Chocolate Salted Caramel Cupcakes

How did Fleur de sel attain such widely held admiration?  One minute it was a speciality product celebrated only by those in the know, next minute it became practically mainstream.

Like many people, I grew up with plain, old table salt. Then, over the years, I have been exposed to sea salt, kosher salt, pink salt, black salt, and Fleur de sel.  I understood the necessity of incorporating salt into baking.  But not until tasting Fleur de sel did I fully appreciate the virtues of salt – and value how extraordinarily well it enhances taste.

From the very first punch of flavour, I was sold.  Hook, line and sinker.  Sprinkled on an indulgence such as caramel or chocolate, one bite and you are simply captivated.  As the taste of the sweet starts to dissolve in your mouth, you are exposed to the light, salty overtone of the salt.  The flavour is aromatic, smooth and distinctive.

These cupcakes are no exception.

During my caramel or chocolate vote, although caramel was crowned the clear victor, there were many requests for a chocolate and caramel combination.  Chocolate and caramel is like a marriage made in heaven, and so caramel month would certainly feel incomplete without it.

All frosted up, these cupcakes are deceptive.  The generous pool of caramel remains concealed until that first, unanticipated bite.  The salted caramel harmoniously melds with the rich chocolate cake and dark chocolate frosting.  Lightly sprinkled to finish, the grey flakes, light and almost pearlised, look misleadingly innocent.  When you savour the taste, the irresistable flavour faintly lingers urging you to immediately go back for more.

With ample supply of Fleur de sel de Guérande in the pantry, I suspect there will be more baking experiments to come.

{ Chocolate Salted Caramel Cupcakes } recipe by Martha Stewart

* Ingredients *
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
3/4 cup unsweetened Dutch-process cocoa powder
1 1/2 cups sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
3/4 teaspoon baking powder
3/4 teaspoon salt
2 large eggs
3/4 cup buttermilk
3 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
3/4 cup warm water

* Directions *
Preheat the oven to 180C or 350F. Line mini muffin tin with paper liners. Whisk together flour, cocoa, sugar, baking soda, baking powder, and salt. With mixer on low speed, add eggs, buttermilk, oil, extract, and the water; beat until smooth and combined.

Spoon the batter into liners about two-thirds full. Bake approximately 15 minutes, or until tester comes out clean. Transfer tins to wire racks and allow to cool for 10 minutes; turn cupcakes onto racks and let cool completely. Cupcakes can be stored overnight at room temperature, or frozen up to 1 month in air tight containers.

To finish, use a paring knife to cut a cone-shaped piece (about 1/2 inch deep) from the centre of each cupcake and throw away the pieces. Spoon 1 to 2 teaspoons warm Salted Caramel Filling into each hollowed-out cupcake. You will notice the caramel will sink into the cupcake a little, just fill it up a bit more. Sprinkle a pinch of salt over filling.

Use a pastry bag with a medium open-star tip and pipe Dark Chocolate Frosting onto each cupcake, swirling tip and releasing as you pull up to form a peak. Garnish each cupcake with a pinch of salt. Cupcakes are best eaten the day they are filled and frosted. Store at room temperature in airtight containers.

Salted Caramel Filling

* Ingredients *
2 1/2 cups sugar
2/3 cup water
1 tablespoon light corn syrup
3/4 cup heavy whipping cream
2 1/2 teaspoons sea salt, preferably fleur de sel

* Directions *
Heat sugar with the water and corn syrup in a heavy saucepan over high, stirring occasionally, until syrup is clear; clip a candy thermometer to side of pan and stop stirring.

Cook until syrup comes to a boil, washing down sides of pan with a wet pastry brush as needed. Boil, gently swirling pan occasionally, until mixture is caramelised and just reaches 185C or 360F. Remove from heat and slowly pour in cream; stir with a wooden spoon until smooth. Stir in salt.

Use immediately; if caramel begins to harden reheat gently until pourable.

Dark Chocolate Frosting

* Ingredients *
1/2 cup plus 1 tablespoon unsweetened Dutch-process cocoa powder
1/2 cup plus 1 tablespoon boiling water
2 1/4 cups (4 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature
3/4 cup confectioners’ sugar, sifted
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 pounds best-quality semi-sweet chocolate, melted and cooled

* Directions *
Combine cocoa and boiling water, stirring until cocoa has dissolved.

With electric mixer on medium-high, beat butter, confectioners’ sugar, and salt until pale and fluffy. Reduce speed to low. Add melted and cooled chocolate, beating until combined and scraping down sides of bowl as needed. Beat in the cocoa mixture.

Frosting can be refrigerated up to 5 days, or frozen up to 1 month in an air tight container. Before using, bring to room temperature and beat on low speed until smooth again.


Salted Butter Caramel Ice Cream

I remember the first time I saw snow.  I was in my twenties, but I felt (and acted!), like a five year old. I am almost certain I screeched with sheer excitement upon seeing inches of fluffy, white magic not only forming a soft blanket on the ground around me, but delicately falling from the sky flaunting its unique snowflake shape.

This snow spectacular was in Boston – my former residence for quite a number of years.  Winter in Boston certainly can be cold and long.  The snow can start before Thanksgiving and continue all the way through to Memorial Day.  During these months of chilly temperatures, apart from the typical memories of constant driveway shovelling, car windshield scraping, and leather boots waterproofing, there is one memory that has me shaking my head until this day.  Ice cream consumption.

It has been mentioned here, here, here and here, that New Englanders consume the greatest proportion of ice cream in the USA.  And after witnessing the hoards of lines outside fine purveyors such as JP Licks, Emack & Bolio’s, Herrell’s, and the former Steve’s (inventor of the mix-in!) throughout the city and surrounding towns, I do not question this fact at all.

I have recently been reminded of my years in Boston during my recent honeymoon.  Mr Mélanger and I took a relaxing and tranquil holiday to Tasmania.  For those unfamiliar with Tasmania, it is our most southerly state in Australia.  During our travels, we reached the magnificent World Heritage-listed wilderness of Cradle Mountain.  (Some photos from the trip below.)  As we were approaching the rugged alpine peaks of the mountain we could see they were still peppered in snow – which was a thrill to see given it is spring here in Australia.  Along the windy drive to the Lodge, it actually started to snow, too.

I had not seen snow since Boston.  I was that five year old kid again.  Moreover, after the thoughts of hoping there may be enough snow on the ground for a little snowball fight action, I thought of ice cream.  As you do.  With my ice cream food memory top of mind, I knew I would have to make some deliciously, rich ice cream as part of caramel month.

So back in sub-tropical Brisbane, I turn my attention to some refreshing ice cream.  For this task, I look to none other than the undisputed ice cream authority, David Lebovitz.  David showcases a mouth-watering double caramel ice creamon his blog.  The custard for the ice cream not only has been caramelised, but David incorporates crunchy caramel throughout the churning process at the end.  After the triple caramel feast, I elected to keep things simple, enjoying the single caramel overtones of the ice cream custard in its most pure form.

I followed the directions to the letter.  For this exercise, no point tweaking a recipe which had been expertly created.  Having made considerable quantities of homemade ice cream in the past (all due to the abundance of egg yolks I have on hand after all my macaron efforts!), I was not anxious at all by the directions.  The only area of watchfulness I noted was cooking the sugar.  If there is only one trick to making caramel, this is it.  The heating of the sugar to the right colour and temperature makes or breaks the caramel.  In this recipe, you want it to be a strong flavour, but certainly not bitter.

I have never enjoyed a caramel ice cream like this one.  Because of the caramel, it remains deliciously creamy even after freezing.  It would also be sensational with the addition of praline per David’s original recipe to add some further crunch.  I think this will be a firm favourite even after caramel month is over.

{ Salted Butter Caramel Ice Cream } adapted from David Lebovitz

* Ingredients *
2 cups (500 ml) whole milk, divided
1½ cups (300g) sugar
4 tablespoons (60g) salted butter
½ teaspoon sea salt
1 cups (250 ml) heavy cream
5 large egg yolks
¾ teaspoon vanilla extract

* Directions *
Make an ice bath by filling a large bowl about a third full with ice cubes and adding a cup or so of water so they’re floating. Nest a smaller metal bowl (at least 2 quarts/litres) over the ice, pour 1 cup (250 ml) of the milk into the inner bowl, and rest a mesh strainer on top of it.  Spread 1½ cups (300 gr) sugar in the saucepan in an even layer. Heat the sugar over low to medium heat until the edges begin to melt. Stir the liquefied sugar towards the centre until all the sugar is dissolved. Continue to cook stirring infrequently until the caramel starts smoking and begins to smell like it is just about to burn. Once caramelised, remove from heat and stir in the butter and salt, until butter is melted, then gradually whisk in the cream, stirring as you go. The caramel may harden and seize, but return it to the heat and continue to stir over low heat until any hard caramel is melted. Stir in 1 cup (250 ml) of the milk.  Whisk the yolks in a small bowl and gradually pour some of the warm caramel mixture over the yolks, stirring constantly. Scrape the warmed yolks back into the saucepan and cook the custard using a heatproof utensil, stirring constantly (scraping the bottom as you stir) until the mixture thickens. If using an instant-read thermometer, it should read 160-170 F (71-77 C).  Pour the custard through the strainer into the milk set over the ice bath, add the vanilla, then stir frequently until the mixture is cooled down. Refrigerate at least 8 hours or until thoroughly chilled.  Freeze the mixture in your ice cream maker according to the manufacturer’s instructions.

Makes one litre

Cradle Mountain 1

 { Images } Distinctive alpine vegetation and temperate rainforest waterfalls of Cradle Mountain

Cradle Mountain 2

 { Images } Forest flora and local wildlife of Cradle Mountain

Cradle Mountain 3

 { Images } Abandoned Dove Lake boat shed at Cradle Mountain

Cradle Mountain 4

{ Images } Reflections and Cradle Mountain Lodge at Cradle Mountain