Cake Mix Hack: Gluten-Free “Oreo” Surprise Cupcakes with Cookies & Cream Frosting

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I hope everyone had a great Labor Day weekend!  We jumped down to North Carolina for an overnight, to see our friends.  It was great to catch up with all of them and we had breakfast at the Saxapahaw General Store before heading back.  I’ve gushed about my love for this tiny strip of town before, and each year, it gets a little better and a little crunchier–in the best of ways. 😉  Now, in addition to the General Store, the cute industrial apartments, and performing space + Coffee Shop by day/Bar by night venue, Saxapahaw has added a butcher’s shop and a shared-space work studio.  I love this focus on community and local goods!  As for breakfast, M got the usual Coconut-Braised Pork Sandwich (which is still on my list to properly recreate at home!) and I had the brunch special: Eggs Salmon Florentine.  The staff assured me that if was gluten-free, so I was expecting a lighter version of Eggs Benedict Florentine.  You know, some kind of bread, layers of spinach and salmon topped with an egg and their “lemon and caper sauce”.  Instead, in this dish, there wasn’t any bread at all.  The spinach and over-medium eggs were resting on top of a salmon fillet!  It was delicious, and way more protein than I expected.

As for Monday, I had a meeting in the afternoon, so I missed what may have been the highlight of the summer: taking Punc to our community’s “Pool Pawty”.  Each year, the day before they close up the pool, our apartment complex allows the neighborhood to bring their dogs in to swim and play.  Our complex is great at these kind of parties, so M came back with a ton a gift bags full of dog treats, bones, tennis balls, and other swag.  It was pretty awesome!  While she didn’t enjoy the water, Punc did get a doggie massage and a pupcake.  Best of all, she got along with all of the other dogs!

M wasn’t able to take her hiking as often this summer, since it was so hot.  Our area has set a new record for the number of 90+ degree days in July and August.  Ugh.  I am definitely ready for the cooler Fall weather!  So it’s been nice to have this Pool Pawty and playdates with our friends’ dogs to fill in that exercise gap for Punc.  I’m keeping my fingers crossed that this weekend is our last heatwave, so we can start to settle into Fall.  I know M is itching to hike again, as well.

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Today, I am back with another cake mix hack!  They served me so well throughout the summer, being fairly quick and far less fussy than baking a cake from scratch.  I’m still on the search for my “one” cake flour mix.  But, I’m also starting to lean more towards the less sweet pound cake styles.  You know, not quite a quick bread, but not quite a cake.  So maybe I’ll keep my cake mix hacks in my back pocket for occasions that call for frosting and wrappers and all that jazz; and stay content with my simpler options for “everyday” cakes.  These cookies and cream cupcakes have a tasty surprise when you unwrap them: a whole “oreo” cookie at the bottom of each cupcake!  The chocolate cakes are even more fun, because the cake really hides the cookie until you take a bite of the cupcake.

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“Oreo” Surprise Cupcakes with Cookies & Cream Frosting

Serves 12

For the Cupcake

  • 1 box Gluten-free yellow or chocolate cake mix + additional ingredients listed on the back of the package*
  • 2 tsp. vanilla extract
  • 12 (1/2 of a box) “oreo” style gluten-free chocolate wafer, creme-filled cookies**
  • Optional: the filling from 6 additional cookies (save the chocolate cookies for decoration)

For the Frosting

  • 4 oz (half a package) of cream cheese, softened
  • 4 Tbsp (half a stick) of butter, softened
  • 2-3 c. confectioner’s (powdered) sugar
  • 1 tsp. vanilla extract
  • 1 c. crushed “oreo” style cookies (about 10-12 cookies)
  • Optional: 12 individual chocolate cookies leftover from the creme removed for the cupcake batter, for decoration

*I used Aldi’s GFree yellow cake brand, which calls for 3 eggs, 2/3 c. milk, and 1/2 c. oil per box

**I used Trader Joe’s Gluten-Free Jo-Jo cookies

Make the cupcakes

Preheat the oven to the temperature listed on the Cake Mix box.  Fill a cupcake pan with paper cupcake cups and drop one whole “oreo”-style cookie into the bottom of each paper liner.

Remove the inside filling from six cookies, being careful to keep the chocolate wafers intact.  Heat briefly in the microwave to soften, then mix with the liquids called for on the package–if a liquid fat (like oil or melted butter) is called for, this is the best ingredient to mix with the creme filling.  Mix the dry and wet ingredients as instructed on the packaging.  Be sure to include the extra vanilla extract as you mix in the wet ingredient.  Scoop the prepared batter over the cookies in each cup, filling about 3/4 full.  Bake as directed on the packaging.  Allow the cupcakes to cool completely before frosting.

Make the frosting

Leave the cream cheese and butter on the counter as the cupcakes bake and cool, to allow both to soften.  Whip the butter, cream cheese, and vanilla extract on low speed until the mixture is uniform and soft.  Slowly add the confectioner’s sugar, one half-cup at a time, whipping until fully incorporated.  After adding 2 cups of confectioner’s sugar, add in the crushed cookies and mix well.  If the mixture is still soft, continue to add in the additional confectioner’s sugar in 1/2 cup measures.  When the mixing blade or whisk is removed, the frosting should be almost at a stiff peak–the mixture stands straight up from where the whisk was pulled away (if the very tip of the peak falls, that is okay, but the whole peak shouldn’t slump).  Spread or pipe the frosting onto the cupcakes.  Favor a higher pile in the middle, which allows you to sink on of the reserved chocolate wafers upright into the frosting as garnish.

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Snickers Cake

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After making Snickers Pie for M’s birthday for the last two years, I vowed to switch things up from that delicious sugar coma.  Shortly after last year’s pie, I was considering adding something to the pie itself, to cut the pure caramel+peanut mix that fills the shell.  But when his birthday rolled around this year, I thought I might try my hand at a Snickers cake–mostly because I had an excuse to use salted caramel frosting, but also because I thought it would be simpler than making Snickers Pie.  Please, feel free to laugh at my hopeless wish.  If there is a way to over-complicate dishes, I will find it.  Ahem.  Anyways, I went searching for a cake recipe–one of the few baking “staples” for which I have not yet developed a favorite recipe.  A little research brought me to David Lebovitz’ German Chocolate Cake, along with recommendations for making it gluten-free.  I had some experience with frosting and with caramel, so I didn’t think it would be too difficult to combine the two.  My idea was two layers of chocolate cake, sandwiching a layer of caramel-peanut mix, and wrapped up in salted caramel frosting.  Nothing revolutionary.  But, let’s step back and take a moment to look at some facts because, while I tried not to think about it, I was pretty unprepared to make this cake.

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  1. I haven’t successfully baked a gluten-free cake purely from scratch.
  2. I haven’t ever frosted a layer cake.
  3. I had just grabbed Raw Sugar from Costco–super exciting!–but I had never baked with it.

To be fair, I could manage with the cake part and the frosting part.  I had done some research.  I knew about crumb coats.  However, the raw sugar truly threw me for a loop.  When I started the cake, it wouldn’t cream and blend into the butter (on a side note, I know there are two pretty big camps regarding creaming butter+sugar in GF baking.  Some say to definitely mix the ingredients until smooth and uniform to ensure a nice smooth batter.  Other say that creaming the butter and sugar causes spreading in cookies and other weird imbalances.  I am in Camp Cream The Butter+Sugar.  But please, use whatever works for you.)  Anyways, after 15 minutes at high speed in my KitchenAid, there was a little bit of difference.  A tiny taste was less…crunchy.  But still far from smooth.  Since the next step in the recipe is to add the melted chocolate+water mixture, I went ahead, thinking the last vestiges of warmth from the melted mixture would help to further encourage my sugar crystals to dissolve.  Well, long story short, my crystals did not really dissolve, but I plowed ahead anyways, knowing that I had to bak the cake that night, in order to frost it the next day to be ready for M’s birthday.  I think I over mixed the batter.  Thankfully, the lack of gluten kept it from getting ‘tough’ which is the traditional concern with over mixing.  The batter was, however, super aerated and fluffy.  Since beaten egg whites are added to the batter, I knew we were going for a light and fluffy batter.  But the overeaten batter + egg whites = too much light and fluffy.  The cake baked up extremely crumbly and a tad dry.

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I pressed onward once again hoping that the addition of caramel and frosting would add some moisture to the cake.  Thankfully they did, and even managed to hold together the crumbling cake.  I made the caramel, mixed some with the peanuts and some into frosting and hoped things would work out in my favor.  A crumb coat was definitely essential–I even put the cake in the freezer for 10 minutes to really set the crumb coat.  I decided (one of the better decisions in this process) to do a thin layer of frosting between the layers of cake and the peanut-caramel mixture, which really helped to stick everything together.  However, while spreading the outer layer of frosting onto the cake, I started to worry that I would not have enough frosting.  So I concentrated on the sides and decided to spread another layer of caramel and peanuts over the top to hide the frosting-less surface.  And once the layer of peanut-caramel frosting had been applied, and the frosted portion of the cake given what little decorative touches that I could manage for my first real frosting attempt, I really lost control.  A drizzle of chocolate would look really nice.  Why not some caramel too?  So much for simple.

 

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What’s done is done, and this cake finally was finished.  I shut it in the fridge for the next day after giving M a sneak peek.  On his birthday, we finally managed to make room for a little slice right before bed.  We went to Texas de Brazil for dinner, a Brazilian steak house where you pay a flat price, like a buffet.  They have an incredible, mostly gluten-free-friendly fresh “salad bar” that is actually rounded out by cheese, charcuterie, roasted vegetables, and other delights that far surpass the typical salad bar fare.  Then, waiters will come around to your table with freshly seared, hot and smoky skewers of meat of every variety: slicing off as much flank steak, top round, filet mignon, roast beef, chicken, pork, and ribs you can eat.  I repeat, AS MUCH MEAT (and delicious salad bar offerings) as you can eat!  It is a magical place.  Except for the sausage, all the meats are gluten-free, and most of the salad bar offerings are as well.  The staff is very knowledgeable, just mention your need for gluten-free dining when you make the reservation.  I had never been to Texas de Brazil before, and while M and I put up a good fight, when we finally managed to roll our stuffed selves home, the last thing we wanted was cake.

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Several hours later, we managed a few bites.  The frosting and the caramel helped with the slightly dry cake, and a couple of seconds in the microwave helped even more.  I’ve handed out slices to co-workers and to M’s mum, and would deem this cake to be a reasonable success.  I want to try this cake again, but I do not think the recipe will make it’s way into my files.  However, this salted caramel buttercream frosting and the built-up layered cake will stay.  I will just have to continue my quest to make delicious GF cake.

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Salted Caramel Buttercream Frosting

For the Salted Caramel Sauce:

  • 1 c. white granulated sugar
  • 6 Tbsp. butter, cold and cubed
  • 1/2 c. heavy whipping cream
  • 2 tsp. sea salt

For the Buttercream Frosting:

  • 1/2 c. (1 stick) butter, at room temperature
  • 1/2 c. salted caramel sauce
  • 2 c. powdered sugar
  • 1 tsp. vanilla extract, optional

Make the caramel sauce:

Measure out all ingredients–when the process for caramel begin, it goes very quickly.  Add the sugar to a heavy-bottomed, high-sided pan.  Whisk constantly over medium to medium-high heat.  Within a few minutes, the sugar will begin to liquify.  The sugar will clump, but that is okay.  Just keep whisking. When the last lump begins to melt, stop whisking.  Place a candy thermometer in the sugar, making sure the tip is not ouching the bottom of the pan.  Swirl the pan to keep the liquid moving.  When entirely liquid, cook for a few more minutes, until the color darkens to an amber color–only one or two shades darker.   The candy thermometer should read between 350-355 degrees F.  Immediately remove from heat and add cubed butter.  Begin whisking to mix in butter.  Be careful, the sugar will bubble with the addition of butter.  When butter is completely melted and thoroughly mixed in with the sugar, add the cream.  Again, the mixture may bubble.  Continue whisking until thoroughly combined.  Stir in salt.  Pour the sauce into a heat-proof container and allow to cool completely.

Melting sugar is EXTREMELY hot.  Use the utmost caution to keep it from coming in contact with your skin.

Making the frosting:

Beat the butter and vanilla extract (if using) in the bowl of a stand mixer on medium speed.   Slowly add powdered sugar, allowing each increment to mix well before adding more.  Finally, add caramel sauce.  Mix until combined.  Turn speed to high and beat until frosting has doubled in volume, about 1-3 minutes.  Use immediately, or store in fridge.  Allow to come to room temperature before attempting to frost the cake.

Snickers Cake

  • 2 8-in round or square chocolate cakes baked from your favorite recipe (baked in a pan lined with parchment paper for easy removal)
  • 1 batch salted caramel buttercream frosting
  • 1/4-1/2 c. additional salted caramel sauce
  • 1 1/2 c. roasted peanuts
  • 2 Tbsp. chopped dark chocolate, optional
  • 1/2 tsp. coconut oil, optional
  • Tools: parchment paper, knife, spatula

Start with cake, caramel sauce, and frosting that are all at room temperature (completely cool).  Mix peanuts with the additional caramel sauce until just coated.  Line the serving plate with four thin (about 4 in. wide) strips of parchment paper.  These will sit under each edge of the cake–you will eventually pull them out from under the cake, so make sure you are able to grasp the edge.  They prevent the frosting from getting all over your plate and make for a prettier presentation.  Slide a knife around the edge of the cakes in the cake pans.  Carefully, but quickly, tip the first layer onto the serving plate.  Adjust the parchment paper lining if necessary.  Spoon about 1/2 c. of frosting into a small bowl to prevent crumbs from transferring to the large bowl of frosting. Spread a thin layer of frosting over the top surface of the cake, leaving the layer slightly thicker at the edges.  Spread about half of the peanut mixture over the frosting, leaving 1/2-1 in. of frosting around edges.  Spread another thin layer of frosting to coat the peanuts, filling in the space on the sides to make it all level.  Carefully tip the second cake on top.  Adjust to line up edges if necessary.

Spoon another 1/2 cup of frosting into the small bowl.  Spread the cake with a crumb coat, the thinnest layer possible.  Coat all exposed surfaces of the cakes.  Place cake in freezer for 5-10 minutes to set crumb coat.  Using a new, and therefore un-crumby, spatula, spread remaining frosting on cake.  Add extra to the sides, pulling upwards to create a slight edge.  Spread remaining peanut-caramel mixture onto top of cake, spreading frosting around the edges to hold peanuts in place.

Melt chopped chocolate and coconut oil in 30-second increments in the microwave.  Drizzle cake with chocolate and remaining caramel sauce. Wrap (use toothpicks to prevent saran wrap from touching frosting) and refrigerate until ready to eat.  Allow to come to room temperature before serving.