Autumn is my favorite season of the year. I like Springtime, too. But there is something about the fall, when the air is crisp and the leaves change colors. I made a trip to the Boston/New England area a couple of years back in October, that was simply breathtaking (I felt like I had stepped into Little Women). Where I live now is nothing like it, but in contrast to where I grew up (the cosmopolitan, concrete-laden Los Angeles), watching the trees--real leafy trees, not palm trees--around my neighborhood turn red, orange and yellow is still beautiful to me. Autumn also means the holidays are nearing! Maybe they are too commercial (after all, one of the most anticipated events right after Thanksgiving is Black Friday), but there's something to be said about time set aside to spend with the people you love (even if some of them may drive you crazy at times, as family often does) if for no other reason than to share a meal and to try to remember that we still have much to be thankful for (because it is so amazingly easy to forget).
When I think about food for the holidays, I think about foods that make me feel warm and cheerful. That usually includes things like pumpkin pie (love the pumpkin pie), sweet potatoes, gingerbread, chocolate anything and my mom’s cooking (she is an incredible cook). While not a conventional Thanksgiving dessert—no pumpkin involved—carrot cupcakes have risen to that level for me. I’m referring specifically to the carrot cake recipe from Sherry Yard's The Secrets of Baking (another birthday gift!), which uses brown butter to give it a complex nutty flavor. I first attempted this recipe about two months ago, and cannot stop making them (I just made a batch using carrots and coconut the other day after work to put in the freezer so I could have them whenever I want). The brown butter gives the carrot cake a sort of vitality that holds its own even if additional traditional "fillers" (e.g. walnuts, raisins) aren't on hand. Carrot cupcakes may not be a traditional Thanksgiving dessert, but it's always an American favorite according to Sherry Yard, and I think they could still be a nice way to finish off a turkey dinner. I've adapted the original recipe here for cupcakes and to make the recipe a little less complicated. (Side note on Sherry Yard's book: my favorite pastry cookbook I’ve come across so far; she goes into the chemistry of baking to help you understand techniques and their purposes, and it's organized in such a way for you to mix and match recipes to spur your creativity—very educational).
First, on browning butter: melt butter in a small saucepan over low heat, stirring constantly, until it turns light brown (kind of obvious, I know). During the process, the butter will foam and bubble, and the fat solids will start to turn colors so you'll have darkened bits of butter in the pan. Be careful, though, it quickly goes from brown to black (this happened to me the first time I tried it--I stepped away for less than a minute and the next thing I knew, all the bits were black. Black butter is more bitter and may have different uses, but we're not going for that here). For the carrot cupcake recipe below, let the brown butter cool to about room temperature--don't refrigerate it so it'll remain in a liquid state.
(adapted from "Carrot Cake" in The Secrets of Baking by Sherry Yard)
Makes approximately 18 cupcakes
1/2 cup all purpose flour (sifted)*
1/2 cup whole wheat flour (sifted)*
1/2 cup almond flour
1 t. baking powder
1 t. baking soda
1 t. ground cinnamon
1 cup brown sugar, packed
1/2 cup regular granulated white sugar
3 large eggs at room temperature
1 T. vanilla extract
1/2 pound (or 2 sticks) unsalted butter*, browned (still liquid and including bits that may be stuck to the pan)
2 cups grated carrots
Optional additional ingredients: walnuts, coconut, raisins (or anything else you’d like; about 1 cup of each, if using)
- Preheat the oven to 350F degrees, and line the cupcake pan.
- Sift the all purpose flour, whole-wheat flour, almond flour, baking powder and baking soda into a mixing bowl. Use a whisk to combine.
- In another bowl, whisk the eggs. Add the brown sugar, sugar, cinnamon and vanilla, and whisk together by hand.
- On low speed, using the paddle attachment if you have a stand mixer, add the egg and sugar mixture to the flour mixture. Once incorporated, mix on medium for about 2 minutes. Scrape down the sides of the bowl.
- Returning the speed to low, gently pour in the brown butter. Once the butter has been incorporated, scrape down the sides of the bowl, then turn the mixer to high for about 2 to 3 minutes (mixing on high will help incorporate more air into the batter).
- Gently fold in the carrots and any additional ingredients by hand, using a wire whisk or with a spatula.
- Pour the batter into the cupcake pan, filling each well almost full but not up to the rim, about 3/4 of the way.
- Bake the cupcakes for about 20 to 25 minutes, and use a toothpick to check for readiness. Cupcakes are ready when the toothpick comes out clean. Cool the cupcakes in the pan for a couple of minutes, then transfer them to a rack to cool completely.
- The original recipe called for 1 cup of all-purpose flour, but I try to make some of my baked goods a little healthier so I use 1/2 cup of wheat flour--which also adds to the nutty flavor, in my opinion.
- You can substitute applesauce for butter to reduce the fat content, but at most, use 1/2 cup of applesauce and 1 1/2 cups of butter (to total the 2 cups called for). Also, if using applesauce, incorporate the applesauce before adding the brown butter; and I recommend refrigerating the batter for about an hour before baking--the cupcakes bake up more rounded and won't spread as much.
You can use an icing or cream cheese frosting to top the carrot cupcakes off. After trying both, I prefer the cream cheese frosting for both taste and presentation.
Cream Cheese Frosting
When it comes to making frosting, I almost never do the same thing twice because I add ingredients as I make it to get to the consistency I like, which is usually on the softer side. As you can see from the picture, I made the frosting too soft this time. This is an approximation of what I do for cream cheese frostings:
5 T. butter at room temperature
2 8 oz. packages of cream cheese
2 t. vanilla
1 T. grated orange zest (optional)
2 to 3 cups powdered sugar (depending on desired consistency)
(If the frosting is too thick, sometimes I’ll add orange juice, one teaspoon at a time, as necessary)
Cream the butter on medium speed, scrape down the bowl, then add the rest of the ingredients and whip on medium until fluffy. This should be enough to frost more than 18 cupcakes generously.