Graduate Cupcake Wars

On December 2, 2013 by Grad Forum

Cupcake War winners Lianna Cohen, Megan Martinez, and Molly McQuilken.

The Graduate Studies Office and the Graduate Student Council co-hosted a cupcake competition on November 14 based on the popular Food Network show, “Cupcake Wars.” This event was the second annual Graduate Cupcake Wars—the first Cupcake Wars was organized by last year’s Graduate Studies Activities Coordinator Dan Durcan. This year GSC President Lisa Jackson planned the event.

Nine contestants brought their cupcakes to Collis Common Ground for the event. A small committee of judges consisting of Graduate Studies Dean Jon Kull, Graduate Studies Web Editor Liz Molina-Markham, and MALS alum Wes Whitaker ranked the cupcakes based on both taste and presentation. Megan Martinez’s tiramisu cupcake won first place, Lianna Cohen’s salted caramel cupcake won second place, and Molly McQuilken’s chicken waffle cupcake was selected by those in attendance as the crowd favorite.

Martinez is a graduate student in math focusing on enumerative combinatorics. She wanted to enter the competition last year, she said, but due to some confusion over the date, she baked her cupcakes on the wrong day. Her cupcakes did not go to waste, however. “Everyone in the math department enjoyed them,” she laughed. This year, Martinez carefully selected the marsala wine and delicious mascarpone cheese for her recipe. Her father taught her to cook as a child, and years of practice paid off with a first place win and a $50 gift certificate to Canoe Club.

Cohen is a graduate student at The Dartmouth Institute (TDI) studying towards a Master of Public Health degree. She hopes to enroll in a doctoral program in healthcare leadership in the future. Cohen saw the event advertised via Facebook and decided to attend as a spectator, but later elected to enter as a baking competitor. Cohen has baking in her background and at the age of sixteen was baking éclairs, mille-feuille, and multilayer cakes. “I like the process [of baking],” she stated. “I like doing things with my hands. It’s like biochem, basically: you follow a recipe, but then you get to eat it.” Cohen’s salted caramel cupcake won second place, and a $25 gift certificate to King Arthur Flour.

McQuilken is a second year graduate student studying molecular and cellular biology, and a second time entrant in the Cupcake Wars. Although she did not place last year, she was pleased to win crowd favorite on Thursday. She said that she learned from her experience last year that “if you bring full size [cupcakes] and have to cut them, it’s a big mess.” Striving for originality, McQuilken found a chicken waffle cupcake recipe on Pinterest and decided to give it a try. She brought 60 miniature cupcakes that ran out in the first half hour of the event! McQuilken took home a $15 gift certificate to Dirt Cowboy Café for her efforts.

All three winners were kind enough to share their recipes, which can be found below. All in all, it was a really enjoyable event for the second year in a row, and attracted a large number of attendees yet again. Everyone loves cupcakes!


Tiramisu Cupcakes

Chicken Waffle Cupcakes

Salted Caramel Cupcakes:

1. Make Salted Caramel Sauce


  • 2 cups granulated sugar
  • 12 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature, cut into pieces
  • 1 cup heavy cream, at room temperature
  • 1 tablespoon fleur de sel (or any other flaky sea salt)


  • Add the sugar in an even layer over the bottom of a heavy saucepan, with a capacity of at least 2 or 3 quarts. Heat the sugar over medium-high heat, whisking it as it begins to melt. You’ll see that the sugar will begin to form clumps, but that’s okay. Just keep whisking and as it continues to cook, they will melt back down. Stop whisking once all of the sugar has melted, and swirl the pan occasionally while the sugar cooks.
  • Continue cooking until the sugar has reached a deep amber color. It should look almost a reddish-brown, and have a slight toasted aroma. This is the point where caramel can go from perfect to burnt in a matter of seconds, so keep a close eye. If you are using an instant-read thermometer, cook the sugar until it reaches 350 degrees F.
  • As soon as the caramel reaches 350 degrees, add the butter all at once. Be careful, as the caramel will bubble up when the butter is added. Whisk the butter into the caramel until it is completely melted.
  • Remove the pan from the heat and slowly pour the cream into the caramel. Again, be careful because the mixture will once again bubble up ferociously. Whisk until all of the cream has been incorporated and you have a smooth sauce. Add the fleur de sel and whisk to incorporate.
  • Set the sauce aside to cool for 10 to 15 minutes and then pour into your favorite glass jar and let cool to room temperature. You can refrigerate the sauce for up to 2 weeks. You’ll want to warm the sauce up before using.

2. Bake Chocolate Cupcakes


  • 3 ounces bittersweet chocolate, finely chopped
  • ⅓ cup Dutch-processed cocoa powder
  • ¾ cup hot coffee
  • ¾ cup bread flour
  • ¾ cup granulated sugar
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • ½ teaspoon baking soda
  • 6 tablespoons vegetable oil
  • 2 eggs
  • 2 teaspoons white vinegar
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract


  • Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Line a standard-size muffin pan with liners. Place the chopped chocolate and cocoa powder in a medium bowl. Pour the hot coffee over the mixture and whisk until smooth. Refrigerate mixture for 20 minutes.
  • Meanwhile, whisk together the flour, sugar, salt and baking soda in a medium bowl; set aside.
  • Whisk the oil, eggs, vinegar and vanilla extract into the cooled chocolate mixture until smooth. Add the flour mixture and whisk until smooth.
  • Divide the batter evenly between the muffin pan cups. Place one slightly rounded teaspoon of ganache filling on top of each cupcake. Bake until the cupcakes are set and just firm to the touch, 17 to 19 minutes.
  • Cool the cupcakes in the pan on a wire rack for 10 minutes, then remove the cupcakes from the pan and place on the wire rack to cool completely, about 1 hour.

3. Make Salted Caramel Frosting


  • 1 cup unsalted butter, at room temperature
  • 8 ounces cream cheese, at room temperature
  • ½ cup salted caramel sauce
  • 4 cups powdered sugar


  • Beat together the butter and cream cheese on medium-high speed for 5 minutes (I like to use the whisk attachment for my KitchenAid stand mixer, but it’s not necessary).
  • Pour in the salted caramel and beat until combined.
  • Reduce the speed to medium-low and slowly add the powdered sugar, a little at a time, until it has all been incorporated.
  • Increase the speed to medium-high and beat for an additional two to three minutes, until light and fluffy.

4. Assemble Cupcakes

  • Using a pastry bag or plastic snack bag, pipe the frosting (chilled) onto the cupcakes.
  • Drizzle with slightly warm salted caramel sauce.
  • Decorate with chocolate shavings and/or fleur de sel (optional)
  • Enjoy!


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