One of the flavors I most closely associate with holiday baking is peppermint, yet for some reason I’ve rarely made anything that incorporated it. I think maybe the problem is that gingerbread recipes, another favorite holiday flavor, are so much more prevalent that I wind up turning to those. Last year there were chocolate peppermint bark cookies, and they were delicious, but the only peppermint flavor came from the crushed peppermint candies on top. This year I thought it was time I broke out my peppermint extract and found a recipe in which it would have a starring role.
These cupcakes definitely fit the bill! The peppermint flavor is very prominent, and the aroma is wonderful – my house smelled terrific as the cupcakes baked. I halved the recipe below and wound up with 12 fairly large cupcakes (next time I might even fill the pans a bit less) that were wonderfully moist and tender. The frosting is a Swiss meringue buttercream that is smooth, creamy and pipes beautifully. It’s not as cloyingly sweet as many other frostings either. The peppermint is especially strong in the frosting; I thought perhaps the mocha flavor of the cupcakes even got a bit lost. Since I was hoping for a peppermint treat anyway, I didn’t mind at all but just wanted to mention it. These are the perfect holiday cupcakes, they’re even festive looking if you tint the frosting!
As I mentioned, the cupcakes are topped with Swiss meringue buttercream, which is a type of frosting I’ve only made once or twice before. It’s a bit more time consuming than some other frostings, but it’s not difficult and only requires a few basic ingredients. You start with egg whites and sugar, which are heated in a double boiler both to dissolve the sugar and kill any bacteria in the eggs. You want the mixture to reach 160 F. If you have a candy thermometer, it works well here. The heated mixture is transferred to a mixer where it is whipped until cool and then butter is added slowly, along with flavoring – peppermint and vanilla in this recipe – to make a smooth, fluffy frosting. Two problems you may run into – after adding the butter, the frosting may appear either soupy or curdled. Don’t panic, it can probably be saved! Mine was a bit soupy after the butter addition so I popped it in the fridge for 5 minutes then beat it again and it was perfect. If the frosting curdles, just keep beating it and it will likely come together again.
2 2/3 cups all-purpose flour
2/3 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
2 1/2 teaspoons espresso powder
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup milk (I used 1%), at room temperature
1 cup strong brewed coffee, at room temperature
1 teaspoon peppermint extract
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 cup granulated sugar
1 cup light brown sugar
2 large eggs, at room temperature
6 large egg whites
1 3/4 plus 2 tablespoons granulated sugar
1 1/2 cups (3 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature
3 teaspoons peppermint extract
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
To make the cupcakes: Preheat oven to 350 F. Line two cupcake pans with paper liners.
In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, cocoa powder, espresso powder, baking powder, baking soda and salt. Combine the milk, coffee and peppermint extract in a liquid measuring cup.
In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat the butter and sugars on medium-high speed until light and fluffy, about 3-4 minutes. Scrape down the sides of the bowl as needed. Add the eggs to the bowl, one at a time, letting the first incorporate fully before adding the second. With the mixer on low speed, alternately add the dry and wet ingredients, starting and ending with the dry ingredients. Mix only until everything is incorporated.
Divide the batter evenly between the prepared cupcake liners. Bake for 18-20 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Let the cupcakes cool in the pan for about 5 minutes, then transfer them to a wire rack to cool completely.
To make the frosting: In a heatproof bowl (I used the bowl of my stand mixer), stir the egg whites and sugar together. Set the bowl over a pan of simmering water. Heat, whisking frequently, until the mixture reaches 160 F and the sugar has dissolved (you can test a bit of the mixture between your fingers – if it still feels gritty, the sugar hasn’t dissolved yet). If you didn’t use your stand mixer bowl to heat the mixture, transfer it to that bowl now. Fit your mixer with the whisk attachment. Beat the egg whites and sugar on medium-high speed until stiff peaks form and the mixture has cooled to room temperature, about 8-10 minutes. Reduce the mixer speed to medium and add the butter, 2 tablespoons at a time, adding more once each addition has been incorporated. If the frosting looks soupy or curdled, continue to beat on medium-high speed until smooth again, about 3-5 minutes more. Stir in the peppermint and vanilla extracts and mix just until incorporated.
To achieve a red and white swirled effect for the frosting: Transfer half of the frosting to a separate bowl. Add red gel coloring to the frosting that remains in the bowl and mix until you reach your desired shade of pink/red. Prepare a pastry bag with the tip you’ll use to frost the cupcakes. Fill one side of the pastry bag with the white frosting and the other with the red frosting. Pipe a test streak until you see both colors coming out of the tip. Frost cupcakes as desired, refilling the pastry bag in the same manner as needed.