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The Last Word on Cupcakes

March 21, 2012

Almost a year ago, I started to wrap my head around cupcakes. I said that one day I would conduct a blind tasting of the region’s more popular bakeries, and I asked for your patience. Then I dragged my feet.

Perhaps many of you thought it was never going to happen. But dammit, Mindy of Home-Baked Happiness wouldn’t let it rest. It wasn’t so much nagging as it was forceful reminding. You know, it got the job done. Because after the Tour de Egg Sandwich I finally started to poke around in earnest looking for a venue. And that’s when the last critical piece fell into place.

Cassie Cramer, who you may know from Twitter, was able to get us space at the Albany Airport Hilton Garden Inn. The awesomeness of that cannot be measured. It was a central location and she was able to arrange the room perfectly for a blind tasting, where twenty like-minded strangers would meet, eat, evaluate, and hopefully leave as friends.

Yesterday the official results were posted on All Over Albany. Today, I provide a little bit more color commentary, and perhaps a little bit of constructive criticism for the cupcakeries.

First I’d like to apologize for the secrecy.

The cupcake bakeries in our region are fiercely competitive, and I didn’t want to let the cat out of the bag. I felt it was important to not let the bakeries know about this tasting, so that we could taste the cupcakes that anyone was likely to get when picking up an order from the store.

Sure, it might be interesting to watch the bakeries go head to head when they know they are being judged. But that kind of tasting would have little real-world benefit.

Attendees were invited by email based on their past comments and interest in the cupcake tasting. If you think you should have gotten an invitation and didn’t, I’m sorry. It’s possible a few people slipped through the cracks. I promise it wasn’t anything personal. However, even those who got the email were not guaranteed a ticket. And as the event sold out, I started a wait list.

The good news is that it worked. I think it’s safe to say that the bakeries didn’t see us coming.

Look at the scores. The Bettie’s chocolate cake only earned 27 points out of a possible 100. The minimum score was 20, as cupcakes were judged on a 1 to 5 scale (not 0 to 5). That means the majority of tasters thought the cake was simply awful.

Looking back, one piece that really seemed to be missing from the All Over Albany write-up was that the Coccadotts cupcakes really had their admirers. The split between Coccadotts and Fluffalicious looks big on paper, but I think it really does reflect a stylistic difference, and a bit of personal preference.

However, it’s not all personal preference.

Oddly, the Coccadotts frosting did not adhere well onto the tops of their cakes. It was the strangest thing, because it would slip right off. And I think that could have affected the overall appeal of their cupcakes. Personally I preferred the mouthfeel and more reserved use of CoccaDotts frosting, but Fluffalicious stole my topping vote away based on the deep and true flavors of vanilla and cocoa.

Not that it matters. My vote didn’t count since I was one of the few people helping to distribute cupcakes to the tables of participants. Since I wasn’t technically blind, I disqualified myself, along with StanfordSteph who was also an invaluable help.

It was Steph who called all the bakeries asking about their most popular cupcake. Until she went through this exercise, I was still tormented about what to choose for the specialty cupcake. Red Velvet is popular and would allow us to sample cream cheese frosting, but most Red Velvet outside the south is just awful. Carrot cake would also have a cream cheese frosting, but that seemed way too heavy, and a little bit archaic. The conversation about vegetables led into thoughts about fruit, and lemon cupcakes were briefly considered before they too were rejected.

Luckily, peanut butter cup seemed like a real slam-dunk. If only the bakeries could make a good chocolate cake. But there was no way to know.

This is why tasting four items side by side is such a powerful tool. It’s easy to imagine when seeing a brown cupcake that it tastes like chocolate. But when you are sitting down to a table, and taking thoughtful bites of icing, cake and the two of them together, one soon realizes which vanilla doesn’t taste like vanilla and which chocolate tastes like nothing.

I think some of the participants may have gotten carried away with the tasting theme and tried a cross sample of the Battenkill Valley Creamery milk that Jessica R. graciously delivered from the Troy Farmers Market. That milk totally saved the day, because even though I did not come close to finishing each of my twelve samples (opting instead for just a couple bites per half) I never would have made it as far as I did without plenty of cold refreshing milk to cleanse my palate.

The whole affair was a lot of fun, if a bit disgusting. Something was totally wrong with my insides for the ten hours after the tasting ended. But it may just be that I’m getting old. Still, it wasn’t anything that absinthe couldn’t fix.

Given its success, I hope there will be more tastings like this in the future, although for something else besides cupcakes. If you are interested in being a participant, make sure to leave a comment here with a good email address to reach you, and I’ll try my best to make sure you are included in the next super-secret invitation.

And if you are curious to get more perspectives on the event, here are a few:

It’s also possible in the next few days or weeks posts could appear from these bloggers who also participated in the event. But who knows.

Congratulations again to Fluffalicious, who decisively won the day. And congratulations to Coccadotts too who has been proven to be significantly better than Bettie’s and Sweet Temptations. For those bakeries that didn’t do well, the overall concerns were texture and flavor. These concerns were diminished when Bettie’s started putting all kinds of toppings on the cupcakes, but they are still underlying flaws. Hopefully they can be fixed.

27 Comments leave one →
  1. March 21, 2012 9:30 am

    Mine’s on the way. I’ve had lots of distractions, but I’m just about to finish up.

    No more cupcakes for me for a while!

  2. March 21, 2012 10:23 am

    Thanks for the links! And thanks, too, for making this happen. Judging by the comments I’ve seen, as I expected, it seems like this was actually a really useful thing, helpful information for people to have as they make their cupcake-buying decisions.

    (But oh, to be a fly on the wall. I’d love to see what Sweet Temptations and Bettie’s said when they heard about this. Hopefully, it was “geez, we should try to do better.”)

  3. Elyse permalink
    March 21, 2012 10:40 am

    I would love to participate in one of these in the future (when my schedule allows, which isn’t often unfortunately) but your description of the after effects make me kind glad I sat this out out :)

  4. Kerosena permalink
    March 21, 2012 10:54 am

    I really enjoyed the tasting, and would love to do something similar in the future!

    You mentioned on Saturday that you contacted each shop to ask some questions, but none of them responded. Have you received any responses since the AoA post came out?

  5. March 21, 2012 11:02 am

    This was fun! It’s true, too many cupcakes led to belly-aches, but it was still fun. Also, that milk was delicious. I found it sad that the chocolate milk was the star of the chocolate-round. It had more true cocoa flavor than most of the cakes!!

  6. Eric Paul permalink
    March 21, 2012 11:12 am

    What no sniff test or analysis of appearance by squeeze in addition to by sight? This and your aoa piece give a fun account of judging sight and taste -texture and taste. Sounds like you need to institute water for palate cleansing (even though milk, and battenkill at that, is a perfect, classic pairing) and the spit rule too so that all of you can keep going with the tasting and maintain your admiration for and enjoyment of the thing being judged into the future.

    • March 21, 2012 12:30 pm

      I don’t know about the “spit rule,” but there was ice water on the tables as well. :)

      • March 21, 2012 3:00 pm

        It is common at professional cheese tasting where a judge gets to the point of evaluating a cheese when they put it in their mouth. A judge will chew it; taste it, spreading it around your palate; and then when they get to the point when they would swallow the bite of cheese, they spit it out. This is so a judge doesn’t overwhelm their palate, have to finish eating something that is horrible, and so they don’t get overly full. A few weeks back I posted the live stream of the 2012 World Championship Cheese Contest on my Facebook page so if one wished they could see cheeses judges in action (including spitting). It made for great entertainment!

        It is also similar at wine tastings and competitions where a judge will spit out a sample, for the same reasons plus so they do not become inebriated.

  7. ktvorwald permalink
    March 21, 2012 11:17 am

    No pain, no gain, as they say! That’s why I always keep a stack of good books in the bathroom. Just sayin’.

    The e-mail I put in is the best way to reach me if you ever need more taste testers. :)

  8. March 21, 2012 11:40 am

    It sounds as if it was quite an affair. Got to admit though, the sheer price per cake keeps me away from any of those bakeries. I’ve had two cakes at Bettie’s….they were nice enough, but afterwards I kept thinking that for what I paid for two velvet cupcakes I could have bought a whole cake at the Schuyler Bakery.

    Of course, thinking like that is why I’ve gained 15 pounds…

  9. March 21, 2012 11:41 am

    I’m so sorry to have missed out on this, I’ve actually never had a local cupcake. But it sounds like you did a great job and everyone had fun! I, too, would be interested to hear bakery reactions to the results.

    Looking forward to the next Tour/tasting.

  10. Kerosena permalink
    March 21, 2012 11:46 am

    It sounds like there were lots of tummy aches after the tasting. I felt ok afterwards, just didn’t want to eat for the rest of the day. I think I ended up consuming the equivalent of about two cupcakes.

    For future tours and tastings, I recommend these protips:

  11. March 21, 2012 11:59 am

    Daniel, thanks again for generously hosting such a fun event. I, too, am also curious to know if any of the bakeries will respond.

  12. Crystal permalink
    March 21, 2012 12:21 pm

    I really enjoy reading about the taste testing and would love to participate in one in the future. It’s nice, when I’m looking for a particular food item, to be able to go to reviews like this. Keep ’em coming!

  13. Ewan permalink
    March 21, 2012 12:57 pm

    Sign me up! [We could do coffee, given recent discussions; or croissants; or scones..]

  14. Beck permalink
    March 21, 2012 2:24 pm

    This was a really fun event, and I’m glad I took part in it. I’d like to say it turned me off cupcakes, but it actually left me wanting more cupcakes from Fluffalicious! It was really nice to put some names with commenting faces, too.

    Thanks for organizing this event, Daniel.

  15. Sarah M. permalink
    March 21, 2012 2:42 pm

    So glad to finally see a scientific (!) judgment of these bakeries, especially one that confirms my deep antipathy for Bettie’s.

  16. March 21, 2012 8:08 pm

    Without going into specifics, a bit of a volcanic eruption at the office has had me a bit distracted these past couple of weeks (the cupcake challenge was a WELCOME distraction), so I haven’t had the energy to devote to some outside work responsibilities as it is, let alone my blog. (Which is oh so woefully neglected, anyway.) But, yes. I’ll definitely be writing about this. Hopefully over the weekend. :)

  17. March 21, 2012 8:27 pm

    Ahhh….finally a moment to leave a reply. I am the owner of Fluffalicious and I would like to express my gratitude to all who participated. I am grateful for the compliments and accept the criticisms with an open mind. My staff and I work hard everyday to put our best work forward, with the knowledge that there is always room for improvement.

    I do feel the need to say that the owners of Coccadotts, Bettie’s and Sweet Temptations all work equally as hard. I think it is wonderful that we all do a little something DIFFERENT than the next person, a different taste, a different interpretation or a different recipe. No matter what the difference is, it makes each one of us who we are and what our business is and strives to be. We all have something to be proud of.

    Thank you again from myself and my staff. This was a pleasant surprise and a great start to our week !

  18. Uncle Laurie permalink
    March 26, 2012 4:52 pm

    Call me when you have that absinthe tasting please!

  19. Rebecca permalink
    March 26, 2012 9:25 pm

    Sounds like so much fun! I would love to help taste something in the future. Especially something sweet!

  20. Karen permalink
    March 27, 2012 6:30 pm

    I did my own ‘tasting’ by getting one (or two) appealing cupcakes from each of the four bakeries. This was done over several months’ time, though. My favorite was Bettie’s followed very closely by Fluffalicious. May have to try those two again very soon!


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