Chai Cupcakes, Two Ways

August 11th, 2009 · 44 Comments · Cakes, Recipes

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When I worked at this chocolate cafe, we in the pastry kitchen were responsible for baking up all sorts of chocolate-intensive treats, as well as making the chocolate drinks that were the specialty of the house.

From classic hot chocolate to mochas to bicerins, we made the mixes for the drinks in the kitchen, and they never seemed to last long enough before we'd have to make a new batch. I have to say that the smell of melting chocolate is one of my favorite memories from working there, along with the stream of regulars who would always gush happily about the spicy hot chocolate, or the chocolate thai ice tea, without which their day wouldn't be complete.

Sadly, I don't have the metabolism anymore to consume a bowl of hot chocolate every day, or I'd be bigger than Augustus Gloop from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. But every once in a while I'll get a nostalgic craving for one of Bittersweet's drinks. One of my favorite things to do in the early morning when I arrived for my shift, was to heat up one some of the chai-infused milk we used in the chocolate chai drink, as my sort-of morning tea. It was just spicy enough, and warm, which was nice in a kitchen not yet heated up from just-turned-on ovens. Even though I've used all the spices that make up chai before, a whiff of it never fails to make me think of the exotic.

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Memories of that chai is what inspired these chai cupcakes. Well, that and my attempts to pack up the kitchen for the impending move unearthed a mini cupcake tin I hadn't even used yet, and a host of half-used spice jars. Yes, I know that spices lose their potency the longer you keep them around, and had I not been sternly warned by the boyfriend to stop buying more stuff when we're trying to move, I might have gone out to get the fresh cloves and cardamom to grind myself. However, I'm still pleased with the flavor I achieved in these cupcakes: just lightly spicy, with a whiff of the exotic. While I combined ground spices to my liking, you can also get chai flavors in your cupcakes by infusing the milk with chai tea bags. I like being able to control the amounts of the various spices, and the intensity of the flavor. 

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So in trying to decide what kind of chai cupcake to make, I went a little overboard. I couldn't decide if I wanted a plain chai cupcake or a chocolate chai cupcake; in the end; indecision won out and I decided to make both - simply as a taste-testing experiment, of course. I used my basic vanilla and chocolate cupcake recipes, which baked up beautifully in miniature form. The vanilla chai cupcake is beguilingly freckled with the spices, and is pleasantly spicy, sort of like vanilla with a new dress on, while the chocolate version is richer, with a more smoldering flavor; I used more spices in the batter to boost the flavor. The question of what frosting to use arose as well: what started as a simple desire for cupcakes turned into a full-blown project as I settled on a cinnamon chocolate whipped ganache for the vanilla cupcakes, and a honey swiss meringue buttercream for the chocolate ones. These cupcakes have sugar and spice and everything nice packed into them! Maybe I went a little carried away with the cupcake experimentation, but the results were worth it - they make such nice visual contrasts to each other, don't you think?

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A couple baking notes about the frostings: I'm becoming very fond of whipped ganache; it's ridiculously simple to make and so addictive, especially if you use your favorite chocolate. Be sure to let it chill completely before whipping it, otherwise it might curdle (some recipes say you only need to let it cool to room temperature, however I had better results when I chilled mine). Also, don't overwhip it; you'll get the same unpleasant mess you do when you overwhip cream. However, what you can do with overwhipped ganache is to simply melt it over a bain-marie, let it set up again in the refrigerator, and rewhip - carefully. For the swiss meringue buttercream, I love it because it's quicker to make than italian meringue, but it is less stable, so I've learned a few tips to making it: be sure to cook the egg white mixture to 160 degrees F, to make sure all the salmonella bacteria are killed; whip the meringue in the mixer until it's fully cooled and thick, or else hot meringue will melt the added butter; your butter should be room temperature and softened to incorporate easier into the buttercream; and finally, many times the buttercream appears to curdle or break, which always sends people into a panic, but you simply have to keep beating the buttercream for several minutes and it will come back together into a nice velvety buttercream.

So I guess baking a batch of cupcakes isn't exactly packing up the kitchen, but at least we have something to snack on while we continue our moving-out endeavors!

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Vanilla or Chocolate Chai Cupcakes

makes 12 regular cupcakes or 30 mini cupcakes

Vanilla Chai Cupcakes

  • 1 1/2 cups cake flour
  • 1 1/4 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 2 teaspoons chai spice mixture (see below)
  • 1/2 cup unsalted butter, room temperature
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1 large egg
  • 2 large egg whites
  • 1/2 cup whole milk
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract

Chai Spice Mixture (combine all ingredients together in a small bowl)

  • 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1 teaspoon ground ginger
  • 1 teaspoon ground cloves
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons ground cardamon

Chocolate Chai Cupcakes

  • 3 ounces bittersweet chocolate, coarsely chopped
  • 1/2 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 cup cake flour
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1 tablespoon chai spice mixture
  • 1/2 cup unsalted butter, room temperature
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1/2 cup light brown sugar
  • 2 large eggs
  • 1/2 cup buttermilk

Swiss Meringue Honey Buttercream

  • 3/4 cup sugar
  • 2 teaspoons honey
  • 4 large egg whites
  • 1 1/2 cups unsalted butter, room temperature, cut into 1-in pieces
  • 1 tablespoon vanilla extract

Whipped Chocolate Cinnamon Ganache

  • 4 oz semisweet chocolate, finely chopped
  • 1/2 cup heavy cream
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon

For the vanilla chai cupcakes:

  • Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Line a muffin tin with cupcake liners.
  • Sift the flour, baking powder, and salt together into a medium bowl. Stir in the chai spice mixture.
  • Cream the butter and sugar together in a stand mixer with paddle attachment on medium speed until soft and creamy.
  • Add in egg and egg whites, one at a time, beating thoroughly after each addition to combine before adding the next.
  • Combine milk and vanilla in a measuring cup or small bowl.
  • Add in the flour mixture and milk mixture in three alternating additions, starting and ending with the flour mixture. Beat just to combine each addition before adding the next.
  • Using an ice cream scoop or a spoon, fill each cupcake liner about ¾ full with batter. Bake in oven for 15 to 18 minutes, rotating the pan halfway through, until a toothpick inserted in the cupcakes comes out clean. Mini cupcakes will take about 15 minutes, so check sooner.
  • Let cupcakes cool in tin on a wire rack until cool before decorating.

For chocolate chai cupcakes:

  • Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Line a muffin tin with cupcake liners.
  • Place chocolate in a metal bowl and melt over a pot of simmering water. Set aside.
  • Sift the flours, baking soda, and salt together into a medium bowl. Stir in the chai spice mixture.
  • Cream the butter and both sugars together in a stand mixer with paddle attachment on medium speed until soft and creamy.
  • Add in the chocolate and mix to combine.
  • Add in eggs, one at a time, beating thoroughly after each addition to combine before adding the next.
  • Add in the flour mixture and buttermilk in three alternating additions, starting and ending with the flour mixture. Beat just to combine each addition before adding the next.
  • Using an ice cream scoop or a spoon, fill each cupcake liner about ¾ full with batter. Bake in oven for 15 to 18 minutes, rotating the pan halfway through, until a toothpick inserted in the cupcakes comes out clean. Mini cupcakes will take about 15 minutes, so check sooner.
  • Let cupcakes cool in tin on a wire rack until cool before decorating.

For the swiss meringue buttercream:

  • Combine the sugar, honey, and egg whites in a medium metal bowl and place over a pan of simmering water.
  • Whisk the sugar mixture constantly over heat until the sugar is dissolved and the mixture looks smooth and shiny. Continue whisking until the mixture reaches 160 degrees F.
  • Remove mixture from heat and pour into a stand mixer bowl. Whisk on medium speed for about 5 minutes until the mixture has cooled.
  • Switch to the paddle attachment and with the speed on low, add the butter a few pieces at a time, beating until smooth. Do not add the butter too quickly or beat too quickly or the buttercream may break.
  • When all the butter has been added, beat the buttercream on medium-high speed for about 6-10 minutes until it is very thick and smooth. It may appear to separate briefly but continue beating and it should come back together.
  • Add in the vanilla extract and beat to combine.
  • The buttercream is ready to be used. Place a piece of plastic wrap against the surface until you are ready to use it to prevent it from drying out.

For the whipped chocolate ganache:

  • Place chocolate into a medium heatproof bowl.
  • Combine cream and cinnamon in a medium saucepan and place over medium heat. Heat just until it comes to a simmer.
  • Pour cream over chocolate and let sit for a minute before stirring to combine. Stir until chocolate is fully melted and the mixture is smooth.
  • Pour into a container and chill in refrigerator for an hour until it is firm.
  • Place ganache in a stand mixer and whip with whisk attachment until it is light and fluffy. Do not overwhip or it will become dry and crumbly, just like overwhipped cream.

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