Project Food Blog, Challenge #1: Vanilla Cupcakes with Salted Caramel Frosting

September 20, 2010

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Find something you’re passionate about and keep tremendously interested in it. – Julia Child

I am participating in the Project Food Blog by Foodbuzz.Challenges will focus on key culinary and blogging skills from writing to cooking to photography, which are the foundations of any great food blogger. The winner of Project Food Blog 2010 will be awarded the grand prize of $10,000 in cash and featured in a special section on Foodbuzz.com for one year. A number of Contestants will advance after each challenge, based on the highest scored entries as determined by industry judges and Foodbuzz Featured Publishers. The Reader’s Choice winner for each challenge is determined exclusively by the public vote. The Reader’s Choice winner automatically advances to the next challenge (except for the final challenge), making this a coveted prize to win.

View my profile here.

Why do I bake and blog? Why should I be the Next Food Blog Star? This is my story.

A simple, perfect cupcake.

I was 13 when I stumbled across a recipe for a simple vanilla cupcake. I didn’t think too much of it at the time, maybe perhaps that it was from Magnolia’s and it was a cupcake. Cupcakes are after all, the best things in the world. They’re cute, and most importantly, edible.

I probably should have paid more attention.

You know those moments in life where one comes across a particular event that will have a profound impact later down the road, yet has no idea of the significance of that event at the time?

It was one of those times. I should probably mention I don’t have the best attention span…

Yet there it was; a vanilla cupcake from the Magnolia Bakery of the infamous Big Apple. That cupcake recipe would continue to float, bump, and generally pop up from time to time from the deep, dark depths of my mind, egging me on to try my hand at baking.

That damned recipe taunted me for the next half decade of my teenage life.

Fast forward five years.

I was entering my first year of college. I had that spirit of adventure, youthful energy, and most importantly, the freedom to try. And so try I did, and baked my very first cupcake.

It was not the simple, perfect cupcake.

I had bit the lure, but was not hooked yet. Despite my wish to bake, there was nothing that motivated me to bake often and consistently. It would take another year.

I became a FIG (first year interest group) mentor. Interestingly enough, this would become the final nail in the coffin. As a FIG mentor, I wished to treat my students to something nice every painful morning. Due to the budgetary issues, I had to find a way creatively use my funds.

Baking, meet FIG. FIG, meet baking. Oh, and hello to you too, turning point in life.

Bringing my first batch of yet still imperfect cupcakes, I was most pleasantly surprised by the appreciative and supportive comments of my students. Never had I thought others would enjoy my creations. Spurred on by my success, I would now strive to bake something for my students once a week.

I’ve never imagined myself as a teacher. But after mentoring freshmen students for three years, there’s is so much you learn, especially about yourself. Through the journey of becoming and being a FIG mentor, I have to come to learn and realize many new facets of my individual, gleaning more upon my strengths as well as glimpsing upon my weaknesses. The lessons of mentorship have brought to me a new level of respect for those who work in this career field as well as a new level of responsibility. After being a mentor, I now have a new profound admiration and respect for teachers and professors. The perspective of sitting in class and being instructed is entirely different from actually instructing the class. It is far more rewarding. In addition, never has the statement “Thank you” sounded as sweeter as it does to me now. To hear those two words from a student whom you have made an impact on is so much more momentous. To these kids, to these freshmen, I have become that unique person between a teacher and friend. Someone with the capabilities of a TA, but with more concern toward my students. An individual with knowledge and wisdom to share, yet someone that can be relied upon, be turned to.

The rest, as they say, is history.

Baking eventually brought me to cooking. And of course, cooking brought me to dining out. And the culmination has brought me to blogging. No longer can I simply accept food as simply food. Dining out is not longer simply eating, but deconstruction and analysis of flavors. Cooking is no longer a chore, but experimentations. And of course, there is still baking, the first love of my life. Through all this, I have come to appreciate everything in life, and that food is enjoying life.

However, there is still one issue.

I have still not found that simple, perfect cupcake.

The Cupcake That Started It All.
Magnolia Bakery.

1 1/2 cups self-rising flour
1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
2 cups sugar
4 large eggs, at room temperature
1 cup milk
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

  • Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
  • Line 2 (1/2 cup-12 capacity) muffin tins with cupcake papers.
  • In a small bowl, combine the flours. Set aside.
  • In a large bowl, on the medium speed of an electric mixer, cream the butter until smooth. Add the sugar gradually and beat until fluffy, about 3 minutes. Add the eggs, 1 at a time, beating well after each addition. Add the dry ingredients in 3 parts, alternating with the milk and vanilla. With each addition, beat until the ingredients are incorporated but do not over beat. Using a rubber spatula, scrape down the batter in the bowl to make sure the ingredients are well blended. Carefully spoon the batter into the cupcake liners, filling them about 3/4 full. Bake for 20 to 25 minutes, or until a cake tester inserted into the center of the cupcake comes out clean.
  • Cool the cupcakes in tins for 15 minutes. Remove from the tins and cool completely on a wire rack before icing.

Salted Caramel Frosting.

1/4 cup sugar
2 Tbsp. water
1/4 cup heavy cream
1  1/2 tsp. vanilla
3/4 cup (1.5 sticks) salted butter, room temperature
2 1/2 cups powdered sugar

  • Briefly stir together granulated sugar and water in a small saucepan and bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Continue cooking, without stirring, until mixture turns dark amber in color, about 6 to 7 minutes.
  • Remove from heat and slowly add in cream and vanilla, stirring with a wooden spoon until completely smooth. Set aside until cool to the touch, about 25 minutes.
  • Combine butter and salt in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment and beat on medium-high speed until light in color and fluffy, about 3 minutes. Reduce speed to low, add powdered sugar, and mix until completely incorporated.
  • Turn mixer off and scrape down the sides of the bowl, then add caramel. Beat frosting on medium-high speed until airy and thoroughly mixed, about 2 minutes. Cover and refrigerate until stiff, about 45 minutes, before using.


Jane Ko is the Austin blogger behind A Taste of Koko, Austin's top food and travel blog featuring the hottest restaurants and weekend getaways. Jane has been a speaker at South by Southwest (SXSW), Texas Conference for Women, BlogHer, and more on entrepreneurship and social media. She lives in Austin Texas with her dog and cat.