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Wrapping My Head Around Cupcakes

May 23, 2011

You’ve asked for it. Well, maybe you demanded it. Had you just asked for it, I probably would have ignored you until it went away, or you simply forgot about it. But that didn’t happen.

I know this because here I am, no fan of cupcakes, about to embark on putting together a Cupcake Challenge for you all.

But this is going to take a bit of legwork, and as this thing progresses I may call on some of you for your help. But right now, I’m just looking for input. Mostly because I took a look around at all the places around the region that sell cupcakes, and came to the quick realization that there is no way we can evaluate them all.

As I may have mentioned, I’m no fan of cupcakes. While I’m happy to cull the herd of contenders myself based on a personal set of criteria, I thought it might be more prudent to get the input from the cupcake lovers first.

This is just one of the pieces of input I want from you today.

I doubt this list is complete, in fact I know it is not since it does not include any of the classic old school bakeries that populate the region. So in no order whatsoever, there is:

–       Make Me a Cake Next Door
–       Bettie’s Cakes
–       Fluffalicious
–       Cupcake Lab
–       Cocca Dotts
–       Sweet Temptations
–       Scratch Bakery
–       Bountiful Bread
–       Bread Basket Bakery
–       Perreca’s

Now remember, how many places get picked depends upon a few factors.

1)    How many cupcakes can you reasonably evaluate in one sitting?
2)    What is the smallest fraction of a cupcake you can reasonably evaluate?

My immediate thought to answer 2 is ¼ of a cupcake. Granted, it’s a very small amount. But consider this. The fate of a cupcake bakery cannot simply be determined on the strength of one variety of its product. No, the best cupcakery will be excellent across categories.

And this is going to get tricky, because it will require consistency across all the top nominees. In fact some nominees may not get selected because they are the odd shop out. Let’s say we ultimately determine that each bakery will be judged on its:

–       White icing on white cake
–       Chocolate icing on chocolate cake
–       Red velvet (or some other popular novelty)

Should one of the top bakeries not have a red velvet, they would naturally be disqualified, and we would move onto the next nominees. Or, I suppose we could look for a common specialty product among the top shops that we feel is a suitable representation of the bakeries’ skill.

That said, what do YOU think are the top three or four styles we should sample to get a broad spectrum of a cupcakery’s awesomeness. I think there could be an argument made for:

–       Chocolate on chocolate
–       Lemon
–       Carrot cake
–       Peanut Butter Cup

Although that lineup may prove to be difficult given the offerings of our top local cupcake shops.

Finally, I would like to have one of the entrants be a home baker. After all, this will be a blind tasting. And I’ve always contended, that many times what comes out of these specialty bakeries isn’t any better than what a talented home cook can make for a fraction of the cost.

I do have someone in mind, but if any of you would be interested in volunteering as a potential backup, please let me know. It’s not a commitment, just a statement of interest. And since this will follow the model of other FUSSYlittleEVENTS where participants pay for their own food, I’m sure we can find a way to compensate the baker for their ingredients (and maybe even a little bit of their time). Although to be clear, this is being planned as a separate event, and will not come at the expense of a savory summer tour.

That’s all I’ve got for now. It’s time to hear from you. Keep the comments coming. Nominations close at the end of this month.

40 Comments leave one →
  1. Heather W permalink
    May 23, 2011 9:47 am

    I think this is a great idea, as I often hear family and friends comparing and constrasting. I’d also like to express interest in being a back-up home baker : )

  2. Stevo permalink
    May 23, 2011 9:48 am

    I with you on the cupcake thing. YAWN.

    I’m willing to bet the majority of the cupcake aficionados are women. They are into cupcakes because they are pretty. It has little to do with the finer points of flavor or texture.

    • May 23, 2011 10:12 am

      Cupcakes are pretty and women do like pretty things. If I’m not mistaken, most chefs spend a lot of time making sure that the plates they present are ‘pretty’. Apparently we all (men & women) eat with our eyes first.
      ‘The finer points of flavor or texture’ have nothing to do with how food (read cupcakes) look. We’ve all had our share of food that looked good but tasted lousy. I’m sure you weren’t implying that a woman’s sense of taste goes out the window when she sees something that looks ‘cute enough to eat.’
      Just a comment from a woman who prefers a steak and a bourbon to a cupcake any day of the week.

      • Stevo permalink
        May 24, 2011 9:55 am

        Obviously I’m generalizing, but I stand by my comment. Cupcakes are popular because they are fun, not because they taste better than say, a slice of cake. Their whimsy is their real appeal and that’s why they appeal to women more than to men. For Daniel to embark on a serious comparison of cupcakes is a mistake in my opinion.

  3. May 23, 2011 10:07 am

    It’s not because they’re pretty. It’s childhood nostalgia + larger piece of cake disguised as child-sized portion. And maybe a little because they’re pretty.

    FWIW, chocolate on chocolate and white on white are both crappy, and should be replaced by the vastly superior white on chocolate (my personal favorite) and chocolate on white. And red velvet is an abomination. Bakeries who eschew it should be lionized, not disqualified.

  4. RealFoodMom permalink
    May 23, 2011 10:09 am

    I share your lack of enthusiasm about cupcakes, but have ended up tasting a fair number nevertheless.

    Please note in your tour whether the bakery makes its frosting from real butter or not; bakeries universally call their frosting buttercream, while many (most?) of the time it is actually hydrogenated shorteningcreme or margarinecreme. Eeew. That is a scandal. For instance, when I asked, I was told that the giant cupcakes at Bread Alone do not contain butter. No sale.

    My other complaint is that cupcakes are Way. Too. Sweet. — the sweetness hits you over the head — to the near exclusion of the flavors of the chocolate, vanilla, etc. I’ve often wanted to ask bakeries to tone down the sweetness of a couple of their cookies, muffins, cakes, etc and call them something like “Half-Sweets for Grown-ups.”

    IMHO, Red Velvet (and any other neon baked good) is disgusting.

    • May 23, 2011 10:14 am

      Officially, this will not be a tour. All cupcakes will be brought to a central location TBD. That said, I may require some assistance in cupcake pickup and delivery on the day of the Cupcake Challenge. But this is too early to really talk logistics. I just want to make sure everyone understands, there is no Tour de Cupcake. #Semantics

  5. Jenny on the Block permalink
    May 23, 2011 10:09 am

    I would think one of the cupcakes should be yellow/vanilla cake with chocolate frosting. It takes some skill to make a good yellow cake, I think. Although, since I don’t frequent too many of the cupcake bakeries, I don’t know if that is a standard. But I would lean towards yellow instead of white cake.

    @Stevo — It’s a little early in the morning for me to get my head around “[Women] are into cupcakes because they are pretty,” but let me just say that I would have to disagree. If we (women) are more likely than men to like cupcakes, I would have to say it is more because a good cupcake comes in a nice portion size package and has a good frosting to cake ratio. Many bakeries these days have altered both, so that (1) they are too big and (2) they have too much frosting, in my opinion.

    I too would be happy to be a back up baker, if you need extras. Might make sense to find the primary baker with his/her recipe, and then give the back ups the same cake/frosting recipe to use.

    • May 23, 2011 7:56 pm

      Jenny, I agree completely. So many people are nutso about lots of frosting, and bakeries have accommodated. Gag.

  6. May 23, 2011 10:33 am

    I earnestly feel that there are no cupcakes that can be bought out in the world here that are good, that are what a cupcake should be deep in its delicious little soul.

    I also think that the best cupcakes are usually vanilla or yellow cake, with a vanilla buttercream, especially because it’s very basic (although a good yellow cake, as a commenter above noted, takes skill). I would argue that without the distractions of chocolate, or other flavors, you really get the feel for the cupcake–the flavors of the buttercream, which are different if you’re making a Swiss buttercream or the more standard American kind with just confectioner’s sugar and butter,the flavor and texture of the cake–much better when it’s vanilla. I have a strong feeling about what a cupcake should be, and I think most places don’t do it.

    So, my vote would be for vanilla on yellow cake :) Most cupcakeries have this, so that shouldn’t be a problem.

    I also can’t even talk about red velvet without getting irritated. Food coloring does not make red velvet cake. Beets make red velvet cake, and it is delicious, but hardly anyone actually uses them to make the cake. Partly because it’s not easy to get the color. I know that some of the ingredients are used to bring out a red flavor in cocoa, but not enough to get red red, so food coloring gets added and it bothers me.

    I also think that my cupcakes are deeply wonderful, so I volunteer myself to make some as well, although I’m definitely afraid of it, although I do think they could at least be proved as a good, solid, not too sweet little cake :D

  7. Mr. Sunshine permalink
    May 23, 2011 10:41 am

    Fortunately, the cupcake thing is a fad that will run its course–I hope. I see it as part of the overall massive infantilization of American adults.

  8. beck permalink
    May 23, 2011 10:57 am

    First of all, I agree with Holly that white on white is not the best at all; I much prefer a chocolate buttercream with a yellow cake.

    Second, I take umbrage with the comment that only women like cupcakes, and do so because they are pretty. Personally, I like cupcakes because I like cake very much, but living in a household of two, and trying to watch what I eat, a cupcake is a much more sensible solution than having to finish a whole cake between two people. I can eat one small serving and be satisfied.

    As far as the cupcake bakeries go, my favorite that I’ve tried is Fluffalicious, which, as far as I know only sells from their truck and does not have a physical bakery.

    Regarding flavors, perhaps this could be conducted like the Tournament of Pizza – one vanilla, one chocolate, and then a third “Wild Card” of the bakery’s choosing which they feel best represents them – a signature flavor?

    All that said, I’d be interested in participating in a Cupcake Challenge, though I haven’t baked enough cupcakes of my own to feel confident being a “backup baker.”

  9. Bob W. permalink
    May 23, 2011 12:33 pm

    So many good points in the comments, it would be folly to address them all.

    That said, Beck’s suggestion for one vanilla, one chocolate, and then a third “Wild Card” of the bakery’s choosing is excellent. I am sure a lot of folks would agree the appeal of a lot of these places are those “unique” cupcakes you would never replicate at home — whether it is due to difficulty or not wanting to buy all the ingredients necessary to make them.

    Which leads me to the other point: “many times what comes out of these specialty bakeries isn’t any better than what a talented home cook can make for a fraction of the cost.” This is the truth…I have never had a better vanilla buttercream than the one the missus whips up at home. And it is not rocket science (although the one time I tried to make it…well, it was not a hit with the kids and that is saying something…).

    Again, I have to assume it is the unique flavors that are the raison d’être for these businesses. Who is going to a specialty cupcake shop and getting just a chocolate cupcake with plain vanilla icing?

  10. May 23, 2011 1:27 pm

    YAY!!!!

    *ahem* :)

    I think that the important ones to cover are Bettie’s, Fluffalicious, Sweet Temptations and Coccadotts, ’cause they’re the most well-known and cupcake-focused. Flavor categories should probably included chocolate/chocolate and vanilla/vanilla (or yellow), ’cause those are standard ones everyone should have. (If people would rather test choc/van and van/choc, that would be OK, I’d think, as long as they get both cakes and both frostings to try.) As for other flavors… if they all had carrot cake or red velvet, that would be alright, so we’d get to try their cream-cheese frosting, too. Or we could just do an open category of “best specialty” and pick one non-standard flavor that each is serving that day, an apples-to-oranges comparison, though, to be sure.

    Also, if you need a baker, I’ve got a good triple-chocolate cupcake recipe. :)

  11. May 23, 2011 4:37 pm

    @Bob W.: I go to specialty shops and get a plain cupcake (I usually try for vanilla with a yellow cake, but I’ll take chocolate and vanilla if I have to). As far as I’m concerned, if a plain yellow or vanilla cake isn’t just as good as something fancy, something is wrong. If a place can’t do a basic vanilla or chocolate I highly doubt anything else is going to be good.

    Since people seem to be curious about trying three cupcakes, it might be helpful to check in and see what places sell mini cupcakes–these are one or two bits large, and would be less overwhelming than eating say, 12 cupcakes in one go. I also usually cut my cupcakes into quarters to eat them, so maybe one or two bites of a normal size would suffice.

    But I’m just really passionate about cupcakes, and really unhappy with the offerings out there in the world. Someday I will write a cupcake manifesto, because I am in defense of cupcakes forever, and so many of them are just lousy :(

    I’m also noticing a lot of people saying they like yellow cake with chocolate BC–this is fascinating to me, because I cannot tell you how many people ask for this at work when it’s not in the case. All, the, time. But when it’s there, no one buys it. I’m not sure what to do with that, but I think it’s interesting :)

  12. May 23, 2011 7:14 pm

    This is a can of worms I want little to do with. I’ll stick to my Fudge Fancy/Fantasy comparison where there is only one variety and execution is the only variable.

  13. May 23, 2011 8:00 pm

    Yum. I love cupcakes. I know some people find them overrated, and maybe they are, but I still love them. Even still, I can’t wait for brownies to be the new cupcakes, because I ADORE brownies.

    Still. Yum. Cupcakes.

    (BTW, this is irisira … blogging on a more public forum now, so I need to, well, use a more public name.) :)

  14. Margaret permalink
    May 23, 2011 8:00 pm

    GREAT IDEA! Love cupcakes! All kinds! I think a Van/Choc./lemon is a great start. Peanut Butter cup is also great. I agree with the one who said let the cupcakeries bake their own specialty!

    If I can help, let me know!

  15. May 23, 2011 9:15 pm

    The problem with this is that what I really treasure is the novelty of an unusual cupcake – gold shavings on a cupcake in Philly is still one of my all time fave finds. But my son & I are always willing to serve the cause where there are sweets involved!

  16. Julie permalink
    May 23, 2011 9:39 pm

    Can we vote based on friendliness/originality? IMHO, CoccaDotts is delicious, but their cattiness and overall nastiness (of course, when no one is looking) makes it hard to choke down their cupcakes. I’d much rather support a smaller, friendlier company like Fluffalicious—you won’t catch her pouting! :)

    • May 23, 2011 10:44 pm

      The short answer is no. Judging will be blind. However I am wondering if there are enough cupcake bakeries operating in the region to support a challenge where all competitors use only real butter and not shortening in their frosting.

      I’m not sure if Cocca Dotts has changed its ways, but they were a shortening shop for a long time.

  17. Ellen Whitby permalink
    May 23, 2011 10:03 pm

    With all the comments on cupcakes, there hardly seems room for another one. I like cake. My favorite flavor is chocolate. Yup. That’s it. I agree that a well-made croissant is better than a well-made cupcake, especially if it’s a chocolate croissant (which some of us home bakers can make pretty well). My issue with the cupcakes you get from these shops is that they are cake with frosting on top. How about a filling? What happened to the filling in cupcakes? My ideal cupcake would have a filling as well as frosting. Without the filling, it’s just a small piece of cake with frosting on top. And what’s the point of that?

    • May 23, 2011 10:48 pm

      There is plenty of room for more comments. I am reading them all, and taking them all into consideration. In fact I hope there are a lot more to come, because I’m still on the fence regarding a few critical issues.

      But it’s great to see all of this passion you all have for cupcakes.

      Perhaps you have all noticed this, however it does seem like there has only been one male supporter of the cupcake initiative, well, maybe two if you count Sandra’s son. And that’s fine. It’s just an observation.

    • beck permalink
      May 24, 2011 8:24 am

      No snarkiness intended, Ellen, but isn’t that the point of a cupcake – it’s just a small piece of cake? I’d never thought cupcakes came with the added requirement of filling. That being said, I’ve had cupcakes from both Fluffalicious and Sweet Temptations (Albany Shaker Road) that all had filling.

    • May 24, 2011 6:15 pm

      I thought the point was that cupcakes ARE small pieces of cake — you can have cake with frosting without having to buy/make an entire cake (or find someone else to eat the rest, or end up eating it all yourself). It seems to me like fillings are a recent addition (Hostess cupcakes aside), like gilding the lily most of the time. (That said, a good filling is OK by me. But a more-frosting filling screws up the frosting-to-cake ratio.)

  18. Denine permalink
    May 23, 2011 10:35 pm

    I think you should have each baker do a traditional chocolate w/vanilla buttercream, yellow cake w/ either chocolate ganache or buttercream, a speciality cupcake of their choice & an adult style cupcake. The juding criteria should be taste of cake/icing, texture of cake, presentation & creativity of the speciality cupcake. I have tried cupcakes from a couple of the shops on your list & I know who I would choose. Good luck:)

  19. ashallann permalink
    May 23, 2011 11:22 pm

    I LOVE cupcakes and I love that you’ll be taking them on. Also when did I miss the CUPCAKE DRAMA in the Capital Region? Was there a cupcake coup? A frosting fight? Would love to find out the backstory on this.

    So glad to see that Perreca’s cupcake is on the potential list. I think a good strawberry cupcake should be judged.

  20. michelle permalink
    May 24, 2011 6:46 pm

    how do i nominate a bakery or two?–my favorite cupcakes are from x’s to o’s in troy–pumpkin chocolate chip is my favorite, though tiramisu cupcakes are a close 2nd! Also, SaraBella bakery in Colonie has beautiful cupcakes!

  21. May 24, 2011 8:09 pm

    X’s to O’s in Troy has some fabulous cupcakes, I nominate them. A third cake should be the bakery’s specialty, it would give them an opportunity so showcase some originality

  22. enoughalready! permalink
    May 24, 2011 10:03 pm

    wow! so many responses for cupcakes! is this a record for the profussor ? great idea for a cupcake tasteoff – agree with the basic yellow/chocolate kind – then you can tell the quality pretty quickly. Highly recommend the bread basket’s cupcakes . imo they are top quality – YUM

  23. Mrs. P permalink
    May 27, 2011 10:02 pm

    The blind tasting can still be accomplished if you contact the bakeries and ask them to prepare the flavors that you want to taste. A blind tasting requires that the judges are blind to who prepared the product being tested, not that the producer is unaware that they are being judged. Just a thought.

    Most competitions are entered and judged. Restaurant reviews are often unannounced. Wouldn’t you want the bakeries to have the opportunity to prepare their best? Minis are a bad idea. They are not a good representation of a cupcake. Too dry, and the shelf life is too short.

  24. irishj permalink
    May 31, 2011 12:57 pm

    I agree with Mrs. P, why would you not want the bakeries to know that they are being judged? Also, for those of you red velvet haters, you have obviously not had real red velvet made by someone who knows what they are doing. Red velvet does not have to be full of food coloring and should have a pronounced yet delicate chocolate flavor. I vote for the basics of a good cupcake bakery, (who came up with “cupcakery” anyways??) vanilla with vanilla buttercream, chocolate with chocolate buttercream, and red velvet with cream cheese frosting…or perhaps the third being a house specialty from each just judged on overall deliciousness. I think that cupcake bashing has somehow become cool, what is not to like about a small piece of cake when it is made properly? I am a man and love cupcakes, a whole cake requires much more indulgence (I have little self control) so as not to feel guilty about letting it go to waste…a cupcake is two or three perfect, moist bites. That is in my opinion why they still sell so well, to women and to men. Please don’t degrade women by saying they purchase them because they are some “pretty bauble”. A good baker will take pride in the way their cupcakes (or anything else they make) looks, it is a product for sales, why not make it look the best that you can? It is a small part of what separates a pro from most home bakers.

  25. Rachel Cocca-Dott permalink
    June 2, 2011 4:04 pm

    Daniel let me set the record straight for the last time. I would love for you to come to Coccadotts where I make my buttercream. Did I say BUTTER!!!! In my recipe there are 3 ingredients 6x confectionary sugar, BUTTER and shortening. The small amount of shortening I use is to stabilize the butter & the sugar. How can u possibly post something that is not true. You have never once came into my shop & questioned me. I have had two bakers since the day I opened, ask either one about my recipe. I don’t mind. On another note, maybe invoices showing 800lbs of Cabot butter on invoices dated back to the day I opened. Please feel free to contact me, stop in, email, call whatever it takes. If your blogging about me I must be doing something right. Now it’s your turn to do the right thing & stop posting things that are NOT TRUE!

    • June 2, 2011 5:33 pm

      Rachel, thank you for taking an interest in this issue. I just spent several minutes parsing my comments here and on the Table Hopping blog, and I do not believe that I wrote anything that was untrue.

      This is what I wrote (caps added for emphasis):

      “I am wondering if there are enough cupcake bakeries operating in the region to support a challenge where all competitors use ONLY real butter and not shortening in their frosting. I’m not sure if Cocca Dotts has changed its ways, but they were a shortening shop for a long time.”

      It gladdens me to hear that your buttercreams are indeed mostly butter and sugar. But given your public stance in support of shortening I felt no need to come in to verify my claim that it was used in your bakery. But I have been to your bakery, and I’ve eaten your cupcakes. In fact, I picked up six of them for my birthday last year.

      I do appreciate your passion, candor and the offer to chat further. Perhaps I’ll take you up on it once some of the chaos of June clears away.

      • Rachel Cocca-Dott permalink
        June 2, 2011 6:21 pm

        ;o) you said a shortening shop. When people say we don’t use butter it sends me into deep emotions! Cupcakes are all the rage, who knew? Four years ago when I opened there were none. I often look at my husband and say what did I do (more than twice a week). I sometimes think I should of went into the construction business. I follow your blog & enjoy it, awesome indeed. Sorry for my slight, hissy fit.

  26. June 8, 2011 10:44 am

    Ridiculous. Buttercream does not need shortening to “stabilize” it. It’s an excuse to continue using an inferior ingredient (shortening) in buttercream. Traditional American style buttercream needs nothing but butter and 6x sugar and whatever else you want to flavor it with or enrich it…vanilla, cream, etc.

    So tired of the insistence that shortening in necessary.

  27. enoughalready! permalink
    June 8, 2011 9:47 pm

    perhaps rachel can share the ratio of butter to shortening (and the type) she uses just to set the record straight. I agree with jennifer re the need to ‘stabilize’ the buttercream. funny, but my homemade buttercream does just fine without any shortening added.
    I hope you are including bread basket of saratoga in the contest.
    (I have always been a hardcore cake/cupcake lover and scratch baker with high (and very fussy!) food standards and would gladly volunteer to be a judge)
    my feeling is that an unannounced visit and pick a vanilla, chocolate and specialty would be the best way.

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