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Cracker Jack Cupcakes
Cake:
1/2 cup (1 stick) butter
1 cup water
1/2 cup creamy peanut butter
1/2 cup canola oil
2 cups all purpose flour
2 large eggs
2 cups sugar
1/2 cup milk
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 cup roasted peanuts
Frosting:
1/4 cup granulated sugar
2 tablespoons water
1/4 cup heavy cream
1 teaspoon vanilla
3/4 cup (1.5 sticks) salted butter, softened
2 cups powdered sugar
Cracker Jacks, for garnish
For the cake: Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line cupcake tin with paper liners. In a large saucepan, combine butter, water, peanut butter and oil; bring to a boil, stirring constantly. Remove from heat; cool. Add remaining cake ingredients. Mix until well blended. Fill liners about 2/3 with batter. Bake 15 to 20 minutes or until toothpick inserted near center comes out clean. Cool.
For the frosting: Briefly stir together granulated sugar and water in a small saucepan and bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Continue cooking, without stirring, until mixture turns dark amber in color, about 6 to 7 minutes.
Remove from heat and slowly add in cream and vanilla (just start with a tablespoon or two), stirring with a wooden spoon until completely smooth. (Be careful, as the mixture will definitely bubble up and possibly splatter a bit as you add in the cream.) Set aside until cool to the touch, about 25 minutes.
Beat the butter in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment on medium-high speed until light in color and fluffy, about 3 minutes. Reduce speed to low, add powdered sugar and mix until completely incorporated. Turn off the mixer, and add caramel. Beat frosting on low to combine, and then increase to medium-high and beat until airy and thoroughly mixed, about 2 minutes. Fill piping bag with frosting, and ice the cupcakes. Garnish with Cracker Jacks.
– Adapted from Jif, GimmeSomeOven.com
Illustration by Laura J. Gardner | The Journal Gaz

Chapter 1

For Mirabelle Graham, it wasn't blood and oxygen that kept her alive. It was the sugar coursing through her veins and the sweet aroma of cupcakes filling her lungs that sustained her.

The 26-year-old had always loved sweets – even before she could figure out her Easy Bake Oven – so it was only natural that she would open up her very own shop filled with tasty confections.

In the month since Queen Pin opened on South Calhoun Street in the heart of downtown, the bakery had become a popular spot to get a sweet tooth fix. Businesses ordered cupcakes for meetings; workers stopped in after lunch for a dessert to enjoy at their desk; and the late-night crowd found a place to wind down before going home. And when the TinCaps played, fans were making a new tradition to celebrate wins (and commiserate losses) over a cupcake or brownie sundae.

Mirabelle was standing in the kitchen, her fuchsia chef's coat a stark contrast to the white marble counters, getting a start on the evening's TinCaps feature: Cracker Jack cupcakes. The Peanut Butter Crunch cupcakes were topped with salted caramel icing and a garnish of homemade caramel corn and screamed baseball. To Mirabelle, at least.

She moved in a carefully choreographed dance around the kitchen, adding peanut butter and butter to a pan for the cupcake; tossing peanuts onto a sheet pan to roast; stirring the batter just enough to bring it together but not make it tough. Mirabelle hummed along to the song of eggs cracking and measuring spoons clinking and the sound of the batter plopping into the paper-lined pan.

Mirabelle put the pan in the oven, set the timer and pushed through the kitchen's stainless steel doors into the bakery.

She flipped her long, dark hair – secured in a braid – so that it rested on her shoulder and tried to brush off the flour that dusted her chef's jacket. She barely had a moment to glance up when she heard a familiar voice.

"There you are!" April exclaimed with her usual high-pitched exuberance. "I was just about to come back there and pull you out. You have to see this!"

April extended her long, thin arm across the display case and guided Mirabelle around it, to the front of Queen Pin. April pulled her close, tightening the grip on her best friend's hand.

"Look," April said, pointing to the case. "Look!"

"What?" Mirabelle asked. "What am I supposed to see? The case looks … well, empty."

"Exactly," April said. "Exactly! The piña colada cupcakes – gone. The Boston cream whoopie pies – gone. Snickerdoodle cupcakes, there's just one of those. You're the queen, my dear."

Mirabelle let go of April's hand and sat down in one of the wire mesh chairs surrounding the round, clear acrylic tables in the dining area of the bakery. She fussed with the bright pink zinnias in the middle of the table. The walls were covered in white beadboard and topped with a robin's egg blue paint. Black-and-white photos of Paris hung like a gallery, each taken by Mirabelle in her year studying buttercream and mousse, chocolate and caramel, croissants and desserts.

But as Mirabelle's eyes moved from photo to photo, she became fixed on one thing: the clock. It was 5 p.m., and she had just two hours before the first pitch at Parkview Field. She wanted to have the case filled with Cracker Jack cupcakes by then.

Mirabelle pushed herself off the chair and straightened her chef's jacket.

"All right, team. We have corn to pop and caramel to salt. Let's go! Let's go! Let's go!" Mirabelle exclaimed in a fake coach's voice, running up behind April and scooting her toward the stainless steel doors.

April let out a squeal of laughter, and the two ran into the kitchen. The air was filled with the smell of peanut butter crunch cupcakes and Mirabelle, by instinct, knew they were done. She swiftly pulled them out of the oven to cool on the marble counter.

The two women quickly got to work – April making homemade caramel corn and Mirabelle whipping up the caramel buttercream. The two laughed and joked as only friends from kindergarten can do as they worked while the hands on the clock seemed to circle like the spinner on a Twister game.

In what seemed like 5 minutes, they were bringing out tray after tray of fan-favorite cupcakes for the bakery case. The last in the lineup was the Cracker Jack cupcakes.

Mirabelle dusted off her hands as she stood in front of the case, making sure everything was lined up just so.

"April, why is there a cupcake missing from the top row?" Mirabelle asked, raising her eyebrow.

April twisted around, wiping her lips, and batted the red eyelashes that surrounded her emerald eyes.

"I have no idea what you are talking about," she said, giggling.

"You don't?" Mirabelle replied with a smirk.

"Nope. I just know that everyone is going to storm the bakery for those cupcakes. OMG."

But the only Cracker Jack cupcake eaten that night was the one April sampled. Not one TinCaps fan walked through the door of Queen Pin. Not even Finn, who told her earlier in the day that he'd be by to try her latest creation.

This was not good. Not good at all.

kdupps@jg.net

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