Alright, so everyone knows that Valentine’s Day is overrated, regardless of whether you’re single or “taken”. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t an occasion that calls for cupcakes, because it is. All holidays are. (Except for maybe Thanksgiving, pie can have that holiday). So, of course, I decided to make cupcakes. Sure, I could have made something more “Valentine’s-y” like a strawberry cake with champagne buttercream, or a Mexican hot chocolate cake, or I dunno, anything that looked remotely festive. But instead, I made these swirly, chocolate drizzled, peanut-topped masterpieces. Ebony and ivory, together in harmony. With peanuts. I guess if I wanted to come up with a stupid, cheesy name for them, I could call them “I’m Nuts About You, Honey” Cupcakes or something lame like that. But I’m gonna stick with “Honey Spice Chocolate Espresso” Cupcakes. Hey, at least I didn’t add bacon or booze this time.
Normally, I’m not a huge fan of cake mixes. I’d much prefer to make my cakes entirely from scratch– they tend to taste better, and I know exactly what goes into them. Yeah, I know, I’m a cake snob. The thing is, cake mixes aren’t that bad, and they can be a really easy, cheap, and convenient way to whip up a batch of cupcakes, cake, or even cookies. I think I just got a bit burnt out on the taste of cake mix cakes in high school and middle school, when people used to bring cakes on people’s birthdays (was that a thing everywhere, or was that just us?). I still haven’t gotten over my aversion to canned frosting, but there are certain occasions when I will acknowledge that funfetti is simply the best option.
I tend to use holidays as an excuse to make some sort of baked good or shareable food, and so of course Valentine’s Day is no exception. As a college student, however, it isn’t exactly in my budget to go out and buy a bunch of gourmet ingredients for whatever I want to make. So, I decided to give in and use a boxed mix. My mom sent me a zebra cake mix in a care package, so I decided now is as good of a time as any to use it.
Besides, I had cute Valentines-y cupcake liners, anyways.
The cake mix she sent me is actually Duff’s (from Charm City Cakes) brand. On the box, it’s advertised as being a “premium cake mix just like the ones used in professional bakeries”. Yeah, okay. I was skeptical, but decided to give it a shot. Plus, it looked so cool on the box!
To be honest, I’m not the biggest fan of old fashioned vanilla and chocolate marble/zebra cake. I decided I’d mix things up a bit and add to each batter.
For the white cake, I made it into a honey spice yellow cake by adding 2 whole eggs (it originally called for 4 egg whites), about 3 tsp of honey, about 1/2 tsp of Saigon cinnamon, and a dash each of nutmeg, allspice, and cloves. I also used melted butter (cooled) instead of oil, and 2% milk instead of water, just to make sure the cake was extra rich. I tend to find some cake mix cakes lack flavor and moisture, and that’s an easy way to help alleviate the problem. Definitely not diet-friendly, but whatever.
For the chocolate cake, I added about 3 tsp of espresso powder to a bit more than 1/2 cup 2% milk and let the espresso dissolve. I replaced the water called for on the box with that milk mixture, added 3 eggs instead of 2, and used melted butter instead of oil again. After tasting the batter, I decided to add a tiny bit more espresso to give it even more of that coffee taste.
Both of the batters were surprisingly delicious. The box said that it would make 18 cupcakes, but I made 12 regular (big) cupcakes and 12 mini ones (I still had a bit of the chocolate batter left over, but hardly any of the honey left). I wasn’t able to layer the two flavors quite as nicely as Duff seems to be able to, but the cupcakes still looked pretty, and I figured they’d taste good either way.
I baked the mini cupcakes for about 15 minutes and they turned out perfect. The bigger ones took about 23 minutes to be done. I let both cool on a wire rack, but after waiting a few minutes, I gave in and tasted one of the minis.
Oh. My. God. These are quite possibly the best cupcakes I have ever made. And that is saying a lot, I have made quite a few cupcakes in my lifetime, and very few of them have turned out sub-par. These are divine. They’re rich, moist, and the two flavors perfectly balance each other out. Honestly, I don’t even think they need frosting of any sort, but I decided to go with a simple chocolate ganache drizzle just in case. If I had a sifter and something heart-shaped, I probably would just dust a powdered sugar heart on top, but oh well.
Yes, I realize that Valentine’s Day is not until Thursday, but I have midterms this week and my free time is limited. I went ahead and glazed the minis and three of the big cupcakes to give to the girls I was babysitting this evening (for the record, they thought the cupcakes were delicious and the “swirls were really cool!”). I topped both with a bit of chopped peanut bits for an added crunch. I guess they don’t look particularly “Valentine’s-y”, but whatever. The rest of the big one’s I’ll glaze on Thursday and probably arrange the chopped nuts in a heart shape, just to make things more festive. In the meantime, I just stuck both the glazed and non-glazed in sealed containers in the fridge.
Because I used a cake mix, I don’t exactly have a recipe to post, but I’ll go ahead and list the substitutions I made to my mixes. I would definitely buy the Duff cake mix brand again, I found the cocoa powder to have a richer taste than Duncan Hines or Betty Crocker, and I do think the quality was a bit superior. As far as availability, I’ve seen the mix sold in craft stores like Beverley’s, but I’m not sure about grocery stores.
(Each cake mix flavor in the box was approx. 9 oz., so amounts of ingredients added are reflective of that.)
For the honey spice cake:
add about 3 tsp honey
add 1/2 tsp quality cinnamon, ground
add a dash each of nutmeg, cloves, and allspice
use 2 whole eggs instead of 4 egg whites
replace 1/2 cup water with 1/2 cup 2% milk
replace oil with equal amount melted butter, cooled
For the chocolate espresso cake:
replace 1/2 cup + 2 tbsp water with 2% milk
add 3-4 tsp quality espresso powder (let dissolve in milk)
use 3 whole eggs instead of 2
replace oil with equal amount melted butter, cooled
To make the chocolate ganache:
Martha Stewart’s got a great ganache guide. However, I didn’t have heavy cream on hand, so I just heated milk in a saucepan until it was just about to boil, then stirred in semisweet chocolate chips and a bit of powdered sugar. So really, I guess that’s technically more of a glaze, whoops. Follow martha Stewart’s method, not mine.