Back when I was young and unafraid, I had the experience of a lifetime studying in Europe for a summer during college. It was the ultimate summer school--noisy pubs and boy chasing in England, sunbathing and karaoke at a dive bar with the Manchester United soccer (football, whatever) team in attendance in Malta (where did I put that photo of David Beckham and me, anyway?), lots of great chocolate in Germany and Austria. That sort of thing. And I think there may have been some schoolwork in there somewhere. Amazing what you can accomplish with a two-month-long hangover while a college student, really. Comes in second only to what a crazed mother of a 10-month-old can create when thinking of the days she was footloose and fancy-free. Like, say, working out a recipe for Nutella cupcakes.
The constant in my European summer, along with Boddingtons, was Nutella. It sustained Erin (she of Scotch-a-Roo lore) and I through the London portion of our trip, along with bread and Coke Light and a smartly-packed jar (her brillance, not mine) of American peanut butter. And to the delight of shoestring-budget college students like us, it seemed that you could find Nutella just about anywhere on the continent for dirt cheap. The hazelnut-chocolate combination is all over Europe in various forms, and is celebrated deliciously in the adorable Mozart Kuglen that I devoured by the dozen in Austria, making a huge dent in what was supposed to be a haul back to the states to gift to my family, who literally never really knew what they were missing.
Luckily, I can revisit that epic trip abroad by stopping into just about any supermarket and picking up a jar of Nutella. The creamy, chocolately, nutty spread is pretty much the ideal spoon-to-jar-to-mouth experience, and to this day I get crazy sense memories from just a whiff of the stuff. Recently, I got to thinking about it again because of a cake recipe I tried that involved chocolate syrup. The resulting cake was fabulously moist, but tasted way too much like, well, chocolate syrup. I brainstormed for days about what I could swap out the syrup with and--bing!--NUTELLA! Insert me sprinting to the store here.
The Supermodel Cupcake look doesn't give away how simple, simple, simple this recipe is. The most difficult thing about it is toasting and peeling hazelnuts for garnish, which, if pressed for time, you could forgo altogether. But even that is pretty simple--just throw the hazelnuts into a baking pan and into a 350 degree oven for 15 minutes or until toasty and fragrant, then let them cool completely before wrapping them in a little bunch in a dish towel and rubbing them in your hands like a bag of marbles--the peels will flake right off. Do a bunch at once and freeze the rest and you too can have peeled hazelnuts at a moment's notice. The American dream, right?
To arrive at this gorgeous and delicious specimen of a cupcake, I had to really rework the aforementioned chocolate syrup cake recipe (chocolate syrup is fat free, Nutella is pretty much just sugar and fat), and I baked up a couple test batches before declaring number three the winner. The cakes are moist and somewhat dense, almost chewy, and come out of the oven with perfectly flat tops, which beg for a slick of ganache and end up having that gorgeous, streamlined European bake shop vibe.
Even better, these elegant lookers are perfect dinner party make-aheads--they taste so much better with a more pronounced hazelnut flavor the next day. I can't recommend them enough, people. Have a glass of milk or a nice strong cup of coffee nearby, close your eyes, and pretend you're at a little scrolly wrought iron table someplatz special.
Nutella Cupcakes with Bittersweet Chocolate Ganache
The ganache in this recipe is my go-to ganache--it firms up nicely with a slight chew and a satiny sheen. The recipe also works with dark, semi-sweet or milk chocolates. After the ganache sets up, I highly recommend storing the cupcakes in an airtight container overnight before serving them--the flavors are so much better the day after they're baked.
For the cupcakes:
1/2 cup self-rising flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature
1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1/4 teaspoon almond extract
1/4 cup sugar
8 ounces Nutella
2 tablespoons whole milk
For the ganache:
3 ounces bittersweet chocolate chips (60% cacao--I like Ghiradelli)
1 1/2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 teaspoons corn syrup
1/8 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1/2 cup chopped toasted hazelnuts
Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Line a 12-cup muffin tin with paper liners.
Whisk together the flour and salt and set aside.
With an electric mixer in a medium bowl, beat the butter until creamy. Add the vanilla and almond extracts and beat until well-blended. Add the sugar and beat until fluffy and pale in color. Beat in the Nutella until well-incorporated, stopping to scrape the sides and bottom of the bowl while beating. Add the eggs and beat until smooth. On low speed, beat in half the flour mixture just until it beings to disappear into the batter. Beat in the milk. Fold in the remainder of the flour mixture by hand until the batter is smooth.
Pour the batter into the muffin cups, filling them no more than 1/2 full. Bake for 25 minutes or until a toothpick comes out with moist crumbs--if in doubt, pull them from the oven a bit early--do not over bake. Cool completely in the pan on a wire rack.
Meanwhile, prepare the ganache. Place the chocolate chips, butter and corn syrup in a microwave-safe bowl. Microwave on high for 30 second intervals, stopping to stir after each interval, until the mixture is shiny and smooth. Stir in the vanilla.
When the cupcakes are completely cool, using a spoon, top each one with about two teaspoons of the ganache, and with the back of the spoon coax it as close to the edges as possible without letting it drip down the sides (or go on and let it drip...drippy chocolate is rarely a bad thing). Sprinkle on a bit of the chopped hazelnuts. Let the ganache set before storing in an airtight container at room temperature overnight--these cupcakes truly taste better the next day. But if you want to defy me and serve the cupcakes immediately, refrigerate them for about five minutes and the ganache will quickly set.