Cupcakes weren’t the first thing that came to mind when I was pondering dessert options for Thanksgiving this year. I wanted to do something unconventional while still highlighting traditional holiday flavors, and someone else was handling the apple pie for our family’s holiday meal so I decided to focus on the flavor of pumpkin or pecan instead. And hey, why not combine the two? Since we already had pie I was leaning toward cake of some sort, and my first instinct was cheesecake – specifically a pumpkin cheesecake with a pecan crust and salted caramel drizzle. But when I mentioned cheesecake to my mom she started waxing poetic about my Meyer lemon cheesecake and dropping multiple hints, and you know how moms can be. (Sorry Mom, but it’s true!) So I made her a cheesecake and I’ll do a separate post about it soon.
Meanwhile I was still insisting that we have a pumpkin dessert on Thanksgiving, so I went back to the drawing board (a.k.a. my kitchen), and these Pumpkin Spice Cupcakes with Caramel Cream Cheese Frosting were born. Moist and tender spiced pumpkin cake topped with a cloud-like frosting of whipped cream cheese, homemade apple cider caramel, heavy cream and a touch of salt, and finished with crushed candied pecans. Oh. Yes.
The flavor of the cake is decidedly pumpkin, with familiar background notes of seasonal pumpkin-friendly spices. As I often do in my baking recipes, I combined several sweeteners to achieve the flavor and level of sweetness I was looking for in the cupcakes, and I used a combination of flours and starches that I felt yielded the best texture. The addition of buttermilk powder serves to tenderize the cake and encourage browning, but feel free to substitute regular powdered milk. (I keep dried buttermilk powder in the refrigerator at all times – it’s so handy to have around and lasts eons longer than liquid buttermilk.) If you’d prefer to omit the milk powder completely, refer to the Notes that follow the recipe. I also use melted butter in the batter instead of oil, so the delicate crumb practically melts in your mouth. You can substitute oil, but your result may be a slightly denser cupcake.
The batter is thick, but easily mixed with a whisk or wooden spoon. No need to use anything electric at this point, though you will for the frosting.
Be generous with the batter when you fill the wells of the pan. You should be using heaping scoops (or spoons), not level.
These cupcakes take the full 22 minutes to bake in my oven, but keep an eye on yours and check at around 18 minutes if they’re looking close to done.
As always with cupcakes, allow them enough time to cool completely before frosting. You don’t want it to melt or slide off.
Speaking of frosting, this is not your standard dense, dry cupcake frosting. It’s incredibly light and airy, and since it’s not stabilized or thickened with egg white, confectioners sugar or cornstarch, it will being to soften and wilt if left at room temperature. The Notes section that follows the recipe contains instructions for turning it into a thicker, more stable frosting if that’s what you’d prefer. Either way the flavor is fabulous, with the tang of cream cheese, the complex sweetness of the caramel, the richness of heavy cream, and salt to make it all sing.
Light, airy, tangy, rich, sweet, complex, and oh so delicious. Go ahead, lick the spatula. I won’t tell. (P.S. Those little flecks are from the vanilla bean paste I used in the caramel.)
The final component of this dessert is a confection I call Candied Pecan Crunch. Raw pecan pieces are tossed with a coating of egg white, cinnamon, sugar, and salt (and an optional pinch of cayenne), and the mixture is baked until toasted and caramelized. Crumble it up, sprinkle it on top of the frosting, and you have a delicious crunchy component that adds textural contrast to the airy frosting and tender cake. Plus I had to sneak in pecans somehow!
When chopping the pecans you want to make them pretty small so they get coated evenly (though it’s okay if you leave a few larger bits). They’ll clump together when they bake, so once cooled you’ll crumble them up into small pieces for sprinkling.
That’s everything you need to know about these beauties. Go bake some cupcakes!
- For Cupcakes
- 50 grams (¼ cup) granulated sugar
- 48 grams (¼ cup) coconut sugar or dark brown sugar
- 60 ml (¼ cup) maple syrup
- 120 ml (½ cup) melted butter or coconut oil
- 10 oz (1 ¼ cups) pumpkin puree
- 2 large eggs
- 63 grams (½ cup) brown rice flour
- 35 grams (¼ cup) white rice flour
- 31 grams (¼ cup) tapioca starch
- 38 grams (¼ cup) potato starch
- 25 grams (2 Tbsp) dried buttermilk powder*
- 3 grams (scant ½ teaspoon) xanthan gum
- 1 tsp baking soda
- ¾ tsp baking powder
- ¾ tsp salt
- 1 tsp ground cinnamon
- ½ tsp ground ginger
- ½ tsp freshly grated nutmeg
- For Candied Pecan Crunch
- 1 large egg white (or 30 ml/2 Tbsp liquid egg white)
- 5 ml (1 tsp) water
- 13 grams (1 Tbsp) coconut sugar or dark brown sugar
- 12 grams (1 Tbsp) granulated cane sugar
- ½ tsp ground cinnamon
- ¼ tsp kosher salt
- Optional ⅛ tsp cayenne
- 4 oz chopped pecans (see photo for size reference)
- For Frosting
- 4 oz (½ cup) neufchatel or reduced fat cream cheese, room temperature
- 2 oz (¼ cup) apple cider caramel sauce or other caramel sauce
- 15 grams (1 tablespoon) superfine or caster sugar**
- ¼ tsp salt
- 120 ml (½ cup) heavy cream
- Optional ¾ teaspoon instant Clearjel, tapioca starch, or cornstarch to stabilize***
- Preheat oven to 350 and grease a muffin tin or line with paper cupcake liners.
- Make the cupcakes: In a large bowl whisk together sugars, maple syrup, butter or oil, pumpkin, and eggs until thoroughly combined. In a medium bowl whisk together remaining ingredients (brown rice flour through nutmeg). Sift dry ingredients into wet, and whisk (or use a wooden spoon) to mix until batter is uniform and no visible dry flour remains. The batter will be thick and sticky.
- If you have cookie scoops, use them to portion out the batter - regular cupcakes will require a 2-ounce scoop while minis will require a half-ounce scoop.Otherwise you can use a ¼ cup measure for regular cupcakes or a tablespoon for minis. When scooping the batter, be generous - you want them to be heaping and the pan wells will be nearly full.
- Bake for 18-22 minutes for standard cupcakes or 9-12 minutes for mini cupcakes, until tops spring back when lightly pressed or a toothpick comes out with only a few crumbs clinging to it. Transfer cupcakes to a rack to cool completely before frosting.
- While cupcakes are baking, prepare the candied pecan crunch: In a medium bowl whisk together egg white, water, both sugars, cinnamon, [cayenne if using], and salt until frothy and uniform. Fold in pecans, and spread the mixture on a baking sheet lined with parchment or Silpat.
- Once the cupcakes are out of the oven, reduce the temperature to 300°F and bake the pecan mixture for 25-30 minutes or until fragrant and evenly browned. Transfer the sheet pan to a cooling rack and cool completely. The crunch will harden as it cools. Once cooled, chop or crush into small pieces.
- Make the frosting: It’s best to do this in the bowl of a stand mixer or a large mixing bowl with a handheld mixer. If using a stand mixer, use the paddle attachment to beat the cream cheese mixture, then switch to the whisk before adding the cream. If using a handheld mixer just stick with the standard beaters for the entire process.
- Using paddle attachment (or handheld beaters), beat cream cheese, caramel, sugar and salt on medium speed until well incorporated. Turn off mixer, switch to whisk attachment if using stand mixer, and turn mixer back on to medium speed. With the mixer running, slowly pour in the heavy cream, increase speed to medium-high, and beat until mixture holds stiff peaks.
- Refrigerate for at least 20 minutes or until ready to use. (When ready to frost cupcakes, you can either transfer the frosting to a piping bag or do it straight from the bowl/container with an offset spatula. It’s really a matter of aesthetics so it’s up to you.)
- Serve: Top each cupcake with frosting, and sprinkle with candied pecan crunch.
**I recommend superfine (a.k.a. caster) sugar simply because it dissolves into the frosting more easily. You may substitute regular granulated sugar, and if you want to make sure it doesn’t lend a graininess to the frosting, give it a whirl in a *clean* coffee or spice grinder to make your own superfine sugar.
***Using a stabilizer in this frosting is completely optional, but it will help keep it firm. Since the frosting isn’t thickened with egg white or cornstarch-heavy confectioners sugar, it will begin to soften/melt if kept at room temperature for a while. To use the stabilizer, whip it separately with the heavy cream until very stiff, then beat in the cream cheese and caramel mixture. As an alternative to a powdered stabilizer, beat 2 ounces of butter with the cream cheese and reduce the heavy cream to 2 ounces.