Apple-Cinnamon Cupcakes with Caramel Cream Cheese Frosting

Every year when fall rolls around one of my biggest cravings is a caramel apple. A crisp, juicy apple coated in caramel, chocolate, candy, pretzels, and whatever else you can dream up. The thing is, and maybe it’s just me, but how in the world do you eat those things? They’re unwieldy, insanely messy, and I’m always afraid I’m going to lose a tooth to that thick caramel coating. So yeah, craving or not, I tend to stay away from them.

Apple-Cinnamon Cupcakes with Caramel Cream Cheese Frosting

Instead, I like to take the same flavors and use them in other desserts. Though they may not have the same nostalgic feeling as a classic caramel apple, they’re easier to eat and share, and in most instances, taste even better! Caramel apple cheesecake bars, caramel apple streusel muffins, caramel apple cheesecake pie, caramelized apple chips…I wasn’t kidding about the craving :)

Apple-Cinnamon Cupcakes with Caramel Cream Cheese Frosting

Recently I realized caramel apple cupcakes were missing from the list so I set about remedying that this weekend. The first attempt was an epic fail. I took a break and watched two episodes of Newsroom with Shane (it’s our new obsession, we *love* that show!) and then got back into the kitchen for another crack at it. Success!

Apple-Cinnamon Cupcakes with Caramel Cream Cheese Frosting

Here’s where I ended up: rather than using diced apples in the cupcakes, I shredded them. The apples keep the cupcakes really moist and gives them tons of apple flavor. The apples don’t completely disappear in the cupcakes either, so you still get a little texture from them. I used Granny Smith apples, but any baking apple should be fine. The cupcakes are topped with a sweet and tangy caramel cream cheese frosting – it’s so good I have a hard time not eating it by the spoonful! I garnished the cupcakes with a single pecan, mostly to disguise the horrible job I did with the frosting if we’re being honest, but you could really do anything you want on top, or nothing at all. Either way, it’s the caramel apple experience, taken up a notch!

Apple-Cinnamon Cupcakes with Caramel Cream Cheese Frosting
cupcakes adapted from Rachel Ray Magazine, frosting from these cupcakes

Cupcakes
1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 large eggs, at room temperature
1/2 cup packed light brown sugar
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup canola oil
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
2 Granny Smith apples (about 1 lb), peeled, cored, and shredded

Frosting
1 lb confectioners’ sugar, sifted and divided
1/2 cup plus 1 tablespoon heavy cream
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 (8-oz) package cream cheese, at room temperature
1/4 cup (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature

Preheat oven to 350 F. Line a cupcake pan with paper liners.

In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, cinnamon, and salt. In a second medium bowl, whisk together the eggs and both sugars until smooth and well combined, making sure to break up any clumps of brown sugar. Add the oil and vanilla and whisk until completely incorporated. Add the dry ingredients to the wet, and stir just until everything comes together. Fold in the apples until evenly distributed.

Divide the batter evenly among the liners. Bake for 20-25 minutes, or until the cupcakes spring back when lightly pressed with your finger and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Transfer the pan to a wire rack and let the cupcakes cool for a few minutes before removing them to the rack to cool completely.

To make the frosting: Add 1/2 cup of the confectioners’ sugar to a small nonstick skillet. Try to sprinkle in an even layer. Set the pan over medium heat and let the sugar sit untouched until it melts – it’ll seem like it takes forever to start melting, but once it gets going, it goes fast. Continue cooking until the sugar turns an amber color, stirring occasionally – keep an eye on it, it can burn quickly. Add 1/2 cup of the cream, the vanilla and salt (carefully, the mixture will bubble up!). Stir until any hardened bits of caramel melt. Add the remaining tablespoon of cream and stir to incorporate. Strain the caramel into a heatproof bowl and set aside to cool.

Combine the cream cheese and butter in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Beat on medium speed until light and fluffy. Gradually add the remaining confectioners’ sugar, stopping to scrape the sides of the bowl as necessary. Once all the sugar has been added, mix in the cooled caramel. Beat the frosting on medium speed until smooth and fluffy. Cover the chill until the frosting is firm enough to pipe (I think it was about an hour for me).

To assemble the cupcakes: Transfer the frosting to a pastry bag fitted with a tip. Pipe frosting into a swirl on each cupcake. Garnish with toasted pecans, more caramel sauce, or both!

Makes 12 cupcakes