The Cupcake Challenge: Who Won?

Who makes the best cupcake in Seattle? We host a panel of judges and a blind tasting to find out.

Newsflash: Cupcakes are the new cupcake. Despite the petite cakes’ years-long run as the trendiest sweets around, shops selling the treats continue to flourish and reproduce as rapidly as the Pitt-Jolie clan. Debates about which bakery produces the best (Trophy? Cupcake Royale?) can get as intense as football rivalries (Husky? Coug?).

We at Seattle magazine decided to weigh in on the delicious discussion.

We picked eight finalists and set them before a few of the finest, most educated and most brutally honest palates we know for a blind tasting—and we mean blind: Our panelists wore blindfolds (although we did let them view unidentified contestants to award points to the prettiest). We purchased vanilla cupcakes and chocolate cupcakes, and asked each bakery to also sell us two specialty flavors they felt best represented their winning styles. All cakes were delivered at the same hour.

Our judges were Shelley Lance, Tom Douglas’ quality control chef (and first pastry chef), co-author of the upcoming Dahlia Bakery Cookbook; Autumn Martin, owner of the hottest “cakery” around, Hot Cakes in Ballard, as well as former head chocolatier of Theo Chocolate; and Judy Tallant of Monroe-based Tallant House, creator of extraordinary custom cakes. Lance has a palate that, as she puts it, appreciates foods that most people enjoy, while Martin’s highly trained taste buds teased out the subtlest flavors and textures in the cakes. Tallant knows the ins and outs of the ingredients and techniques.

The cupcake contenders were Seattle’s Cake Envy, Cupcake Royale, PinkaBella Cupcakes, Trophy Cupcakes and The Yellow Leaf Cupcake Co.; Bellevue’s New York Cupcakes; Tacoma’s Hello, Cupcake; and Wanna Cupcake? in Puyallup.

Here are the winners (don’t shoot the messenger!):
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Best Vanilla Cupcake
Relative newcomer Cake Envy (Green Lake, 7900 E Green Lake Drive N; cake-envy.com) took the cake for best overall vanilla cupcake, as well as best vanilla frosting. “It has a lot of flavor,” Martin said. “It tastes homemade.”

Cake Envy owner Helen Noh, a Trophy alum who also worked in research and development at Starbucks while attending culinary school at the Art Institute of Seattle, thinks her Italian meringue buttercream probably gave her an edge. For her cake, Noh uses buttermilk rather than milk, to make it “softer and more crumbly, and add a bit of tang.” She also pays a premium for ingredients, such as Darigold butter, which, she said, is double the price of other brands.

Best Chocolate Cupcake
Cupcake Royale
(multiple locations; cupcakeroyale.com). The pioneer in Seattle cupcakeries, known for locally sourced ingredients and community involvement, was deemed all-around royalty, winning best overall chocolate cupcake, best chocolate cake and tying with New York Cupcakes (Bellevue, 15600 NE Eighth St.; newyorkcupcakes.com) for best chocolate frosting.

It’s an extra-satisfying win, because Royale reformulated its chocolate recipe—for the second time in its nine-year history—just a few months ago, responding to customer complaints that the old version was dry. The one our tasters judged was “more chocolaty than any of the others,” according to Martin. Cupcake Royale’s secret? “We switched over to a higher liquid ratio recipe, and that really helped improve the crumb and texture and moistness of the cupcake,” said Nicki Kerbs, head of operations. “We still have that awesome crown, but it’s a little crispy, and it’s a nice platform for our frosting.

“From the beginning of the process to the end of the process, we never refrigerate our batters,” Kerbs noted. “We mix, scoop, bake and serve... it is totally fresh daily.”

Best Specialty Cupcake
The Yellow Leaf Cupcake Co. (Belltown, 2209 Fourth Ave.; theyellowleafcupcake.com) sent in its signature pancakes and bacon cupcake, whose “pleasing” taste and texture charmed the judges over their initial insistence that, as Lance said, “I never wanted to see bacon on a dessert again.” A salted caramel cheesecake cupcake from Yellow Leaf also tasted like the real thing. PinkaBella (multiple locations; pinkabellacupcakes.com), with its snickerdoodle and pumpkin flavors, was a mere quarter-point behind, and bronze medalist Hello, Cupcake (Tacoma, 1740 Pacific Ave.; hello-cupcake.com) was rated “adorable!” for its root-beer float specialty cupcake, complete with a little straw and real sassafras scent.

Best frosting-to-cake ratio:
Trophy Cupcakes
(multiple locations; trophycupcakes.com), whose delightful treats famously caught Martha Stewart’s eye, had the best ratio of chocolate frosting to cake. Cupcake Royale had the best ratio of vanilla frosting to cake.

Prettiest cupcakes:
The judges’ eyes took in details we amateurs might miss, such as the symmetry and consistency of crown size. The elegant Yellow Leaf cupcakes won here by a landslide.

Brutal Truths:
Very few of the 32 cupcakes our judges valiantly nibbled met with their wholehearted approval. They felt none of the vanilla cupcakes had a true scent or taste of vanilla—they wanted vanilla beans, not extract—and that few of the chocolates had the depth of flavor they expected.

They were frustrated by greasy frostings, “overly chemically leavened” cakes, and ingredient quality that made them wonder if they had been handed supermarket bulk buys instead of specialty versions costing upward of $3 apiece. “There’s so much focus on looks,” Lance said. Specialty flavors met with more general approval. They “deliver on what they say they’re tasting like,” Lance said.

The Peanut Gallery:
Seattle
magazine’s food team members, who had the advantage of casing the cupcake scene for an abundance of semifinalists, were wishing from the sidelines that some of our favorite bakeries had made different choices. (Picture Olympic coaches who see their most reliable stars fall short when the competition begins.)

We thought Wanna’s heavenly take on a Hostess cupcake, a white loop-de-loop of icing on a layer of ganache covering a cream-injected chocolate base, would have won big points in the competition—but it wasn’t submitted.

Ditto with Trophy’s famous s’mores cupcake; while our judges liked the fresh and “not gimmicky” seasonal blueberry cupcake Trophy sent in, we think the s’mores’ marshmallow-chocolate-graham combo would have been hard to beat.

“It’s fascinating how different they all are,” Martin mused, “and yet they all fall into the same category: ‘That’s a lot of frosting and that’s a lot of cake!’”

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