The story of these vanilla bean cupcakes with salted caramel frosting is bittersweet—a perfect example of what you shouldn’t do, and I don’t just mean with recipes.
It’s the same thing I’d tell my teenage self, that cocky girl who felt she had the future in her control.
Looking her square in the eyes, my hands tight on her shoulders as I shake them slightly, I’d tell her, whatever you do, if you can just remember this one thing:
Don’t set unfair expectations. (On my way out, I might also add that a little styling product could do wonders for your wavy hair, but that has nothing to do with these cupcakes.)
Those simple words would have saved me a lot of heartache, trite as it sounds.
If I could have learned then that when someone hurts your feelings, it’s possibly unintended; or that when it is intended, that person could be coming from a very dark, unhappy place that deserves your pity not your anger; and that, most importantly, whatever hurt your feelings, you’ve probably said and done something very similar or worse—maybe I would have learned to cut people some slack—that, and spent a few less nights listening to depressing music or whining on the phone.
From where I sit today, I know setting someone or something on a pedestal is probably the absolute worst thing you can do to it. The moment you demand things must be, you set yourself up to be devastated when they aren’t. With some things—a job that provides paychecks, for example—it’s fair to be demanding; with others—a friend that forgets to call you back or never returns your e-mails—it’s not.
But now I’m getting carried away with myself. Back to the cupcakes. From the moment I got the Chow.com e-mail, luring me with words like “irresistible” and “flecked with vanilla,” I built these vanilla bean cupcakes up to be the most marvelous I would have ever had.
And, turns out, these cupcakes aren’t bad. They’re good, actually, with a dense, vanilla-flavored base that resembles a muffin or cornbread in texture and is topped by a slippery butter frosting with a hint of caramel and a touch of saltiness.
At first bite, you might think of popcorn, but as you continue eating, the taste becomes more complex, turning into something heavy and rich, salty and sweet, caramelized and soft. I’ll also add, they get much better over a few days in the refrigerator.
In fact, the only real problem with these cupcakes has nothing at all to do with the cupcakes; it has to do with me. They weren’t what I expected, not as fluffy or airy as I’d pictured, not as melt-in-your-mouth. They were tasty, and I ate them, but I was disappointed.
Monday, I brought four into work, giving them to my coworking friend, Carrie. She took them home and shared them, and she swears everyone who ate them liked them, too. “A buttery success,” she said.
By Tuesday, eating a cupcake out of my brown lunch bag, I’ll admit it was growing on me. I liked it more, with all the maturity of a 26-year-old who’s not as unlike her teenage self as she thought, trying to abandon preconceptions or, at least, to release them, slowly, bite by bite.
About Shanna Mallon
Shanna holds an MA in writing from DePaul University. Her mantra? Restoring order and celebrating beauty through creative content, photography, and food. Shanna's work has been featured in Bon Appetit, The Kitchn, MSN.com, Everyday Health, Better Homes & Gardens, Houzz.com, Food News Journal, Food52, Zeit Magazine, Chew the World, Mom.me, Babble, Delish.com, Parade, Foodista, Entrepreneur and Ragan PR.