How ’bout Them Apples: Brandy Apple Pie Cupcakes

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When I think back to the wonderful Thanksgivukkah feast that I shared with my family last year, there are so many great food memories that we decided to make it an annual tradition, regardless of the date on which Chanukah falls (which varies based on the Jewish calendar). Who knew that the foods of Thanksgiving and Chanukah would mix and match so well?! I mean, it’s not a huge stretch, being that potatoes are traditional for both (mashed for Thanksgiving and pancake-style “latkes” for Chanukah), plus apples appear frequently in pies for the former and applesauce is a popular latke topping. I guess we just never thought about it because the holidays had never collided in my lifetime. And they will not coincide again for another 70,000 years, so we’re taking matters into our own hands! When it comes to desserts, I can take or leave classic pumpkin pie to be honest, but I do love me some apple pie. Few desserts epitomize American baking like classic apple pie, especially in the Fall; flaky crust, layer upon layer of sweet, gooey, cinnamon-y apples, topped with another flaky lid and a scoop of melting vanilla ice cream… It is synonymous with a number of American holidays, and it really need not be messed with… but I went there.

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These Brandy Apple Pie Cupcakes originated from one of my favorite (and highly underrated) sources, the Butch Bakery Cookbook. This is a delivery-only bakery in New York City that makes “cupcakes for guys”. In other words, no pink frosting, no sprinkles, nothing frilly. They are decorated in dude colors and most contain either booze or bacon… or both. I find this concept highly amusing, but in all seriousness, this recipe and their chocolate stout cake which I adapted for my Chocolate Stout Pretzel Cupcakes are two of my all-time favorites.

I can’t seem to make normal, simple cupcakes anymore, guys. I used to be smitten by cupcakes, but I’ve sort of transcended them in favor of more complex pastries. Now, I could never abandon cupcakes altogether; they were, after all, my gateway drug into hardcore baking. Instead, most of the cupcakes that I make these days either employ some sort of ingredient twist or consist of multiple components, i.e. crust, filling, and/or garnish in addition to the cake and frosting. Yes, this often makes them more time-consuming, but so very worth it. In this case, the cupcakes have an apple pie filling and a topping of baked apple crisps. (I wasn’t sure about the name “Apple Pie Cupcakes” because there wasn’t a proper pie crust, but I decided that there were enough pie-friendly elements to merit the title. Almost immediately after I was done, I realized that I could’ve made pie crust crumbles for a garnish. Next time…)

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In lieu of a crust, the cake is, of course, the delivery system for the apple filling. I dare say that this slightly unconventional departure from tradition apple pie is not a hindrance in any way; one bite of this cupcake smacks of all the expected flavors. Quintessential to the uniqueness of these cupcakes is applejack brandy, such as Laird’s Applejack. The liqueur flavors every element of the cupcakes: cake, filling, and frosting. I went with a conservative amount (1 tablespoon where the recipe calls for 1-2 tablespoons), which I felt was just the right amount for a layer of apple flavor without a super boozy finish.

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A few notes about this recipe:

  • The original recipe calls for using jumbo muffin pans and should yield 12 jumbo cupcakes. I prefer the standard cupcake size, so I used a regular pan. However, I ended up with only 17 cupcakes, and they were on the small side because I slightly under-filled them. If you fill the cups to ¾, you should have about 14 cupcakes.
  • The original recipe makes about double the apple pie filling that you need. I’ve cut it in half here, but feel free to make a full-sized batch and double the cupcakes, or freeze the extra pie filling for another time. (Or use it as a latke topping?!) Because a half-recipe only uses 1 ½ apples, you can use the remaining ½ apple for the baked apple crisps.
  • Dicing the apples to such a small size is tedious, but it’s important to have tiny apple chunks that will fit in the cupcakes.
  • You will have plenty of frosting left over.
  • The frosting is very sweet, but the cake is not, so they balance well.
  • The cupcakes have a fine crumb and seem a bit dense, but the cake needs to be sturdy in order to hold the heavy, gooey filling.

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Brandy Apple Pie Cupcakes
Adapted from The Butch Bakery Cookbook “Sweet Mama”
Yields approximately 14-17 cupcakes

You can top these with the baked apple crisps, or with the sprinkles/sanding sugar of your choice, pie crust crumbs, or fondant decorations. Or, quite simply stick with a dusting of cinnamon sugar.

For the apple crisp topping:

  • ½ Granny Smith apple
  • 2 tablespoons granulated sugar
  • 1 ½ teaspoons cinnamon

For the apple pie filling:

  • ¼ cup pure maple syrup (preferably Grade B)
  • 2 tablespoons water
  • 1 tablespoon cornstarch
  • Scant ½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • ⅛ teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1 ½ Granny Smith apples, peeled, cored, and cut into ¼-inch dice (about 4 cups diced)
  • 1-2 tablespoons applejack, such as Laird’s

For the cinnamon cupcakes:

  • 1 ½ cups unbleached all-purposed flour
  • 1 ½ teaspoons ground cinnamon
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 14 tablespoons (1 ¾ sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature
  • 1 cup plus 2 tablespoons granulated sugar
  • 3 large eggs, at room temperature
  • 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
  • ½ cup well-shaken buttermilk
  • 2 tablespoons applejack, such as Laird’s

For the vanilla-applejack buttercream:

  • 10 tablespoons (1 ¼ sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature
  • 4 ½ cups confectioners’ sugar, sifted (plus more if needed to thicken frosting)
  • ¼ cup heavy whipping cream
  • 1-2 tablespoons applejack, such as Laird’s
  • ½ teaspoon pure vanilla extract or vanilla bean paste
  • ¼ teaspoon kosher salt

Start by making the apple crisps. Preheat an oven to 225°F and position a rack in the center. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper and set it nearby. Stir together the sugar and cinnamon in a small bowl.

Slice the apple *horizontally* as thinly as possible. For the most uniform slices, use a mandoline, though I actually just used a sharp paring knife. Place the slices in a single layer on the baking sheet and sprinkle lightly with the cinnamon-sugar. Reserve the remaining cinnamon-sugar to garnish the finished cupcakes.

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Bake for 30-60 minutes (depending on thickness– mine surprisingly only needed 30 minutes), then flip the slices and bake for another 30-60 minutes as needed. They will be slightly crisped and the edges will be golden and rippled– that’s how you know they’re ready.

Turn off the oven and crack the door open. Leave the apple crisps in the oven to cool completely; they will crisp up in the process.

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While the apple crisps are cooling, make the apple pie filling. (You can even make it the day before, as it will firm up overnight in the fridge to a consistency that it is easy to work with when filling the cupcakes.) Preheat the oven to 400°F with a rack placed in the middle position. Combine the maple syrup, water, cornstarch, cinnamon, and salt in a medium mixing bowl. Pour over the diced apples and stir until the apples are evenly coated.

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Transfer the filling to a glass baking dish– I used a 9″ pie dish. Cover the pan with aluminum foil and bake for 30-40 minutes (stirring halfway through), until the apples have softened a bit and the liquid bubbles and thickens into a syrup. (I like mine to retain a little bite so the chunks hold their shape and don’t get mushy– we ain’t makin applesauce up in here.) Once the pie filling has cooled, stir in the brandy.

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To make the cupcakes, preheat an oven to 350°F and position a rack in the center of the oven. Line a standard muffin pan with cupcake papers. There will be enough batter for another 2-5 cupcakes, so you can use a second pan or reuse the first pan.

Sift together the flour, cinnamon, baking powder, and salt in a small mixing bowl and set aside.

In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat the butter and sugar on medium speed until light and fluffy, about 2 minutes. Scrape down the sides of the bowl with a spatula and add the eggs one at a time, beating each one just until incorporated. Add the vanilla extract along with the last egg. Scrape down the bowl again and beat for a few more seconds.

Add half of the flour mixture and mix on low speed just until incorporated. Add the buttermilk and brandy; mix until the liquid has just been absorbed. Add the remaining dry ingredients and mix just until the flour streaks are gone. Scrape down the sides and bottom of the mixing bowl and give the batter one last whirl to make sure everything is evenly distributed. Do not overmix.

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Divide the batter between the cupcake liners, filling each about ¾ full. Bake for 20-23 minutes, rotating the pan halfway through, until a cake tester inserted into the center of a cupcake comes out clean. Alternatively, gently press the tops of a few cupcakes. If the impressions spring back slowly, the cakes are ready; if they stay, give the cakes a couple more minutes.

Cool the cupcakes in the pan on a wire rack for 5-10 minutes. When cool enough to handle, transfer the cakes directly to the rack to cool completely.

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Meanwhile, make the frosting. In your stand mixer bowl, beat the butter on medium speed until it is smooth and creamy, about 1 minute. Reduce the speed to low and add half of the confectioners’ sugar. As it gets absorbed into the butter, increase the speed to medium and mix until the sugar has disappeared. Scrape down the sides and bottom of the bowl. Add the cream, brandy, vanilla extract, and salt, and beat the mixture until the wet ingredients are incorporated. Add the remaining confectioners’ sugar, starting on low speed and increasing to medium. Scrape the bowl once more and mix again for 20 seconds or until the frosting is smooth, creamy, and stiff enough for piping.

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Next comes the fun part: cupcake assembly! With a small, sharp knife, cut a cone out of the top of each cupcake. I start about ⅓-inch or so from the edge of the cupcake; you can adjust the size of your cone to fit your desired amount of filling. Do not cut all the way to the bottom of the cupcake.

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Spoon about 1 tablespoon of apple pie filling into each cone-well, allowing it to “heap” over the top of the cupcake a bit.

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Transfer the frosting to a pastry bag fitted with a large round decorating tip. (Otherwise, you can scoop it onto the cupcake with an ice cream scoop or spread it with an offset spatula.) Pipe a large mound or spiral over the apple filling. Lightly sprinkle with cinnamon-sugar. Gently press an apple crisp onto the frosting to adhere.

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The cupcakes can be stored in the refrigerator in an airtight container for up to 3 days. Any extra apple crisps can be stored in an airtight container at room temperature for a couple of days– they make a great healthy snack!

NOTE: If you want to make these without alcohol, you can substitute 2 tablespoons buttermilk for the applejack brandy in the cupcake batter and 1-2 tablespoons heavy cream for the applejack in the frosting. Simply omit the brandy from the apple pie filling.

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© Dafna Adler & Stellina Sweets, 2014.

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