It's that time, people.
I have been brainstorming a special cupcake to herald the onset of baseball season. It's serious business in our house and pretty much the only thing on television between now and November, with brief interruptions of Curious George. It means also, though, that the season for Iron Pigs widowhood has kicked in, but no worries. I have plans for that. This cupcake came out of a conversation with John about baseball, loosely, in which he said the words "Cracker Jacks." I can't remember the context, but it does not matter. I then said, "Cracker Jack cupcakes."
I brainstormed this recipe for a while, thinking of a peanut butter base versus a caramel base, and toyed briefly with the idea of adding cornmeal but then decided against it. Yesterday, I finally decided on a browned butter dulce de leche base with a salted peanut buttercream frosting. The whole thing's topped, of course, with real live Cracker Jacks, which sadly seem to come with fewer peanuts these days. So I ameliorated what was there with chopped roasted, unsalted ones. I doubled this recipe because half were for sale and I could not go through all this work and then be banned from tasting the result. No, that would not be right. And that would mean no sharing, either, which totally isn't cool. So this recipe yields 24 cupcakes, but it can easily be halved.
My palette is also indebted to Jason Hook, whose peanut butter miso ice cream loosely informed this cupcake's genesis.
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup cake flour
1 Tbsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. salt
1 cup of butter, divided (you'll cream one stick and turn the other into browned butter!)
1 cup granulated sugar
1/3 cup light brown sugar
1 14-ounce can dulce de leche, or 1 14-ounce can of sweetened condensed milk (more on that in a minute).
4 large eggs, room temperature
3/4 cup whole milk
1 Tbsp. vanilla extract (please use the real stuff)
1 box of Cracker Jacks
1/2 cup roasted, chopped peanuts
1/2 cup unsalted butter, room temperature
1/2 cup peanut butter, or more to taste
1 1/2 tsp. kosher salt or coarse sea salt (Do NOT use regular table salt because it will be too salty; you won't have the random delicious taste of salt crystals in the frosting.)
2-3 cups sifted confectioner's sugar (or more, to taste.)
2-3 Tbsp. milk
For the dulce de leche:
1. Set your oven to 425 degrees Fahrenheit
2. Pour the contents of a can of sweetened condensed milk into a pie plate. Set that pie plate into a shallow, larger pan which you will then fill with hot water. Cover the plate with aluminum foil.
3. Bake (is that even the right word here? Cook?) the milk for about an hour until it's thickened and darkened in color.
4. Remove from the oven to cool. You can put this in the fridge after it's cooled and do this step a day ahead if you like, which is what I did. You'll need to mix it with the whisk attachment of your stand mixer (or the whisk attachment on your immersion blender, which is what I did), to break up any clumps.
Notes: You can also do the same thing in the microwave, but the instructions are more fussy and require you to pay more attention to it. You can also reputedly put an entire unopened can of the milk into a pot of simmering water, making sure that the water covers the can at all times. Simmer for a couple of hours and then let the can cool. When you open it up, voila. Dulce de leche. I did not do this, though. I wanted a hands-off approach, and the oven came to the rescue.
For the browned butter, or beurre noisette:
This couldn't be easier. If you want more information about this and why it's lovely to do in cooking and baking, see Michael Ruhlman.
1. Take the stick of butter and melt it in a small saucepan over medium-high heat.
2. Let it cook until it starts to turn brown; you'll know this is happening because the kitchen will smell like nutty, caramel-y butter and there will be a fine, bitty layer of sediment on the bottom of your pan.
3. Turn it off the heat immediately; the butter will continue to cook even if it's off, so you may want to transfer the butter to a separate bowl to cool completely.
For the cupcakes:
1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.
2. Cream the sugars and 1/2 cup of butter in the bowl of your stand mixer for 3-4 minutes until light and fluffy.
3. Add the browned butter, now cooled to room temperature. You may see streaky bits. Don't panic.
4. Add the eggs, one at a time, and the vanilla, beating well to combine for about five minutes.
5. Add the flour, salt and baking powder, alternating with the milk, starting and ending with the flour. Mix only until no streaks of flour remain.
6. Scoop out by 1/4 cup into lined cupcake pans (whoops, sorry to miss that step, but you knew what to do, right?) and bake for 18-20 minutes.
7. Remove to cool in the pans for a few minutes, and then transfer to cool completely on wire racks.
For the frosting:
1. Cream the butter on medium speed in your stand mixer, fitted with the paddle.
2. Add the peanut butter and continue to mix.
3. When it's incorporated, start adding the sugar, slowly. When you see it getting too thick and clumpy (peanut butter and butter do this, thanks to the fat), add milk. Repeat process as necessary until the sugar is gone.
For the assembly:
1. Once the cupcakes have cooled, cut a small hole in the top of each cupcake. I used the smallest of my biscuit cutters. Don't press it all the way through; you only want to score the top of it.
2. Take a small serrated knife and pop off each top of the cupcake and set aside.
3. Fill each hole with about 1 Tbsp. of dulce de leche. Put the top back on each cupcake. Don't worry if it's bumpy. Frosting hides a multitude of sins.
4. Frost each cupcake, giving yourself a relatively smooth workspace.
5. Place about a teaspoon worth of peanuts on top of each cupcake.
6. Place 4-5 Cracker Jacks among the peanuts.
7. Eat them!