What’s In a Cupcake

By now, I’ve established myself as a cupcake connoisseur, and if you aren’t aware of this, you probably haven’t had my cupcakes, and for that, I’m sorry. Besides perfecting my own cupcake recipes — and I’ve got some really great ones — I still eat cupcakes and I know what makes the best cupcake. So what are we looking for in this cupcake hunt? We need a cake that is moist, has a nice, fine crumb, and not dry, especially chocolate. That is key. It also has to taste like it is described. A vanilla cupcake should taste like vanilla. It’s kind of off putting to eat a cupcake that’s tasty but doesn’t have a hint of vanilla. Frosting needs to be creamy with just the right amount of sweetness, too much and you have grocery-store, canned frosting. You don’t want to be eating a cupcake with a side of butter, either. We’re looking for balance here. Perfect buttery-sugary balance.

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There are a few factors that I feel are essential to evaluating the perfect cupcake and I’ve developed a grading scale based on these 5 essential elements and am grading cupcakes accordingly. All cupcakes are provided equal opportunity to not suck. But I’m going all in for this cupcake challenge and only the best make the cut. So let’s get serious with these judgments. Cupcakes are small, multi-bite wonders that do not require a plate (or even a napkin). They are cute, they just are. It’s kind what they are all about. So presentation is key. Frosting that is slapped on with a spatula does not make me feel things. The magic of piping a perfect cupcake with creamy frosting is the stuff dreams are made of. We want symmetry, something that takes you away for a moment and decide to go all in for cupcake heaven.
The first bite is a telling sign on how the remainder of cupcake bliss will end up. Am I in for an awesome mini break from life, or does it end as abruptly as it started. While we are looking at a cupcake as one, awesome entity, the cake and frosting, on its own, can ruin the foodgasmic effect we are searching for. If you can eat these separate parts alone, you have the beginning of an epic cupcake finale. Another aspect, which brings us closer to cupcake heaven is the cake:frosting ratio. A perfect cupcake presents balance that gives you everything you need. No more, no less. So now that we know what’s at stake and what we’re looking for on this cupcake quest, let’s get to the fun part.

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Parisi Bakery – Astoria

I walk past this bakery most days after the gym, but before I get called a variety of unsavory things by less than stellar men. The smell of bread escapes from the door and then my eyes roll for the next 10 blocks home. The struggle is real. And while Parisi is known for its amazing bread, they also have butter cookies, canolis, and rainbow cookies, like every great Italian bakery should. But Parisi is Greek, because I live in Astoria. And they also have cupcakes. They aren’t a featured product, but this is New York, so the small serving at the bottom of the case was crying out for me to take them home. So I did. And I tasted.

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Parisi has several different kinds (Canolli Cupcake, Red Velvet, Cookies & Cream) but I went with the staples: Chocolate and Vanilla. They both have a great presentation, perfectly domed tops with smooth frosting application and good sprinkle placement around the edges. The chocolate cake was dry, with a very subtle chocolate flavor. Definitely not what we are looking for in a chocolate cupcake. On first bite, you taste the bland cake, since there is much more cake an frosting, which immediately had me reaching for my milk. The dry cake completely took away from the frosting, which was also not my favorite. It was too sweet and I couldn’t taste a vanilla frosting. It just tasted like sugar; it wasn’t creamy or buttery, just sweet. The overly sweet frosting, dry cake, and poor cake:frosting ratio, makes this a bland cupcake.

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The vanilla cupcake was a totally different story. The cake was moist, buttery, and had a good golden color. And it tasted like vanilla. The chocolate frosting paired with it had a good milk chocolate flavor but there just wasn’t enough of it for the cake. The lack of frosting created a dry taste after a few bites, even when the cake was great. This cupcake was good and it could have been great, if there was more frosting, and it hadn’t come from a refrigerated case.

The pastry cases of Parisi are full and inviting, bursting with all the things I stuff my face with when I visit my boyfriend’s family in Long Island (hello, Rainbow Cookies). I will always be tempted by the bread and cookies, but not the cupcakes.

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Parisi Brothers Bakery
3017 Broadway, Queens, NY 11106

Flavors
Chocolate with Vanilla Frosting $2.75
Vanilla with Chocolate Frosting $2.75

Chocolate cupcake score
Presentation 4/5
First Bite 3/5
Cake 2/5
Frosting 2/5
Cake:Frosting Ratio 1/5
Total 12/25

Vanilla cupcake score
Presentation – 4/5
First Bite 3/5
Cake 4/5
Frosting 3/5
Cake:Frosting Ratio 1/5
Total 15/25

How To Eat a Cupcake

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Obviously I’m way into all things cupcake. It’s been that way for awhile. Even before I moved to New York and embraced the cupcake craze of the mid-2000s.  Bite sized cake with perfectly portioned frosting. Heaven. Well 3-4 bites, actually. Who wants one bite? A couple bites is more my style. Especially if its the perfect cupcake.

When I first moved to New York City, I was 22, not jaded by the big city, and I was all over every cupcake I could get my hands on. And froyo was acceptable as lunch. Magnolia Bakery was the reigning gourmet cupcake queen. There was nothing quite like exploring a new neighborhood in the city heat with a cupcake in hand.

I’ve always felt a flutter of excitement when I pass by a bakery and scope out the cupcakes. And yes, I’m totally judging you, cupcakes. Is your cake the moistest? Is your frosting creamy but not sickly sweet? How does the cake:frosting ratio measure up? These are all essential questions when evaluating potential mini-cake consumables. But most of all: will one bite send me into a food coma of happiness? Does a mini foodgasm hit? This is really the effect any good cupcake should have. Foodgasm factor is key.

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image via Bent Spoon

Now I’m already biased on the perfect cupcake. And it does not reside in New York. The gold standard of cupcakes, the one that all other cupcakes must measure up to come from Bent Spoon, in Princeton, NJ. This amazing bakery is actually known for their ice cream (which is also epic) but their cupcakes have been my favorite for a long time. They don’t carry crazy flavors, they keep it simple with vanilla and chocolate. But its perfect. Perfectly moist cake. Perfectly creamy frosting. Perfect cake:frosting ratio. Just perfect. Foodgasm. Every.single.time. And there have been many, many times. Every trip to Princeton involves a cupcake souvenir of 16 mini cupcakes. And while I’d like to make the trek to Princeton every time I need to stuff my face with perfect cupcakes, I definitely need to find my holy grail NYC cupcake.

So its time for a Cupcake Challenge. I will find the best cupcake in this city. Sifting through the good and the bed to find The One. I know this has been done before but with the influx of gourmet cupcake shops,  a few new notable cupcakeries needed to be added to the list of contenders. I know its a tough job but someone has to do it. I’ve developed an intense rating system and multi-round taste-testing. Because if I’m going to eat a million cupcakes, I’m going to do it right.

Consuming cupcake after cupcake will take some time and there’s only one way to do it: in a purely scientific manner. Because science is legit. I’ve compiled a list of over 50 (61 to be exact) bakeries whose cupcakes I will be consuming. I have developed an in depth rating scale and I’m putting on my researcher hat and taking all five senses on the research project of my dreams.  Get ready for Round 1, its going to be a sugary, awesome mess.