I used to think fusion was just the easy way to add buzz to a menu – and it often is. But east-meets-west is the core of my identity and heritage, and I find myself experimenting with this theme in cooking more and more. Asian Americans often talk about the awkwardness of being stuck halfway between two cultures, inauthentic representatives of both. Fusion cuisine fully embraces this limbo, developing a new space ripe with unexpected harmonies and clashes. Can we really call America a cultural “melting pot” without implicitly praising fusion food through the analogy? And consider this: the popular theory that Marco Polo brought the concept of pasta from China to Italy would make half of iconic Italian cuisine technically an ancient form of Chinese-Italian fusion. Native Americans showed English settlers how to plant corn, and there’s nothing more Southern than cornbread. Spam is a common ingredient in many Korean dishes, brought in by the US army during the Korean War.
In any case, I can’t claim that this is what actively goes through my head when I’m haphazardly throwing things together in my Dexter’s Lab of a kitchen, but it’s definitely … shall we say, on the back burner?
Regardless of whether these cupcakes say anything about identity or culture, they’ve officially converted me from leavening cakes with creamed butter/sugar and chemical agents to leavening with yeast. I’m committing to this brioche-like batter as my default base for every flavor combination imaginable! These were inspired by bienenstich, or German "bee sting cakes", which are rich soft brioche cakes filled with pastry cream or vanilla pudding, topped with a honey-based caramel and sliced almonds. I've had traditional bienenstich before, but always felt like they could have more dimension beyond their simple sweetness. Salted caramel could've done the trick, but miso caramel delivers an edge of umami that lingers after every bite. In my adaptation I also swapped out almonds for flaked coconut, which pairs much better with miso.
The base texture here is more sponge cake-like than an actual brioche, but you don’t have to deal with the hassle of whipping egg whites to peaks. And compared to a classic cupcake, there's very little butter and sugar, so the true flavor that stands out is pure unmasked vanilla, supported by a round eggyness and a playful kiss of sweetness. I used to love decadence in desserts - and I still do, there's a time and place for everything - but lately I've been more inspired by the sugar that teases the palate rather than bombarding it. The coconut and miso caramel partially sink into the brioche but mostly stay on top, crisp and a little chewy against the springy pillowy cake. This thin glaze of crust is unquestionably the focal point of the dessert, so I would advise using good quality honey if attempting this recipe.
If one bite doesn’t convince you of the merits of fusion… nothing will.
Miso Caramel Coconut Brioche Cupakes Recipe (makes 8)
For the dough:
- 1/3 cup whole milk
- 3/4 tsp yeast
- 1 cup flour
- 2 tbsp sugar
- 1 tbsp softened butter at room temperature (don't melt it), plus more for greasing pan
- 1 tbsp full-fat plain Greek yogurt
- 1/2 tsp vanilla
- 1 egg
For the miso caramel coconut topping:
- 1/2 cup honey
- 1/3 cup heavy cream
- 2 tsp mild/white miso paste
- 1 oz of coconut flakes
Prep: Line the bottom of 8 cavities of a 12 cupcake pan with parchment circles. Butter the sides of each cavity.
Make the dough: Heat milk in microwave to 100-110 degrees, until just warm to the touch. Stir in the yeast and let rest until foamy, around 10 minutes. Meanwhile, mix the remaining dough ingredients in a mixing bowl. Add the yeast solution when it's finished proofing and stir well to combine. Set aside to rise in a warm place for 1 hour, or until doubled in size.
Make the miso caramel while you wait: add honey and cream to a high-side saucepan over high heat. This mixture will begin to bubble like crazy; swirl and keep on heat until the mixture reaches 240 degrees. Remove from heat and immediately stir in the miso paste. When well combined, add in the coconut flakes. Let this cool completely before using - it will harden but this will make it easier to work with. It also will ensure you don't kill the yeast in the dough.
Second rise: Punch down the dough and mix thoroughly, removing all air bubbles. Divide evenly among 8 cupcake cavities. Let rise for another 30 minutes, until the dough has doubled in size again.
Assemble: Preheat oven to 350 degrees. When the rise is finished, scoop out coconut caramel mixture and spread thin disks of it across the top of each cupcake. I found it easiest to use my hands, which would slightly soften the caramel and allow me to shape it into a flat topping.
Bake: Bake at 350 degrees for 14-17 minutes, or until a toothpick comes out batter-free. Some of the caramel will likely spread across the cupcake tin as it melts and as the cupcakes rise; when done baking, you can push the coconut and caramel back into place and it will cool and harden back into the full crust.