The Cult of the Cupcakes (and the People Who Write about Them)

cupcake_royale_productionHere in Seattle, we need another cupcake maker like we need another food blogger. (Seriously, who isn’t a food blogger these days?) I admit it: I’ve been pretty cynical about the whole cupcake scene. Apparently, I’m not the only one. When I posted to Twitter, Facebook, and some food message boards asking advice about cupcakes, many “foodie” friends replied immediately with comments like “cupcakes are so last year.”

Well, actually, they’re so last century. Or maybe even the century before that. Cupcakes aren’t new, but the phenomenon is, spurred on by the quality and creativity going into making them. And in the midst of our Sugar Revolution (hello, frozen treat shops), the number of cupcakeries in this city is skyrocketing.

As is the number of people writing about them. Go ahead: Google “cupcakes,” and note the proliferation of cupcake-related websites. Fans debate cupcake quality (I saw a rating scale based on moistness, flavor, sweetness, eat-ability, attractiveness, frosting-to-cake ratio, etc.), how to eat them (I like the minis, which I can take in one bite), and even their history (often referencing Sex and the City, which seems appropriate, as disrobing a cupcake from its pleated “skirt” is part of the foreplay of eating it).

So what’s the draw? “People have a nostalgic place in their hearts for cupcakes,” said Jody Hall, owner of Cupcake Royale, adding, “But while Betty Crocker dumbed down our taste buds, we’re doing cupcakes right—surprising people who’ve never had them made from scratch.” Hall sources flour and butter locally, then searches afar for the best quality vanilla, chocolate, and sugar.

Cupcake Royale plays up female appeal with its pastel splashes, but Hall says boys also love the cupcakes and the environment. Big boys, too. She’s amazed how many construction workers come in and order a “Dance Party with Holly Hobbie” (vanilla buttercake with pink vanilla buttercream and rainbow confetti sprinkles) to go with a short cappuccino. The cupcakes are on the sweet side, she says, “As we want them so that little kids and grandmothers recognize them,” with emphasis on “higher frosting ratios, so that everyone gets that good corner piece.”

cupcake_royaleNo wonder their slogan is “Legalize Frostitution.” (The sex educator in me loves this!) At Royale, the cupcakes are hand-frosted with a tell-tale swirl. I gave this a try at their cupcake camp, but failed. But I was good at adding sprinkles. And good-looking or not, stack enough cupcakes together, the colors and shapes are compelling. I can see why people are spellbound at display cases.

trophy_cupcakesI went to stores to watch people order, and even interviewed a few. Six-year-old Lucy loved lavender, not for the alliteration, but because “the colors are pretty.” Meanwhile, Josh, an eager eight-year-old, told me that “anything chocolate is the best.” Despite the vast variety of offerings, vanilla and chocolate combinations were very popular. And seemingly everyone at every location coveting the red velvet cupcake.

Adults bought cupcakes for various events, including pot-lucks, office parties, baby showers, and birthday parties. But most didn’t need any excuse beyond self-indulgence. A young couple tag-teamed in telling me about the allure of the cupcake: “It’s all mine. I can pick the one I like. I don’t have to share it. And I can eat the whole thing without feeling guilty.”

Call it the cult of the cupcake. It’s a bit out of control, don’t you think? And it doesn’t just stop with edible sweets. I recently saw that Metropolitan Market was selling meatloaf cupcakes, while at Neiman Marcus you can buy a $25,000 cupcake car. But for three bucks or so, in these tough economic times, the more basic cupcake is the perfect combination of comfort and luxury.

yellow_leaf_varietyI asked Michael Hein, owner of Yellow Leaf Cupcake Company (a shop with male appeal that features some of the more savory flavors, including their signature Tomato Soup cupcake), the inevitable question of whether cupcakes are a passing fad. His quick reply was that “Americans love to hate”—pointing out the irony that our success-driven society is full of people who like to see ideas fail. Hein reminded me that the cupcake rage is a coastal phenomenon that has yet to hit middle America, let alone spread to Europe.

But he did issue a warning. “Sure, the bubble will burst with the hipsters first, but the real death of cupcakes will be when there’s a Sprinkles-type chain on every corner doing mass-produced cupcakes.” Still, Hein said, the cream will rise to the top, and the best cupcake places will succeed. “Yellow Leaf offers something you can’t easily make at home,” he explained, “And at the end of the day, everyone loves good quality cupcakes, just as they like babies and puppies.”

So, for the sake of science (well, at least for this article), I went out and sampled a couple. Okay, a few. Make that a half dozen. Or actually more like a dozen. It was a long day of discovery. Among my favorites: Yellow Leaf’s Ultimate Chocolate (made with Belgian Callebaut), Trophy Cupcake’s Snowball (Valrhona chocolate cake with coconut buttercream and pink shaved coconut), Wink Cupcake’s vanilla bean cake with Madagascar bourbon vanilla buttercream, and Cupcake Royale’s Salted Caramel (chocolate cake topped with housemade caramel buttercream, Fleur de Sel, and dark chocolate curls).

In the end, what can I say? I get it. A cupcake is a package of pure joy.

Now, excuse me while I go and eat the remains of the day. I have the carnage of about a dozen different cupcakes calling out to me (including, would you believe, a Dance Party), begging me to eat them. And maybe write more about them. On one of my many blogs.

Note: This article first appeared in the Seattle Dining newsletter.