The Autumn Cupcake

pumpkin cupcake with brown butter frosting

Usually, I limit discussion of the weather to times when I need innocuous chit chat. But the weather in LA has been anything but innocuous over the last week and, apparently, I can't stop talking about it. Last week I told you the sad tale of trying to find comfort amidst the staggering heat. On Monday of last week, it was as hot and dry as the inside of a blast furnace. Monday of this week, it was as damp and cool as the inside of the root cellar (did you hear The Splendid Table this weekend? I'm now obsessed with root cellars). I'm no scientist, but I think that's weird. And when the going gets weird, the weird get cupcakes. At least that's how it works in the McConnell household.

I was so surprised and delighted by the 8 bit mountains of canned pumpkin that appeared at Trader Joes over the weekend that I tossed two cans in my basket and stocked up on butter, flour and sugar. "What are you making," the cashier asked. I didn't know, so I thought fast and said "something." But by the time I got home, I had a plan.

A friend sent me a recipe for apple cake with brown butter frosting recently. Brown butter is just butter melted and then cooked until the fats sort of caramelize, it's amazing. The idea of brown butter frosting with a pumpkin cake made my taste buds swoon and it seemed sort of novel.

I fired up marthastewart.com and browsed the seasonal recipes. Right away, I found one for pumpkin cake... with brown butter frosting. It's hard to be original. You can see the whole recipe here. After preparing the batter as directed, it tasted a bit bland. I added a teaspoon of vanilla bean paste, a little extra cinnamon and nutmeg and a pinch of ground ginger. I didn't have allspice, so I used cloves. Instead of using a round baking pan, I divided the batter into cupcakes and made a dozen. The cake was moist and the spices enhanced the pumpkin without overwhelming it.

While the cupcakes cooled, I prepared the frosting. The recipe said browning the butter would take 10 minutes over medium-high heat, but it took me about 5 minutes over medium-low heat. The only way to describe the smell of brown butter is to drool for a sustained period of time with eyes glazed over in caramelized fat ecstasy. Man it's a great smell. But I digress. I used vanilla bean paste instead of vanilla extract in this recipe and since I was making cupcakes, I wanted a frosting with a bit more body, so I added a few extra tablespoons of powdered sugar. Once my cupcakes were cool, I spread a healthy tablespoon of frosting over the top of each. Because I had a little extra time (and pecans) on my hands, I decided to make a little textural counterpoint: candied nuts.

Candying nuts isn't that tough, but it does require concentration. I used my infrared thermometer (what, you don't have an infrared thermometer?) to take the temp of the finished nuts and they were over 300 degrees C. If you get melted sugar on your skin, it will burn the hell out of you. Martha always keeps a dish of ice water at hand when she is melting sugar in case she gets any on her (she never does). I recommend that you have all your ingredients and a prepared pan (a cookie sheet either lightly greased or lined with a non-stick silicone mat) ready to go before you begin, so you can give all your attention to not burning off your fingers.

I don't have exact measurements for this recipe, but I'm sure you could look around online if you don't want to wing it. I put probably a cup of pecans in a pan and added a roughly equal amount of sugar and maybe three tablespoons of water. The pan goes over the highest heat your stove top can muster and you should stir the nuts gently and slowly, but continually. The water will bubble and burn off leaving a coating of sugar over each nut. When the water is all gone, the sugar will give the nuts a fuzzy, whiteish look. From that point, things will happen fast. As soon as the fuzzy coating turns shiny, you are done. If you wait too long, the sugar will burn and become bitter and gross, so keep an eye on the situation. When the nuts are shiny, transfer them to your baking sheet and spread them out as best you can. They cool quickly, but will still be very hot for about 5-10 minutes.

Full disclosure: I don't really like nuts. It's partially a texture thing and partially a taste thing. But I could eat candied nuts by the fist-full. The cooking process gives them a toasty taste and the caramelized sugar adds just a touch of sweetness and a satisfying crunch. Candied nuts (pecans, walnuts, hazelnuts) are a great way to dress up desserts. A glaze allowed to drip down the sides and a sprinkle of candied nuts make a basic cake look refined.

Pumpkin cupcakes with brown butter frosting and candied pecans... it's a really, really, really good thing.