Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Out of the Kitchen: Albany Cupcake-Off

I think it's time to acknowledge that sometimes, interesting food-related stuff happens that's not directly tied to me baking something. And so, I've added a new entry tag: "Out of the Kitchen." And I can't think of a better way to start off my non-recipe entries (of which I assure you there won't be a whole lot -- this will still be primarily a baking blog) than with an event I was part of today: a blind tasting of area cupcakeries' offerings.

The competition has been pretty fierce around here between the four major cupcake bakeries. There's Coccadotts, best known as either the people who failed miserably on "Cupcake Wars" (and got a lot of flack afterwards for it) or the people who recently got a lot of publicity for making Buffalo wing cupcakes. There's Bettie's, which you can't miss, with their multiple outlets (at least three, last I knew) and two cupcake trucks and massive publicity everywhere you go. There's Sweet Temptations, now in two locations and with one truck. And there's Fluffalicious, which started out as a truck and only recently opened a shop of their own.

But while all of them have their fans and detractors, who really has the best cupcake? I was determined to find out, and after planting a bug in the ear of the Profussor, who has set up quite a few head-to-head food comparisons like this, we had our answer.

Many precautions were taken, because the cupcake business can be cutthroat around here. The orders were placed anonymously, just an order for a party or something, no mention given of our true intent. All participants were sworn to secrecy, not allowed to say anything about the event in public in case a bakery were to find out and somehow game the system, make sure that we had extra-good cupcakes just for us, when what we wanted was to find a fair answer: If you walked into one of these places off the street, right now, where would you get the best cupcake? And to remove our own biases, we tested them blind, with only a few organizers on the other end of the room knowing whose cakes went on plates labeled A, B, C and D.

At high noon, we gathered and prepared for the tasting, which included water and cold milk to wash down the cakes.

Milk and water

First up was the vanilla round: Yellow cupcakes with vanilla frosting.

Round 1, Vanilla/vanilla

Cupcake A stood out for being almost shortcake-like, with a whipped-cream-like, non-gritty frosting that had a pleasant vanilla flavor and a fairly good cake. Cupcake D's frosting wasn't so good, awfully greasy-tasting, but their cake was buttery and moist and delicious.

Meanwhile, Cupcake C's frosting tasted chemical-y and buttery in the bad way, like a stick of butter, while their cake tasted mostly like cake flour, like the chemicals used to give cake flour its texture. And Cupcake B was just wretched -- the frosting tasted like Crisco and chemicals, and the cake was about the same, artificial-tasting and just awful. Even the sprinkles were bad; for some odd reason, they tasted like black pepper. You could actually do a little better to buy a box of cheap cake mix and a jar of frosting at the grocery store than to eat this one. We also noticed that B was the smallest cupcake, but considering how bad it was, that might've been a blessing.

So much for "yay, we get to eat cupcakes!" Clearly, they were not all created equal. Onward to round two: Chocolate cakes with chocolate frosting.

Round 2, Chocolate/chocolate

Again, A stood out, this time for being the only one that tasted like chocolate: the frosting had a clear cocoa taste, while the cake also tasted like chocolate cake. D was so-so, not offensive but not chocolate-y, either. C's frosting had a hard crust on top, like it had been sitting around for a while, and its cake was even worse: it was beyond dry into full-on tough, actually hard for me to cut through with a knife, and it tasted about the same, dry and awful. But B was again the worst, tasting like chemicals and grease instead of like cake.

Round three was the specialty-flavor round, and we went with the most popular one across all four shops: Peanut butter cup.

Round 3, Peanut butter cup

A faltered a bit in this round -- it was pretty much the same as the chocolate/chocolate one in the previous round, except for a scant peanut butter filling (which I think was tasty, but I can't be sure 'cause there was so little of it). C actually redeemed itself a little bit here, 'cause while their cake was again very dry and lacking in flavor, the frosting was the best of the bunch, very peanut-y. D was slightly peanut-y in the frosting but sort of greasy and overall unimpressive. And B, well, by this point, I actually resented that I had to put this in my mouth, and when I got a taste of their frosting, I actually made a face -- again, it was all Crisco and chemicals, as was the cake.

You shouldn't actually dread eating a cupcake, but with bakery B's, I did. They were so bad, across the board, so chemical-y and artificial-tasting and lacking in any good flavor at all, that I was actually offended by them. How does bakery B get away with selling these? How do they have the nerve to charge people money for such wretchedly bad cupcakes? Don't they have any taste buds to know how much theirs suck? Do they have no shame?

After much eating and thinking, we turned in our score sheets, and then, we were told the identities of the bakeries we'd been eating from...

The cupcake carnage

Bakery A was Fluffalicious.
Bakery D, which I'd say was my second-favorite (and my favorite yellow cake), was Coccadotts.
Bakery C was Bettie's.
Bakery B was Sweet Temptations.

After the big reveal, the ratings of bakery C made sense to me, 'cause I have tried their cupcakes a couple of times and have always found them to be very dry and not very good in flavor (which is why I stopped eating theirs). I was open to them being the winner, because it was a blind test and I could've been surprised, but I wasn't -- all of the added locations and cute pink ads and double-decker buses in the world can't save a dry, lousy cupcake.

As for Sweet Temptations, I just don't understand how someone can run a shop specializing in cupcakes and make ones that are that horribly bad, then put their name on them and charge people money for them. They were just that bad. I mean, before they opened, didn't they ever eat a cupcake before, ever notice that they're not supposed to taste like grease and chemicals? How do they have the nerve to sell this crap? As for the second obvious question, why do people buy them, I'd guess it's simply because they have no basis for comparison at the time, because it's a cupcake, if not a good cupcake. For that matter, I've eaten one of their cakes before, and I don't remember it being so bad, but not good, either. I almost think it's one of those things where if you buy one of theirs and think, "gee, this isn't very good," you might second-guess yourself, "but they're cupcake bakers, this is what they do, they're professionals... maybe I'm just not appreciating the goodness of this cupcake, 'cause if they run a cupcake shop, they must make good cakes, right?"

(Further reading: The Profussor's recap with scoring breakdowns.)

5 comments:

  1. I agree with you on Sweet Temptations - the only cupcake of the group I have actually tried so far. I stopped at the Schenectady shop last year right as they opened and thought they MUST be good...the buttercream tasted really off and I was extremely disappointed. I feel that they either use the Wilton clear butter flavoring or their real butter is stored next to garlic in the refrigerator. It was having that awful cupcake that propelled me into just making my own..not worrying if my 'white' frosting was truly white and using some Kate's butter from Maine!

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  2. You clearly know what's good! I might disagree with you on the details - didn't think any of the cupcakes tasted of good quality chocolate - but I'm in complete agreement with your overall assessment. And thanks for describing the flavors so well!

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  3. To address your last paragraph, I think the allure of cupcakes is completely aesthetic. I've never tasted one and said, "this is the greatest thing ever."

    This was a fun experience. Hopefully, it sheds light on the landscape for people who care more about them than I.

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  4. sounds to me you have something personal against sweet temptations???

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    1. I didn't have anything against Sweet Temptations before the blind tasting, Mr. or Ms. Anonymous, whoever you are. In fact, I'd been to their shop and had a cupcake once, and I didn't remember it being particularly bad (though I didn't recall it being notably good, either.)

      I still don't have anything personal against them -- I don't even know them. But what I do have against them is that they're selling really, really awful cupcakes. I don't understand how they can either not know how bad their cupcakes are, or knowingly put their name on a really bad product and charge people money for it without feeling ashamed.

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