When bakeries started selling decorated cupcakes at three bucks a pop, I thought the fad would fall faster than an overbaked soufflé. I was wrong. Call it the Starbucks effect, but years later people are still willing to shell out thirty bucks for a dozen cupcakes they could make at home for $2.50.
For this week's special edition Battle of the Dishes, we picked up two holiday cupcake offerings at local bakeries and did a blind taste test with our dining pal. In the spirit of Secret Santa, we'll tell you all about the bakeries and the cupcakes, but we won't reveal who they are until a winner is declared. Let's play!
Cupcake: Gingerbread Stout
The Temptation: Bakery A is a bare bones little shop with antique ceiling tiles covering one window, an ordering counter topped with jars of baked sweets and a glass case of delicious looking cupcakes. A few patio tables outside offer a place to sit down and have a nibble, but for the most part it's takeout orders only here.
The aroma inside was so heavenly I didn't want to leave; vanilla and cookies, with a tinge of peppermint. Guess that's why apartment offices and house stagers often bake cookies for open houses! I was the only customer, so I walked right up to the counter to order two ginger stout cupcakes and reluctantly left to bring them to my volunteer taste-tester.
The Sweet Reward: I bit into Cupcake A and was taken aback by the strong taste. It was subtly sweet, with hints of ginger and allspice or nutmeg. There was also a bitter note underneath the more traditional gingerbread flavor, likely owing to the stout beer that gives the cupcake its name. "Wow, this is intense!" my partner exclaimed. "I need a glass of milk." Still, he continued to take bites of the cupcake.
The cupcake was thick and very dense, leaving me feeling full after a few bites. In contrast, the frosting was light and fluffy, with little flecks of real vanilla bean that gave it a rich vanilla buttercream flavor. It was more palatable than the cake -- my companion licked all of the frosting clean but left part of the heavy cupcake behind.
Cupcake: Eggnog Spice
The Afternoon Rush: I was pushed, ignored and confused at Bakery B, which was oddly overrun for a weekday afternoon. Trendy thirtysomethings were busy picking up dozens of cupcakes for their office holiday parties. The place was small and strangely sterile, with blank white walls, an ordering counter, and a small cupcake display. A sign at the entrance filed us all into ordering and pickup "lines," but confused customers still milled around the small lobby.
Gone were the cozy cookie smell and warm hospitality of Bakery A, replaced by a pricing wall and teenaged automatons smiling like demonic little elves. On my turn, I ordered two eggnog spice cupcakes and waited as the girl wrote down my order, disappeared into the "back room" and presented me with a small cardboard box a few minutes later.
The Sugar Rush: Creeped out, I took my box and ran home to test Cupcake B with my friend. Taking it out of the box, I was impressed with its size. If Cupcake A is a by-the-box serving size, Cupcake B must be TEXAS-sized. We bit in and found a light spice cake that tasted like carrot cake sans the carrots. "This is much more moist than the other cake," mumbled my happy taste-tester. "The flavor isn't as fierce, but the texture is so light and fluffy it makes up for it."
His description was spot-on. The cake was airy and light, with a delicate allspice flavor. I could've eaten a lot more of it. The frosting, on the other hand, was a little too sweet. My first impression was that its only real flavor was "sugar," though upon tasting more of it I detected the egg nog flavor. Subtle, but nice. Bakery B's frosting was denser than the buttercream of Bakery A, with a texture like canned frosting that's been left out to set for a few hours. Ick.
So who won? Where are these two bakeries? Click through to find out.
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Bakery A (Urban Cookies at 4711 N. 7th St. in Phoenix, 602-451-4335) was homey and warm. Their creamy vanilla bean frosting was a holiday delight, but the bitter undertone of the beer turned my gingerbread dreams into nightmares. Bakery B (Sprinkles at 4501 N. Scottsdale Rd. in Scottsdale, 480-970-4321) was a crowded nightmare to visit, but their fluffy un-carrot cake and memory-evoking egg nog frosting made me wish the holidays could last all year round.
The Winner: Sprinkles. I really wanted to hate the overblown national chain and vote for the local, organic, friendly mom-and-pop shop, but sometimes you've got to go with your gut. And your taste buds. But don't worry, Urban Cookies. I might pass on your ginger stout cupcakes, but I'll be back for the delicious cocomint cookie dough!