By Ilysa Miller

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Photo by Ilysa Miller.

Summer break is over. Goodbye to that afternoon nap so many of us took. Sayonara to the late nights that didn’t involve homework and adios to the mornings that were not accompanied by an annoying alarm buzzer. It is now time to welcome back our busy, sleepless, on-the-go routines that we have all come to know (and not so much love) as this new semester begins.

Instead of that 2 p.m. nap, we will now be sluggishly dragging ourselves to the closest coffee shop to fill that time slot with a midday caffeine boost. Despite the endless variations of syrups, coffees and crèmes, sometimes (for me at least), it becomes somewhat repetitive and uninspiring. After a while that cup of coffee becomes part of the routine and that is why, every once in a while, I like to change it up with something a little different that still keep a coffee element.

One of my favorite alternatives to a midday cup of coffee is mocha cupcakes! Though it will not have the same energy kick, its flavor profile does offer a pick me up. The cakes, as well as the buttercream frosting are both reminiscent of great coffeehouse brews.

These light and fluffy cakes are made with ingredients that any coffee lover would be familiar with – milk, sugar, cocoa, vanilla and espresso. Once in the oven, your senses will be awakened by the aromas of your favorite coffeehouse blend. After the cakes are baked and cooled, they are then to be topped with a creamy espresso buttercream frosting.

Similar to a cup of coffee, this recipe is customizable. Whether the cupcakes themselves sound appetizing, or the frosting, both can be changed to cater to your liking. Even to those who are hesitant to baking or on a student budget. So if you don’t have the budget to make cupcakes from scratch, or are intimidated by the idea, you can always use that lonely box of cake mix sitting on your pantry shelf as a base mix.

If you choose to make them this way, you are already halfway done. All that’s left is for you to do is add your liquid ingredients and coffee flavorings. The same goes for the frosting. If you feel uncomfortable making the icing from scratch, then you can use a can of frosting and add small amounts of flavoring to it until it is flavored to your liking.

No matter how you choose to make these cupcakes, by the end you will have a dozen delicious cupcakes of joe to fill that afternoon void in between classes.

Mocha Cupcakes

  • Start to finish: 40 minutes
  • Servings: 12

Cupcake Base

  • 1 1/3 cups of flour
  • 1/3 cup of cocoa powder
  • 1 teaspoon of baking powder
  • ½ teaspoon of baking soda
  • ¼ teaspoon of salt
  • ½ cup of whole milk
  • ½ cup of strong coffee
  • 1 ½ teaspoons of espresso powder
  • 1 teaspoon of vanilla
  • ½ cup of unsalted butter, softened
  • ½ cup of sugar
  • ½ cup of light brown sugar
  • 1 egg, room temperature


Preheat oven to 350 F. Mix Espresso powder in hot coffee and let cool. Mix all dry ingredients together using a wire whisk. (Note: Sugars are considered wet ingredients). Using an electric mixer, cream together the butter and sugars, then add the egg. Combine the milk, coffee and vanilla. Alternate the dry flour mix and the coffee mix by blending it into the creamed butter mixture. You should end with the flour mixture. Pour into cupcake liners. It should only be poured halfway. Bake 17 to 20 minutes.

(Note: If using a cake mix, just prepare the mix as directed. Based on your desired flavor strength, you can add just the espresso powder, and/or substitute some or all of the water (from the box directions) with the milk and coffee.)

Espresso Buttercream Frosting

  • 1 cup of unsalted butter, room temperature
  • 2 ½ cups of powdered sugar
  • 1 ½ teaspoons of vanilla
  • 1 ½ teaspoons of espresso powder


Dissolve espresso powder into vanilla. Whip butter until smooth with an electric mixer. Slowly add powdered sugar to butter and mix until smooth. Mix in espresso and vanilla mixture.

Recipe derived from