Cupcakes were neatly tucked into the “childhood” section of my memory – wedged between fingerpainting and falling off the monkey bars. I hadn’t eaten one – by choice at least – in 35 years.
Then Uke called. Cupcake throwdown. Her house.
Baffled by a national “gourmet cupcake” craze (as well as Portland’s own, growing mini-psychosis), I accepted her invitation out of curiosity and the desire to reacquaint myself with the tiny, seductive pastries.
Cupcakes are spreading into America’s urban areas – and waistlines – at an alarming rate. Google “cupcake craze” and you’ll see what I mean. Portland is no exception. From the “farm to table” cupcakes of Tulips Cupcakery to the vegan offerings of Cakeface – cupcakes have arrived in Maine.
So. . . there we were last Saturday night. Kate (from The Blueberry Files) and I huddled with Uke in her kitchen. Cupcakes covered one entire counter.
Here’s what happened:
The Mission: Try 12 cupcakes from 7 local bakeries. In one hour. Can you say “sugar rush”?
Approach: We devoured cupcakes from both established and newly sprouted bakeries – from classically baked to vegan/gluten free.
Contestants: Scratch, Rosemont, Tulips Cupcakery, Cakeface, Katie Made Bakery, Two Fat Cats, and One Fifty Ate.
Method: To achieve parity, we grouped them into four taste categories: Vanilla, Chocolate, Spiced Fruit and Vegan/Gluten-Free
Vanilla Grouping – Tulips’ Madagasgar Vanilla Bean vs. Katie Made’s Vanilla.
This one wasn’t even close. Tulips’ cake was moist and pliant. Frosting rich and creamy with an intense vanilla wallop. Delightful. Katie Made’s was dry and borderline stale. Topped with a pasty, plastic frosting reminiscent of playdough, I had trouble choking it down. Don’t mean to be harsh, but it was bad. I have to think it wasn’t exactly fresh. At least I hope not. It did look pretty though – lots of sprinkles on top. And, my cohorts swore it tasted better with coffee. But, let’s be honest – what doesn’t?
Chocolate Grouping – Two Fat Cats’ Chocolate vs. Rosemont’s Guinness Chocolate vs. Scratch’s Black Forest Chocolate.
Two Fat Cats’ cupcake – chocolate with white icing – was the embodiment of that childhood memory. Super-sweet frosting – more sugar than fat. Cake full of air like a Ho Ho. Not bad. But, alas, not my style and (lightbulb!) probably the reason cupcakes haven’t crossed my lips in decades. Rosemont’s was the flip side. Not like a cupcake at all. Compressed. Heavy. Slightly bitter from the beer and dark chocolate bits. Frosting more a thick glaze. Good, but nothing to rave about.
Scratch’s on the other hand – OMG. Fluffy, rich, dense, moist. Melt-in-your-mouth buttercream frosting in perfect proportion to the cake. Fruit filling tasted of cherry – not sugar. A masterpiece.
Spiced Fruit Grouping – Tulips’ Pumpkin vs. Scratch’s Banana Cream Pie vs. One Fifty-Ate’s Apple Spice with Brown Sugar Cream Cheese Frosting.
Tulips’ pumpkin was – again – solid. Flavorful, not too sweet. An even grain to the cake – not too many “air holes.” Maybe a tad undercooked. Methinks the baker’s fresh, Maine ingredients – cage-free eggs, natural butters, local dairy, unbleached flour – showed through. Quite a treat.
One Fifty Ate’s spiced apple surprised me. Flat, with a mere schmear of frosting – I wasn’t expecting much. Instead, I got a lovely mouthful of apple bread with cream cheese. It just barely qualified as a cupcake, though. Too subtle. Too spongy.
Scratch’s (ahem) took the cake for the second time, however. Pure velvety banana essence. Light cream flavor in the frosting. Wonderful.
Vegan/Gluten-Free Grouping (all from Cakeface) – Mocha Chip Mocha vs. Spiced Chocolate. Hazelnut Maple vs. Hazelnut Mocha.
Okay, yes, we segregated these. It was a texture issue. Can you blame us? We also wanted to be fair. Made from ingredients such as white rice, quinoa, buckwheat, xanthan gum, soy milk, fake butter and ground flax (subbing for eggs) we were dealing with apples and oranges, people.
To my astonishment, I really liked two of these – Hazelnut Maple and Spiced Chocolate. The maple one was intense – the most fragrant cupcake of the night, by far. It’s aroma filled the room the moment Uke pulled it from the bag. Spiced chocolate offered shaved chocolate overtones and a wave of cinnamon with each bite. The two mocha ones just didn’t work for me, though. Somehow the cakes were too flaky, the frosting too sandy. Strange.
All-in-all, the evening succeeded in re-opening my eyes to the world of cupcakes. And reinforcing why Scratch simply kicks ass.
Blogger’s Note: I titled this post “coterie” ‘cuz I just adore one of its definitions (“a group of prairie dogs occupying a communal burrow”), which soooo describes how it felt in Uke’s warm kitchen shoveling cupcakes into my piehole.