Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
Line a standard cupcake pan with 18 cupcake liners. Stir the sugar, flour, cocoa, baking soda, smoked black pepper and salt into a medium-size bowl. Set the bowl aside. In a small bowl, whisk together the water, coffee, oil, and vanilla. Add the wet ingredients to the dry ingredients and whisk until just incorporated. Add the vinegar and incorporate. Do not over mix the batter.
Fill the 18 standard cupcake cups 3/4-full and bake for 19 minutes or until a toothpick inserted into each cupcake comes out clean. Cool the cupcakes completely.
Yield: 2 quarts
In the bowl of a stand mixer, whip shortening and margarine until completely combined. Scrape the bottom of the bowl to ensure that all ingredients are mixed thoroughly. On low speed, slowly add sugar a little at a time. Once the sugar is incorporated, add the vanilla bean seeds, vanilla paste and soymilk and mix on low until the liquids are incorporated. Scrape the bottom of the bowl, and mix on medium-high speed until all ingredients are combined and frosting is fluffy, about 2 minutes. Put the frosting into a pastry bag fitted with a large star tip.
Yield: 2 cups
In a small, heavy-bottomed sauce pan, stir together sugar and water. Cover and bring to a boil. Let boil until mixture starts to turn brown, about 20 minutes. Remove from heat and stir with a whisk. Add creamer and salt and continue stirring. Once bubbling stops, add margarine and whisk until melted and distributed. Let cool completely and pour into a clean squirt bottle
To assemble: Pipe a dollop of Vanilla Bean Frosting on top of each cupcake. Drizzle the top with Caramel Sauce and sprinkle with Smoked Salt to garnish.
Recipe courtesy Sticky Fingers Bakery, Cupcake Wars, 2011
Harold McGee, the author of Keys to Good Cooking, is an expert on the chemistry behind food and cooking. McGee recently made his first trip to China, where he learned more about rice wine.