Updated: please see my more recent post for volume measurements and my new, preferred frosting for this recipe.

Sometimes experiments just come together perfectly and you’re satisfied and happy. Sometimes you desperately need a break from statistics (bane of graduate students everywhere) and don’t care if the food turns out almost inedible. The best times are when you are sick of 9 hours of statistics classes a week and your experiment comes out better than you had dared to hope. That’s what happened with this recipe – one of my guinea pig coworkers (they really don’t mind) declared the cupcake I provided was the “most awesome cupcake I think I’ve ever eaten.”

Such praise is always appreciated, but it was especially nice since this was the first time I’d worked really hard on a recipe that was requested by someone else. It’s also impressive because I used an ingredient I’ve never worked with before and a technique I’ve never tried before. The ingredient is peanut butter powder in the form of PB2. I’d seen this strange looking ingredient in the health food section of a local grocery store, but I was dubious. However, when I was asked to develop a peanut butter ice cream cake I thought it might be time to try this stuff out – especially since it’s just peanuts, salt, and sugar. I decided to use the powder like I would cocoa powder and that seems to have worked out nicely. The peanut flavor isn’t very strong, but it is definitely there and who doesn’t like peanut butter and chocolate.

The new technique I used was making an Italian buttercream for the frosting. Italian buttercreams are based on egg whites that get cooked by the addition of a very hot sugar syrup. Honestly, I’ve always been a little intimidated by the whole idea – high speed whisk combined with skin-searing melted sugar – but it wasn’t difficult at all and the as long as you’re careful I think anyone that loves chocolate frosting needs to try this recipe.

On a related note – my friend Shoshana (from Stories from the Heartland) writes for InsiderIowa.com and she hooked me up with the editor over there and starting today I have a column about food and food producers in Iowa. You can check out my first post here.

Peanut Butter Cupcakes

4 ounces AP flour
3/4 cup sugar
2.5 ounces peanut butter powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
3/4 teaspoons baking powder
3/4 teaspoons baking soda
2 large eggs
1/4 cup canola oil
1/2 cup whole milk
1/2 cup boiling water

Line a muffin tin with liners and preheat the oven to 350 F.

In the bowl of a stand mixer combine the sugar, flour, peanut butter powder, salt, baking powder, and baking soda, and mix on low. Add the eggs, oil, and milk and mix well.

Reduce the speed to low and mix in the water. The batter will be soupy. Fill the cups about 3/4 full with batter (works best if you transfer the batter to a spouted cup or bowl). Bake for 14 to 16 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the center of one cupcake comes out clean.

Remove from the oven and cool on a cooling rack for 5 minutes, then move the cupcakes directly to the rack and bake any remaining batter (I usually end up with about 16 cupakes). Once the cupcakes have completely cooled – frost them.

Note: This recipe will make one 9-inch round cake, instead of 16 cupcakes if that is more your style.

Chocolate Buttercream

4 ounces 60% or 70% bittersweet chocolate, chopped
3 sticks unsalted butter
6 tablespoons water
3/4 cup sugar
3 large egg whites
1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar
6 tablespoons dutched cocoa powder (sifted – very important! Don’t skip the sifting)

Melt the chocolate in a double boiler or in a small metal bowl set over a pan of simmering water until smooth. Remove the chocolate from the heat. Cut butter into pieces and leave out to warm slightly.

In small pan bring water and sugar to a boil, swirling the pan occasionally until the sugar dissolves. Boil syrup, without stirring, until a candy thermometer reaches about 248°F.

While the syrup boils, beat the egg whites with a pinch salt until foamy and then add the cream of tartar. Beat the egg whites until they hold stiff peaks.

When the egg whites and syrup are both ready whip in the hot syrup in a steady stream (it will harden into a hard caramel if you hit the beaters or sides of the bowl, so try not to do that). Whip the mixture at medium speed until cool, 5 to 10 minutes. Without reducing the speed, add the butter, 1 piece at a time until mixture is thickened and smooth. The buttercream may appear broken – keep adding the butter and beating the frosting – it will thicken and become glossy and smooth). Add the cocoa powder, beat for a moment, and add melted chocolate – beat until smooth. Frost cooled cupcake immediately.

Note: This recipe makes a little under double the amount of frosting you need (at least with my preferred high frosting to cake ratio).