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Food Issue 2012: CL samples the coolest cupcakes

Walking the Red Velvet carpet to Charlotte's cupcakeries



The love affair that started in elementary school has grown up. Cupcakes are no longer the shy schoolgirls they once were. Some local bakers have put inventive and wildly creative spins on the wardrobe of cupcakes.

Of course, Red Velvet is still on the roster, but so are bacon and sweet tea. CupCake Delirium, a food-truck business, offers the wonderfully delicious yin-yang of cupcakes: The Elvis, a rich banana cake with peanut butter butter-cream frosting spiked with two strips of lean candied bacon.

Meanwhile, sweet tea cupcakes are available at CupCrazed Cakery, a Fort Mill shop owned by Heather McDonnell. She's the baker who garnered national attention last September when she won the Food Network's popular reality show Cupcake Wars.

Cupcakes are not new: Hostess has been selling packaged cupcakes since 1919. Eighty years later, the HBO girlfriend show Sex and the City created a lust for cupcakes when characters Carrie and Miranda devoured artfully swirled tiny cakes in front of The Magnolia Bakeshop in Greenwich Village. The cupcake business at Magnolia took off after that episode aired. By 2003, the store reported selling 3,000 cupcakes in one day and bringing in over $40,000 a week in cupcake sales.

What's not to like? Cupcakes are sweet and do not require utensils; they are portable and come in small yet calorically deceiving sizes. "We girls learned early that good things come in small packages," says Brandi Phillips, owner of The Blushing Bakeshop.

Additionally, cupcakes have one fundamental feature. "Cupcakes are just happy," says Tiz Benson, owner of one of Charlotte's oldest bakeries, Tizzerts. "They are happy little treats and very affordable."

Nationwide, many speculate the cupcake trend has peaked. Not so, says Michelle Miller, co-owner of Polka Dot Bake Shop: "The whole trend, beginning with Magnolia, just keeps going."

Add entrepreneurial instinct to the factors of nostalgia, girl culture, and the need for an affordable indulgence in bad economic times, and the recipe for the cupcake trend is set.

Now, corporate chains, too, hope to capitalize on the craze that started out at a quirky bakery in a funky lower Manhattan neighborhood. Crumbs Bake Shop, Inc., is the largest U.S.-based cupcake specialty store chain. Crumbs outsources the baking of its cupcakes to commercial facilities. Last year, Crumbs' management announced an expansion into 200 locations nationwide by 2014; however, recent sales have not met market expectations.

Meanwhile, the Nashville-headquartered Gigi's Cupcakes will open a store in the Sharon Corners Shopping Center in SouthPark during the first quarter of 2012. Gigi's has more than 50 stores in 18 states.

Though the chains may have Charlotte on their expansion list, local bakeries are serving righteous, and sometimes off-beat, baby cakes right now. They come through three main outlets: food trucks, bakeries, and cupcakeries. Charlotte currently has two cupcake food trucks. Some regular bakeries sell cupcakes as well: Sunflour Baking Company (2001 E. 7th St.) has eight flavors daily ($3 each), and Nona's Sweets Bakery (9331 JW Clay Blvd.) typically has nine flavors daily ($2.75). Of the cupcakeries, most have expanded their product lines. Cakepops (cake on a stick) are popular as well as cookies, bars, and wedding cakes.

The question of where to find the best cupcake sparks much debate among aficionados. Some fans demand an exacting ratio of cake to icing. Most cupcakes here have a 3:2 ratio, cake to icing. All the shops I visited in Charlotte carry the area's favorite cupcake: Red Velvet, an improbable red cake, moist and tender, but not too sweet with a cocoa base note. The icing is a rich puff of soft cream cheese. But I found Red Velvet cupcakes have a varied taste profile around town.

Here's a rundown of where to get your cupcake fix, listed in order of their "coolness" factor:

CupCake Delirium

(Cool because of the bacon factor)

Venue: Truck; 704-458-9389.

Website: www.cupcakedelirium.vpweb.com, Facebook, Twitter

Cost: $3 each, 4 for $10, 6 for $15, 12 for $30

Vegan and Gluten-Free: Available with pre-order

Last April, Shannon Turrell and Russ Falkowski opened CupCake Delirium in "Baby Blue," a food truck devoted to cupcakes. Turrell, who has been in the restaurant business for 25 years, and Falkowski moved to Charlotte from the West Coast.

Delirium's cupcakes, sealed in upside-down, clear plastic, medium-sized drink containers, push the creativity envelope, but not at the expense of flavor. The Elvis, a rich banana cake with peanut butter butter-cream frosting spiked with two strips of lean candied bacon, is quite delicious. The Elvis is not the only bacon cupcake; they also offer Six Degrees of Heaven Bacon, a maple cupcake with maple butter-cream icing with a track of candied bacon. Falkowski noticed that some customers take off the bacon and eat the strips separately, but he advises to lay the bacon flat — like a roof — and crunch down through all the layers of flavors.