining flour mixture and all of remaining buttermilk. Scrape bowl and add remaining flour mixture; mix at medium speed until batter is thoroughly combined, about 15 seconds. Remove bowl from mixer and fold batter once or twice with rubber spatula to incorporate any remaining flour. Fold the chopped pears into the batter until fully incorporated.
Divide the batter evenly among the cupcake tins about 2/3 filled. Bake in oven for about 20 to 22 minutes, turning the pans once, half way through. Test the cupcakes with a toothpick for doneness. Remove from oven and cool completely before frosting.
Vanilla Bean Buttercream Frosting
recipe adapted from Cooks Illustrated
2½ sticks unsalted butter, softened
1 teaspoon vanilla paste
2½ cups confectioners’ sugar (10 ounces)
2 Tablespoons heavy cream or half & half
1/4 cup caramel topping for garnish
In a standing mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, beat the butter at medium-high speed until smooth, about 20 seconds. Add the vanilla paste into butter and beat mixture at medium-high speed to combine, about 15 seconds.
Add confectioners’ sugar and salt; beat at medium-low speed until most of the sugar is moistened, about 1 minute. Scrape down the bowl and beat at medium speed until mixture is fully incorporated, about 30 seconds; scrape bowl, add heavy cream or half & half, and beat at medium speed until incorporated, about 20 seconds, then increase speed to medium-high and beat until light and fluffy, about 4 minutes, scraping down bowl once or twice.
Using a star tip with a pastry bag, pipe the frosting onto the cupcake. Drizzle the caramel topping over the frosted cupcakes using a fork or squeeze bottle for garnish.