Monday, March 24, 2014

Pumpkin spice latte cupcakes

Condensed nonfat milk, sugar, high fructose corn syrup, annatto (a coloring agent), natural and artificial flavor, caramel color, salt, potassium sorbate (a preservative).

Brewed fresh with the blood of angry vegans. source

Didn’t recognize those ingredients? Not surprised. Those are the mysterious components of a pumpkin spice syrup sold by Starbucks, the maker of the legendary Pumpkin Spice Latte. Who knows what spices and synthetic chemicals and cocaine extracts fall under the category of “natural and artificial flavors”? What could possibly explain the lack of pumpkin and the presence of “annatto”, an inexpensive, saffron-esque food coloring agent derived from the seeds of the annatto tree, not to mention the enigmatic “caramel color” found on so many food labels?

Well, the question of pumpkin’s absence is an easy one. Anyone who has tried plain pumpkin puree—whether fresh or canned—will know that unaccompanied, the stuff is fucking nasty. It begs to be roasted with olive oil and rosemary, at the very least, or perhaps stirred into a curry. But pumpkins true claim to fame can be found around Thanksgiving and Christmas, when grandmothers and teenage rebels everywhere hit the kitchens to whip up their goddamn definitive pumpkin pie recipes, either dumped from a can into a Pillsbury crust or cooked slowly, from scratch, with the tender care of a pastry chef. Despite pumpkin’s reputation as a pie stable, there is literally no natural sweetness present in the fruit—two measly grams of sugar per cup—so one must dump gallons of sugar into the pie along with butter and eggs and other such things in order for the dessert to be even remotely palatable.

Yet, by far, the most important component of a delicious pumpkin pie is the spice. 

It grows on pumpkin pie trees. source

Cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves, along with a bit of allspice, sometimes ginger and even cardamom. It all depends on your personal tastes; I like a bit more ginger and no cardamom, while others might want to bring out some chai flavors with more cardamom and nutmeg. Without spices, pumpkin pie is nothing. One might even be able to create a pumpkin pie without pumpkin itself, as done in the famous chemical apple pie (an “apple pie” made without those pesky apples, so as to bring out the sweetness and, of course, the luscious spices). The pumpkin is merely a texture, a base, in the flavorful custard.

So why would Starbucks waste their time incorporating a flavorless ingredient only necessary for its texture into a syrup that is meant to be drunk?

Indeed. Fuck pumpkin, just put some food coloring in there and be done with it. Next question.

The question of “natural and artificial flavors” is an interesting one. Scientific American stated (in a 2002 article) that the official definition of “natural flavors” from the Code of Federal Regulations includes the following line: “a natural flavor is the essential oil, oleoresin, essence or extractive, protein hydrolysate, distillate, or any product of roasting, heating or enzymolysis, which contains the flavoring constituents derived from a spice, fruit or fruit juice, vegetable or vegetable juice, edible yeast, herb, bark, bud, root, leaf or similar plant material, meat, seafood, poultry, eggs, dairy products, or fermentation products thereof, whose significant function in food is flavoring rather than nutritional.” An artificial flavor is one that does not fit that pretty broad definition, and is made up of synthetic chemicals. Artificial flavors aren’t necessarily dangerous cancer-causing, havoc-wreaking time bombs, but they can be pretty gross (I’m not going to link to any articles here, so as to not spoil your appetite). Natural flavors, on the other hand, are more expensive and may only taste better to highly refined palates (i.e. not ordinary food grazers like me), so they aren’t that attractive to large-scale food manufacturers like Starbucks. So I wouldn’t be surprised if they skimp on the cloves and go for beaver—

Ahem. source

Point being (TL;DR) that Starbucks doesn’t even have to put real spices in their white girl crack syrup, much less actual pumpkin. Goddamn penny-pinching corporations.

If so much of the pumpkin spice latte is synthetic, then what is the essence of the PSL? 

I was challenged by this question a few days ago when I decided that, to celebrate the work my brother’s orchestra-mates had done on the high school play, a few platefuls of cupcakes were in order. “Pumpkin spice latte” was the first thing that came to my mind when I considered what might be the most appealing flavor to a bunch of (mostly female) high schoolers. 


But how to represent it in a cupcake?

Well, I’m no strict vegan—I’ve had a few pumpkin spice-flavored coffee sugarfests in my time. Sweetness is the first and last flavor in the drink, as evidenced by the two types of sugar listed in the ingredients, and the spices are mostly background notes. There is absolutely no coffee flavor.

Okay. Maybe a little bit. But it’s hard to tell under that shit ton of sugar.

So, what flavor is so overpoweringly sweet that it’s near-impossible to taste anything beyond it? White chocolate, my friend. White chocolate. 


As it happened, I had some white chocolate on hand, so I chose a white chocolate cake recipe and made miniature cupcakes with a dash of cinnamon.

For frosting, I returned to a caramel chocolate cupcake recipe I had made about a year ago from Brown Eyed Baker, which had produced copious amounts of fluffy, caramel-y frosting. But instead of caramel, I used homemade pumpkin spice syrup and a bit of cream. The pumpkin pie flavor was there, but the warm sweetness—and a little bite from the cream cheese—dominated.

There is no espresso powder or brewed coffee in here. Because nobody really drinks pumpkin spice lattes because they like coffee. 

Don't snark. I took this with my flip phone. #thestruggleisreal

And one last note: the recipe is not vegan, because I don’t think chia seed-studded cupcakes would appeal to a bunch of high schoolers’ sensibilities, nor will my mother buy me soy cream cheese. If you wish to make this recipe vegan, I’m sure you substitute the appropriate ingredients, as this isn’t the world’s fussiest recipe nor does it call for any odd ingredients (like beaten egg whites, which cannot be substituted).

But get this—there’s real pumpkin in the syrup.


Pumpkin Spice Latte Cupcakes

Makes about 72 miniature cupcakes

White chocolate cake (from Baking Bites)


214 grams ● all-purpose flour ● 2 ¼ cups

7 grams ● baking powder ● 1 ½ teaspoons

4.5 grams ● salt ● ¾ teaspoons

113 grams ● butter ● ½ cup

225 grams ● granulated sugar ● 1 cup plus 2 tablespoons

150 grams ● egg (or other egg substitute, such as chia seeds) ● 3 large

170 grams ● white chocolate, chopped ● 6 ounces

6 grams ● vanilla extract ● 1 ½ teaspoons

389 grams ● milk (any type) ● 1 ½ cups plus 1 tablespoon

6 grams ● cinnamon ● 2 teaspoons


Head over to Baking Bites’ website to get full directions. If you want to make miniature cupcakes, use a miniature muffin tin and bake the cupcakes for about 12 to 13 minutes and then begin checking them for doneness. Let cupcakes cool to room temperature before icing them. I usually cheat and use the freezer for that step.

Pumpkin spice syrup (from The Messy Baker)


177 grams ● water ● ¾ cups

81 grams ● brown sugar ● ¼ cup plus 2 tablespoons

100 grams ● granulated sugar ● ½ cup

3 grams ● cinnamon ● 1 teaspoon

1 gram ● ginger, cloves, and nutmeg (each) ● ¼ teaspoon

10 grams ● pumpkin puree ● 2 tablespoons

3 grams ● vanilla extract ● ½ teaspoon


Once again, I’m sending you to another blog—this time The Messy Baker—to get the directions. The only difference is that the recipe is halved, so you won’t have five gallons of syrup leftover. Not that that would be a bad thing…

Also, if you would like, try letting the syrup boil down on the stove for a bit to see if that would concentrate the flavor. In retrospect I probably should have done so, since the frosting’s flavor was somewhat weak, but it’s not necessary for a delicious cupcake.

And once again, let cool to room temperature before using, but chilled is best.

Pumpkin spiced frosting (from Brown Eyed Baker)

226 grams ● butter, softened and at room temperature ● 1 cup

227 grams ● cream cheese, softened and at room temperature ● 8 ounces or one package

80 grams ● pumpkin spice syrup (from above recipe) ● ¼ cup

30 grams ● half and half, heavy cream, or other high fat milk ● 2 tablespoons

460 grams ● powdered sugar ● 4 cups


One more time…still riding on the backs of giants here, so click over to Brown Eyed Baker. Try to ignore the sexy salted caramel cupcakes. Fail. Make them once. Then return to this recipe and finish. You know you want to.

Just make sure you remember to substitute pumpkin spice syrup for caramel and add a little bit of cream. 

The cream is optional, by the way, but I found it helped the consistency a bit.

To assemble


Cooled white chocolate cupcakes

Pumpkin spiced frosting


Chill both the frosting and cupcakes. Once cold, pipe frosting onto cupcakes. Sprinkle with anything from sea salt to cinnamon to more pumpkin spice syrup. Or sprinkles. Go hog wild, I don’t really care. Remember to eat at the end.

And now, in case you forgot how horrible my food photography is, a picture:

God I love those "Artistic Effects" presets on PowerPoint.

All wrapped up and ready to go. Such adorbs. So tiny. Wow.

There may be a few missing from this photograph, for reasons unknown. You wouldn't know, would you?


  1. Mmm, sounds good! I usually make a pumpkin quick bread with a maple butter icing in the misguided hope that 'quick bread' is healthier than cupcakes (ha)!! But I may have to try this - can the homemade pumpkin syrup be used in coffee to make a homemade 'almost' pumpkin spice latte? Would it be good drizzled over ice cream? How about added to a buttercream for a pumpkin spice frosting?

    Damn, I'm hungry. Must go get another coffee (plain :( and a piece of toast :( And think about doing some baking this afternoon :)

    1. Oh yes, you can definitely make a kick ass PSL with the syrup (I've tried it already). Bet it would be good with vanilla ice cream too. Happy baking! :)