Oh Hershey’s… How I love thee… but not this time.

I recently purchased two boxes of Betty Crocker Hershey’s cupcake mix on sale because, let’s be honest, how can you pass up a deal that includes cupcakes and chocolate?

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Each kit included the cake mix and filling for a dozen cupcakes, and the S’mores kit even included the crushed graham cracker for the base.

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I normally like to “fancy” up chocolate cake mix by adding a box of instant chocolate pudding and mini chocolate chips, but for this review I decided to bake them exactly as the instructions requested. I even left the container of chocolate frosting unmodified. Boy was that a mistake…

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Sadly, the cake for each cupcake was not good at all. It wasn’t that it was just bland, but it kind of tasted like what I imagine cardboard would taste like. I think if I had added pudding and chocolate chips it would have greatly improved the flavor. On the bright side though, the process for making these cupcakes was extremely easy.

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I haven’t made cupcakes yet that you bake the filling in the center of the batter, but it worked out really well. Some of the filling in the Hershey’s Chocolate cupcakes did explode a little out of the top of the cupcake, but luckily it wasn’t too bad.

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I would only buy this cake mix again if I intended to modify it. Adding some pudding mix and chocolate chips would only take a few extra seconds and I think the results would be so much better. What would take these to the next level even more, would be to use your own favorite dark chocolate frosting recipe, or modify store-bought chocolate frosting, as we have done before here.

Even though these cupcakes didn’t turn out as I was hoping, I’m still a box mix girl and probably always will be. I’ll leave the from-scratch baking to the pros, but I have definitely learned that adjusting a box mix is the way to go.

– Posted by Cupcake Crusader, Stacy (Baltimore, MD)

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Halloween Piñata Cupcakes

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A friend approached me about helping with a church bake sale, the weekend before Halloween. I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to bring a little holiday-seasonal flare to the fundraiser. After passing by the White Chocolate Candy Corn M&Ms, inspiration struck. I’ve been looking for an excuse to make piñata cupcakes, so what could be better for a holiday focused around candy, than candy exploding out of a cupcake?

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I kept it simple by using box mixes for the cake (I struggle over doing this when it comes to bake sales, but I just can’t seem to get that light, fluffy texture from anything else…yet). I made the holes a little larger than I would for a filling, to accommodate the larger candy. For the frosting you can use your favorite vanilla or chocolate buttercream recipe.

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I thought an appropriate (or maybe just obvious) topper for cupcakes filled with Candy Corn M&Ms would be…Candy Corn!

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While I was shopping for my candy fillings and toppers, I passed the mini M&Ms. I was hoping to find chocolate M&Ms that were Halloween/Autumn colors, but failed. However, I figured that if the larger Candy Corn M&Ms didn’t work out I couldn’t go wrong with these tiny ones. Having the white chocolate and milk chocolate also offered up a nice variety for the sale.

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When I was considering what other candy could top the chocolate M&M cupcakes, I wanted to keep it nostalgic. After seeing the mini Hershey bars, I was sold. They’ve always been a favorite of mine and, just like with the candy corn on the other cupcakes, it seemed to make perfect sense.

The chocolate M&M cupcakes are the ones that SOLD OUT. I would have liked to get my hands on one, but I sacrificed for the greater good.

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In addition to the piñata cupcakes, I also made a bunch of simple, but festive, mini cupcakes with various combinations and toppers. Minis are always popular at bake sales because you can sell them a lower price and they are great for kids.

But I’m sure you are wondering, “So what did the piñata cupcakes look like on the inside? How did they work?”

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Well, they faired pretty well! I was a little concerned about the moisture from the cake affecting the candies. It did a little on the Candy Corn M&Ms, but not enough to make much of a difference. And I heard through the grapevine that the cupcakes with mini M&Ms were great!

But most importantly, the bake sale was successful and I was even asked to make more cupcakes for another fundraising event this weekend!

– Posted by Cupcake Crusader, Jenn (Westminster, MD)

Baking Experiment: Pumpkin S’mores Cupcakes

Fall is in full swing and it is officially pumpkin season. With these cool fall days I can’t help but think of toasting marshmallows by a campfire and making s’mores… What could be better than putting those ideas together for my next cupcake experiment? Ok, I’d love to claim this as my idea, but really it was Crusader Stacy’s. While away on our annual girls trip we were chatting about what kind of cupcake I should make and it all came together. Every year I make pumpkin pancakes on our trip and Crusader Stacy is our s’mores queen. BAM! An idea was born. And it might be my best cupcake yet!

After doing my usual research I settled on these recipes: a graham cracker crust, pumpkin pie spice cake, marshmallow fluff filling, chocolate buttercream with marshmallow fluff edge frosting, and crumbled graham cracker crust sprinkles on top.

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(A little fall foliage for a fantastic fall flavor!)

Two of my favorite things put together created the perfect fall cupcake AND it was SO good. The graham cracker crust added a flavor and texture that helped make this cupcake truly taste like a s’more. The cake was moist, spicy and didn’t turn out muffiny (which some pumpkin cakes do). The frosting was smooth and, considering it was my first chocolate buttercream ever, it might be the best frosting I have ever made. I baked the leftover crust ingredients and crumbled it on top – that pop of crunch was the perfect way to finish this cupcake.

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(Check out that yummy filling!)

I did run into a couple of issues with this baking experiment. The first being that the cake recipe made many more than the 18 that was stated. Granted I had graham cracker crust in the bottom, but after making 2 dozen cupcakes, I had enough batter left over to make at least another dozen. The other issue I ran into is the marshmallow fluff edge on the frosting. I thought it would be as simple as lining the pastry bag with fluff, adding the frosting and presto. Well, not so much. Lining the pastry bag would have worked had I used two types of frosting, but the fluff was a bit too sticky and didn’t line the edges of the chocolate buttercream the way I wanted. It still looked cute and tasted great, so this was only a minor bump in an otherwise smooth baking road.

Overall this cupcake was a total baking success. Sweet, spicy, chocolatey, and with the perfect amount of pumpkin, this cupcake concoction embodies its namesake campfire treat. I’m so glad our girls trip inspired such a fun and interesting baking experiment. Who knows what we’ll come up with for my next flavor – if you’ve got an idea for an interesting (and filled) cupcake that you’d like me to make, let us know below!

– Posted by Cupcake Crusader Elisa (Baltimore, MD)

Taste Test: How does Chef Duff’s Cake Mix Compare?

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I did it again… While walking down the grocery aisle I was totally sucked in by colorful packaging, sale prices, and big names:

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We haven’t reviewed Baltimore local, Chef Duff of Charm City Cake’s, line of cake mixes and frosting yet because, to be honest, they are a bit pricey compared to the competition. The retail price for the above is $5.69 for a box of cake mix and $3.29 for a tub of frosting (I’m sure prices vary by location). On sale, I picked these up for $3.49 and $2.99, so still not super cheap. The box of mix did come with a large packet of pre-made peanut butter ganache though, so I was glad to see they hadn’t skimped on that.

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Even though we’ve heard that Chef Duff is not a fan of the cupcake frenzy (crazy, I know!), I decided to use this mix to make cupcakes instead of a layered cake. Take that Chef Duff! (Kidding! We actually really love him, his show, and that he calls Baltimore home).

In order to provide you all with an accurate review of the product line, we didn’t modify this mix or frosting like we normally like to do and the only “extra” thing I decided to purchase was Peanut Butter Oreos to add on top (if you haven’t had these, what are you waiting for? Seriously, run to your nearest grocer).

When I mixed the batter according to the directions it appeared very runny and the dry ingredients didn’t seem to mix easily in with the wet, causing little chunks throughout. Shrugging this off, I filled the baking cupcakes and set the timer on the oven. The instructions called for 20 to 25 mins, but that seemed really high to me, so I decided to bake for 16 minutes (my normal cupcake baking time) and add more time if necessary. I’m glad I did that because they were completely finished baking when I checked them.

Once they cooled, I cored the center and added the peanut butter ganache. The texture of it was perfect for the filling, and the bag it came in made filling the cupcakes easy and mess free. Since I was filling the cupcakes, I didn’t chill the ganache as the box suggests, but if you are going to spread it on a layer cake, I definitely think you should. It might be too runny otherwise.

Before I frosted the cupcakes, I did a little taste test of Duff’s Chocolate Fudge Frosting, and was glad I did. It was really rich and overly sweet, like typical pre-made store bought frosting. I decided a thin layer with a dollop on top would be the perfect amount.

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Overall these cupcakes were good. Not great. Not Special. Just good. Although, I was able to get 25 cupcakes from the mix, while with other brands I’m lucky to get 22. Also, it was nice to have something included in the box to use as a filling, but in my opinion the cake and frosting were just as good as any of the competitors’.

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I’m not sure if I would seek out Chef Duff’s mixes in the future. I may pick up a box from time to time, if they are on sale and I fall into the gimmick trap again, but otherwise I think I’ll stick with my old friends, Duncan Hines, Betty Crocker, and Pillsbury.

– Posted by Cupcake Crusader Stacy (Baltimore, MD)

Chocolate Hazelnut Cappuccino Brownie Bites

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Sometimes things come together perfectly and sometimes they don’t, but often it’s a little bit of both. That’s exactly how I feel about these Chocolate Hazelnut Cappuccino Brownie Bites. The flavors and final product came together perfectly, even if there were bumps along the way. Well, maybe it was just one bump. But it was a pretty big one… I’ll start from the beginning.

Several months ago, Crusaders Jenn, Elisa, and I bought tickets for Wicked Divas with Stephanie J. Block and Julia Murney at Wolf Trap in Vienna, VA. Last summer, we saw the fabulous Idina Menzel at Wolf Trap and had seats about three rows back. While sitting that close is amazing, part of us envied the concert-goers who were spread out on the lawn with blankets, wine, and tons of food, so this year we decided to do the same.

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(Cheers ladies! Jenn and Elisa enjoying some wine while we wait for the concert to start at Wolf Trap)

In the weeks leading up to the concert we began discussing who should bring what. I volunteered to bake something sweet because it’s been FOREVER since I last baked—April to be exact—and I already had the perfect dessert in mind.

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I had everything I would need to pull this recipe together. The Jif Mocha Cappuccino Hazelnut spread was purchased on a whim using a coupon, knowing that at some point it would be great for frosting, and the brownie mix was one of those “I need chocolate” moments while walking down the aisle at the grocery store. Don’t act like you haven’t been there before…We know you have.

These two items were sitting in my pantry begging to be combined. Initially, I intended to make a dozen mini brownie “cupcakes” topped with chocolate cappuccino hazelnut frosting, in addition to a square dish of plain classic brownies. After tasting the batter (I replaced the water in the recipe with hazelnut coffee) I thought these mini brownie cupcakes would be perfect, but I still had to bake them, and that was where my recipe went askew. I severely overestimated the baking time. They didn’t burn, but once they completely cooled, they were solid like rocks. I couldn’t even get the baking liners off and I’m pretty sure they would have broken our teeth. Determined to make this dessert work, and with a square dish of perfectly cooked brownies, I moved on to the frosting.

I started by searching the internet for a Nutella frosting recipe (since this Jif spread is basically a knock-off version) and found that I had a decision to make: buttercream base or cream cheese? Not being able to decide on my own, I called my reinforcements (AKA: Crusader Jenn or Elisa…which ever answers the phone first). I told Jenn I was leaning towards cream cheese because I thought it could be interesting, but that I was also worried it might taste weird. Her response was, “Would you eat Mocha Cappuccino cheesecake?” My answer, “Ummm…hell yeah!” It was decided then: cream cheese.

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(Try to resist the urge to lick the screen. I dare you.)

I found a recipe on the blog Can You Stay For Dinner that seemed very simple, which of course I love, and the blogger, Andie, seemed to really like it. The only ingredients required were cream cheese, hazelnut spread, powdered sugar, and milk. One thing I did differently—something I’ve never done before—was sifting the powdered sugar before mixing it with the other ingredients. It made a HUGE difference. The frosting was so smooth and creamy, and the cream cheese gave the flavor a good balance that wasn’t too sweet.

While making the frosting, I had time to process the fact that my cute little mini brownies were a no-go, and instead decided to use a cookie cutter to shape the remaining brownies into individual sized circles before topping with frosting.

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Even though the brownie bites didn’t turn out exactly as I planned, the end results were still amazing. The mini cakes looked fancy on our new flower plates (birthday gifts from Elisa) and I’m sure we made a few people around us wish they were a part of our picnic. It was the perfect dessert to share with two of my favorite ladies while sipping wine and listening to the sounds of the symphony accompanied by two great Broadway performers.

– Posted by Cupcake Crusader Stacy (Baltimore, MD)

Jamin’ with Beth’s Birthday Cupcakes

Last year I was honored to bake birthday cupcakes for our good friend Beth Lacey’s party. We Crusaders are always excited to bake, especially for parties! So when her birthday rolled around this year, I was excited to create new and interesting flavor combinations with her delicious homemade jams. Not wanting to repeat the same flavors as last year, I settled on two of her best sellers (which you can buy at her Etsy shop): Raspberry Rose Jam and Salted Caramel Pear Butter.

For the Raspberry Rose jam-filled cupcake, I decided to create a floral inspired flavor profile with a lavender vanilla cake and a wildflower honey frosting. (Both the cake and frosting recipes are from my previous baking experiment.)

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This cupcake turned out so much better than anticipated! While I love floral notes and flavors, I was a bit worried this cupcake would be too much of a good thing. Luckily, everyone enjoyed it and really liked the floral link with Beth’s sweet jam.

What goes better with salted caramel than chocolate? How about a little red wine? Having made Chocolate Syrah cake many times since my first experiment with it, I knew (well, hoped) this cake flavor would work well with the sweet and salty pear butter filling. Simple buttercream with a sugar sprinkle on top finished off this birthday flavor.

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With its sweet and salty flavors and interesting textures this cupcake caused some chatter between the party goers. Some of them really liked it and some thought it was a bit on the strange side. Crusader Jenn thought it was sprinkled with salt, making for an odd flavor expectation that didn’t pan out. All in all, this cupcake was not a total flop, but not a home run either.

Baking is always fun when you get to work with interesting ingredients, but even better when you get to bake for the people you love. Beth really appreciated my baking cupcakes for her party, and enjoyed eating them too! It was a lovely party and I’m glad I could help celebrate with one of my favorite people.

– Posted by Cupcake Crusader, Elisa (Baltimore, MD)

Potluck Perfection: Pillsbury’s Key Lime Cupcakes

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We see them in the grocery stores; the brightly colored seasonal boxes with cakes and cupcakes that make your mouth water. For some of us there’s a voice in our head that says, “But it’s a box mix!” and that means artificial flavor and color, and therefore a lack of quality that we might have become accustomed to. And then there’s the rest of us who say, “OMG those would be perfect for that picnic, cookout, or potluck we’re going to this summer!” knowing that the summer months are going to be busy and we just need something easy.

I’m a mixture of both. As much as I crave a nice, gourmet quality cupcake, I haven’t outgrown my roots in boxed cake mixes. So, succumbing to the bright summer colors, I bought Pillsbury’s Key Lime cake mix and frosting (as well as their Pink Lemonade, which is still in my pantry  you may remember that we also tried their Orange Creamsicle earlier this season).

I battled with the urge to doctor up the cake and frosting, to customize them in some way. I originally wanted to pipe the frosting, but knew that I wouldn’t have enough in the tub for two dozen, and it wouldn’t set properly. And I really wanted to be able to give you an honest review of what you get straight from the box.

My solution? To make a homemade white chocolate ganache filling.

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For the filling I used white chocolate chips and, instead of butter (which can discolor the white chocolate) or heavy cream (which I just didn’t have), I used 2% milk. I had to let the ganache cool first because it was too runny when warm, but it worked beautifully even with milk.

I kept the decoration simple and the frosting minimal since it’s so sweet. Topped with some shaved white chocolate pieces, I was pleasantly surprised with how pretty they were in the end!

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The cake and frosting were both tangy, but there was definitely an unmistakable “fake-ness” to the key lime flavor. It actually made my tongue tingle a little (like when you eat too many Pixie Sticks or sour candies…I know I’m not alone here, right?!). But the cake was super moist and fluffy, one of the reasons I come back to box mixes time and time again. The white chocolate was the PERFECT pairing for this cupcake. It brought down the artificial tang (and tingle), and added that custom, high-end quality I was looking for.

I brought the cupcakes to my calligraphy guild’s pre-summer social. There were so many treats, all homemade of course. My cupcakes looked amazing, but the real test was: How would they stand-up to these people who clearly appreciate family recipes? Well, people literally gawked when I told them it was a box mix. So, they either agreed with me and the white chocolate ganache added the needed pizazz, or they just aren’t as picky as I worried they might be. Either way, if you are in a bind and need a quick dessert this summer, I think you’ll be safe picking up this box mix.

– Posted by Cupcake Crusader, Jenn (Westminster, MD)