Tuesday, August 27, 2013

The Great Cupcake Hunt: So it Begins

It's no secret I love cupcakes. I mean, who doesn't? Maybe communists? But that's probably just because of lack of opportunity, not anything offensive about cupcakes themselves.

A few months ago, my friend Lauren and I had a brilliant idea. Let's try all the cupcake shops in the area and find out who has the best cupcakes of all. Cupcakes are having something of renaissance here in the DC area and you can't take a step without tripping over a cupcake shop. We decided to start with Alexandria, but our big idea for hitting all the big shops in one day kind of hit a big stumbling block. Turns out a lot of cupcake shops aren't open on Mondays.

(cue sad trombone)

But! We were not going to be stopped. Lauren and I planned a cupcake feast and BY GOD we would have it. So we decided to make the shops compete bracket style so we could perform our Great Cupcake Hunt in multiple steps. First up in Part I: Buzz Bakery vs. Lavender Moon Cupcakery.

The rules of the Cupcake Hunt are simple. Each bakery will compete with three cupcakes: a basic vanilla on vanilla and two other cupcakes that represent the signature style of the individual shop. There are three categories of judging criteria. First, appearance. After all, you want your cupcakes to look pretty. Second, taste. Duh. And third, the X-Factor. Is there something that makes the cupcake really special? Appearance and taste are judged on a scale of 1-10 (with both me and Lauren assigning our own scores) and the X-Factor score is a sort of bonus that we mutually agree upon (out of 5 possible points). A cupcake may be overall ho-hum, but if it has something out of the common way, it can get a score bump.

In this corner: three cupcakes from Buzz Bakery.

And in this corner, Lavender Moon's three cupcakes:

First round: Buzz Bakery's Flower Power vs. Lavender Moon's Vanilla Vanilla (both are vanilla cake with vanilla icing).

Let's start with Buzz Bakery's Flower Power. I wish I could say that we started off with a bang, but it was definitely more of a whimper. In the Appearance category, Lauren awarded a 6 while I was quite unimpressed and gave the cupcake a 3. The cupcake had a bit of creativity with the flower and colors, but in the end, it was a messy presentation. It looked like something a grade schooler would make and the colors were...not appealing.

As for taste, again, this cupcake came up short. The frosting was gritty and overpowering of the cake with a slightly chemical taste (probably due to the food coloring). The cake itself was very dense (which I like), but really dry. It tasted like it had been sitting out for a while. Cutting the cupcake in half revealed a surprise, there was some chocolate filling inside. But not a lot and you couldn't taste any of it. The frosting was way too sweet and honestly, making a cupcake at home from a mix would have been better. Lauren scored the cupcake a 3 in the Taste category and I gave it a 2. As for the X-Factor: a big fat snowman (0). Nothing special here.

Flower Power's score: Appearance (9) + Taste (5) + X-Factor (0) = 14. Yikes

Next up in the vanilla category, Lavender Moon's Vanilla Vanilla (see picture above).

This cupcake scored way higher in appearance.  It had the look of a classic beautiful boutique cupcake with an elegant swirl of tasty looking frosting. I also found the flecks of vanilla bean in the frosting very appealing. We did dock a few points for a kind of boring presentation. Just because it's vanilla doesn't mean you can't stick a piece of fruit, some kind of crumble, or even some vanilla shavings on top! Lauren gave it an 8 and I went with a 7.

Taste was a bit of a surprise. The texture was very nice and the cake and frosting were well-balanced...but at the end of the day it was kind of bland. Vanilla on vanilla is never really going to be exciting, but you can make a great vanilla flavor (think of a delicious vanilla ice cream) and this cupcake was lacking that kind of vanilla punch. Having said that, the texture of the frosting was light and frothy and really pleasing. Both Lauren and I assigned a 6. Oh, and the cupcake also got an X-Factor bonus of 2, for the flecks of vanilla bean in the frosting. It may not have lived up to the vanilla promise, but it sure looked purty.

Vanilla Vanilla score: Appearance (15) + Taste (12) + X-Factor (2) = 29

First round, Lavender Moon is the clear winner.

Second round! Buzz Bakery's Peachy Keen vs. Lavender Moon's Grand Marnier Orange Chocolate

Buzz's Peachy Keen (pictured on the right): in the Appearance category we liked this one a lot better than the first selection. The crumble on top was really cute, and the color was definitely an improvement. But the size of the cupcake is definitely a problem--it's just small, especially when compared side by side to Lavender Moon's offerings. If I am paying over $3 for a cupcake, I want more bang for my buck. And it's also kind of chintzy on the icing. Lauren scored it a 6 and I gave it a 5.

Taste was a big improvement though. This was a delicious cinnamon cake topped with cream cheese frosting and a peach filling. The cake was not too dry, had a beautiful color, and was full of cinnamon flavor. The crumbs on top also added a really nice crunch. The cream cheese frosting was a great counterpoint to the cake. Unfortunately, you couldn't taste the peach filling at all. If you are going to call your cupcake Peachy Keen, you should probably make sure it tastes like peach. Still, the cinnamon cake was delicious. Lauren gave this cupcake a 6 for taste and I gave it an 8. It also earned a bonus X-Factor score of 4 for the amazing cinnamon cake aspect.

Peachy Keen score: Appearance (11) + Taste (14) + X-Factor (4) = 29

Our next competitor is Lavender Moon's Grand Marnier Orange Chocolate. Spoiler alert: this was our favorite cupcake. As for appearance, it wasn't flashy, but there's just something about a yellow cake and chocolate frosting that calls to mind birthday parties and great cupcake childhood memories. The chocolate frosting had a sassy crimped swirl and it was shiny and really appealing. In fact, the cupcake looked like the top of a soft service ice cream cone and who wouldn't want that? Lauren and I both gave it a 5; it certainly wasn't flashy, but it looked fun.

As for Taste....the first word out of both of our mouths was, "mmmmm." Repeatedly. This one hit all the spots; fantastic blending of all the flavors (chocolate, vanilla, and orange) and each was distinct without being overwhelming. They each unfolded in your mouth, like when you are tasting a great wine. The orange really complimented the chocolate and the contrast of the dense cake with the light frosting was really nice. It tasted expensive and gourmet, which is what you want in a specialty cupcake. Lauren gave it a 9 (docking one point for a bit of a dry texture), and I gave it a 9 as well. This cupcake also earned a bonus X-Factor score of 3 for the amazing balance of flavors.

Grand Marnier Orange Chocolate score: Appearance (10) + Taste (18) + X-Factor (3) = 31

Second round goes to Lavender Moon, but this was a close one.

Round Three! Buzz Bakery's 9:30 Club cupcake vs. Lavender Moon's Flourless Chocolate with Almonds and Sea Salt

Buzz's 9:30 Club cupcake is a play on the classic Hostess cupcake. It got a good score for appearance; it was again a small cupcake, but the frosting was shiny black and the white swirls were cute in the way of a Hostess cupcake. For appearance, both Lauren and I assigned a 7.

Unfortunately, the first word out of Lauren's mouth when tasting the 9:30 Club was "yuck." The cake was VERY dry and while the icing was delicious (light and chocolatey with great depth), the cake was just terrible. Neither of us finished this one due to the problematic cake texture and you couldn't taste the vanilla whipped filling at all. A dud all around. Lauren and I both gave it a 3. We were a bit kind though and assigned 2 X-factor bonus points for the cute overall look and the actually delicious frosting. 

9:30 Club score: Appearance (14) + Taste (6) + X-factor (2) = 22

And the final cupcake of the day was Lavender Moon's Flourless Chocolate with Almonds and Sea Salt. As far as appearance goes, this cupcake looked like a brownie with chocolate icing on top. Sounds good in theory--but in reality, the top looked kind of dry (with the brownie crackles) and the crunchy topping was kind of mystifying. Was it almonds? Caramel? Sea salt? No way to know. Lauren also raised the point that it's not as visually appealing when the cake and the frosting are all the same color. Lauren ended up giving this cupcake a 6 for appearance and I went with a 5. It was kind of meh. 

Turning to taste, oh boy was this cupcake rich. Like TOO rich. You expect a rich and dense chocolate flavor with a flourless cake, but this was too much. There was also a big problem in that the cake didn't appear completely baked. It had the texture of brownies that haven't been cooked all the way through (too moist) and when we took it out of the wrapper, it was definitely top heavy. There was a huge imbalance to the flavors; we got a bit of the almond, but the sea salt was completely absent. And it needed the salt to break up the chocolate. The frosting was also overwhelming in its sweetness. If you wanted a light summer cupcake--this is NOT what you would reach for. Lauren and I both gave it a 5. There was a potential for an X-factor bonus, especially with the gluten-free, but at the end of the day, it had too many problems to get a bonus.

Flourless Chocolate Cake with Almonds and Sea Salt score: Appearance (11) + Taste (10) + X-factor (0) = 21.

Final scores! 

Buzz Bakery = 65

Lavender Moon Cupcakery = 81

Highest scoring cupcake = Lavender Moon's Grand Marnier Orange Chocolate with a score of 31. 

Lowest scoring cupcake =Buzz Bakery's Flower Power with a score of 14. 

As a final note, the inside of Lavender Moon's Cupcakery was really adorable. Lots of pink (yay!) and nice whimsical touches to the furnishings. Buzz Bakery is first and foremost a coffee house, so it's bright and loud, and not really conducive to the quiet contemplation of the fabulousness of cupcakes.

Winner: Lavender Moon by a landslide.

The aftermath.

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