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Baker Baiting

June 13, 2011

Would you believe me if I said that I really didn’t expect that tsunami of interest in the upcoming Cupcake Challenge? I’ve got a few ideas that I’m kicking around right now, but I’m going to have to take this under the radar for a little while.

I’d really prefer that this tasting be a surprise to the cupcake bakeries, so that the cupcakes we evaluate are similar to the ones anyone else would get when walking into a local store, or picking some up from a mobile outpost. That said, if you are interested in participating in the tasting and haven’t left a comment to that regard using a valid email address, I’d recommend doing that soon.

So now I’ve teased you a bit. It’s only fair to tease the bakers too.

Every now and again a question appears in the comments that I purposefully keep out of the Ask the Profussor round-ups. This is because the question requires a longer answer and I think it is important enough to stand alone as its own post. On the subject of cupcakes, a male commenter signing on with the name irishj had this to say:

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?

Well, I’ve never really been cool, but I do have some thoughts on the matter.

There are lots of reasons one could bash cupcakes. My general modus operandi is to look at price to value relationships. That was the impetus behind the post Cupcakes Versus Croissants. But I also like the notion of hating cupcakes for their role in contributing to the infantilization of the American adult. And I do think there is an obvious anti-cupcake argument on the theme of  “style over substance.”

There is however a simple logic to the question at hand, “What is not to like about a small piece of cake when it is made properly?” And the answer of course is nothing.

A small piece of cake when it is made properly is clearly one of life’s great pleasures.

But you know what? A cupcake is not a small piece of cake. No sir. Cupcake batter might be made out of the same ingredients as cake batter, but a cupcake is its own thing. And that thing is a lump of cake with frosting.

There is rarely any delicacy, and there is seldom any grace.

An actual cake made by a skilled baker can be a truly marvelous thing. It can have layers of complementary and contrasting flavors and textures. Cakes are assembled. Cakes are crafted. Cakes require care and thought.

Yes, cakes are large. And buying a whole cake when you just want a little indulgence would certainly either be wasteful or gluttonous. And I am not endorsing either vice. Rather, I’m encouraging you to seek out cake bakers who do this miraculous thing of selling small pieces of their masterful creations.

We are fabulously lucky to have such a place in Albany. It’s called Crisan. And they don’t have a truck.

Instead, they have a small storefront on Lark Street where they sell a rotating variety of cake-like treats. These are nothing like cupcakes. They won’t make you think fondly of your youth. Eating them won’t make you feel like a kid again. In fact, it’s just the opposite.

These are very adult indulgences. Children certainly would take little appreciation of the beautiful plates and fanciful forks and knives. Now I’m going to throw a few words at you from the Crisan cake menu, just for giggles.

Chocolate hazelnut meringue cake, chocolate genoise cake, chocolate almond dacquoise, almond cake, flourless chocolate cake, almond lavender cake, coconut cake, rum soaked sponge cake, flourless orange almond cake, walnut meringue cake.

Those are just the basic building blocks. They are then layered with a variety of delicious accoutrements like ganache, butter cream, whipped cream, mousse, and/or custard. And they can also include things like nuts, chocolate, caramelized orange, berries, or edible gold leaf.

Hopefully you get the idea. And honestly, this didn’t start out to be a love letter to Crisan. I’m not even going to start on how much I appreciate their use of high quality ingredients, but if you are curious you can check out their spiff website.

Cupcakes are fine, but they are no great shakes. And I’m thankful that irishj left his comment. Because I have yet to find a cupcake, nor can I even imagine one, that can compare with, “a small piece of cake when it is made properly.”

5 Comments leave one →
  1. Stephanie Wien permalink
    June 13, 2011 10:00 am

    I’m interested in participating :)

  2. June 13, 2011 1:19 pm

    I have the agree that most cupcakes are lacking in delicacy and grace. I don’t think it’s impossible that the have both of those things, it’s just hardly anywhere seems able to deliver. I suppose it would also depend on what exactly one thinks makes the best cupcake–something I have lots of opinions on. I will be exceptionally bold and say my cupcakes, while not utter perfection, touch upon something that is close to amazing.

    A cupcake is not cake. It is something entirely different, and anyone who makes a cupcake with tiny cake in mind is going to end up with a lousy excuse for a cupcake.

  3. June 13, 2011 2:00 pm

    I am a defender of the cupcake, but not of the cupcake found in commercial bakeries. Too spongy, the frosting is much too sweet and cloying, and here’s Too Much Everything on them in an attempt to make them worth the $3 apiece that they’ll never be worth.

    Allow me to defend, however, the humble homemade cupcake. The homemade cupcake, at least in my kitchen, is pure and simple. The buttercream frosting is butter, sugar, and cream. Sometimes there’s food coloring.

    My current favorite recipe is a chocolate buttermilk cake with a basic cream cheese frosting: the flavors complement each other nicely.

    The difference, though, and why I’ve never been into the cupcake trend: I love to make them, I love to serve them at parties, but I’d never pay more than a dollar each for them.

  4. June 14, 2011 7:12 pm

    Sounds tasty, but 1. regular cake requires me to find a plate and use a utensil, whereas I can eat a cupcake wherever, and 2. I seldom get to downtown Albany, so I’ve never been to Crisan (and possibly never will, unless I plan a special trip all the way down there just for cake). I won’t say that cake is bad, of course, but cupcakes certainly have their place and can be very delicious, too, even if they aren’t all fancy and multi-layered.

    Also on the subject of cupcakes, I had one from Magnolia Bakery the other day. It was fantastic. Sure, it was just cake with frosting on it, but it was REALLY GOOD cake with REALLY GOOD frosting, and I’ll take a simple food executed well over a complex one that fails in flavor or texture.

  5. Ellen Whitby permalink
    June 16, 2011 10:53 pm

    I love Crisan’s. It’s a great excuse to go downtown. I’m even lucky enough to find a parking place nearly every time I go. I fall on the “cupcakes are just small pieces of cake” side of the argument and I have yet to meet a cupcake that’s worth the price. I’m much happier with cutting a piece from a larger cake. With Crisan’s, though, there’s no need to buy a whole cake. I can buy several different kinds at once and indulge right there in the shop or bring them home to eat, hopefully when none of the boys are there. And what’s nice is that even though they are a bit pricey, it’s excellent value and completely worth it.

    If you ever have a Tour de Crisan’s, count me in. For the Tour de Cupcakes, I’m happy to read about the results.

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