Thursday, April 16, 2009

The long-awaited cupcake taste-off; or, Why Billy's is the best

On Wednesday afternoon at the bakery, I received news that the General Manager of Billy's (hereafter known as AV(f), not to be confused with the male AV who makes frequent appearances on this blog) was in the midst of shuttling all around town to pick up cupcakes from all our competitors. We were doing a cupcake taste-off, she announced, and so I gamely prepared my stomach and waited for the cupcakes to arrive.

When they did, we set up the cupcakes on AV(f)'s desk with an unfolded cake box as a makeshift tablecloth. AV(f) had tried to get a vanilla-vanilla and chocolate-chocolate cupcake from each place she visited, the better to compare directly to our v-v and c-c cupcakes (which was, ostensibly, the point of this exercise). The protocol was to work our way through the cupcakes, taking a tiny bite of each frosting and cake combo (and I mean TINY-- there were SO MANY cupcakes), and comment as we went. The results? Well, read on for the most absurdly biased cupcake roundup ever printed!

This spread is what faced us. Daunting.

1. Buttercup Bake Shop

The mangled, messy cupcakes in their box.

Cross-section

From Buttercup, a bakery started by Magnolia alums, we had a vanilla-vanilla, chocolate-chocolate, and lemon. Our overall impression of Buttercup, aside from the insanely messy appearance since they all got mangled in the box, was "Dry!" The cake of all three was dense and dry, and the frosting was all insanely sweet. I love me a good sweet frosting, and Billy's frosting is definitely sweet, but this stuff was so sugary it crunched in your teeth. The lemon frosting was also sharply, metallically lemony. Not to over-share, but of the billion cupcakes I tasted that afternoon, the only flavor I was burping for hours afterward was that lemon frosting.

2. Kitchenette

Suitably well-packaged

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The cupcakes from Kitchenette were alarming. The frosting, for one, was an otherwordly color, and the mishmash of sprinkles on top made it look as though the garnisher had made a mistake. Both the cake and the frosting tasted awful, and the frosting had a weird, rubbery aftertaste. The frosting also smeared EVERYWHERE and dyed everything a garish orange color. No thanks.

3. Magnolia

Securely pacakaged, but a really large box for three cupcakes

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Like Buttercup, Magnolia offered us vanilla-vanilla, chocolate-chocolate, and lemon. I actually liked the vanilla buttercream (it's very similar to ours), and the chocolate frosting was also surprisingly good. But both the vanilla and chocolate cakes were very dry. The lemon cupcake looked promising but was the definite loser of the bunch for me; they used a boiled vanilla frosting flavored with lemon zest, which was just texturally all wrong for me (very slimy), and a very eggy, sharp dollop of lemon curd inside. No go.

4. Baked By Melissa

This was their packaging. They don't have bags, apparently.

Cross-sections, sort of.

These absurd little puppies are all the rage, so we gamely tried them. First off, let it be said that, at $1 apiece, these are extraordinarily expensive. If we priced our cupcakes this way, each cupcake would be $15. But people like small things, and maybe they taste good, right? WRONG! The cake of all three (tie-dye, red velvet, and oreo), was exceptionally spongy-- I called it "the cake that chews you back," since you just kept chewing and the cake pretty much remained intact, like couch cushion foam. There was very little frosting on any of the cupcakes, and it's worth noting that the red velvet frosting was one of the weirdest substances I've ever tasted. To my palate, it tasted of salt; another taster cited candy corn as the signature flavor, while a third invoked anchovies. Not sure if this batch was off, but if not, these frostings have some serious work to do.

5. Sweet Revenge

Great packaging, secure in individual containers

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And then we got to Sweet Revenge. I've been there once before and really liked their "Pure" cupcake (vanilla-vanilla). I'm a big fan of the packaging, the look of the cupcakes, the shop itself, and the owner. But how do the cupcakes taste? We had a Pure and a Dirty (chocolate-chocolate). The Pure, as I had remembered, was intensely vanilla-y, with sweet, smooth frosting and a fine, dense crumb. The Dirty was equally as as chocolatey, and I liked the fudge-like chocolate frosting, even though I had expected it be a bit more like ganache based on its appearance. Overall, these cupcakes were the far and away (non-Billy's) winners-- they're high quality and quite tasty.

6. Cupcake Cafe

In the package-- a very tall box with two small cupcakes inside

They are quite pretty, it's true

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After finding a winner with Sweet Revenge, we moved right along to Cupcake Cafe. I've always avoided this place because the frosting looks like the kind I hate. Well, I was right. One forkful of the vanilla-vanilla made me want to spit it out, and I never, never spit a baked good out. Eating the frosting was like snacking on an oil-infused stick of butter, or perhaps slightly melted shortening. The cake was dense and a little dry, but good lord people, focus on the frosting here-- it's an affront to cupcakes everywhere. Yes, they're pretty, but so are real flowers, and they don't taste good either. Avoid these grease-bombs at all costs.

7. Two Little Red Hens

Chocolate-vanilla in clamshell packaging

Vanilla-chocolate in clamshell

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The cupcakes from Two Little Red Hens were huge, almost Crumbs-sized. And while I thought I had survived the Trial by Frosting after eating the offering from Cupcake Cafe, no no-- there was more in store. The vanilla frosting on the chocolate cupcake was foul, tasting like whipped sweet shortening and nothing else. It coated your mouth and made you (me) make a grossed-out face. The chocolate cake was very, very dry, as was the vanilla cake. The chocolate frosting, however, was actually pretty good-- fudgy but light and very smooth.

8. Tribeca Treats

Standard-- packed in a paper bag.

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The cupcakes from Tribeca Treats were next. These were, well, standard. As AV(f) put it, they tasted like cake mix done well, almost mass-produced but containing with really good ingredients. The cake on both was pretty grainy and heavy, and the frosting was on the light/buttery side, but neither was offensive. I wouldn't go out of my way to eat these cupcakes, but if someone gave one to me I'd probably eat it. Meh.

9. Chikalicious

Packed in a paper bag, with ticker-tape wrapping between the two of them

Close-up... no cross-section photo, because apparently my sugar-addled brain forgot to take one at this point

The last of the competitors we tasted was Chikalicious. People rave about these cupcakes, so we were eager to try them. The first thing we noted was the lack of structural integrity in the chocolate frosting-- like chocolate pudding, it was dripping everywhere, even though these were the last ones AV(f) picked up on her way back to the bakery. We cut into both of them, and the chocolate cake had good flavor but was a little bit too light to support such goopy frosting. The dulce de leche cupcake was very tasty; there was a scoop of caramel in the middle, which was delicious and rich. I wasn't a huge fan of the frosting, which was too light for me-- almost foamy. But overall these both did have good taste going for them.

10. Billy's!

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For the sake of comparison, we brought two of our own cupcakes down from the cupcake case. I must say that I really do like our vanilla buttercream-- it's sweet but not too sugary (it doesn't crunch between your teeth the way Buttercup's does). Our chocolate buttercream is lightly chocolatey and not overpowering (although I admit I like our vanilla better, but I'm always more for vanilla frosting than chocolate). Our vanilla cake was tender and soft and light, and the chocolate cake was light yet still richer than Magnolia's or Buttercup's. Overall, I definitely like our vanilla-vanilla cupcake better, although I still go for a banana or carrot cupcake every time, as I'm a sucker for our cream cheese frosting. But that's a whole other tasting.

The carnage after we had finished

So there you have it. Aside from Billy's, which wins by default, our favorites were from Sweet Revenge and Chikalicious. I liked the chocolate frosting from Two Little Red Hens, but the foulness of their vanilla frosting pretty much cancels that out. Our least favorite were Cupcake Cafe, Baked by Melissa, and Kitchenette. I must say, overall we were surprised at how much we didn't like most of these-- and as you may know from reading this blog, I am a true cupcake lover. It's true we didn't include Sugar Sweet Sunshine or Amy's Bread cupcakes, both of which have stellar reputations, but I will say, from my position as completely, 100% un-impartial reviewer, that if you want cupcakes, you should come and try Billy's. I promise, you'll leave our shop with a smile on your face!

6 comments:

Lisa said...

I like your cupcakes but you forgot another - Eleni's

Janine said...

Lisa,

Good point-- we also forgot Butter Lane, a new shop I've been wanting to try. But given how sick we felt after all that sugar, I'm not sure how many more we could have handled...

Thanks for reading!

Janine

lhass386 said...

Billy's is THE best. I live two blocks away and it's dangerous..light delish frosting is aboev the rest.

Janine said...

@lhass386- Glad you like us! Keep stopping by. I recommend you try our new chocolate sandwich cookies (a.k.a. giant oreos)... they're insane!

Janine

MĂ«rgimtari said...

No Sugar Sweet Sunshine?!

IMO they are the best in NY.

Glad you didn't use Crumbs. Their cupcakes taste like box cake.

(Hi, Janine.)

Janine said...

Nick! So awesome to hear from you. Totally agree about Crumbs; we didn't even bother including them. Stop by the bakery and say hi and I'll hook you up with the good stuff!

Janine