(kup'kak') n. A small cake baked in a cup-shaped container.Lake Fong, Post-Gazette
Above: Beginning at the bottom and going clockwise are cupcakes from: Vanilla Pastry Studio in the West End, which topped the judges' balloting; Bethel Bakery; Whole Foods Market (yellow); the Glenshaw Giant Eagle; Barkus Bakery; and CoCo's Cupcake Cafe.
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Cupcakes on the Web
Would that it were that simple.
But cupcakes are so much more than that.
Close your eyes for a moment and engage in a culinary past-life regression. Imagine the moist, crumby sweetness of your first, simple cupcake, the finger-lickin' goodness of that first magical morsel of yellow, white or chocolate cake with chocolate or vanilla icing.
Everyone has a favorite flavor combination from childhood. Yellow cake with fudge icing. Cherry cake with vanilla icing.
Cupcakes are trendy these days, with cupcake specialty shops cropping up nationwide, including two new ones in the Pittsburgh area -- CoCo's Cupcake Cafe in Shadyside and Dozen Cupcakes in Squirrel Hill.
Cupcakes have had their share of controversy in recent years, too, from Virginia to California, with schools banning the tasty treats as birthday celebration food to promote more nutritious fare. And, in a ban backlash, the Texas legislature last year passed the "Safe Cupcake" amendment, which gives parents the right to bring sweets into school for special occasions, such as birthdays and Valentine's Day.
To the layperson, to the untrained palate, a cupcake is a lot like a pizza -- even a bad one is still pretty good. However, to the skilled palate, one trained to discern everything from the icing's texture to the fineness of the cake's crumb, some cupcakes definitely tower above the rest.
The Post-Gazette convened a cadre of baking and pastry experts-in-training -- five students in the Pennsylvania Culinary Institute's Le Cordon Bleu program -- to sample, savor and, in some cases, scorn cupcakes from the greater Pittsburgh area.
Chef Jeffrey P. Ward, dean of patisserie and baking at the institute, instructed the students to judge the cupcakes on four criteria: overall appearance, flavor of the cupcake, flavor of the icing, and texture. The five judges gave each set of two cupcakes from each of the 13 bakeries a score of 1 to 5 in each of the four categories, one being the worst and five being the best. The maximum possible score for each set of cupcakes was 100.Lake Fong, Post-Gazette
Student judges at the Omni William Penn are, from left, Holly Van Eman, 22, Josette Smith, 18, Rita Mehta, 25, Angela Makosky, 19, and Rose Wiechec, 27.
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The judges met in a baking classroom on the fifth floor of the Omni William Penn Hotel, Downtown, and tasted 13 sets of cupcakes, amid metal refrigerators and shelves filled with stacks of nestled metal bowls and rows of measuring cups. There were giggles and grimaces, calls for "water" and spittoons. (OK, not really spittoons, though one judge found one cupcake so dry she wanted to expel it from her mouth.)
Round after round, the five judges huddled close and carefully assessed each cupcake's appearance before digging in with their forks.
"A little airy," one judge said of another cupcake.
"Tastes like it came out of a box," another said.
"Looks like they had Duncan Hines serving up cupcakes here," commented another.
"Very strange aftertaste."
"Not good coverage, look" said Rose Wiechec, 27, of Buffalo, pointing out the less-than-perfect application of icing on one.
"Driest one yet," she added, after tasting the cake.
"I just found a lot of the cupcakes extremely dry and dense," said Rita Mehta, 25, of New Philadelphia, Ohio.
It was a blind taste test -- subjective and non-scientific to be sure -- but our experts knew what they liked, and in a field of a baker's dozen, cupcakes from five bakeries reigned supreme:
Mid-range finishers, scoring 63 to 58 points, included cupcakes from Bethel Bakery, Bethel Park; Whole Foods Market, East Liberty; CoCo's Cupcake Cafe, Shadyside; Dudt's Bakery, McCandless; and Oakmont Bakery, Oakmont.
Scoring in the 54 to 47 point range were cupcakes from Graham's Bakery, Mt. Lebanon; Prantl's Bakery, Shadyside; and Dozen Cupcakes, Squirrel Hill.
"The carrot cupcake won?" asked April Gruver when first told of her bakery's triumph. "Yay. I'm so excited."
Ms. Gruver, a self-proclaimed sugar fairy and owner of the Vanilla Pastry Studio, was thrilled with her cupcake's victory, although she says her children, 9-year-old Allyson and 3-year-old Andrue, probably would like any cupcake as well as hers.
"I just like hearing that people really like what we make," said Ms. Gruver, 32, who once worked as a pastry chef at the Duquesne Club, Downtown, and a pastry instructor at the then-Pennsylvania Institute of Culinary Arts from 1999 to 2001. "We don't use mixes. We make everything from scratch."
She uses only the finest ingredients and also makes custom-flavored cakes and cupcakes. In addition to brownies, cookies and cakes, each day she features a couple of different cupcakes from her recipe files, including chai, lemon mascarpone and red velvet cupcakes as well as the award-winning carrot cake one. Customers also can custom order their favorites.
"Ooh, ooh, it's carrot cake," said student judge Angela Makosky, 19, of Warren, Ohio, as she unwrapped the Vanilla Pastry Studio cupcake with vanilla icing and a candied ginger garnish and took a forkful. She thought the icing and garnish complemented the cake extremely well.
"It wasn't a traditional cupcake, but it was the best," she said.
"I would actually recommend that someone buy that one," said Josette Smith, 18, a baking and pastry student from Chicago. "Moist cake, sweet with nice presentation."
More than an hour into the taste test, the group also cheered upon realizing there was icing in the center of the set of cupcakes from Barkus Bakery in Bellevue.
"Nice little change up to have the surprise inside," said Holly Van Eman, 22, a baking and pastries student from Canonsburg, who looked for a balance of flavors between the cupcake and the icing.
"Cupcakes are cupcakes," Ms. Makosky says. "And you don't judge [only] on appearance because even though it looks good, you don't know what's inside."
Holly Van Eman, 22, left, and Josette Smith, 18, students at the Pennsylvania Culinary Institute's Le Cordon Bleu program, study a cupcake in the kitchen of the Omni William Penn Hotel.
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L.A. Johnson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-3903.