Chocolate Cupcakes with Italian Meringue Buttercream

I've been on a desserts streak lately, and my sweet tooth has been out of control. Pies, chocolate bars, ice cream, macarons...And I already made cupcakes earlier this week...

It was raining yesterday, complete with blah-gray skies, and I had an open schedule with free time to do a whole lotta nothing. But you know what fixes rainy-blah-days like this? Baking.

To really make a day out of it, I also decided to clean out my pantry. I figured it was time for me to clean out what was lurking in baskets and tupperwares...half-full bags of chocolate chips, past-their-prime canisters of baking powder and cornstarch, barely used 2-lb bags of powdered sugar...I guess I've been buying some, using a little, stashing it away, and forgetting about it. Then, I'd buy a new bag. And, apparently, this happens a lot...

So, in order to reduce my pantry clutter, to cure my ugly-weather blues, and to sooth my aching sweet tooth, I baked my favorite Chocolate Cupcakes and whipped up Italian Meringue Buttercream in two flavors, peanut butter and Mexican chocolate!

I got this recipe from an episode of Barefoot Contessa. Ina Garten recipes are such a guilty pleasure of mine. But, recently, I came across the Drunk Ina Garten account on Twitter...I can't read her recipes or watch her show anymore without thinking of this parody account. So, you know how it's always a good idea to measure out the ingredients you need before you start baking? ...The whole time that I was doing this, I was saying in my head, "1 cup of GOOD cocoa...2/3 of a cup of GOOD sugar...1 cup of REALLY GOOD buttermilk..." Then I'd laugh...alone in my a madwoman... (Thanks, Drunk Ina Garten.)

But you don't need to be Ina Garten...or make this recipe. To start, cream the butter and sugars together for about 5 minutes on high speed. The mixture should be pale in color and fluffy. Then, it's time to add the eggs and vanilla.

After lowering the mixer's speed to medium, add the eggs one at a time, then pour in the vanilla. Blend well to make sure the batter is smooth and creamy.

In a separate measuring cup, combine the buttermilk, sour cream, and brewed coffee.

I love how the buttermilk and sour cream keep the cupcakes moist, add richness, and prevent the chocolate cake from tasting too sweet. The slight bitterness from the coffee also highlights the cocoa.

In a separate bowl, combine the flour, baking soda, fine sea salt, and cocoa.

I usually go with Ghirardelli Unsweetened Cocoa, and I love how the cupcakes come out every time. It adds chocolate flavor without adding extra sugar. While I'm a fan of rich, decadent desserts, I'm not a fan of the super-cloying sweets.

With the speed now turned to low, add the wet ingredients and dry ingredients alternately and in thirds. Start with the buttermilk mixture, and end with the cocoa mixture.

Mmmm. Creamy, chocolate-y goodness. HOW EASY IS THAT? (- said in my best Ina voice, with caps lock for Drunk Ina emphasis)

Divide the batter into muffin pans with paper baking cups.

The original recipe says to use a large ice cream scoop to make 12 cupcakes, but that makes ginormous cupcakes. 2 tablespoons of batter per cupcake makes just the right size, in my opinion.

Bake at 350 degrees for 14-16 minutes, until a toothpick inserted into the middle of a cupcake comes out clean. After removing the pan from the oven, leave the cupcakes in for 2-3 minutes. Then, transfer them to a cooling rack. Cool completely before frosting. 

I do enjoy cupcakes every now and then, but one of the reasons why I usually prefer pie or cookies at a bakery is that I'm extremely picky about frostings. At home, my go-to is cream cheese because it has a tangy, mellow flavor. But, when I need to decorate a cake or crave a flavored frosting, my go-to is Italian meringue buttercream. It's luscious, smooth, and doesn't taste like you took a head-dive into a bowl of powdered sugar or like you're swallowing sticks of butter. (There may be literally sticks of butter in there, but at least it doesn't taste like pure fat.)

To start, separate 5 large eggs, save the egg yolks (maybe for Golden Lime Pie curd?!), and use only the whites. In a small saucepan over medium-high heat, combine 1 cup of sugar with a 1/4 cup of water. Stir with a wooden spoon, only until the sugar is dissolved, then attach a candy thermometer to the pan to monitor the syrup's temperature. Also, prep your butter by cutting 3 1/2 sticks into tablespoon-sized pieces.

While the syrup is heating, whip the egg whites on high speed, in a CLEAN bowl with a CLEAN whisk. Even the slightest amount of grease will keep your meringue from forming! When soft peaks have formed, sprinkle in a 1/4 cup of sugar. Continue to whip until stiff peaks form.

Once the syrup has reached 245 degrees, or the "soft-ball stage", reduce the mixing speed to medium and slowly pour the syrup into the meringue. (Aim for the area between the bowl "wall" and the revolving whisk to prevent cooled sugar-syrup strings all over the place!)

Continue to whip on medium speed until the meringue has cooled to room temperature, about 7-8 more minutes. Then, add the butter one tablespoon at a time. Once all of the butter has been added, increase the mixing speed to high.

The meringue will deflate considerably, and may even look soupy. Do. Not. Panic.

Even when the buttercream looks like cottage not panic.

If it starts to look like chunky whipped butter......PANIC.

Just kidding! You're almost done!

Suddenly, a few minutes of high-speed whipping pays off in the form of Italian meringue buttercream. It's smoooth and fluffy.

I always say that making an Italian meringue buttercream is like doing magic...

As an homage to "Kathleen's Peanut Butter Icing" that these cupcakes were originally paired with (and because I love peanut butter anything), I flavored half of the buttercream with about a 1/4 cup of creamy peanut butter. (Use a 1/2 cup if you want to flavor the whole batch.)

There's just a hint of the salty peanut butter, and it blends beautifully with the buttercream. Not too heavy or dense at all!

For the other half of buttercream, I wanted to flavor it with chocolate. (I would be sharing these cupcakes with my niece and nephew, and they both have peanut allergies!) While doing my pantry-Spring-cleaning, I found a box of Ibarra Mexican chocolate, so I wanted to use it with my cupcakes in some way.

I melted half of an Ibarra disc with 2 tbsp of Ghirardelli bittersweet chocolate chips and 1/4 of a teaspoon of ground cinnamon. Mexican chocolate has a grittier texture and doesn't melt well, so the chocolate chips are definitely needed to make a more smooth addition to the frosting.

After allowing the chocolate to cool (otherwise it would just melt everything...), I blended it into the remaining half of buttercream.

Next, I transferred the flavored frostings into piping bags. (SO handy, those Buster Posey cups are...) Then I used a plain tip to make swirls of frosting atop the cupcakes. This buttercream is incredibly stable for decorating purposes, so you can use any tip that you prefer. I like the cute and classic beehive look :)

Once the cupcakes are frosted, you can decorate them any way you want.

I left the peanut butter-chocolate cupcakes alone, but you could top them with crushed Nutter Butters or even crumbled peanut butter cookies. (Especially if you're doing pantry-Spring-cleaning and have boxes of these leftover!)(OOOR, you could even use crumbled Girl Scout cookies! Tagalongs or Do-Si-Dos, anyone?!)

As for the Mexican chocolate cupcakes, I topped them with even more grated Mexican chocolate. The sugar in the Ibarra chocolate simulated sprinkles anyway! It also adds more flavor than a sprinkle or jimmy would.

Try these recipes and I hope they become your go-to for Chocolate Cupcakes and Buttercream! :)

Chocolate Cupcakes with Italian Meringue Buttercream (adapted from Barefoot Contessa & CakeLove; makes & frosts 24 cupcakes)

Print Recipe

Chocolate Cake:
1 1/2 sticks (12 tbsps) Unsalted Butter
2/3 cup White Granulated Sugar
2/3 cup Dark Brown Sugar, packed
2 large Eggs
2 tsps Pure Vanilla Extract
1 cup Buttermilk
1/2 cup Sour Cream
2 tbsps Brewed Coffee
1 3/4 cups All Purpose Flour
1 cup Unsweetened Cocoa (Recommended: Ghirardelli)
1 1/2 tsps Baking Soda
1/2 tsp Fine Sea Salt
Italian Meringue Buttercream:
1 1/4 cup White Granulated Sugar
1/4 cup Water
5 large Egg Whites
3 1/2 sticks (28 tbsps) Unsalted Butter, cut into tbsps
Peanut Butter (Optional)
Bittersweet Chocolate (Optional; Recommended: Ghirardelli)
  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
  2. In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream the butter and sugars together for 5 minutes on high speed. Mixture will become pale and fluffy. After lowering the speed to medium, add the eggs one at a time. Add the vanilla next, and blend well.
  3. In a measuring cup, combine the 1 cup of buttermilk, the sour cream, and the brewed coffee. Mix everything together. In a separate bowl, combine the flour, unsweetened cocoa, baking soda, and fine sea salt. Mix these ingredients together, as well. Turn the mixer's speed to low, then add the wet ingredients and dry ingredients alternately in thirds. Start with the wet ingredients, and end with the dry ingredients. Mix until batter is smooth.
  4. Divide the cake batter into muffin pans prepared with paper liners, about 2 tablespoons each for 24 cupcakes. Bake at 350 degrees for 14-16 minutes, until a toothpick inserted into the middle of a cupcake comes out clean. Remove from the oven, and allow to cool in the pan for 2 minutes. Then, transfer cupcakes to a cooling rack and cool completely before frosting.
  5. To make the frosting, combine 1 cup of the sugar and the water in a small saucepan over medium-high heat. Gently stir with a wooden spoon just until the sugar is dissolved, then do not stir. Attach a candy thermometer to the pan to monitor the temperature of this sugar mixture. While this is heating, place the egg whites in the *CLEAN* bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the *CLEAN* whisk attachment. Whip for 2-3 minutes on high speed until soft peaks form, then sprinkle in 1/4 cup of sugar. Continue to whip until stiff peaks form. 
  6. Once the sugar mixture has reached 245 degrees, or the "soft-ball stage", slowly pour the syrup into the meringue, with the mixing speed reduced to medium. When pouring, aim for the space between the bowl wall and the revolving whisk. Continue to whip the meringue for another 7-8 minutes until cooled to room temperature. Add the butter one tablespoon at a time, then increase the mixing speed to high and mix until the buttercream has fully combined and become smooth.
  7. *OPTIONAL* To make peanut butter buttercream, add creamy peanut butter (3-4 tbsps = 1/2 batch; 6-8 tbsps = full batch) to the buttercream. To make chocolate buttercream, melt bittersweet chocolate chips (4 tbsps = 1/2 batch; 8 tbsps = full batch) and allow it to cool to room temperature. Fold the chocolate into the buttercream.
  8. Top the cooled cupcakes with italian meringue buttercream, and decorate as desired. Enjoy!