When I was young, way before I learned to cook or even had the slightest interest in food, I had a small list of favourite snacks. Among them were peanut butter cracker sandwiches, really nothing special, just Skippy peanut butter squeezed between saltine crackers. Its taste was far from my concerns, rather, it was the sheer fun of playing with food that kept me making them, one after another, slowly and quietly in the hot, stuffy kitchen.
As the only child, I’ve learned early on to find ways to keep myself amused and making these square sandwiches was one of them. There was the ritual of opening the cracker package, I gingerly tore apart the thin, plastic wrapping, determined to keep the conjoined crackers intact. When I succeeded, I broke apart two crackers and with one swift hand, a thick, glossy layer of peanut butter covered one cracker; just enough to fill the sandwich, but not too much that it would squeeze out when pressed together. Finally I aligned another cracker on top, adding just enough pressure for the peanut butter to seep through the cracker peepholes but not too hard that it broke the layers.
I’d proudly stack 5 or 6 sandwiches on a plate, make my way to the living room, change my mind and rearrange them into a flat circle, lest they topple over. Sometimes, I’d make extra and save them for my dad, who like me, loved snacks and his eyes lit up when he found the leaning tower of crackers by the bedside table. I think that was one of the earliest moments where I recognized the satisfaction and pride in watching someone eat something you made.
Aside from the methodological measuring and mixing of flours, creaming butter and sugar to create air, baking is more than a science. It’s soothing, de-stressing and a little magical. My heart flutters like a butterfly when I watch my friends sink their teeth into a cake I made, the satisfied sounds that erupt, the empty dessert plates, the crumbs on the floor, a smear of icing on the nose, baking is all about sharing.
I take any opportunity I can to honour a special occasion, and what says happy birthday better than a chocolate cupcakes with peanut butter frosting? I like cakes with a bit more heft, denser and strong in flavour and these cupcakes hit the spot. Based on Jill O’Connor’s recipe for Devil’s Food Cake, there’s a hint of coffee in the batter to enhance the chocolate flavour and brown sugar to give the cake dark and richer notes. I adjusted the amount of white sugar and replaced a little with malted chocolate powder.
For the first time, this frosting won me over. I find frostings too sweet, burning my throat, but this frosting from the popular Baked stole the show. The cream cheese gives it that tangy, lush quality, yet the peanut butter manages to tone down the cloying sweetness. On top of cupcakes, it’s like they were meant to be: chocolate and peanut butter.
At my friend’s birthday party, we held our cupcakes high in the air and toasted. There were moans, groans and big sighs of satisfaction, compliments flew my way and I smiled. I can feel the magic.
Devil’s Food Cake Cupcakes
Makes about 2 dozen cupcakes1/3 cup dutch-processed cocoa powder, sifted
1 teaspoon instant expresso powder
½ cup bittersweet chocolate, finely chopped
1 cup boiling water
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
1 cup buttermilk
½ cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature
½ cup vegetable oil (such as canola oil)
1 cup firmly packed dark brown sugar
½ cup granulated sugar
¼ cup chocolate malt powder (I used Ovaltine)
3 large eggs, at room temperature
2 cups cake flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon salt
2. In a large bowl, combine the cocoa powder, espresso powder and chopped chocolate. Pour in the boiling water and stir until chocolate is melted and the mixture is smooth. Stir in vanilla. Let the mixture cool, and stir in buttermilk.
3. In another bowl, using an electric mixer set at medium speed, beat the butter and oil together, until light and fluffy. Add sugars and beat until creamy. Beat in eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition.
4. Sift together flour, baking soda, and salt in a medium bowl. Add one third of the flour mixture to the batter and beat at low speed for a few seconds, until just combined. Beat in half of the chocolate-buttermilk mixture, again beating for a few seconds, until just combined. Scrape down the sides of the bowl with a rubber spatula. Beat in another one-third of the remaining flour mixture for no more than a few seconds, just until combined. Add the remaining chocolate-buttermilk mixture, beating just a few seconds until combined. Finally, fold in the remaining one-third of the flour mixture by hand, using a large rubber spatula, just until no streaks of flour remain.
5. Divide the batter between the muffin cups, filling them about three-fourths full. Bake until toothpick inserted in the center of the cupcakes comes out clean, about 25 minutes. Transfer to wire racks to let cool for 5-10 minutes. Cool completely before frosting.
Peanut Butter Frosting
Adapted from Baked, by Matt Lewis and Renato Poliafto
Makes enough to generously decorate 2 dozen cupcakes
Makes enough to generously decorate 2 dozen cupcakes
1 8-ounce block cream cheese, room temperature
½ cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, room temperature
½ cup smooth peanut butter (not natural, commercial brand)
1½ cup icing sugar, sifted
¼ teaspoon sea salt
¼ cup lightly salted roasted peanuts
1. Cream together cream cheese, butter and peanut butter with electric mixer until well combined.
2. Add icing sugar and sea salt, blend until well combined and frosting is smooth and creamy.
3. Evenly frost on top of cupcakes. Decorate with peanuts if desired. Cupcakes and frosting can be made one day ahead, stored in airtight container at room temperature.