Caramel Popcorn Cupcakes

From 6 Bittersweets
Makes 18 to 20 cupcakes

XIAOLU'S NOTES: I simply pureed canned creamed corn using a handheld immersion blender; you could also use a standard blender or food processor. Homemade creamed corn should work, too; the puree should have a consistency similar to applesauce. I'd recommend making the caramel sauce for the frosting in advance to give it plenty of time to cool before being added to the frosting. The recipe below makes a LOT of caramel sauce, much more than the 1/2 cup maximum you'll use for the frosting. I figure if you're gonna go through the trouble of making homemade caramel sauce, you might as well have extra to use on sundaes, bread pudding, whatever you fancy! But feel free to halve or even quarter this recipe if you'd prefer.

1 3/4 cups all purpose flour
1/4 cup cornmeal
2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, room temperature
1 cup packed brown sugar
1 tsp pure vanilla extract
2 large eggs, room temperature
1 1/2 cups pureed creamed corn
Caramel Buttercream Frosting (Recipe below)
Caramel Popcorn, to garnish

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Line 2 muffin pans with paper liners (or use 1 pan and use 6 standalone baking cups). In a medium bowl, stir together flour, cornmeal, baking powder, and baking soda; set aside.

With an electric mixer on medium high speed, cream butter and brown sugar until fluffy. Add vanilla then eggs, one at a time, beating between each addition and scraping down sides of bowl as needed. Reduce speed to low. Add 1/3 flour mixture, 1/2 creamed corn puree, another 1/3 flour mixture, the remaining creamed corn, and finally the remaining flour mixture -- beating until just combined after each addition.

Divide batter evenly among lined cups, filling each 3/4 full. Bake until a toothpick inserted in centers comes out clean, 16 to 20 minutes. Let cool 1 minute in pan, then transfer cupcakes to wire rack to cool completely. Unfrosted cupcakes can be stored overnight at room temperature, or frozen up to 2 months, in airtight containers.

To serve, fill a piping bag fitted with a large round tip (like Ateco #808) and pipe caramel frosting swirls atop each cupcake. Right before serving, top with pieces of caramel popcorn.

Caramel Swiss Meringue Buttercream Frosting
Adapted from A Sweet Spoonful

1 1/2 cups whole milk
3 cups sugar, divided
3 Tbsp light corn syrup
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened
1 tsp pure vanilla extract
1/4 cup heavy cream

3 large egg whites, room temperature
1/4 cup sugar
14 Tbsp unsalted butter, cool room temperature and cut into 14 pieces

In a medium saucepan, combine milk, corn syrup, and 2 1/2 cups of the sugar. Cook over moderate heat, stirring until the sugar dissolves. Keep warm.

Sprinkle the remaining 1/2 cup of sugar in a deep, heavy saucepan. Cook the sugar over moderate heat, swirling occasionally, until an amber caramel forms. Carefully pour the warm milk mixture over the caramel. It will bubble very strongly. Keep stirring -- this is normal. Cook over moderately high heat, stirring until the caramel dissolves.

Stop stirring and cook until the caramel registers 235 degrees F on a candy thermometer -- this will take 5 to 8 minutes. Remove from the heat. Stir in the butter, vanilla, and 1/4 cup of heavy cream. Strain the caramel into the bowl of a stand mixer. Let cool 15 minutes, then freeze for 10 minute intervals, stirring between each, until sauce has thickened. Transfer caramel to an airtight storage container; set aside. Wash the stand mixer bowl.

Combine the sugar and egg whites in the clean stand mixer bowl. Place the bowl over a pot of boiling water making sure the bottom does not actually touch the water. Whisk constantly until the mixture reaches 160 degrees on an instant-read thermometer (I just whisked by hand and cooked it until the sugar was completely dissolved and the top became foamy). Be careful not to curdle the egg whites, remove from heat if this starts happening.

Remove the bowl to your stand mixer and beat on high speed with the whisk attachment for at least 3 minutes, until the mixture holds glossy, marshmallow-esque peaks and the bowl is completely cool (Very important - the frosting's consistency will be off otherwise).

With mixer on medium-low, add butter 1 tablespoon at a time, beating well after each addition (about 10 seconds between each addition). Increase speed to medium-high; continue beating until frosting appears thick, at least 3 minutes. (You'll hear a distinct slapping sound and visibly see the buttercream go from soupy to a cohesive, pipeable consistency.)

Reduce speed to low and slowly add 1/4 to 1/2 cup of the cooled caramel. Mix until fully incorporated. Store remaining caramel in the refrigerator.