Sunday, July 5, 2009

The Sweetest Thing: Cupcake Taste-Off

The battle has been brewing. The cupcake phenomenon that is so ubiquitous these days has seized the attention of a number of my friends, who not only enjoy cake, but enjoy cake in adorable little individual servings all dressed up as miniature works of pastry art. It was bound to happen that someone would eventually like to know just which diminutive work of baking goodness actually warranted the title "Queen of Adorable Desserts" from amid the sea of princesses vying for the crown. That someone just so happened to be me.

An afternoon tea party taste-off was in order. My friend Carolyn and I assembled a panel of discriminating judges, and we rounded up worthy cupcake contenders. We were looking to find the best representatives of the Chocolate, Vanilla and Specialty categories. The lone criterion for inclusion was straightforward: the cupcakes had to come from cupcake-only bakeries (not bakeries that happened to make cupcakes). Three different local establishments were represented:
(In the chocolate and vanilla categories, we also threw in a "spoiler" cupcake from the grocery store, just to see how they would compare to their flashier peers.)

Here's the category breakdown:

  • Vanilla; Madagascar bourbon vanilla cake with vanilla buttercream (Teacake)
  • Pinking of You; vanilla cake with pink vanilla buttercream (Sift)
  • Sweet Vanilla; vanilla cupcake with sweet Madagascar bourbon vanilla buttercream (Kara's)

  • Chocolate; chocolate sour cream cake with chocolate buttercream (Teacake)
  • The Sky is Falling; chocolate cake with white chocolate mousse filling and chocolate buttercream (Sift)
  • Chocolate Velvet; chocolate cake with bittersweet chocolate buttercream (Kara's)
  • Dulce de Leche; exact description unavailable, but it's a chocolate cake with a caramel buttercream (Teacake)
  • Pink Velvet; pink velvet cake with traditional cream cheese frosting (Teacake)
  • Ooh La La; red velvet cake with traditional cream cheese frosting (Sift)
  • Pink Champagne; raspberry cake with champagne frosting (Sift)
  • Irish Car Bomb; chocolate Guinness cake with Irish Cream frosting (Sift)
  • Meyer Lemony Lemon; lemon cake with lemon curd filling and lemon chiffon frosting (Kara's)
  • Fleur de Sel; dark chocolate cake with caramel filling and bittersweet chocolate frosting topped with gray sea salt (Kara's)
Here's how the tasting and scoring went down: We all had official scorecards, and each cupcake was ranked on it's own merits. Points were awarded for presentation, icing (flavor and texture), cake (flavor and texture), originality and overall impression, for a total of 100 points available for each cupcake.

And we dove in.

Sugar coma doesn't exactly describe our conditions, but Diabetic shock might come close. Nevertheless, our duty called, and we had no choice but to answer. Tasting and comparing is tough business, but the lip smacking and general oohs, aahhs and mmms clearly indicated that we were delightfully up to the task. When the crumbs settled, some clear favorites emerged from the rubble (and I must say - way to represent, Napa!).

Top spots for both the Vanilla and Chocolate categories went to Kara's Cupcakes. It was universally agreed that Kara's cakes were not only beautiful, but moist and creamy and flavorful as well. Excellent representatives of the most basic, fundamental, and much-loved cupcake staples.

Since our Specialty category was brimming with unique contendors, we narrowed it down to the top three faves. Taking third place was Kara's again, with the utterly fabulous Fleur de Sel cupcake (my personal favorite). "Sinfully rich," "ridiculously moist," "creative" and "decadent" were few of the comments left on the score sheets. Runner-up went to Sift, for its Pink Champagne cupcake (I think the sparkles sealed the deal - the top of the cupcake looked like it had been sprinkled with fairy dust). But the hands-down favorite of the day - and the highest score overall - went to the Meyer Lemony Lemon cupcake, once again from Kara's. It was light, airy, refreshing, sweet, tangy, moist... the accolades just kept coming.

So there you have it. Our very un-scientific excuse to stuff ourselves silly with cake. I suggest you do the same immediately.

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