cracking out on sugar, cupcakes, good times, learning to make mojitos, too much of a good thing

Cupcake Capacity–The Final Crumb

6 Bloggers
7 Bakeries
10 Cupcake varieties
4 Bottles of Rum
3 Plates of roasted vegetables
2 Gift cupcakes*
1 Adorable pup named Cashew
And a baggie of homegrown…. mint. No, seriously it was mint. There were Mojitos to be had.

There we were, on a Friday night in July, gathered at the lovely home of Vrylena. Last time Kate, Dawn and myself huddled in my kitchen, power eating a dozen sweets in an hour. When our group expanded, and outgrew my kitchen, Vrylena stepped in and offered to host us. Jillian, of From Away, and Rebecca, of Maine Foodie Finds, rounded out our cupcake ‘Gang of Six.’

After Mojitos were made

and real food was consumed, we moseyed into the kitchen for an hour and a half long sugar bender.

One competitor was scratched off our list early on due to heat/transportation issues and a complete icing meltdown.

Y-Lime Gourmet, a new bakery in Portland supplying some of the local cafes and restaurants with her desserts, fell victim to the heat and humidity and should be mentioned because the owner, Emily Roper, even offered to deliver replacement cupcakes in case we ran into the problem that we eventually did. But we didn’t get to start the tasting until after 9pm and it would have just been horribly rude to phone her up for a new batch. So, we decided it was best, because the icings texture and fillings were obviously affected, to not review her cupcakes because they weren’t a true representation. She, however, wins our Customer Service award for even making the offer.

The bakeries that were represented were:
Scratch Baking Co.: Vanilla Cake with Chocolate Pistachio Frosting
Sugar Hill Baking: Chocolate Cake with Chocolate Ganache and Sprinkles
Bam Bam Bakery: A trio: I tried the Chocolate Cake with Peanut Butter Frosting
Aurora Provisions: Chocolate Cake with Vanilla Buttercream
East End Cupcakes: Lime Cake with Coconut Buttercream and Vanilla Cake with Chocolate Buttercream
European Bakery: Carrot Cake with Cream Cheese Frosting.

Rather than do a bite by bite comparison, like I did in the last one, I’m going to make it easy on you (and myself) by simply running down my top 3.

1) East End Cupcakes: Vanilla Cake with Chocolate Buttercream.

Visually, it was beautiful–the chocolate buttercream had this great shimmer to it that really made it stand out from the others. The flavor of the frosting was almost that of a chocolate milk, not too rich or too deep. It also had the most moist crumb of any of the cupcakes in this round. It looked simple, it’s vanilla/chocolate pairing was simple, but it definitely had a more sophisticated taste than the others. It is what I imagine Martha Stewarts cupcakes taste like.

2.(tie) Scratch Baking Co. with Vanilla Cake and Chocolate Pistachio Frosting/ Sugar Hill Baking Chocolate Cake with Chocolate Ganache and Sprinkles.

Both participants from SoPo represented. Scratch, the winner from the first tasting, was a little underwhelming this round. But, it’s Scratch, so even if it’s not mind blowing it’s still an outrageously good cupcake. The white cake was nice and moist, though a bit dense, but it was the frosting that elevated them for me. The addition of the pistachios, which never lost their crunch in the frosting, added a textural dimension that the others did not have. One that you don’t really expect from a cupcake, either. It was a very, very pleasant surprise.

Sugar Hill Baking was someone I had tried really hard to coordinate with to include in this tasting. However, it didn’t look like the stars would align this time until I stumbled upon her table at the South Portland Farmers Market. I almost walked away, opting for cookies instead of cupcakes, when common sense came back to me and I returned to her booth to pick up a few of her offered variety. I was very glad that I did. While some of the other tasters were on the fence (not enough dark chocolate bitterness for them), I loved the flavor, though I thought it needed just a little bit of something (more sugar?) in the cake. The thin glaze of chocolate was just thick enough. And, c’mon, sprinkles on cupcakes are damn near irresistible.

3. European Bakery: Carrot Cake with Cream Cheese Frosting.
The big surprise for me was this one. At first I just wasn’t sure, though. The cream cheese bite seemed to be missing in the frosting and the walnuts just seemed to have dissolved into the cake, leaving no nutty crunch. But, then I went back for a second bite later on and felt that it was just a nicely balanced cupcake. It’s not ‘dress up’ fancy, but was probably one of the few that we tasted that came off as the most homemade tasting.

It was as messy on Vrylenas counter as it was in our minds by the time we were finished. Unlike the first tasting, this time we agreed to come to our own conclusions instead of a group consensus. Which isn’t surprising because some were burned out by the end and didn’t even want to utter the word ‘buttercream’ one more time that evening. So, what did the others think? Who was their favorite? Truthfully, I haven’t a clue and can’t wait to read the other reflections on the evening.

Between the two tastings Kate, Dawn, and I consumed 24 cupcakes from 13 bakeries. I think that is more than enough cupcakes for me for a while (though I will probably do a single review of Y-Lime in the near future to be fair) and I believe this will probably be the last grand gathering to chat over a counter full of cupcakes. While the food media has seemingly turned its back on cupcakes and declared them ‘over,’ this experiment has definitely shown me (or, perhaps, just reminded) that the cupcake is a classic and too deeply imbedded in our food memory hard wiring to be at the mercy of trends. And we are in the company of some damn skilled bakers who are eager to prove just that.

My Overall Top 5:

  1. Scratch Baking Co.’s Black Forest Mega Cake: The one I wanted MORE of.
  2. Scratch Baking Co.’s Banana Cream Pie: The one I wanted to recreate.
  3. East End Cupcakes: The one I want to share with my love.
  4. Sugar Hill Bakery: The one I want to have on a bad day.
  5. European Bakery: The one that reminds me of most of my childhood.

*A. from Portland Food Map donated his gift from East End to us in hopes of sparking another tasting. The FTC requires all freebies to be disclosed. East End didn’t cost us a dime. There’s my full disclosure.

Scratch Bakery on Urbanspoon

chaotic cooking, good times, mystery ingredients, the whole grocer

Marginal Way Memories

Driving towards Elm Street, down Marginal Way, the gaping hole in the former Whole Grocer building caught my eye and, slightly my breath. To the left of the front of the building, where the shadow of it’s old sign seems burned into the paint, sat a small sign reading “Future New Site of WalGreens,” or something like that, that made me sink a bit further. A back hoe stood just feet from where I believe I truly became some semblance of a cook.

“Once in a while you get shown the light, in the strangest of places, if you look at it right…”– ‘Scarlet Begonias’–Grateful Dead.

I was interviewed and hired there on 4/20/0something. It had to be a good sign, right? I had spent the past few months working under the table for a friend as they gave into alcohol and a bit of insanity and ran their restaurant into the ground. I left being owed a bunch of money and feeling the burn that inevitably comes when you work for a friend. The only reason I subjected myself to their insanity was because I had royally screwed up at my first cooking job, something I still beat myself up over, and had no income. Then I found myself on Marginal, which was not where I thought I should be going with my career, but I was in the midst of a lot of life reevaluating and a paycheck was needed to hold off moving back to NY.

It turned out to be pretty fucking awesome. It was basically rule free. There were needs: vegan muffins, vegan cookies, two soups, two hot dishes, sandwiches and deli items. Mostly all vegan. Every day was playing a bit of (the original) Iron Chef, the mystery ingredients you’d have to create with wouldn’t be revealed until a box of produce or grocery items were culled and left. Dandelion Greens? Quinoa? Seitan? Huh? So, long before I was roasting pork bellies and failing miserably at pickling a cow’s tongue, I was a vegan and, sometimes, raw cook. And, honestly, it made me the cook I am now.

Being able to cook and, more importantly, adapt to completely unknown ingredients forced my hand to learn more about the food I ate and had to handle. Most days were filled with 1/2 portabella mushrooms, various chards, root veg and some type of soy fermented products. The muffins were filled with Safflower oil and Strawberry Hill maple syrup. Sometimes you would be able to transfer items from the grocery shelves for your recipes and other times you were forced to simply use their extras: like 20 containers of coconut oil. But, as time changed and we were allowed to cook exactly what and how we wanted, vegan found itself balanced out with dishes filled with Caldwell Farms meat and cookies began to be made with butter and eggs.

And before the last of the shelving was sold off, I had cooked around 300 different recipes in my time there. It’s easy to remember this because before I left I took every recipe/ingredient card I had written and put out with the dishes I had cooked. Someday I’ll have the Mrs. do something artsy with them but, for now, they sit as sentimental tokens of a tour spent in a kitchen that I got to have fun and be creative in everyday. It is time that I would be hard pressed to forget.

So, here’s to what was–my horribly inartistic handwriting and all:

Vegan and Veg… I think the NYC style came from a recipe I found searching around for a cheese-less pesto. After so many years, I forget where the names came from.

Rasta Fries were completely ripped off from Bomber’s Burrito’s in Albany, NY. I don’t think more than half of the amount I made ever made it to the shelves.

My favorite cookie and my favorite hot dish to make when the ingredients were available.