My friend Ammi loves baking so much that she has often celebrated her own birthday by baking herself a cake. The whole experience makes her happy, from finding a recipe to try, to taking the first bite with friends. It's inspired me for several years and has caused me to want to bake cakes, too.
Since Ammi had a baby, though, baking cakes has taken the back burner--or bottom shelf-- for now. Instead she chose to celebrate by inviting us to indulge with her in obscenely delicious cupcakes from Trophy Cupcakes. I could be wrong about this, but only a few years ago it wouldn't have been possible to find an individual cupcake this good. Nowadays, however, it seems like Seattle cupcake spots are as ubiquitous as coffee shops. No, that's crazy talk. But seriously, where did all of these places come from? How are they staying open?
I remember hearing around town that gourmet cupcakes were The Thing, and feeling charmed by it. How long ago was that? Five years? I think the trend started with a Sex and the City episode, but wow. Obviously people were ready for it. Between those and fine donuts, it's as if our poor little rich country was starving for sweetness and comfort, in small, hand-held servings. Soon after this Atkins-backlashing phenomenon, there even seemed to be an influx of gourmet carb coma products that weren't even edible, such as buttercream lipgloss.
I loved the notion of cupcakes. They are adorable, sweet, like your cute little buddy. A tiny island of luxury. So when I first went to pick up a gourmet cupcake at a shop dedicated to these confections several years ago, I was surprised to taste a dry, crumbly cake with a too-sweet frosting that was also a bit dry and crumbly. I returned to that spot some time later and ordered another cupcake, selecting one that was recently frosted. Then, at least, there was a chance that the frosting would be soft and creamy. That worked. Those two experiences cured my curiosity for awhile, but when I would sit at that shop for the free wi-fi, sometimes I was tired of coffee and obliged to pick up another cupcake to buy my time at the table. Obligatory cupcake-eating. It was fine, but far from transcendant. For several years, my feeling was, "Yeah, yeah, cupcakes." I'd try a new, seasonal flavor, but I'd never write home about it.
Fast forwarding to the last year or so, it seems that a new, robust competition has arisen among cupcakeries in the Seattle area. Nobody has said this, but I sort of get the sense that the place I first tasted a "gourmet" cupcake has become more of a ghetto cupcake place compared to some recent specimens I've sampled.
Trophy Cupcakes and Wink Cupcakes in particular are both phenomenally dreamy. These companies seem to make a concerted effort to ensure that their cakes are delicate, moist, and loaded with intense flavor. The frostings are also not overlooked. When I first saw the tall layers of frostings on these cupcakes, my stomach turned as I imagined a sickly sweet, yet flavorless goop that was colored with dye to match the cake. However, the frosting is just as thoughtfully prepared-- created to enhance and complement the cake.
For example, tonight, my lucky husband's "Chocolate Graham Cracker" cupcake was topped with a ridiculously smooth and velvety marshmallow cream, piped on in a textured tower and then toasted with a torch to accentuate this texture in swirling, golden-brown stripes. That is correct: Michael was eating the most elegant yet playful S'more you ever saw (it's partially pictured on the far right in the pic above). Also, I was relieved that Rosalie was not interested in the cupcake that I ordered for her, because that lemon cupcake tasted so vibrant next to its coconut frosting, topped with a toasted puff of shredded coconut.
Only now am I starting to respect the cupcake phenomenon. I mean, if these are supposed to be gourmet cupcakes, I am glad that there are places worthy of the cupcake connoisseurs out there. And I'm glad that my friend had a chance to enjoy the cake experience that she loves so much, even with her cute little cupcake of a daughter hindering her own birthday baking this year.