Easy homemade chocolate birthday cupcakes, topped with fudgy chocolate buttercream frosting and rainbow sprinkles. Simple, moist, and flavorful – and so much better than box mix!
Oh, hey there! It’s been a while.
I never intended to take this much time away from the blog, but life got really complicated after he was born, and I’m only now starting to feel like a normal human again. So I made some chocolate birthday cupcakes to celebrate! Well, half birthday cupcakes.
Half birthdays are a family tradition. Growing up (at least in the early years), my parents always planned a tiny celebration for our half birthdays. I think they felt sorry for their December baby, with birthdays often overshadowed by Christmas.
Henry may not be eating solids quite yet, but I rarely need an excuse to make chocolate cupcakes, and it feels right to mark this milestone with fanfare, because I can’t believe that half a year has already passed with this sweet little human of mine.
We’ve got a lot to celebrate, and a lot to catch up on.
(The details of my absence are long winded, so if you’re interested, grab a cup of something cozy, and settle in. Or, at the end of this wordy, very personal story is a great chocolate birthday cupcake recipe – I won’t be offended if you scroll on past it to get to the chocolate.)
Around this time last year, my husband had just returned home from a two month deployment. A day later we were moving into our new home, the renovations still in progress. It would be another month before we had a working kitchen or flooring downstairs.
Somewhere in there, just as I was starting to really show, we found out that he’d be deploying again over the Summer, a couple months before my due date. This time for six months.
Even without pregnancy hormones, that news would make for a very bad day, and I was devastated. It felt like what should have been a really special time – spending time together as a couple again, and preparing for our first baby – had been stolen from me. There were some tears – that erupted over completely unrelated things – but the Army wasn’t going to change its mind no matter the size of my pity party, and we had to figure out what to do. We rushed to book childbirth classes and choose a crib and a car seat before he left.
It made sense for me to pack up and head down to California to stay with my parents for the month before my due date, in case the baby came early. We don’t have any family up here, so that way at least I wouldn’t be completely alone, driving myself or taking a cab to the hospital while in labor. There wasn’t a lot of time for nesting, but I did my best to channel all those emotions and feelings of loss into getting the house ready before I left.
Henry was born in early September, a healthy eight pound, noisy, hungry, snuggly little boy – and thankfully a week late (I think my anxiety over having him early kept him locked in there tight!).
His Daddy made it home for his birth, and spent nine and a half days with us before returning overseas, which was “lucky” by military standards. Some guys don’t meet their kids until months after they’re born.
I stayed down in California until early October, and then it was just the two of us. And when I really began to learn what sleep deprivation felt like.
Around this time, I started to notice that Henry seemed to be having more digestive problems and tummy pain than the average newborn. I’ll spare you all of the gory details, but the short version involves regular diarrhea, sometimes with blood, and stomach pains and gas so severe it would wake the poor little guy up.
At first, the casual recommendation from his pediatrician was for me to eliminate cow’s milk and soy, as it’s reasonably common for babies to be allergic to dairy passing through breast milk, and this can cause these sorts of symptoms.
Most babies who have severe digestive issues also have trouble gaining weight, and often fall into the “failure to thrive” category. Henry however, who’s never passed up a chance to eat, was consistently in the 98th percentile for weight, hitting all of his benchmarks, and in every other way, a very healthy, happy baby.
Because of this, for the first month or so, the doctors didn’t take me very seriously, and the general advice was not to worry about it too much. But he continued to have bloody diarrhea just about every day, and despite being a first time mom, and doubting myself often, I intuitively knew this couldn’t be normal, and kept pushing for answers.
At this point, I hadn’t had any milk or soy for over a month, so I was confident there was something bigger than a milk protein allergy going on. They finally ordered a stool culture, which came back positive for a very unusual stomach infection, surprising even the doctors, who couldn’t figure out how he would have contracted it.
Within a day or two of starting antibiotics, Henry was doing so much better, and I breathed a huge sigh of relief, for both of us. I was still a sleepless, (temporarily) single mom, but my little one was healthy again!
Then two weeks later, his symptoms returned. Only this time, the culture came back completely negative.
We found a pediatric gastroenterologist. The first appointment, the doctor had barely walked in the room when he announced Henry had allergic colitis and if I eliminated the top most common allergens from my diet (dairy, soy, wheat/gluten, eggs, fish/shellfish, tree nuts, and peanuts), he would start feeling better within days.
Only he didn’t.
A couple weeks later, still no change.
Finally, the doctors seemed to recognize that there was indeed a problem, and it was something unusual. We added on a pediatric allergist. And more trips to specialists at the children’s hospital. For most of November and December we were going to 2-3 doctor’s appointments a week, and turning up nothing. Every test we took came back negative. Every awful, invasive procedure that left both of us in tears resulted in normal findings.
Which was good in one sense – only his symptoms were continuing to get worse. Neither of us was sleeping well. I was averaging 3-4 nonconsecutive hours of sleep a day.
I continued to eliminate more possible allergens. Corn, beef, citrus, legumes, and berries.
Then the more unusual stuff, trying to find the mystery culprit. Rice, oats, potatoes, sunflower seeds, chicken, turkey, tomatoes, and chocolate.
We tried switching to a hypoallergenic amino-acid based newborn formula, which made the whole house smell like rancid cat food, and surprise, surprise, Henry couldn’t keep down.
A day or two might pass where I could almost imagine his symptoms were improving, and then my hopes would be dashed and we’d be right back where we were.
Ultimately, I eliminated upwards of twenty different food groups, and was living off mostly lamb, sweet potatoes, dark leafy greens, and as many superfoods (flax, chia, hemp, acai, etc.) I could pack into a daily smoothie. Thank goodness for postnatal vitamins.
Needless to say, I wasn’t doing a lot of cooking, let alone recipe development. My husband had been gone for five months at this point, and the lack of sleep was catching up to me – we were in full on survival mode. All I wanted was for our sweet, otherwise happy little boy to feel better.
By Christmas, we’d exhausted most possibilities of what could be causing Henry’s digestive distress. It wasn’t something structural and it didn’t seem to be an infection. We went to a naturopath, who prescribed stronger probiotics than the over-the-counter ones he’d been taking, along with a host of natural gut healing supplements. And as a last ditch effort, his gastroenterologist prescribed a broad-spectrum antibiotic to eliminate any possible infection that may have eluded the multiple cultures we’d tested over the last couple months.
We’ll probably never know exactly why, but after that, Henry slowly started to get better. The collective medical theory is that the antibiotics for his first infection likely wiped out everything in his gut – good and bad – leaving his tiny little system incredibly inflamed and causing him to develop temporary allergic colitis. That meant his body’s immune system was overreacting to the proteins in foods that normally wouldn’t have caused him any issues, but instead were creating massive irritation to his colon and stomach lining.
His gastroenterologist told me later that my aggressive elimination diet combined with the natural supplements probably staved off Henry developing Crohn’s disease or inflammatory bowel disease, because they allowed his gut to heal. Which made me glad I’d listened to my gut feeling.
After months of awfulness and uncertainty, I finally feel confident saying that we’re out of the woods. My husband came home in late-January after seven months away. Henry is doing so well now, sitting up and rolling over, and babbling all day long, and finally sleeping through the night (which means this Mama is too!).
I’ve been able to add foods back to my diet – slowly, one every week – and so far Henry has been able to tolerate all of the new additions. Our days are tired and messy, but so good.
So you can probably see why this half birthday deserves a celebration. We love this little boy so much, and it was a long road, this earliest part of motherhood, both wonderful and terrible at once. But he’s finally healthy and thriving, and that deserves all the cupcakes.
Now about this recipe:
You must know by now that I’m a chocolate fiend, and these classic chocolate birthday cupcakes check off all my chocolate-y boxes. They’re also a breeze to make, with ordinary ingredients, and come together quickly in one bowl. Perfect for sneaking in some baking during nap time.
These chocolate cupcakes are largely based on the original recipe on the side of the Hershey’s cocoa can. It’s a classic for good reason, but I made a few updates. I love using olive oil in baked goods, especially with chocolate, which I think elevates the flavors of even simple ingredients, and I bumped up the vanilla, and added espresso powder.
You can also use hot coffee in the place of the boiling water, if you’d like a more pronounced coffee/espresso flavor. It’s such a lovely complement to chocolate.
Half the recipe was more than enough for just the hubs and I, but you can easily double this to feed a crowd.
I’ve been back in the kitchen these last few weeks, and have some more goodies lined up (I’m especially loving Winter citrus), so expect to see me more frequently around here again. I’ve missed you!
You don’t even know how much it means to me that you show up and share this space with me. Getting emails and comments while I was away, that you’ve made and loved some of my favorite recipes was a bright spot during a really trying time. I truly appreciate each and every one of you. xo, LauraPrint
Easy Homemade Chocolate Birthday Cupcakes with Chocolate Buttercream Frosting and Rainbow Sprinkles – So much better than box mix!!
for the cupcakes:
1 cup organic cane sugar
3/4 cups + 2 Tbsp all-purpose flour
1/4 cups + 2 Tbsp natural unsweetened cocoa powder, sifted if needed
3/4 tsp baking powder
3/4 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp espresso powder (optional)¹
1/2 tsp fine grain sea salt
1 large egg
1/2 cup whole milk
1/4 cup olive oil
1 tsp pure vanilla extract
1/2 cup boiling water
for the chocolate buttercream frosting:
1/2 cup (1 stick) butter, softened
1/2 cup natural unsweetened cocoa powder, sifted
2 to 2-1/2 cups powdered sugar, sifted
1–2 Tbsp milk, to taste
make the cupcakes:
Preheat the oven to 350. Line your muffin tins with paper liners. Set aside.
In a large mixing bowl, whisk together the sugar, flour, cocoa, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. Add the eggs, milk, oil, and vanilla, and beat on medium speed for two minutes. Stir in the boiling water until combined. The batter will be thin. Divide between the prepared muffin cups, filling each about 2/3 full.
Bake for 22-25 minutes until the cupcakes are gently domed and a cake tester inserted into the center comes out clean. Let cool in the pan for 5 minutes, then transfer to a baking rack to cool completely before frosting and decorating.
make the chocolate buttercream:
Using a stand up mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, or a hand mixer, beat the butter on medium-high speed until light and fluffy, about 2 minutes.
Add the sifted cocoa and powdered sugar, a half cup or so at a time, until the frosting is thick and creamy. Drizzle in the milk until the buttercream frosting reaches your desired consistency. It should be spreadable, but thick enough to hold its shape on the cupcakes.
Spread the frosting on with a knife, or pipe into a decorative design. Top with sprinkles. Enjoy!
¹ The espresso powder can be omitted if baking these for children (there is a tiny, negligible amount of caffeine), but I like to add just a pinch to most chocolate recipes. It won’t add a discernible coffee flavor, but much like vanilla, enhances the natural chocolate flavors of the cake.