If you like to celebrate Fall by reaching for the pumpkin spice, try its sophisticated cousin, Chai. Complex sweet, spicy and peppery notes combine to flavor these Chai Cupcakes, topped off with decadent Brown Butter Cream Cheese Frosting and a sprinkle of pink peppercorns.
It’s easy to knock pumpkin spice. It’s the low-hanging fruit – early-dropping leaf, perhaps – of the autumn zeitgeist. But don’t worry, we’re not heading into a cliched diatribe about hipsters and their spiced lattes and something something Williamsburg gentrification. We’re here to celebrate something with more depth, more sophistication, more … panache. Chai is not a new flavor by any means – in fact, it’s one of the oldest spice combinations in the culinary palette, dating from thousands of years back in India’s history. The nineteenth century saw it added to black tea and given more of a global reach, but the essential spice base has lasting appeal beyond hot drinks.
Cupcakes are something we just don’t make very often. In fact, looking back at the last four years of Nerds with Knives, I see that we’ve blogged them precisely twice. Entirely coincidentally, the recipes have aligned with spring – for carrot cupcakes – and summer – for tropical coconut and lime cupcakes. (The search for “cupcakes” will also bring you to a recipe for garlic Hasselback potatoes, which reminds me, I really must fix the site search function.) What were the odds that our next venture into this world would be for an autumn flavoring? STAGGERING, I BET. And yet, here we are.
“Chai” has something of a slippery definition, since once a thing becomes popularized, people mess with it and it becomes pretty much whatever they want it to, but traditionally, the base of a spiced chai drink contains comprises cardamom, ginger, cinnamon, cloves, and pepper. (The word chai is historically more associated with “tea”, so properly, the spiced drink is masala chai.)
It’s cardamom, an aromatic green seedpod, that really elevates this spice mix out of the bland realm of cinnamon-heavy “pumpkin spice”. Cardamom is heavily used in Swedish breads and sweet rolls (Kardemummabullar) as well, or course, as in traditional Indian masala mixes, but it doesn’t get a lot of love in the States. It’s a little on the expensive side, but you can buy a small bag of pods from a reputable supplier (our go-to is Sahadi’s in Brooklyn), grind your own powdered spice from the seeds, and a little goes a long way.
While you can sometimes find “chai spice” blends in the grocery store, it will have a lot more flavor if you blend your own. The cupcakes themselves are extremely moist and tender, with a forward but not overwhelming spice flavor. If you have coconut oil in your pantry, this is a great place to use it. It won’t add flavor, but it helps make a tender cake. If not, any neutral flavored oil will work.
While the chai spice is front and center in the cake, we decided to go in a more subtle direction with the frosting, with one of the flavors that we can’t get enough of right now – brown butter. It’s so easy to make and browning the butter adds a warm, toasty, almost nutty flavor that might just be the best thing ever. All you need to do it add the butter to a pan over medium high heat and swirl it gently until the butter turns brown and smells like heaven. It’s best to use a light-colored pan for this, so you can see the color of the butter. The trick is letting it get nice and deep brown, but not black.
As soon as it’s dark enough, pour the butter into a heat proof bowl and let it come to room temperature. Then chill it in the refrigerator for a few minutes to re-solidify so that it’ll make a proper buttercream. (Don’t forget to scrape out the brown bits after you cook and after you chill – that’s where the flavor is!) We also use a scraped vanilla bean (more flecks of deliciousness!) though extract would be good too, and a hint cinnamon to bring us back to the chai spice theme.
As a final touch, we wanted to honor the inclusion of pepper in the chai spice by sprinkling the cakes with just a few bright, sparky pink peppercorns. Pink peppercorns aren’t true pepper, but they have a delightful subtle heat and are a perfect synthesis of spice and color, just right for chai cupcakes! (We do feel obligated to point out that they tend to have an allergic effect on people with nut intolerances.)
- 1½ cups (180g) sifted all-purpose flour
- 1 teaspoon baking powder
- 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- ½ teaspoon ground ginger
- ¼ teaspoon ground cardamom
- ¼ teaspoon ground coriander
- ¼ teaspoon ground cloves
- ¼ teaspoon ground allspice
- ¼ teaspoon freshly ground nutmeg
- ¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- ¼ teaspoon fine sea salt
- ½ cup (115g) unsalted butter, at room temperature
- 3 tablespoons coconut or vegetable oil
- ½ cup + 2 tablespoons (125g) granulated sugar
- ½ cup (105g) packed light brown sugar
- 2 large eggs, room temperature
- 1 tablespoon vanilla extract
- ⅓ cup (75g) whole milk
- 6 tablespoons (170g) unsalted butter
- 8 oz (1 block, 227g) cream cheese, room temperature
- 2½ cups (285g) confectioner's sugar
- ⅛ tsp fine sea salt
- ¼ tsp ground cinnamon
- Preheat the oven to 350º F. Line a cupcake tin with liners.
- In a medium bowl, whisk together the sifted flour, baking powder, spices and salt. Set aside.
- In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment (or a large bowl with a handheld mixer) add butter and coconut oil and beat until creamy. Add white and brown sugar and beat on high speed until fluffy and lighter in color, 2 to 3 minutes. Add the eggs one at a time, mixing well until combined. Add vanilla and beat on medium speed for another minute, scraping down bowl, as needed. Turn the mixer to low speed and add half of the dry ingredients. Mix until just combined. Pour in the milk, and mix again, just until combined. Add in the other half of the dry ingredients and mix until the batter is smooth and there are no streaks of flour.
- Fill cupcake liners about ¾ of the way to the top. Bake until cakes are set, 15 to 17 minutes. Remove from oven and let cool on a rack completely before frosting.
- Add butter to a medium-sized, light-colored saucepan set over medium-high heat. Cook, swirling the pan gently, until milk solids turn golden brown (not black) and smell nutty, about 7 minutes. Pour into a heat-proof bowl, making sure to scrape out the brown bits, and refrigerate until solid.
- Add the solid brown butter to the bowl of stand mixer fitted with a whisk attachment (or use a large bowl and hand mixer), and beat on high speed until creamy and whipped. Add the cream cheese and beat on medium-high speed until mixture is smooth and creamy. Add 4 cups confectioners' sugar, spices, salt, and vanilla. Beat on low speed for 30 seconds, then switch to high speed and beat for 2 minutes. If you want the frosting a little thicker, add the extra ¼ cup of confectioners sugar.
- Frost the cupcakes and sprinkle with pink peppercorns and a drizzle of salted caramel sauce, if desired.