The Persistence of Cupcakes
It's the trend that won't die, but where are Seattle's most heavenly specimens?
Cupcakes are, perhaps, the perfect dessert. They can be a simple, everyday treat baked from a boxed cake mix in less than 30 minutes, or an elegant piece of edible art, suitable for a grand occasion.
If you want chocolate, get a chocolate cupcake! Feeling fruity? Opt for a lemon cupcake! Want a little bit of both? Have two cupcakes! There's a cupcake out there for every mood, and I've tried them all.
Sometime after 1996, thanks to Magnolia Bakery in New York, cupcakes started sweeping the nation. The single-serving-size no-fork-necessary cake was resurrected from its second-grade birthday-party grave and got camera time on Sex in the City, SNL, and Martha Stewart—and the trend's looking pretty permanent now. (The sole local cupcake flop was New York Cupcake in Westlake Center, a chain with just-okay cupcakes that still has a franchise in Bellevue.) Seattle alone has dozens of places where you can fill a cupcake-shaped void. The local chain Cupcake Royale—with locations in Madrona, Ballard, and West Seattle (1101 34 Ave, 709-4497; 2052 NW Market St, 782-9557; 4556 California Ave SW, 932-2971)—has been around since 2003. Others have hopped on board, too: Trophy Cupcakes in Wallingford (1815 N 45th St, 632-7020) and Sugar Rush Bakery in West Seattle (4541 California Ave SW, 937-1495). And well-established local bakeries like Macrina (2408 First Ave, 448-4032; 615 W McGraw St, 283-5900; and new in Sodo 1943 First Ave S, 623-0919) and Dahlia Bakery (2001 Fourth Ave, 441-4540) have made it a point to keep their shelves stocked with cupcakes among their other trademark breads, cakes, and cookies.
With the city's baked-goods landscape still awash with cupcake options, it was about time we found out who makes the best cupcake in Seattle.
Armed with nothing but a love for sugar and an empty stomach, I sampled the work of Cupcake Royale, Sugar Rush, Trophy, Macrina, and (to represent the high end of grocery stores) Whole Foods. First, to keep an even playing field, I tried one "control" cupcake from each location—a chocolate cupcake with vanilla frosting.
Cupcake Royale's butter-based vanilla frosting is, as an assistant taster put it, "dynamite." Unlike all the rest, who keep their vanilla white, CR's is dyed a light pink and is exactly sugary enough, yet smooth. Unfortunately, the chocolate cake on which it sits is not as exquisite—it was so dry it crumbled to pieces when the paper was peeled away. Cupcake fail.
But Sugar Rush's control cupcake fared much better. Their vanilla frosting is creamy and thick, and boy do they pipe a lot of it on each cupcake (maybe a little too much). But the denser, heavier texture was a nice counterpoint to the light, moist cake.
Sugar Rush's cake wasn't without flaw, though—there wasn't enough chocolate oomph. That honor goes to Trophy and Macrina. Both bakeries had fantastic chocolate cake—dense, flavorful, and stick-to-your-mouth moist. And Trophy had the ideal frosting to go with it (Macrina's thin layer of frosting seemed to have a tinge of maple in it, and it left a weird, thick layer on the tongue). The lighter, whipped frosting piped on top of Trophy's cupcake was delicately flavored, yet it wasn't so light that it got lost when mixed with the rich and deep chocolate cake.
After that, Whole Foods really just couldn't compete—the cream cheese–based frosting was way too thick and sticky, and even with a layer of chocolate ganache sealing the cake away from harmful air, the cake was stale. Sigh. There's nothing worse than old cupcakes.
But we can't crown the best cupcake based on the plain ol' chocolate-vanilla combo, oh no. The best cupcake has to have flair and flavor. The best cupcake has to be as pretty and fun to eat as it is tasty.
While Cupcake Royale cupcakes are, in fact, pretty, and they do have that crispy "crown" of a top that makes them fun eating, they are, in truth, an everyday cupcake. They're yummy and thoughtful, but there's nothing at all indulgent about them. I could eat three of them and not feel a thing.
Trophy amps up the indulgence factor by piling on lots of tasty frosting and offering a variety of unique flavors (rotating every day of the week and every season), but I'm never overwhelmed when I walk into their cute Wallingford cafe. The cupcakes on display are almost too perfect, lacking the charm of being baked by hand.
Sugar Rush, though, is wonderfully overwhelming. Their pastry case is full of dozens of different kinds of cupcakes—chocolate, vanilla, lemon, red velvet, coconut, mocha, cappuccino, strawberry, mint, and even a vegan option or two. They have cupcakes filled with raspberry jam and lemon curd, they have cupcakes the size of a fist and cupcakes the size of a thimble.
And each cupcake is obviously treated with great care. Some have small icing flowers piped on top of mounds of coconut, some have petals of frosting, sitting pretty like a rose, some have sprinkles settled in deep crevices of chocolate frosting—each cupcake is its own piece of art, and not so uniform that it appears a robot made it.
So congratulations, Sugar Rush, you make the best cupcake in Seattle. But there are no losers here. Even Whole Foods hit one out of the park with their peanut-butter-and-jelly-sandwich cupcake (whipped peanut butter frosting? Yes, please). So the real winner? Me. 'Cause I just got to eat a lot of cupcakes.