When I was in the prime of my childhood (i.e. grades K-7 when it was still fun to play outside all day, every day), there were 37 children living in our cul-de-sac. Not the block, not the sprawling network of a ‘neighborhood’, but the 19-house stub of a street. It tumbled out 37 bodies under the age of 15 every Saturday morning. Nowadays, with my–ahem–broader view of the world and especially of the area where I live, I realize how lucky we were to have our house on that street. We were two turns away from the busiest street to the north, with a generous network of neighborhood to the south. A similar cul-de-sac was across the street, and, of course, our ended in a wide circle that we were never tempted to stray from. Parents in the neighborhood drew a line: “Don’t go past the corner”. And 99% of the time, we didn’t. My mother got a large, old copper whistle to call us home for dinner. The shrill notes stretched just long enough to reach our ears at the top of the street.
There was more than enough to do on our little street. Summer evenings turned our circular end of the street into a milling sea of bicycles, without a care for traffic. One lucky summer, an ice cream truck came every other night for two weeks straight. We climbed trees, built forts, collected seed pods. Endless hours were spent on our trampoline, in the neighbor’s clubhouse, and playing some sort of jumping game most akin to reverse limbo with more dangerous results. Whoever jumps over the stick held at the highest place, wins. The losers are those who catch the stick with an ankle and careen face-first into the ground.
We thought it was fun.
While the children of the cul-de-sac whiled away our hours in constant contact, the adults were friendly, but didn’t push the neighborly relationship much beyond sidewalk conversations as they collected their progeny, and the occasional stroll-and-chat through a neighbor’s yard sale. (It does make me laugh, as the new generation on the street have young, 10-and-under children, and the parents seem much more social than our parents ever did.) Once, we decided to try to change that. I must have been on the older end of the spectrum, and all of the kids decided that we wanted a barbecue. We made flyers and stuck them in everyone’s mailboxes after pleading with our parents. Feeling especially kind, we even put flyers in those houses of families without children (in our tiny world, I doubt we’d ever met some of those households). And then we got to planning, pre-facebook. We took polls as to who would bring what kind of food, who could drag their grill down into the street.
And there, in our family’s own search for picnic food, we found a recipe on the back of a Carnation sweetened, condensed milk can. Or perhaps a box of cake mix. All the same, the title was alluring (Better Than Anything Cake) and the ingredient list was even more so (anything containing toffee with always get my vote). This was pre-gluten-free, and the height of my childhood meant the hieght of my mother’s quick-fix dishes. The recipe was simple enough.
Mix up a batch of chocolate cake (preferably Devil’s Food) according to package directions.
Bake the cake in a sheet pan (I chose cupcakes for portability).
Poke holes throughout the top of the cake with the handle of a spoon (or a fork, for cupcakes).
Pour one can of sweetened, condensed milk and one bottle of caramel sauce all over the top.
Let sit overnight so the sauces can be fully absorbed into the cake.
Spread top with one tub of Cool Whip and sprinkle with one bag of Heath toffee bits.
The ultimate 90’s recipe. Quick, easy, all prepackaged, no measuring required. And let me tell you, it was delicious. This was serve-with-a-spoon cake. It couldn’t stand up to being sliced, so soaked with caramel, but that wasn’t too much of a problem. Needless to say, we took home a pan and some crumbs at the end of the night. I’m positive that someone at the barbecue let my mother in on the other name for this cake: Better Than Sex Cake. Either way, years later as I began to stumble through the world of online recipes, when I encountered “Better Than Sex Cake”, I knew what it was. I’ve seen it with a variety of names (Better Than Sex Cake, Almost Better Than Sex Cake, Better Than Almost Anything Cake…), take your pick. The ingredient list and the assembly have always been the same.
Recently, when a friend and I planned dinner while compiling a lesson plan, I was charged with dessert. It had to be easy to make the morning off, be transportable, and delicious for those eating gluten-free or not. And, I had a bag of Gluten-Free chocolate cake mix wallowing in my pantry. Cupcakes. Cupcakes were a must. The dessert would have to survive coming to work with me, a stint in the work fridge, and the drive to my friends. Cupcakes offered the portion-ability and portability that would be perfect. I didn’t quite prep well for this recipe. At the grocery store, I grabbed some cream cheese, heavy cream, and whipped cream, deciding to figure out frosting later. I grabbed the toffee, we had the caramel and condensed milk at home. I forgot cupcake liners.
By lucky chance, M’s mum had huge cupcake liners at home. It worried me since they fit strangely in our muffin tin, but this turned into a stroke of pure luck. With these cupcakes, the taller the liner, the better. I scaled back the condensed milk and the caramel (only used about 6 Tablespoons of each), since I didn’t have the time for these to soak up the sauce overnight. If you are able to give these cupcakes the time to rest, I highly recommend it.
I also did not want to take a chance with pure whipping cream as frosting. Inevitably, in our long journey, it would melt. Ultimately, I ended up compromising with a whipped cream cheese frosting I’ve seen on a few sites that is phenomenal and entirely stable. In my cream-cheese-loving-opinion, this frosting only makes these cupcakes better, but for you BTSCake purists, perhaps investigate whipping cream stabilizers? I’ve never used them before. Either way, with very little effort, you can have delicious cupcakes that people will be talking about all week (my co-workers can attest to that!) You don’t even have to share our little secret about the cake mix…
Better Than ____________ Cupcakes
For the Cupcakes
- 1 package gluten free chocolate cake mix + ingredients listed on package for making cupcakes (or use your favorite homemade chocolate cake recipe, prepared to batter stage)
- 1/2 cup miniature chocolate chips
- 1 Tbsp brown sugar, packed
- 6-8 Tbsp (or more) sweetened condensed milk (low-fat/non-fat is fine)
- 6-8 Tbsp (or more) prepared caramel syrup/sauce
- 1 cup Heath toffee bits
For the Whipped Cream Cheese Frosting
- 8 oz (1 package) cream cream (low-fat is fine, non-fat is not)
- 1 cup white granulated sugar
- 2 tsp pure vanilla extract
- 1 1/2 cups heavy whipping cream
- Pinch of salt
Prepare your cake batter as directed on the package, or according to your usual recipe, adding the tablespoon of brown sugar with the dry ingredients or with the other sugars in recipe. Once the batter is thoroughly mixed, stir in chocolate chips by hand. Spoon into cupcake liners and bake according to directions for cupcakes.
Remove cupcakes from oven and allow to cool. Meanwhile, mix caramel syrup and sweetened, condensed milk. Poke a dozen or so holes into the top of cooled cupcakes with a fork or a toothpick. Drizzle a spoonful or so over each cupcake (more of the syrup mixture can be added depending on how much time you can allow the cupcakes to set. Up to a tablespoon per cake if they can sit overnight). Allow cupcakes to set as long as possible: at least one hour and up to overnight in the refrigerator.
Make your frosting: in medium bowl, whip heavy cream until stiff peaks form (watch carefully at end to see that you do not over-whip the cream. If you see it starting to separate, stop! The next stage after stiff peaks is butter!). In large bowl, combine softened cream cheese, sugar, vanilla, and salt. Beat until smooth. Fold in whipped cream. Remove cupcakes from fridge, sprinkle with toffee bits. Spoon frosting into piping bag, or a Ziploc bag with the corner snipped off and pipe onto cooled, set cupcakes (or simply spread with a knife). Top with additional toffee bits.