Salted Caramel & Popcorn Cupcakes

IMG_0211A cupcake with caramel as the central ingredient runs the risk of being on too sickly for even the most seasoned cupcake eater (ie, me), but paired with a not-too-sweet honey and oil sponge, and a light, airy Italian meringue buttercream, I’d say these are a pretty near-perfect combo. It is perhaps a slightly intimidating recipe as it involves a lot of elements and some intermediate skills, but I have made it as simple to follow as possible. And you don’t become a good baker by playing it safe with a Victoria sponge, eh?

A note on equipment: you will need a sugar thermometer (you can buy a cheap jam-making one for about £8) and – unless you are/are dating a bodybuilder – a standalone mixer: the buttercream takes a good 20 minutes of continuous whisking to come together.

For the sponge
110g margarine
120g clear honey
1 egg
50ml sunflower oil
60g dark brown sugar
170g plain flour
3/4 teaspoon bicarbonate of soda
12 cupcake cases (I used muffin wraps)

For the salted caramel
70g caster sugar
4 teaspoons water
2 teaspoons golden syrup
60ml double cream
4 teaspoons butter
Maldon sea salt

For the Italian meringue buttercream
1 egg white, at room temperature
40ml water
150g caster sugar
1 teaspoon golden syrup
235g unsalted butter, at room temperature, cut into small cubes
1/2 a batch of salted caramel, above

To finish
Salted caramel or toffee popcorn
Maldon sea salt

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Method
Preheat the oven to 160°C fan and line a 12-hole cupcake tin with cases. Melt the margarine and honey in the microwave or a bain-marie. Leave to cool for 5 minutes.

In the bowl of a standalone mixer (or a bowl with an electric hand whisk), beat the egg with the melted margarine and butter. Follow with the oil and sugar and beat together. Finally, add the flour and bicarbonate of soda and mix until combined.

Spoon the mixture into your lined cupcake tin and bake for 20 minutes, or until a knife inserted in the middle comes out clean. Remove from the tin and cool on a cooling tray.

While the cupcakes are cooling, make the caramel. Place the sugar, water and golden syrup in a nonstick pan. Measure out the cream and butter together in a bowl and warm gently in the microwave for 30 seconds to a minute (this will help prevent the melted sugar from seizing when you add the cream and butter). Gently heat the sugar mixture, whisking until the sugar has dissolved. Stop stirring and leave to darken to a copper colour, then remove from the heat.

Immediately add the butter and cream and whisk together until combined. The mixture will fizz up at first when the cold hits the hot, but stir through it. If the mixture does seize and the sugar hold in clumps, gently heat, stirring the whole time, until it is smooth. Add a pinch of salt (or more to taste) and stir. Pour into a bowl and leave to cool.

While the caramel is cooling, make the buttercream. Place the egg white in the bowl of a standalone mixer and whisk on medium, until it holds soft peaks. While it’s going, place the water, sugar and golden syrup in a nonstick pan and fit with a sugar thermometer.

Gently heat to make a syrup, stopping when it reaches 240°F. Remove from the heat and, with the whisk still going, pour the syrup into the beaten egg white in a slow, steady stream to make a meringue. Once it’s all in, leave the mixer going until the meringue is at room temperature – you can test it by feeling the sides of the bowl. It may take 5-10 minutes.

Next, still whisking, add the butter a few cubes at a time until it is all used up. The meringue may well look like it is curdling, but carry on beating – I promise it will come back together! Finally, weigh out half the salted caramel and beat into the icing.

You are now ready to construct! Spoon the icing into a piping bag fitted with a wide, plain nozzle (about 2cm across, or just cut the end off the piping bag, sans nozzle). Pipe a swirl on top of the cupcakes, drizzle around a teaspoon of the remaining salted caramel over each, decorate with popcorn (I used five pieces per cake), and finish with a light sprinkle of salt.

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