Friday, March 13, 2009
I like to make cupcakes mainly because they provide many mini opportunities to get creative, but I actually enjoy eating normal cake more than eating cupcakes (the chance to cut extra slivers off a whole cake is irresistable!). I have yet to go crazy for the cupcake couture that has swept the middle/upper classes of our nation; every time I hear someone raving about one of the famous shops, their ecstasies focus on the icing of the cupcakes. Great icing is simple to make at home (see my buttercream, dark chocolate buttercream, and cream cheese frosting recipes), but good cake is difficult to make from scratch consistently (see my comments at the end of this post).
Judging by the fancy cupcakes I've tasted, the couture shops also struggle with producing good cakes from scratch, as my tastings have ranged from bread-like cake with mediocre texture to very nicely flavored, moist cake. I have also noticed that people often comment about the sweetness of a cupcake when gauging the quality of the cake; in my book, good cake is more a product of flavor and texture than the level of sweetness. Sweetness is a personal preference that often ranges widely according to cultural upbringing or just individual taste.
In the end, however, I am not avoiding cupcake bakeries (or any bakeries, for that matter!), and have enjoyed the majority of cupcakes that I've tried. I'm not criticizing my friends who love these cupcakes, I'm just saying that my love for food requires me to honestly speak my mind and expect the best from well-renowned and even award-winning bakeries. I would love to learn from their clean decoration designs, flavor combinations, and, yes, their quality recipes. So here are some samples!
Vanilla Bake Shop: one of Martha Stewart's favorite cupcake shops in the country, found at Wilshire and 5th in Santa Monica. These cupcakes were NOT disappointing! They had mini cupcake versions of their full-sized cupcakes (a brilliant idea for those of us who want to try different kinds), pictured in the two photos above: coconut, bittersweet chocolate, chocolate with vanilla icing (top photo), and mocha, mint chip, and black berry (lower photo), amongst other flavors. It was also notable that they had a small selection of Parisian macarons; the pistachio macaron (top photo) was just the right consistency with natural flavor, but this strawberry one was the worst macaron I've ever had - see the stiff outer layer and the crumbled interior? Despite the strawberry macaron (whose demise I will chock up to seasonal un-tested recipes), I very much enjoyed Vanilla's cupcakes, especially the blackberry cupcake that was filled with a light custard reminiscent of fruit tarts. Well done.
Dots, in Pasadena, has mixed reviews online, but I found their mini cupcakes to be nice. The cake did not amaze me, but it wasn't bad. They are cute, have a variety of flavors, and were a nice treat when brought to a party.
Plus the box was really cute!
I would also like to mention Miette, which I visited at the Ferry Building in San Francisco; their shop is adorable, and I had to buy a cupcake there just because I loved its design (the Old Fashioned below, on the left; gingerbread on the right). I waited a bit to eat it, so the 7-minute frosting was starting to melt a little. With such light frosting, the cake is key, and it was not quite right. This was a typical so-so cake from scratch for me. Just a little too heavy and too roughly textured. So sad that such a beautiful cupcake was disappointing to eat!
Others I've tried: Auntie Em's in Eagle Rock (bread-like cake texture, but good frosting) and Violet's Cakes in Pasadena. I had red velvet from both, but have never had red velvet cake that I LOVED. Another trend that I haven't gotten into - I prefer straight up chocolate.
I think I'll stick to Parisian macarons if I'm going to splurge on a luxury baked good that I can't make myself! For now, that is.