“When I got home and looked in the mirror, there was frosting in my hair.”
These words, coming from Kaisha’s lips in the aftermath, describe better than any other the carnage that was the Wedding Cupcake Challenge. What we did to the spread of cupcakes on my dining room table, doctors have done to Joan Rivers’ face. Angela and I decided to go with cupcakes instead of regular wedding cake for the big event; since neither of us are all that knowledgeable about the enormous cupcake scene in New York, we decided to hold a taste-off of our friends’ favorites. The entries: Cupcake Cafe (Hell’s Kitchen), Sugar Sweet Sunshine (Lower East Side), Magnolia (West Village; nobody’s pick to win, but its Sex and the City-enhanced fame and the ensuing hatred that sprouted up among the cupcakeratti, plus the reference in the classic “Lazy Sunday,” made it a must), Baked (Brooklyn), and Butter Lane (East Village). There was also a mystery entry, which I’ll get to a little later on.
A quick history: cupcake scholars are divided into two camps about the origin of the term “cupcake.” Most believe that it came from the fact that cupcakes were, well, cup-shaped and were generally baked in ramekins (née “pottery cups”) prior to the invention of the muffin tin.
Some others believe it was reflective of the volume measurements of the key ingredients in the recipe – this theory holds that, like the pound cake, the classic cupcake has a cup each of sugar, butter, flour, and eggs. But this theory is full of holes. The first known recipe for “A light Cake to bake in small cups” was printed in the second edition of Amelia Simmons’ American Cookery in 1796:
Half a pound sugar, half a pound butter, rubbed into two pounds flour, one glass wine, one do. [glass] Rosewater, two do.[glass] Emptins, a nutmeg, cinnamon and currants.
So while half a pound of sugar and butter is about a cup each, two pounds of flour is about four cups’ worth. Plus, the recipe tells the reader to “bake in small cups.” So there. It’s very satisfying to debunk an entire school of thought with 180 seconds of half-assed online research. One thing this recipe demonstrates that is not questioned: the cupcake is 100% American (NSFW), baby! While the recipe was believed to descend from English fruit cakes, the idea about taking treats and repackaging them into small, individual, easy-to-eat everyday portions? All us.
The judging: some things stood out before I had taken a first bite. First off, the icing. Four of the five cupcakes went for the “imprecise smear” method – none more so than Sugar Sweet Sunshine, which clearly had made a conscious choice to communicate “you know we did this sh*t by hand” to the customer; the things were downright sloppy. Baked cupcakes represented the other end of the spectrum – each one was topped with a remarkably precise blob of icing.
As I worked my way through the contestants, my ability to discern among cupcakes quickly became hampered by the sugar overload, and by the time I had gotten through the list I was bouncing off walls like a three-year-old on a Krackel bender. But through the haze I was able to see that Magnolia, Cupcake Cafe, and Butter Lane were all delicious – there wasn’t a busted cupcake in the bunch – but they fell somewhere in the middle of the extremes set by the other two cupcakes. It seemed like they wanted to tap into the toddler’s id like Sugar Sweet but didn’t have the cojones to go all in.
In the end, it was the well thought-out and formidably executed concepts of Sugar Sweet Sunshine and Baked that made them the top two. Baked took the high road – its less sweet cake and formidable icing aesthetic made a statement. This was clearly a cupcake for a more mature consumer; even the name “Baked” contributes some adults-only double entendre. Perhaps even more laudable, Sugar Sweet Sunshine went completely in the opposite direction – it produces the cupcake you would have made if you had professional cooking skills but the taste and style of a five-year-old. Again, here the name of the place was an extension of the root concept, as “Sugar Sweet Sunshine” sounds like something you might come up while playing with crayons.
This old palate preferred the taste of Baked, and the icing on the cake was the icing on the cake – its Buckminster Fulleresque precision would fit in perfectly with the elegance of a wedding.
Which brings us to the mystery entry: cream puffs from Beard Papa, a Japanese chain with several New York locations. They were excluded from direct competition with the cupcakes until now for a couple of reasons: (1) I think “what’s the best cupcake in the city” is a much more interesting blog topic than “do people prefer well-made cream puffs to well-made cupcakes,” which is effectively what we would be doing with Beard Papa in the mix; (2) “The Wedding Individually-Sized Dessert Challenge” doesn’t have that same snap to it.
All this being said, because of their extreme deliciousness scores it would also be unfair to entirely exclude them from mention. They were my favorite of the six desserts – both the plain and the dark chocolate cream puffs were transcendent. I don’t have an enormous sweet tooth, but this is one of only a handful of desserts I’d actively seek out. And if that weren’t enough, I can’t eat one, or even think of the place, without rapping “I love it when you call me Beard Pap-pa” to myself. Can you? Not any more, you can’t.
Half a dozen dessert joints down, and I feel ill. Going to lie down now.
BEST CUPCAKE: BAKED
BEST INDIVIDUALLY-SIZED DESSERT: BEARD PAPA