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These sweet, spicy treats are a wonderful way to celebrate autumn. I originally conceived this recipe for a friend’s Rosh Hashanah festivities; the cupcakes are a play on the traditional apple slices and honey served to mark the Jewish New Year. I kept fiddling with it until it became the final recipe below, just right for my grandmother’s November birthday. The cake recipe is my own, the frosting an adaptation of one found on the King Arthur Flour web site. It is sugary, warm, and beautifully flecked with vanilla bean.

This recipe may call for a few ingredients you don’t have in your pantry. Please don’t let that stop you — I’ve provided substitutions for each if you don’t have or can’t find the originals, and the recipe notes explain more. If you feel adventurous, I’d encourage you to try one or two that are new to you, though. Some of my favorite current cooking staples are items I’d never even seen a few years ago. If you never try, you’ll never know… Help me be more adventurous too: I’d love to hear about your favorite oddball ingredient or food discovery. :)

Apple Butter Cupcakes with Caramel Frosting
makes 18 cupcakes

For cake:
1 3/4 c. all-purpose flour (I prefer King Arthur)
1 1/2 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. baking soda
1/4 tsp. salt
1/4 tsp. ground ginger
1/2 tsp. ground allspice
1 tsp. ground cinnamon
1/2 c. unsalted butter (one stick), softened
1 c. sugar
2 eggs
1 c. apple butter (preferably juice-sweetened, no sugar added)
1 tsp. vanilla bean paste or real vanilla extract
3/4 c. creme fraiche or all-natural sour cream (see Recipe Notes below)

Preheat oven to 350F. Line muffin pan with paper or silicon liners. (Quick tip: spray insides of paper liners with non-stick spray for easier cake removal later.) In a small mixing bowl, whisk together flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, and spices, then set aside. In a large mixing bowl, cream together butter and sugar with electric mixer until fluffy. Add egg, apple butter, and vanilla, then mix well; add creme fraiche and mix again. Finally, add flour mixture and beat on lower speed, just until evenly combined. Fill muffin cups 3/4 full (I use a large ice-cream scoop) and bake 20-25 minutes, until tester inserted in center comes out clean. Cool cupcakes on wire rack while making frosting.

For frosting:
5 Tbsp. unsalted butter
1/2 tsp. salt
1/2 c. turbinado sugar, also called demerara or raw sugar (or substitute brown sugar, see Recipe Notes below)
2 Tbsp. golden syrup or light corn syrup
3 Tbsp. milk
2 c. powdered sugar, sifted
1/2 tsp. vanilla bean paste or real vanilla extract
1/4 tsp. ground cinnamon
1/2 c. coarsely chopped pecans, optional

In a small saucepan, melt butter over medium heat, then stir in salt, turbinado sugar, and golden syrup. Cook and stir several minutes until sugar melts. Add the milk and turn up heat until mixture comes to a foamy, rolling boil for about 30 seconds. Pour caramel into mixing bowl and allow to cool for ten minutes. Stir in sifted powdered sugar, vanilla, and cinnamon and mix well until completely smooth. If frosting is too thin to spread, add another tablespoon or two of powdered sugar; it will thicken more as it cools. Spread generously on cupcakes while frosting is still warm, then top with chopped pecans if desired. There will be a little frosting left over to do with as you see fit. (I personally saw fit to eat it with a spoon. ;)

Recipe Notes + Tips:
If you’ve never tried creme fraiche, you’re missing out on a delicious, versatile ingredient. It is similar to sour cream, but sweeter and more buttery, with a thinner consistency. It plays well with both sweet and savory dishes, and I use it in everything from cupcakes, to omelets, to chicken enchiladas. If your grocery store doesn’t carry it, ask them to start — creme fraiche costs about the same as sour cream, but you get a much bigger bang for the buck. My favorite is from Vermont Creamery. If you can’t find creme fraiche, feel free to substitute all-natural sour cream or whole-fat plain Greek yogurt.

The Recipe Notes in my post for Peanut Butter Hot Fudge Sauce wax poetic about golden syrup. The other sweetener about which I feel passionately is turbinado sugar, also known as demerara or raw sugar. My initial decision to use turbinado sugar was born of necessity, but it didn’t take me long to fall in love.

Turbinado sugar is natural brown sugar. What the food industry calls “brown sugar” is actually a bizarre reconstruction of turbinado; it is made from further processed, bleached, granulated sugar with sulphured molasses added back to it in order to mimic raw sugar. In the process, brown sugar loses the caramelized, smoky warmth of turbinado sugar and gains sulfites, one of the most common sources of food allergies. Brown sugar is a classic example of food production practices instituted to best serve profit margins, rather than flavor or good health.

Turbinado sugar can easily be substituted for light brown sugar in any recipe without adjusting measurements. It is less moist and much coarser than brown sugar, so it stores better as a result. Turbinado does not melt as quickly as brown sugar because of its texture, so recipes like the frosting above require an extra minute or two cook-time for it to dissolve completely. I can detect a miniscule-but-pleasing sugary crunch in cookies made using turbinado instead of brown sugar, but it dissolves completely in cakes and muffins. If you don’t like that difference, look for raw sugar labelled “demerara,” as it is usually smaller-grained. If a recipe calls for dark brown sugar, simply add an extra tablespoon of unsulphured molasses per cup of raw sugar used.