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Competition Cupcakes

October 26, 2012

Those who participated in the blind tasting of twelve cupcakes know very well that judging food competitions sounds like a lot of fun on paper, but it’s hard work. And those who look upon food judges with envy seem to want an excuse to try every single item at Bacon Fest or thirty pizzas in the Tournament of Pizza.

But for every chocolate bourbon bacon cupcake there is a bacon milkshake. And for every slice of DeFazio’s Buffalo chicken pie there’s one from The Pie Hole.

Still, I love doing it. Not for the opportunity to stuff my face, nor even for the chance to be an arbiter of taste. I love judging food competitions because each one teaches me something new. And that’s priceless.

At last night’s cupcake competition, which was part of a fundraiser for the Commission on Economic Opportunity, I learned a lot. And it wasn’t just about sweets either.

The event began at 5:30 in the evening. Before diving into cupcakes I thought it would be wise to get a little solid food in my belly and scoped out some of the more promising tables. The tastiest thing I had all night was the pulled pork from Dinosaur Bar-B-Que.

Actually, that was the best pulled pork I’ve ever had from Dinosaur. And that includes the time that John Stage cooked it for me himself. Its bark was thick. Its smoke ring was intense. And the meat shredded into fibers and not into mush. They were chopping and pulling shoulders on site, and it wasn’t too long before the smell of sweet smoke was pouring out of the ballroom into the lobby. Those joints of meat were serious.

As I was going around checking out the savory food, I was floored by the variety of cupcakes each baker brought to the event. It became painfully clear that it would be impossible for us to try them all.

When Innae Park and Tim Drawbridge arrived, the three of us had a judges conference. Tim had the splendid idea of letting each participant choose which cupcake they wanted to enter into the official judged competition.

We started off at Sweet Sues.

She brought mini cupcakes. God bless her. And what I really liked about her approach is how well thought out the offerings were. For example, she makes her own spiced Mexican chocolate, and used that in a minted cupcake with the notion that the mint would help cool some of the heat of the chocolate. But the one she served to the judges was described as a bread pudding cupcake, with whipped cream and warm creme anglaise. There were a few other components to the sample as well. And without a doubt, this was a very adult cupcake, which I loved. There was a whisper of booze, some assertive nutmeg. It was just a bit too sweet, and could have used something to bring it into balance.

Still, this was my first contact with Sue herself. I’ve heard great things. And after this taste, I’m really excited to see what else she’s cooking up in her Troy restaurant.

Then it was off to Sweet Temptations.

When I found out that they had won last year’s people’s choice award I was a little perplexed. Mostly because this bakery totally tanked in the FLB/AOA blind tasting earlier this year. But they brought a dozen different full sized cupcakes. However, they were far less certain than Sue about which one to submit for judging.

When pressed about her favorite the woman behind the counter begrudgingly offered the strawberry shortcake. However she seemed less than sure that this should be her entry. From a distance it didn’t look terribly appealing. The sliced strawberries were coated in a thick and brightly colored red glaze. They just looked like they would be cloying and lacking in texture and acid.

However the strawberries were surprisingly good. And the whipped cream was light and delicate. The yellow cake was tender and absorbed a little bit of the fruit juices. The top of the cupcake, which had been removed to make way for fruit and cream, sat atop the condiments and was dusted with a fine powdered sugar.

This just worked. It was delicious and refreshing. Everything went well together. And even at the end of the tasting, I would have gladly gone back for another one.

CoccaDotts was having none of our reindeer games.

They flatly refused to pick out a sample from their selection of mini cupcakes. So Innae came up with her four top picks. I vetoed one, and then the three of us came to a consensus: strawberry champagne.

Here’s the deal. If you are going to decorate a cupcake with something edible, it best be delicious. There was a flower made from sugar, which was very pretty. But it was hard and tasteless. As usual, I do like the texture of Rachel’s cake. It’s moist and dense without being too heavy. And the champagne did come through. Still, overall the flavor was flat, simple and sweet.

Last stop was The Cookie Factory.

When hearing the news of the judging method, which to be fair we developed just thirty minutes prior, the women behind the table were dismayed. They had run out of their best cupcake, which was a carrot and cheesecake combination. So instead of that, after much deliberation they selected for us a caramel apple cupcake with bits of apple baked into the batter and a caramel center.

It was a great idea, and could have been redolent of fall in upstate New York. Tim and Innae enjoyed this a lot, but I couldn’t get over its tooth-aching sweetness. The best caramels have a bitter back note that give them structure, or are salted to contrast the high sugar content.

This had neither. So I had to put them as my third pick. If memory serves the other judges had them tied for second with Sweet Sues.

You know what that means?

Despite knowing full well that Sweet Temptations’ were among the worst cupcakes sampled in the blind cupcake challenge, I found myself standing in front of a ballroom full of people pronouncing them the winner of this competition. And they were. They totally deserved it, too, based on the cupcake we ate.

But also based on the cupcake we didn’t eat. Before the official judging I presampled a Boston cream cupcake from Sweet Temptations and it too was a seriously good specimen. None of the flaws that were present in the blind tasting existed yesterday.

That means one of a few things.
1) We got a bum bunch of cupcakes from the bakery in the Spring.
2) When Sweet Temptations knows they are going to be judged, they bring their A game.
3) They have raised their standards and are now back in the cupcake elite.

Last night was great. It was a lot of fun to judge yet another food contest with Innae, and it was a pleasure to meet Tim and his amazingly well-behaved daughter. Thank goodness he came to the table with a level head. Otherwise I would have walked out of there sicker than sick.

And I’m quite glad that Sweet Temptations redeemed themselves. I’m also glad that The Cookie Factory took the crowd choice award this year, presumably on the back of those awesome cupcakes we didn’t get to try. Drat. Maybe next year.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. October 26, 2012 9:21 am

    I’m going to have to go to Sues and see if she still has any of those kicking around… :D Sound delicious! I love the notion of ‘adult cupcake’.

  2. October 26, 2012 6:09 pm

    Maybe they actually made their product edible now? That would be good.

  3. October 26, 2012 6:47 pm

    I was surprised too… considering the outcome of the previous cupcake competition. My only regret today: not having eaten more cupcakes.

  4. October 27, 2012 11:58 am

    I sincerely hope it is #3, but am betting it is more like #2. (I am SUCH a cynic.) I doubt it was #1. I just … really really doubt that. You ordered too many cupcakes for that.

    Coccadotts CAKE itself is delicious, which is why I stick to their vanilla cake with vanilla frosting. My mother likes their lemon cake, and seeing as she does not care for sweet things, I think this is something I would enjoy. (I prefer Fluffalicious’ cake – like their cupcakes they are light and spongy – but you have to order them ahead. You can walk into Coccadotts and get a made-that-day cake.)

    However, really, you have my mouth watering for some of that pulled pork. I have yet to go to Dinosaur in Troy.

  5. October 30, 2012 12:42 pm

    I’m a little suspicious of judging the quality of a bakery based solely on a competition, although I’d be even more disappointed if a bakery only brought their “a” game to a competition and not in their everyday product.

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