When Tracy Dempsey asked me last week to be a last-minute judge at the inaugural Cupcake Love-In -- held yesterday at the Valley Ho in Scottsdale -- I replied without hesitation.
Of course! I couldn't wait to get my Gail Simmons on.
By the time the sugar wore off late yesterday afternoon, I was questioning my sanity. It's not as easy as it looks, folks. (Nor is today's detox -- welcome back, Weight Watchers!)
Typically, such honors are reserved for a paper's food critic, not her editor, but like any critic worth her salt, our Michele Laudig protects her anonymity like a dog guards a bone, so she doesn't appear at public events. That's how I wound up sitting next to a real clown yesterday at the judges' table. Literally. Gwen Ashley Walters -- of Phoenix Magazine, among other gigs -- scared the crap out of me in her orange wig, oversized Converse and full make up, donned in an effort to hide her own identity.
But by the end of the day, I'd learned that a clown can be your best friend -- and a cupcake your worst enemy.
Get the rest of the story -- and the winners of Cupcake Love-In -- after the jump.
That is not to say that the cupcakes I tried yesterday were bad. I was incredibly impressed with the thought, effort and talent poured into dozens of fluted papers.
It's just that there were dozens of them. Literally dozens of cupcakes to try, in a total of five separate categories. (More, in each case, than I could fit in my camera frame.) When I agreed to judge, I figured we'd take bites of a half-dozen contenders and be in and out of there in 15 minutes. Oh no. This was a two-hour endeavor, featuring silver tray after silver tray of amazing cupcakes.
That's where the clown comes in: I was lucky to have an experienced food judge like Gwen by my side to, um, egg me on when the going got tough.
To be honest, some of the cupcake contenders were better than others. I don't have chef names to put with all of them (it was a blind contest -- we were told nothing), so I'm at a loss to give you too much description, but among my very favorites were a light pink number with a white chocolate heart and some sort of incredible filling; a chocolate/caramel-drizzled item with a Hershey bar stuck in the top; and the winner of the Outrageous Cupcake category, Modern Steak's Crackerjack Cupcake -- topped with caramel-coated popcorn and salty peanuts, which perfectly complemented the sweet cake and buttery caramel frosting.
By the end, I'd amassed quite a collection of palate-cleansing beverages -- coffee, water, milk, and of course a Diet Coke -- and a pile of frosting-covered napkins. (Cupcake judging is messier than you might think!)
And I'd learned a lesson: Less is more. A cupcake made primarily of jelly beans might sound good, and it's certainly "outrageous," but I'm not sure anyone could execute that "recipe" in a tasty form. Ditto for the cupcakes that included hunks of chicken. I counted two of those. Topped with a piece of waffle and maple syrup frosting, the Chicken and Waffle cupcake was among the most clever entries of the day, but the sight of a hunk of fried meat peeking out from the middle of my cake was a little unnerving -- and I'm no vegetarian. (To that end, I was surprised there wasn't more bacon among the entries.)
That said, I was delighted to see that Cupcake Cafe won the Savory Cupcake category for a pizza cupcake. Now that was a hunk of meat I was happy to see! (And a welcome relief from all the sugar I'd been forking down. The most successful items in the savory category ditched the sweet and just went for it.) Bourbon Steak's Veronica Arroyo's baked potato cupcake was also a nice savory entry.
My personal favorite in the Secret Ingredient Cupcake category (cilantro/chili pepper) wasn't really a cupcake at all -- and I still don't know who made it. It was more like a firm mousse or a crustless tart, and it reminded me of Cowboy Ciao's Cuppa Hot Chocolate -- a super-dense (in a good way!) spicy chocolate dessert. (In the photo below, it's in the upper right corner in white paper.)
The clever winner in that category (bottom left in the photo): Crybaby Ranch for "You Keep me Hanging On" -- chile relleno cake-cornmeal based with cheese and chiles -- topped with "Light My Fire," mascarpone whipped cream frosting with homemade pepper jelly and chile flakes/pink peppercorns.
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Big kudos go to Tracy Dempsey, Kelly Garcia and the rest of the organizers -- particularly for an inaugural event (and I should know, I've been a part of such a beast) this was a lovely afternoon with a lot going on and a huge (sold out!) crowd.
Just don't say the word "cupcake" around me for a few days, okay?
Stay tuned -- later in the week we'll show you our own Zach Fowle's performance in the cupcake eating challenge. Hungry for more? Check out our delicious slideshow from yesterday's festivities.