Cupcakes – the overhyped divas of the dessert world. Everyone and their mother suddenly had a craving for the NYC-born Magnolia bakery cupcakes, close on the heels of a Sex and the City episode featuring the bakery in 2000. Such intense and fantasized cravings, that I often doubt whether the cupcakes people rave about are really that amazing/ awesome/ unbelievable/ wicked/ pick-your-orgasmic-adjective – or whether it’s all just hype, with pretty icing on top.
So I’ve finally decided to lay down my own personal cupcake standards. Or more like standards for what makes me fall in love with an entire “cupcake experience.” Just any pretty blonde cupcake tray with a flirtsie name ain’t going to cut it no more.
While I typically sit around at random moments of the day and come up with standards for this, that, and the other that crosses my plate, the thinking behind this set of standards was inspired my visit to Abu Dhabi’s Bloomsbury’s cupcake stall, which kudos to the owners, feels like a cozy Victorian sitting room despite being bang in the middle of a mall. The place is run by Shafeena, a fellow food blogger and big time foodie, so naturally, it’s been on my list of places to drop by and show some fellow blogger love after it threw its doors open to the public last month. For days after I’d shoved my spoon into every one of the nine cupcakes that Shafeena pulled off the counter, I really pushed myself to think of what it is that makes a cupcake shop touch my heart.
Disclaimer: These are my own personal subjective standards, some of which surfaced at Bloomsbury’s, others of which I’ve experienced at other cupcake institutions in New York and Dubai.
~~ THE FRYINGPAN CUPCAKE STANDARDS ~~
(PS. For the majority of you who are more interested in the cupcakes I sampled at Bloomsbury's than in my petty standards, I've humored your curiosity with the photos in this post.)
1. Moist Cupcakes.
There’s something about sinking your teeth into a dense moist ball of cake that is just so, so…so not like ploughing through a dry airy lump of cake. And trust me, we’ve all come across many a dry cake lump – albeit prettily iced and sugared – and have still oohed and aahed over it because, hey, cupcakes are in fashion now, aren’t they?
Carrot and red velvet cupcakes typically tend to be the moist winners (because of the oil drizzled in? any bakers out there?), and sure enough, those were the ones that rocketed to the top of my list at Bloomsbury's.
2. Cream Cheese Icing.
If I had to be trapped on an island with one and only one kind of icing, it would be the sour and luscious cream cheese kind. Cream cheese adds that depth and creaminess to a cupcake that a hardened buttercream nob – i.e. sugar + butter on cake (also sugar and butter) – just doesn’t. Also, where semi-melted cream cheese feels rich and decadent, I often find that semi-melted buttercream just slithers tastelessly across my tongue, leaving a slimy after-feel. That said, I do respect the need for a good buttercream icing because you can’t do cream cheese on everything…or maybe you can?
On a related note, if a cupcakary (I’m surprised there is no such word, so I will create it right now. Urban Dictionary, take note.) hands me a red velvet or carrot cupcake without the traditional cream cheese icing, they instantly lose cupcake credibility in my eyes. Magnolia in Dubai Mall committed that faux pas when they first opened – I had to beg the shop assistant to treat their red velvet creations appropriately before he finally gave in and slathered some cream cheese on an un-iced red velvet for me. I am relieved to note that, when I last checked, Magnolia finally did right by its cupcakes and offered cream cheesed red velvets as part of its regular offering.
Did I already say how much I loved the carrot cupcake at Bloomsbury? The cream cheese may be a good slather of a reason why.
3. Well-Executed Flavors.
I love how cupcakaries have departed from the usual vanilla and chocolate and gone uber creative with their flavors…
...only to CRASH AND BURN. I once sunk my teeth into a lavender-scented cupcake, which was akin to lathering my insides with Bath & BodyWorks body wash. I was unsettled, to say the least.
Now some flavors that I've witnessed executed quite successfully include the syrupy (=moist) dates cupcake at Sugarbox, Bloomsbury's German chocolate coconut-sprinkled cupcake with dulce de leche coursing through its insides, a lovely purple yam cupcake made by Abigail, a fellow blogger at a recent Bakefest, and finally, my all-time favorite, the lemon cupcake at Sugar Sweet Sunshine in New York. All the flavors are simple (with the exception of the purple yam, which was too deliciously ingenious to be termed simple), appropriately concentrated, and fully absorbed into the core of the cake.
4. Freshly Baked in an Open-Kitchen.
I enjoy oggling over my cupcakes being made. I’d like to know that they’re fresh and made just for me. I need to know that the baker isn’t double dipping her pointy into the buttercream to test the texture. And it’s frankly the best way to market cupcakes* – I mean, we’re not talking grinding sausage here. Making cupcakes is one of the prettiest kitchen acts you can showcase, so there’s no excuse for a cupcakary to not do this. Unless of course, the cupcakary wants to outsource their cupcakes or serve me the batch from yesterday…in which case, they’d be better off selling sausage.
*Case in point: While the date cupcake wasn't ready to make my platter at the time, the image of a fresh batch of warm date cupcakes waiting to be iced at the Bloomsbury baking counters is etched in my mind. There’s no way I’m going there next time without trying one. I’ve been fantasizing about them ever since my first visit.
5. Cupcake Worthy Prices
A fellow blogger Nick Regos recently ranted about the obscene prices of cupcakes in this country, and I wholeheartedly agree. It hurts to pay more than 10 dirhams for a single cupcake, especially when I used to buy my favorite cupcakes at Sugar Sweet Sunshine for $1.75, close to 6.39 dirhams per cupcake. The prices charged at cupcakaries across Dubai are in line with Magnolia dollar prices in New York – but you just know that of the hefty $3.25 price tag attached to a Magnolia cupcake, $1.5 of it is = hype.
6. Personal Touch and Passion.
This isn’t me just going overboard with my cupcake sentiments. Really, you can taste true pride and passion in a cupcake, feel it in the atmosphere, reminisce about it when you wake up from your afternoon nap on a Sunday just to sleepwalk to the fridge for a smidgen of that lovely carrot cupcake adopted from Bloombury’s. I loved hearing from Shafeena how she worked with her friend and pastry chef of Bea’s of Bloomsbury to concoct customized flavors for her bakery. This wasn’t just a Ctrl+C/Ctrl+V operation – the flavors were ones that Shafeena was bursting with excitement to describe. There was a reason why this cupcake has strawberry jam, or why that one has a dulce de leche centre (because people love to find things oozing from the centre. HEAR HEAR.), or why three of the cupcakes were sweetly named after her nephews, one of whom loves nuts. It was refreshing to hear that despite the unbelievable traffic in her shop just days after its opening, she wasn’t going to cave in and erect a cupcake empire extending into the likes of Bloomingdales in Dubai Mall.
I want there to be only one cupcakary of its kind, and for it to feel special, and for it to make me feel special. Make me feel smothered with cupcake exclusivity and love, like granny does. Give me cupcake artistry that can be indulged in at one place, from the ovens of someone who has thoughtfully labored over the ingredients going in, not mass reproduced and shipped out everywhere else.
Profound thought for the day:
An oven devoid of love doesn’t a home for a cupcake make.
From top left, clockwise: The peanut buttercream cupcake named after Shafeena's nephew, "Go Nuts for Adil," an Oreo-studded cookies and cream cupcake, the key lime pie with lemon meringue, and a classic strawberries and cream.
Have I found a cupcakary that does ALL six consistently? No. It’s usually more like four or five. Sugar Sweet Sunshine comes pretty close, and so did plunging into that carrot cupcake on those fabulous red upholstered chairs facing the open bakery at Bloomsbury's.
…but my harsh rating may just be because I’m partial to my own grand and evil plan to unveil an underground cupcake bungalow someday, selling only three kinds of moist, rich, six dirham cupcakes: red velvet, carrot, and one other exotic flavor as an element of surprise for passers-by. Pull up a stool at my kitchen counter, watch me swirl my legendary cream cheese icing atop a freshly baked and cooled cupcake, sink your teeth in, and above all, feel the love.
Al Wahda Mall