Fluffy Vanilla Cupcakes w/ Salted Dulce de Leche-Cinnamon Buttercream

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If you use the term “dulce de leche” with a non-foodie, they’ll probably think you’re exceptionally fancy and cultured. Look at you, using foreign words! But in all reality, dulce de leche is just a pretty name for thick caramel-like sauce. If you like caramel at all, there’s a good chance you will love the socks off of dulce de leche, caramel’s richer, more viscous cousin.

Every time I take my periodical trips to Wegmans, I make it a point stock up on jars of dulce de leche. You can make this stuff at home too, but I’m lazy, and the dulce de leche I buy is top-quality and tastes like a caramely dream. I keep a few on hand because it’s so wonderful to bake with (or eat with a spoon like the glutton I am). And when I found myself looking for a new frosting recipe idea, I couldn’t have been happier to see this sweet edible gold awaiting me in the pantry.DSC_3710-2

When I someday release my very scientific study on how dulce de leche makes everything better, these Fluffy Vanilla Cupcakes with Salted Dulce de Leche-Cinnamon Buttercream will be an influential piece of evidence. This buttercream is some of the creamiest, smoothest stuff you will ever try. Even after being refrigerated, it stays soft and velvety. Thank the silky dulce de leche for that.

What I love is that, even with the rich dulce de leche, this frosting isn’t too sweet. The inclusion of salt balances the sweetness out, while cinnamon adds dimension and a touch of warmth. The flavors are just perfect, pairing beautifully with the simple but delicious vanilla cupcakes.

I’ve tried multiple vanilla cake recipes, and this one is my favorite to-date. It is the fluffiest I’ve ever encountered, reminiscent of angel food. Plus, they stay nice and moist, just melting in your mouth with that frosting. What really distinguishes the cupcakes is a kiss of almond extract, providing an extra little something that will make taste-testers ask, “What is that?”

Go and impressive you friends and family with your fancy-shmancy Salted Dulce de Leche-Cinnamon Buttercream, served in swirling peaks atop cloud-like vanilla cupcakes. They’ll never know how easy they actually were to make. That impressive frosting will only take you 5 minutes!DSC_3747-2

A Few Tips Before You Get Cooking:

  1. Not over-baking is the key to a soft, moist cupcake. You’re usually better off pulling them from the oven just before you think they’re done. Most recipes say to take them out after a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean, but the toothpick should actually have a few crumbs on it.
  2. You don’t have to pipe the frosting like I did in the picture. But if you’d like to, and you don’t have a piping bag, you can make one. Take a large ziplock bag and put the frosting in, pushing it down to one corner. Twist off the top and snip off the bottom corner that you pushed the frosting towards. Pipe away!
  3. You can leave the cinnamon out if you’d just like a straight-up dulce de leche frosting.
  4. Get your dulce de leche fix with my Dulce de Leche Filled Cupcakes too.
  5. I baked this same vanilla cake recipe as a whole cake too, and it came out just as fantastic. It’s a wonderful basic vanilla cake recipe to have on hand.
  6. Having the milk and eggs at room temperature may not sound imperative, but it is. It makes a big difference in the cake’s texture.

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Salted Dulce de Leche-Cinnamon Buttercream
By The Smart Cookie Cook

Ingredients:

For the Fluffy Vanilla Cupcakes
Cupcakes & cake directions adapted from Epicurious

  • 2 1/4 cups cake flour
  • 1 cup whole milk, at room temperature
  • 6 large egg whites, at room temperature
  • 1 tsp. almond extract
  • 2 tsp. vanilla extract
  • 1 3/4 cups granulated sugar
  • 4 tsp. baking powder
  • 1 tsp. salt
  • 12 tablespoons unsalted butter (1 1/2 sticks), softened but still cool

For the Salted Dulce de Leche-Cinnamon Buttercream
Frosting & frosting directions by The Smart Cookie Cook

  • 1 cups (2 sticks) butter, softened
  • 1 16-oz. jar ducle de leche
  • 6 cups powdered sugar
  • 2 tsp. vanilla extract
  • ½ tsp. cinnamon
  • ¼ tsp. coarse salt
  • 1 tbsp. milk or cream

Directions:

  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line two cupcakes tins with liners.
  2. Pour milk, egg whites, and extracts into a medium bowl and mix with fork until blended.
  3. Mix cake flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt in bowl of standing mixer at low speed. Add butter; continue beating at low speed until mixture resembles moist crumbs, with no powdery streaks remaining.
  4. Add all but 1/2 cup of milk mixture to crumbs and beat at medium speed for 1 1/2 minutes. Add remaining 1/2 cup of milk mixture and beat 30 seconds more. Stop mixer and scrape sides of bowl. Return mixer to medium (or high) speed and beat 20 seconds longer. It should be good and fluffy.
  5. Use an ice cream scoop to drop batter into the tins, filling them 2/3-full (just use a ladle if you don’t have an ice cream scoop). Bake 15-20 minutes or until puffed and set and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out with a few crumbs. They will not brown like you might expect; in fact, if they get too golden, you probably overcooked them. Let cool for 5 minutes before transferring to wire racks to cool completely.
  6. Make the frosting: place butter, dulce de leche, and 2 cups of the sugar in the bowl of a standing mixer. Beat on LOW speed until incorporated then beat on medium speed until thoroughly blended (if you don’t start on a low speed, you’ll have powdered sugar everywhere). Add the rest of the sugar in 2 cups at a time, starting slow then increasing the speed until well-combined. Scrape down sides between each addition. Finally, add the milk, salt, and cinnamon and beat on medium speed until incorporated.
  7. Frost cooled cupcakes and enjoy. Store in an air-tight container.

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Easter Week: Peter Cottontail’s Carrot Cake Bars

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It’s Easter Week here at Smart Cookie, and we’re diving down the rabbit hole of Day 2 (check out Day 1 if you missed it: Baby Chick Lemon Mousse Cookie Cups).

It’s no secret that bunnies love carrots. In fact, the only thing bunnies love more than carrots is carrot cake. What, you didn’t know that? It’s common sense. I mean, what’s better than taking something you love and baking it into a cake? Nothing. Therefore, carrot cake is like crack for bunnies, and for people like me who just love them some carrot cake.

How do I know all this for certain? Because I happen to be good friends with a very prominent bunny: Peter Cottontail; perhaps you’ve heard of him. Lucky for you and me, Mr. Cottontail generously shared one of his favorite carrot cake-themed recipes with us today: Peter Cottontail’s Carrot Cake Bars.

Ol’ Cottontail loves these bars because he gets all the deliciousness of carrot cake and then some without spending hours and hours in his itty bitty bunny kitchen baking and frosting an elaborate cake. In fact, these Carrot Cake Bars are a one-bowl treat that bakes up fast with no fuss or muss. No wonder the head honcho bunny approves; they’re delectable AND simple.DSC_3568

I’m thrilled Cottontail passed this recipe my way to whip up because these Carrot Cake Bars are chewy, moist, and irresistible. Their texture is a cross between cookie and cake, almost delving into blondie-like territory. The spiced and subtly carroty flavor of the bars is perfectly complimented by a combination of White Chocolate M&Ms and Carrot Cake M&Ms. Yes, they make both of those (you can buy the white chocolate ones at Target and the carrot cake ones at Wal-Mart). They give an extra kiss of sweetness, like frosting would on cake, and also adds a pretty pastel punch of color. And of course, some springy sprinkles brighten the palette as well.

These bars have everything good going for them: they’re delicious, easy, and quick. I highly recommend giving Peter Cottontail’s Carrot Cake Bars a try this Easter and seeing what all the fuss is about. That bunny knows how to bake!DSC_3536

A Few Tips Before You Get Cooking:

  1. Like any sweet, it you overbake these, they’ll dry out. Just keep an eye on them, and you’ll be fine.
  2. As I mention in the recipe below, if you can’t get your hands on the special flavors of M&Ms, just replace them with white chocolate chips. It’ll still be completely delicious.
  3. Kids will go crazy for these between the fun colors, the M&Ms, and the fact that they’re approved by their favorite furry bunny.
  4. These would also be delicious if you skipped the M&Ms and added a vanilla glaze instead.
  5. Do not bake these in an 8×8. They will not cook evenly because they’ll be too thick.DSC_3426

Peter Cottontail’s Carrot Cake Bars
By The Smart Cookie Cook

Ingredients:

  • 1 box carrot cake mix (I used Betty Crocker Super Moist)
  • ½ cup (1 stick) butter, softened
  • 2 eggs
  • 2 tsp. vanilla extract
  • ½ cup White Chocolate M&Ms,* plus more for topping
  • ½ cup Carrot Cake M&Ms*
  • ½ cup Easter sprinkles, divided

*The White Chocolate M&Ms are available at Target, and the Carrot Cake M&Ms are at Wal-Mart. If you can’t find them, replace with equal parts white chocolate chips.

Directions:

  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Spray a 9×13 pan with nonstick spray.
  2. In a medium mixing bowl, beat together cake mix, butter, eggs, and vanilla on low speed just until well-combined. Fold in the M&Ms and half of the sprinkles (1/4 cup).
  3. Transfer batter to prepared pan (it will be thick like cookie dough). Spray your hands or a spatula with nonstick spray and press the batter down into an even layer (push batter to the edges, but it doesn’t need to shape to the pan perfectly). Sprinkle with a generous ¼ cup more White Chocolate M&Ms and the remaining sprinkles. Press down lightly.
  4. Bake for 20-25 minutes or until puffed and set and a knife inserted in the center comes out with a few crumbs (it shouldn’t be too gooey anymore). Let cool completely then cut into squares. Store in an airtight container.DSC_3521

Peanut Butter-Toffee Cookie Bars with Ganache

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Only a fellow foodie can understand the kind of all-consuming obsession that takes over when you find a recipe you really want to try. Until you make that recipe, your mind (and grumbling stomach) will not rest. Your every waking thought is consumed by salivation-inducing fantasies of what that first bite will be like. It’s similar to when you develop a crush on someone you just met and obsess over them, except, in the case of the recipe, you can basically guarantee you’ll be together someday. I can’t say the same for your love interest.

And that, my friends, is why I cook.

I had an encounter with one of these recipe obsessions when I changed my Pillsbury calendar to the February page. For each month, the calendar has a Pillsbury recipe. Everything about the February recipe called to me: peanut butter cookies, toffee, chocolate…good lord, what else do you need?

I’m not one to make other people’s recipes too often, but when you’re craving something, there ain’t much you can do but give in. I put a few of my own touches on Pillsbury’s recipe to give you these Peanut Butter-Toffee Cookie Bars with Ganache.DSC_1287

I just love when a semi-homemade recipe comes out just as good as, if not better than, something made from scratch. These bars are bangin,’ so perfectly soft and chewy, like 360 degrees of the best center-bite of a cookie. Even though we used pre-made peanut butter cookie dough, you’d never know. Between that perfect texture and the marvelous mix-ins like aromatic vanilla, peanut butter chips, and crunchy butter toffee, you’d never know we didn’t make these decadent bars from scratch.

The only thing that could make this better is a thick coating of rich, silky chocolate ganache. I’ve tried a lot of ganaches, homemade and from bakeries or restaurants, and this is the best I’ve had. I figured out my ideal level of sweetness, no too sweet, but not bitter like most ganaches are. It’s perfect!

There is so much good stuff going on in one place here that your mouth will be overwhelmed with sensory satisfaction upon the first bite. There’s crunchy, creamy, chewy, chocolaty, salty, nutty, and sweet. If you don’t find love at first bite with this easy-to-make treat, then you must be missing taste buds.

DSC_1362A Few Tips Before You Get Cooking:

  1. You can make this with homemade peanut butter cookie dough if you’re an all-homemade kind of cook. I highly recommend my Perfect Peanut Butter Cookie recipe.
  2. My ratio of chocolate in the ganache may sound like it’ll be too sweet, but it’s actually just perfect. Try it; you won’t be sorry!
  3. Ganache sounds like this fancy, scary thing, but literally all you’re doing is melting chocolate and mixing in cream. Bam, you’ve got ganache.
  4. There were originally chopped nuts in this recipe, which I left out for a co-worker with an allergy, but feel free to mix some in.
  5. DON’T overbake! You’ll lose that wonderful chewy texture.DSC_1074

Peanut Butter-Toffee Cookie Bars with Ganache
Adapted from Pillsbury

Ingredients:

For the cookie bars

  • 2 rolls Pillsbury® refrigerated peanut butter cookie dough
  • 1 cup Heath® Bits ‘O Brickle® toffee bits
  • 1 ¼ cups Reese’s® peanut butter baking chips
  • optional: 1 cup chopped walnuts
  • 1 tsp. McCormick® Pure Vanilla Extract

For the ganache

  • 4 oz. semisweet chocolate, chopped
  • 4 oz. milk chocolate, chopped
  • ½ cup heavy cream

Directions

  1. Preheat oven to 350°F. Spray 13×9-inch pan with nonstick spray. Set aside.
  2. In large bowl, break up the cookie dough, reserving ¼ of the second roll to munch on yourself or bake into cookies. Add toffee bits, peanut butter chips, nuts if desired, and vanilla. Mix with wooden spoon or knead with hands until well blended.
  3. Press dough evenly in bottom of pan. Bake for 18 to 24 minutes or until golden brown, puffed, and set.  Remove from oven to cooling rack. Cool completely, about 1 hour.
  4. In large microwavable bowl, microwave the chocolate and cream in 20 second intervals, stirring well in between. As long as you mix well, it will only take 4 intervals to be able to stir it smooth. Pour over top of cooled cookie and smooth into an even layer. Place in fridge until set, about 20 minutes (put in freezer to speed this up).
  5. Cut cooled cookie into bars. Store in an air tight container.

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White-Out Hello Dollies

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You know when you buy a specific ingredient for a recipe that you wouldn’t normally have on hand, but then you don’t use it all for that recipe and you’re like, “Great, what the heck am I going to do with this now?” That’s been happening to me, except not just as a one-time occurrence, but in a cyclical manner.

I bought a box of Nilla Wafers about a month ago to use for my Nilla Wafer Truffles, and was left with extra. Then I used those Nilla Wafers for my Strawberry Sweetheart Bars, but there weren’t quite enough, so I had to buy more and was left with ANOTHER half-empty box. This happened once again when I made the Strawberry Sweetheart Bars a second time. So I basically had my thousandth box of Nilla Wafers hanging out in the pantry that I had no clue what to do with.

Don’t get me wrong; Nilla Wafers are delicious, and I would’ve loved to just inhale the rest of that vanilla-scented yellow box all by myself. However, I also enjoy not resembling a cow, so I decided against that. Instead, I needed another recipe to bake them into and get them the heck out of my pantry.

Nilla Wafers are commonly made into crusts for pies, so I was initially leaning in that direction, until I thought about my recipe for my Grandma’s Hello Dollies. Those beloved bars have a graham cracker crust; what if I did a variation with a Nilla Wafer crust instead?DSC_0924

Following that lead, I crafted these White-Out Hello Dollies. Like the original recipe, they’re composed of 5 layers that bake together like magic to form ooey gooey and chewy bars of bliss. Instead of the graham cracker crust, we’ve got a buttery Nilla Wafer crust. Instead of milk chocolate chips, we use white chocolate. And instead of walnuts, we use almonds. The coconut, since it’s white, stays the same.

Everything’s bound together by caramelized sweetened condensed milk to create an albino treat reminiscent of its relative, the traditional Hello Dolly, but delving into new, sweeter territory. It’s rich and buttery with that white chocolate and the Nilla Wafers, but balanced out by the salty nuts. Basically, it’s gooey heaven in a bar.

To make these thick white-out beauties, all you have to do is pile the ingredients in a pan and bake. Then, you’re only a few minutes of magic away from the dessert of your dreams. If you like regular Hello Dollies, then you’ll love these. Stop wasting time; get your butt in the kitchen asap!

A Few Tips Before You Get Cooking:

  1. Get my original Hello Dolly recipe here.
  2. Longing for more Hello Dolly heaven? Try my Hello Dolly Ice Cream!
  3. These bars freeze GREAT, probably better than any cookie/bar I’ve frozen before. They taste great right of the freezer too if you’re too impatient to let ‘em thaw. Just pack them in an airtight container, and they’ll last in the freezer for months.
  4. Also try macadamia nuts instead of the almonds.DSC_0833

White-Out Hello Dollies
By The Smart Cookie Cook

Ingredients:

  • 2 sticks (1 cup) butter, melted
  • 2 cups Nilla Wafer crumbs (about ½ a box’s worth of Nilla Wafers, crushed in a food processor)
  • 2 cups shredded coconut
  • 2 cups chopped almonds
  • 2 cups white chocolate chips
  • 2 15-oz. cans sweetened condensed milk

Directions:

  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Pour melted butter into a 9×13 baking pan. Sprinkle Nilla Wafer crumbs over top in an even layer.
  2. Sprinkle coconut over top in an even layer, followed by the almonds, and finishing with the white chocolate chips. You may add more or less chips depending on how chocolatey you like things. Pour the sweetened condensed milk over top in an even layer and gently spread out.
  3. Bake for 15 minutes then turn oven temperature down to 325 degrees F and bake for another 15-20 minutes, or until golden brown all over and bubbling. It should be nice and set in the middle.
  4. Let cool for at least an hour before cutting into squares. They’ll cut cleaner if you chill them in the fridge or freezer for a while first.DSC_0825

Puppy Love Brownie Cupcakes stuffed w/ Lindt Truffles + How-To Video

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Have you ever followed someone you loved around like a lost little puppy dog, unable to focus on any other aspect of life but them? We’ve all been through it, that all-consuming, gleeful, gushing, innocent puppy dog love. Our eyes cloud over with lover’s haze, we float through every hour of every day on a cloud, and no form of reason can reach us. It’s love; we don’t need a reason.

It’s February, which means it’s the season of puppy love. With Valentine’s Day right around the corner, that means every fool’s falling in love and chasing the feet of their crushes. Well stop wasting your breath running after them and try a more efficient approach; everyone knows food is the way to the heart. I’ve got you a one-way ticket right here: Puppy Love Brownie Cupcakes stuffed with Lindt Truffles.DSC_0475-2

These are the cutest, lovey-doviest darn cupcakes you could make this Valentine’s Day. And although they look intricate, they’re actually super simple. We start with a boxed mix of brownies to save you time. I find brownies are one of the better baked mixes you can get, but because I live by the philosophy that store-bought mixes are okay if and only if you jazz them up, we stuffed the brownies with silky Lindt truffles. It’s an unexpected bonus to bite into the fudgy, rich cupcake and find a creamy chocolate center. If that doesn’t say “I love you,” then nothing does.

These cupcakes are beautiful inside and out, with their decadent deep chocolate center and their adorable puppy love décor. A combination of creamy Vanilla Buttercream and rich Triple Chocolate Buttercream makes for endless decorating possibilities. Use the frostings in combination with M&Ms and heart-shaped sprinkles to create infinite different combinations of adorable dog faces.

My video breaks down just how easy the basic face is to make: squeeze out some frosting fur as sloppily as you like, it doesn’t need to be perfect, then make two ears and two circles for cheeks. Then you’re free to stick on eyes, draw on mouths, or pipe on slobbery tongue. Let your imagination run wild. Whatever you chose will be adorable.

Ah, puppy love; so much better in a cupcake.

A Few Tips Before You Get Cooking:

  1. Watch the video to really get a feel for how to make these cuties.
  2. This décor works on any kind of cupcake.
  3. Here’s a bunch of different combinations you can try to make different dogs:Puppy Love Cupcake Brownies
  4. Using store-bought brownie mix is fine since we doctored it up, but don’t you dare use store-bought frosting. That stuff’s nasty, and homemade is so easy.
  5. Not an artist? Don’t worry! You’ll be surprised how simple these are. You don’t need an artsy bone in your body.
  6. When melting chocolate in the microwave, you MUST cook it in short intervals, stirring in between, or it will burn.DSC_0446

Puppy Love Brownie Cupcakes stuffed with Lindt Truffles
By The Smart Cookie Cook

Yield: About 20 cupcakes

Ingredients:

  • 1 box brownie mix (I used Betty Crocker)
  • About 2 dozen Lindt Milk Chocolate Truffles
  • Red frosting or writing gel (I used Wilton)
  • Pink frosting or writing gel
  • Black frosting or writing gel
  • Heart-shaped sprinkles
  • Red, pink, & white M&Ms

For the Triple Chocolate Buttercream

  • 2 oz. milk chocolate, roughly chopped
  • 4 oz. semisweet or unsweetened chocolate, roughly chopped
  • 2 sticks butter (1 cup), softened
  • 6 cups powdered sugar
  • ¼ cup unsweetened cocoa powder
  • 3 – 4 tbsp. heavy cream
  • ¼ tsp. salt
  • 2 tsp. vanilla extract

For the Vanilla Buttercream:

  • 2 sticks butter (1 cup), softened
  • 6 cups powdered sugar
  • 3 tbsp. heavy cream
  • 1 tbsp. vanilla extract
  • 1/8 tsp. almond extract
  • ¼ tsp. salt

Special equipment: 2 ziplock bags for frosting the brownies

*NOTE: Brownies are a bit difficult to get out of cupcake liners, so you might want to just spray the pan instead.

Directions:

  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Fill two cupcake tins with liners or spray with nonstick spray.
  2. Prepare the brownie mix according to box directions. Use an ice cream scoop to fill lined cupcake tins 2/3-full. Drop a Lindt truffle into the center of each one.
  3. Bake 20-25 minutes or until set and cracked on top. A toothpick inserted in the center should come out with fudgy crumbs; if it’s clean, you’ll have overbaked them. Let cool completely before removing from tins.
  4. While the brownies cool, make the frostings. For the Vanilla, in a standing mixer, beat sugar into the butter two cups at a time, until well-combined and creamy. With each addition, start a low speed then increase as it starts to incorporate or you’ll have a sugar dust storm.
  5. Beat in the salt, vanilla, almond extract, and heavy cream on high until light and fluffy, about 2 minutes.
  6. For the Triple Chocolate, place the chopped chocolate in a medium microwave-safe bowl. Microwave on high for 20 second intervals, stirring in between, until completely smooth. If you stir well, this should only take 3 intervals. Let cool slightly.
  7. In a standing mixer, beat sugar into the butter two cups at a time, until well-combined and creamy. With each addition, start a low speed then increase as it starts to incorporate or you’ll have a sugar dust storm.
  8. Beat in the melted chocolate, vanilla, salt, and heavy cream on high until light and fluffy, about 2 minutes.
  9. Transfer each frosting to a plastic bag, pushing the frosting down to one corner of the bag. Tie off the top and snip off that corner. Pipe fur onto each cooled brownie in little strands. It’ll look kind of like grass. Pipe on two long or short oval ears (you can vary the ear shape/size across the cupcakes to create different looks). Finally, pipe two circles of equal size, right next to one another, centered towards the bottom of the cupcake. You can experiment with different frosting combinations like making a white face with brown ears & one brown eye patch to look like a beagle.
  10. Take either two heart sprinkles or two M&Ms of the same color and place next to one another centered above the circles you made to represent eyes. You can also pipe on white/black to represent eyes.
  11. Place one M&M or heart centered right on top of the two circles to represent the nose. You could also pipe it on with one of the colored frostings.
  12. For the mouth, you can pipe it on in red or pink, or you can use an upside down heart sprinkle to look like a tongue. You can also pipe on a tongue with one of the colored frostings.
  13. Make different faces for each dog, or make them all the same. Have fun and be creative. Store cupcakes in an air-tight container.

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