Here we go:
These are the vanilla bean brandy and mint chip cupcakes. As you might guess, the former are flavored with the seeds of a vanilla bean and a small touch of brandy, and the latter were given a light touch of mint extract and sprinkled with dark chocolate chunks (and green food coloring reminiscent of the ice cream!).
On the left are the caramelized apple cupcakes, which are based on a Tarte Tatin idea; I caramelized an apple, puréed it, and mixed some in with the batter. Then I made some brown sugar caramel and coated the bottom of each cupcake liner with the caramel and poured the batter in on it. They stuck fantastically to the pan, so greasing it would have been good, but in the end I was able to peel the paper off each cupcake and turned them over into new liners, as pictured here. Since a Tarte Tatin is an upside-down cake, I thought it would be appropriate...and I added more caramel on top for good measure. On the right are pumpkin spice cupcakes, to which I added spices based on my family pumpkin pie recipe, plus some pumpkin purée. Both of these cupcakes were moister than the others because of the fruit purées, and the others were lighter.
Mint chocolate chip, topped with chocolate buttercream that had just a hint of mint extract (the stuff is strong, so be careful!) and dark chocolate chunks.
Pumpkin spice, swirled on top with cream cheese frosting that had a bit of the pumkin pie spice in it (see the flecks?), and an abstract pumpkin piped on with a few green sprinkles to insinuate a stem. The pumpkin decoration is a bit too abstract, since people still had to ask what the flavor was, but I still think it's cute.
I kept the vanilla bean decoration simple, adding more vanilla bean seeds to the buttercream, but again included brandy to keep a thematic kick to the cupcake.
And, finally, the caramelized apple took a squiggly dollop of cream cheese frosting on top, with more brown sugar caramel mixed in.
I've just learned that there is a book out there called The Cake Mix Doctor which basically does what I've been doing with these cupcakes - it tells you how to start with a cake mix and flavor it up in all sorts of ways. This reinforces for me the fact that cake mixes are fairly fool proof; you can do a lot to them and they'll still turn out great!
I've added fruit purées of varying densities, extracts, cocoa powder, coffee, caramel, fruit juice, spices, sprinkles, dried fruit, Oreos, coconut, nuts, honey, almond paste, and candy (i.e., all manner of liquids, fats, and sugars!) and every one has been a success. As my mom says, cake mixes are full of stabilizers that home cooks don't have access to for cakes from scratch, which means that cakes from scratch can be pretty difficult to get right (something I personally have proven with a number of dense, heavy cakes). It takes mastering a number of correct techniques in order to get a good scratch cake.
So, don't feel bad if you rely on cake mixes! Why not use a fool-proof method of achieving a moist and well-textured cake? Just get creative by doctoring the batter up a bit to satisfy your inner food artist. And make sure to use homemade frosting, since that part is super easy and makes an immeasurable difference in the final product.