I’ve long been a fan of the Chocolate Chipotle Butter Pecan gelato at Paciugo. It sounds like a lot, I know, but trust me, the combination of rich chocolate and smoky heat cut through by the buttery pecans is kismet. Chocolate and heat are fast becoming a popular mix and I’ve tried it with other chiles, like ancho and cayenne, but never is it so great as when you add the wonderful smokiness of the chipotle. When we chose “Spice It Up!” as our March theme, I knew immediately that I would turn my favorite Paciugo flavor into a cupcake.
Now, I can’t claim full credit for the cupcake recipe. A while ago I found a recipe for “Mexican Chocolate Cake” in one of my mother’s Sunset magazines. The recipe included cinnamon, cayenne, and some balsamic vinegar, so it was easy enough to substitute the chipotle for the cayenne and call the creation my own. Because chipotle is less hot than cayenne, I doubled the amount of powder I used, allowing the smoky flavor to really come through. In all honesty, this was the second time I made these cupcakes, so I knew I had a winner from the beginning.
The real test was continuing my quest to master true buttercreams. I’ve only ever made the one Swiss Meringue Buttercream, but I knew I wanted a chocolate buttercream and buttered pecans to top my hot little cakes. I’m happy to report that it was easy – SO EASY! – having done it the once and knowing what steps I needed to follow. I’m telling you, if you’ve never tried to make a Swiss Meringue Buttercream, DO IT. The flavor and texture are well worth the extra effort.
To finish the cupcakes, I toasted some pecans in butter in a sauté pan on the stove and rolled the freshly frosted cupcakes through them. They were fantastic. I’m not one to toot my own horn, but my cupcakes were my second favorite item at last month’s meetup. They were that good.
I say second favorite, because my most favorite item was the ice cream I made. Lodged in my memory somewhere is this image of the words “black pepper” and “orange blossom honey” in a dessert I once had at Hearty Boys. Those may have actually been two separate desserts, I’m really not sure, but in accordance with the spicy theme, I made up my mind to devise a Black Pepper and Orange Blossom Honey Ice Cream. And it was fantastic. It’s one of the best ice creams I’ve ever made, second only to my Bourbon Vanilla Ice Cream with Toasted Walnuts.
I mentioned previously that I have a somewhat contentious relationship with honey, believing for a long time that I didn’t like it. It turns out, I just don’t like super-processed, grocery store honey. Usually, this is clover honey. Whole Foods, however, has a whole array of honey, orange blossom among them (the difference being the flower the bee visits). I scooped some up and set up merging two ice cream recipes together to get something approximating what I wanted.
The evening I made this I had promised one of my friends that I would help her sort spring break packets for her third grade class. I thought I had the timing down perfect. I crushed up some peppercorns and let those steep in the milk and honey for an hour. I separated my eggs, tempered the yolks, added sugar, cooked the cream mixture to the perfect temperature, and strained it, quite proud of how few curdles I had gotten. Because I was curious, I dipped my finger into the warm ice cream base to taste it, at which point I discovered that something had gone horribly wrong. Spitting that tiny taste into the sink I realized that I hadn’t added sugar at all…I’d added salt. It was disgusting. While I thought about passing it off as Salt & Pepper Ice Cream, I knew that just wouldn’t fly and I’d have to make it all over again. I stopped by Jewel on the way back from my friend’s apartment and was up until midnight, steeping peppercorns and cooking the base. Lesson learned: the next day I affixed labels to my salt and sugar containers.
But, it was well worth the effort. Once that mixture had cooled and I churned it, I took a taste from the bottom the canister and was quite pleased with what I had. The honey lent a distinctive flavor that you just can’t get from sugar and the peppercorns had faded into the background, leaving just a subtle bite of heat in the throat. It was not normal in such a good way. “I’m in love with this ice cream,” said one of our meeting attendees. Honestly, so was I.
Chocolate Chipotle Butter Pecan Cupcakes
Makes 16 cupcakes, which is a perfect amount for a get-together because, hey, you’ve got to taste some first, right?
½ cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1 ¼ cups plus 2 tablespoons flour
½ cup plus 2 tablespoons granulated sugar
½ cup packed light brown sugar
¾ tablespoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon ground chipotle
¼ teaspoon salt
1 cup milk
¼ cup vegetable oil
¼ cup olive oil
1 large egg
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
¾ tablespoon vanilla extract
Preheat oven to 350°. Line standard muffin tin with paper liners.
Whisk cocoa, flour, sugars, cinnamon, baking soda, chipotle, and salt in a bowl to blend. Add milk, oils, eggs, vinegar, and vanilla; whisk until smooth. Pour into muffin tins, filling no more than ¾ full.
Bake until a toothpick inserted in cupcakes comes out clean, 18-20 minutes.
Cool cupcakes in pans for 10 minutes. Invert cupcakes on a wire rack and turn right-side-up to cool. Top with Chocolate Swiss Meringue Buttercream and pecans that have been toasted in butter.
Chocolate Swiss Meringue Buttercream
I made half of the original recipe, which is perfect for 12 cupcakes.
2 large egg whites
¼ cup sugar plus 2 tablespoons
1 tablespoon water
1/8 teaspoon cream of tartar
½ teaspoon vanilla
¾ cup unsalted butter, softened
4-6 ounces semisweet or bittersweet chocolate, chopped
1 tablespoon water for each 2 ounces chocolate
Whisk together the egg whites, sugar, water, and cream of tartar in a large stainless steel bowl. Set the bowl in a wide deep skillet filled with about 1 inch of simmering water. Make sure the water level is at least as high as the depth of the egg whites in the bowl. Beat the whites on low speed until the mixture reaches 140°. Do not stop beating while the bowl is in the skillet, or the egg whites will overcook. If you cannot hold the thermometer stem in the egg whites while continuing to beat (i.e., you do not have a candy thermometer, which I don’t), remove the bowl from the skillet just to read the thermometer (and get that thermometer in there quickly), then immediately return the bowl to the skillet. Beat on high speed just until the mixture reaches 160°, 2-4 minutes.
Remove the bowl from the skillet and add the vanilla. Beat on high speed for 3-5 more minutes, to cool. The meringue should hold glossy peaks.
Beat butter in another large bowl until creamy, about 30 seconds. Beat a large dollop of the meringue into the butter until well combined. Continue to beat in about half of the meringue in large dollops. Scrape the remaining meringue into the mixture and beat until smooth and fluffy.
Melt the chocolate with the additional water. Let cool to lukewarm and, using a rubber spatula, stir into the buttercream.
Orange Blossom Honey & Black Pepper Ice Cream
To make this I combined a recipe for Black Pepper Ice Cream from David Lebovitz’s The Perfect Scoop and a Martha Stewart recipe for Honey & Lavender Ice Cream (I need to try that one all on it’s own someday). You end up with the standard amount of about 1 ½ quarts of ice cream.
2 cups whole milk
2 tablespoons black peppercorns, coarsely cracked
1/3 cup orange blossom honey (or honey of your choice)
pinch of salt
5 large egg yolks
¼ cup sugar
1 cup heavy cream
In a medium saucepan, combine milk, peppercorns, honey, and salt. Bring to a gentle boil, cover, and remove from heat. Let steep for 30-60 minutes. Strain the mixture and discard the peppercorns.
Combine egg yolks and sugar in the bowl of an electric mixer. Beat on medium-high speed until very thick and pale yellow, 3-5 minutes. Meanwhile, bring the milk back to a simmer over medium-low heat.
Temper the egg yolks by adding half the milk to the egg yolk mixture and whisk until blended. Stir this mixture into the remaining milk and cook over low heat, stirring constantly, until the mixture is thick enough to coat the back of a wooden spoon. This takes 1-2 minutes, so don’t walk away or stop stirring, otherwise your eggs will curdle.
Remove from the heat and immediately stir in the cream. Strain the mixture again and let cool completely in the refrigerator, 6-8 hours or overnight. Churn in your ice cream maker according to the manufacturer’s directions.