Spice Cupcakes with Brown Sugar Icing


When we managed to light all the drippy birthday candles on almost two dozen of these, we sang: happy birthday dear MomandAnneandBenandRoryandHugo! Happy birthday to yooouuuuuu! Between our immediate family, marrieds and offspring, January has become almost as celebratory a month as December.

My mom and sister share the same birthday, and sometime longer ago than I can remember it was decided that spice cake with penuche icing would be their birthday cake. None of the rest of us have a particular cake we must have from year to year, and to be honest I don’t even know if a spice cake could be called their favourite kind of cake anymore, but it gets rolled out annually without question. Usually it comes in layers, with money in between, but I thought we’d streamline things this year, as they’d be served at the second birthday party of the day, with 5 boys 8 and under in the house.

At Party 1, Ben’s 8th, we had a grilled cheese bar (just marble cheddar, white and grainy bread and ketchup, but can you imagine a grilled cheese free-for-all with caramelized onion, crispy bacon, sundried tomatoes, pesto, different cheeses and interesting breads? I can suddenly not wait for my next birthday) and a lemon sheet cake decorated like a hockey rink, complete with strategically placed gummi bears. (Which, my sister calculated, was her 40th homemade birthday cake, when you count the birthdays of all three of her kids. How does one celebrate that? With a cake?) At dinner we ordered Indian/Pakistani food from Mirchi, which was spicy but delicious, and a good price – 8 grown ups and 5 kids ate for under $100.

And the cupcakes. I’m not sure what the technical difference is, but when I think of frosting it’s more of a billowy, Martha-esque cake topping, whereas icing is the more dense, sweet stuff we had on our childhood birthday cakes and cookies and licked off beaters. Penuche is a brown sugar icing that’s traditionally cooked, a method that opens the door to the possibility of overcooking it into a sort of a fudge that while delicious, can easily rip the top off a delicate cupcake as you try to spread it. This time, I dissolved the brown sugar into water, making a sort of syrup which I added to the butter-icing sugar mixture as I beat it, and it worked just fine. I’d venture to call it a foolproof penuche.

Or you could just call it brown sugar icing. I confess: I didn’t measure the icing sugar, but dumped in the bottom half of the bag. I’d guess it was about 3 cups, but use your judgment – you may need more or less to make it spreadable.


Spice Cupcakes with Brown Sugar Icing

Recipe link


January 22, 2011

  • Makes: Makes about 20 cupcakes.


2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour

2 tsp. baking powder

2 tsp. cinnamon

1 tsp. ground ginger

1/4 tsp. nutmeg and/or allspice

1/4 tsp. salt

1/4 cup butter, softened

1/3 cup canola or mild vegetable oil

1 1/4 cups packed brown sugar

3 large eggs

1 tsp. vanilla

1 1/4 cups milk

Brown sugar icing:

1 cup packed brown sugar

1/2 cup water

1 tsp. vanilla (optional)

1/3 cup butter, softened

3 cups (ish) icing sugar


1Preheat the oven to 350°F.

2In a medium bowl, stir together the flour, baking powder, spices, and salt. In a larger bowl, beat the butter, oil and sugar until light and fluffy. Beat in the eggs and vanilla.

3Add about 1/3 of the flour mixture to the butter mixture and stir it in by hand or with the electric mixer on low speed, just until it’s combined. Add about half the milk in the same manner, then another third of the flour, the rest of the milk, and the rest of the flour, mixing just until the batter is blended.

4Divide the batter between paper-lined muffin tins and bake for 25 minutes, or until the tops are springy to the touch. Let them cool tipped in their cups to allow steam to escape. Let cool completely before frosting.

5To make the frosting, In a small bowl or pot, stir together the brown sugar, water and vanilla. If you like, heat to a simmer to dissolve the sugar, or let it sit for a bit, stirring occasionally until the sugar is more or less dissolved. (It doesn't much matter if there's still some graininess in the bottom.) In a medium bowl, beat the butter until creamy; add the icing sugar and about 3/4 of the brown sugar syrup and beat until smooth. Add more sugar or syrup as needed until you have a soft, spreadable icing.

Makes: Makes about 20 cupcakes.

About Julie

22 comments on “Spice Cupcakes with Brown Sugar Icing

  1. Erica B.
    January 22, 2011 at 10:33 pm

    Wow Happy Birthday Everyone!

    I think you celebrate 40+ original homemade birthday cakes with your favorite drink. A++ for A! 😀 I’ve only been doing the kids cakes from scratch the last few years(after having a look at Cakeworks’ ingredients list( http://www.eatcake.ca/flavours/ingredients.html )) so I’ll have to wait to celebrate my 40th.

  2. Amanda
    January 22, 2011 at 11:25 pm

    Oh wow oh wow. Those look so good! And a nice change from the chocolate, vanilla, caramel, peanut butter monstrosities so popular at this time of year. Mmm.

  3. Lisa
    January 23, 2011 at 12:43 am

    Whatever you call it, that frosting/icing looks so good. I’d love a spoon and a bowlful of it. Those cupcakes also sound so warm with all those spices. I have a new linky on my blog called “Sweets for a Saturday” and I’d like to invite you to stop by and link this up. http://sweet-as-sugar-cookies.blogspot.com/2011/01/sweets-for-saturday-1_21.html

  4. Kris
    January 23, 2011 at 8:09 am

    These sound yummy! Just curious how sweet the icing is? I made my son’s birthday cake & icing last week. The icing recipe I used was so sweet, none of us could even eat it…mind you the recipe used 6 cups of icing suger!
    We are definitely more of a light & fluffy icing family as opposed to the sweet & thick.

  5. Carolyn B
    January 23, 2011 at 8:49 am

    My favorite frosting (fluffy and billowy) is sea foam frosting which is the marshmallowy frosting in OSC but made with brown sugar. It’s a tad less guilty with no added fat!

  6. JulieVR
    January 23, 2011 at 10:26 am

    Yes, I love that marshmallowy frosting – I’ve posted it here a few times on various birthday cakes and cupcakes. The thing is the sweet stuff tends to be not quite as thick, or as buttery – this is almost like a thin fudge. Not sickeningly sweet, I think – but that’s a matter of taste!

  7. Kris
    January 23, 2011 at 10:29 am

    mmm sounds good Julie…I think I will try these

  8. Colleen
    January 23, 2011 at 3:45 pm

    Hi Julie,

    My husband just baked your yummy chocolate cupcakes (for my birthday) that he made with my 2 1/2 year old son. The cupcakes are delicious and he is just waiting for my son to wake up so they can ice them. Can’t wait to enjoy them in front of the fire.

  9. Sharlene
    January 23, 2011 at 4:34 pm

    This brown sugar icing is different from any others I’ve ever tried. Sounds wonderful!

  10. molly
    January 23, 2011 at 9:10 pm

    I need these in my life.

  11. sara
    January 23, 2011 at 9:53 pm

    Yum, these look fantastic! :)

  12. Jan (Family Bites)
    January 24, 2011 at 6:16 am

    Julie, your family sounds like ours! We have birthdays on the 4th, 15th, 22nd, 24th x 2, 26th, 28th x 2, 31st AND my sister is being induced to have a baby this week.

  13. JulieVR
    January 24, 2011 at 7:58 am

    Jan – that is crazy!! You win!

  14. Victoria
    January 24, 2011 at 1:19 pm

    I made these today, they turned out absolutely perfect and taste delicious! I heated the brown sugar and water mixture on low heat to dissolve the sugar, and then let it cool completely before added to my butter and icing sugar. I also didn’t add 3 cups of icing sugar, probably only 2ish. Wonderful! Thanks for another great recipe!

  15. Nancy
    January 24, 2011 at 7:01 pm

    Two of our four children decided on spice cake with penuche icing some 30 years ago. I still make it for them! Betty C., Dunc, and Pillsb, move over! I’m going to try this “from scratch” cake next time!

    Oh, the problem with the icing getting overcooked and getting fudge-like is NOT a problem. We just eat it as fudge and I make some more for the cake :)

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