New York Bakeries: The great cupcake taste-off
By Suzanne Russso in New York—
We’ve heard the odd rumor that the cupcake is on its way out, but it doesn’t seem like New York is edging out those bites of happiness-with-sprinkles-on-top any time soon. In fact, new cupcake shops just keep popping up, which introduces the sweet freak’s dilemma: Where to get your cupcake fix?
That’s why this week in Cheapoland our staff held a “cupcake taste-off” to suss out the very best in baked goodness (a tough job, we know).
Here’s how it worked: This Cheapo hot-footed it to three downtown cupcake purveyors and picked up two cupcakes at each: one red velvet to serve as the “control” cupcake, along with one other “unique” flavor. Back at the office, Team Cheapo—also known as Tom, Meredith, Pete and Kari—embarked on a blind tasting to analyze each shop for taste, texture, frosting, looks and variety.
Meet the Contestants
Though the West Village mainstay Magnolia Bakery helped to kick-start the cupcake craze with a cameo in Sex and the City, I left it out of this competition, partly based on personal preference (I find their frosting to be too sweet) and partly because the shop, while still within walking distance of the EuroCheapo offices, is in the opposite direction of the other contenders. That said, the “Mama” bakery’s influence can be felt in a couple of the bakeries you’re about to meet.
Sugar Sweet Sunshine
126 Rivington Street
The vibe: This cozy Lower East Side spot with the oh-so-adorable name is simple and unpretentious. Furnished with mismatched thrift store finds, including a comfy couch and armchair, it gets major points for setting a homey scene.
The Bakers and Baked Goods: Owner-bakers Debbie Weiner and Peggy Williams are long-time friends and Magnolia alums who set off to create a welcoming, yummy spot of their own. The shop is named for a cement etching they spotted one day while looking at bakery spaces.
Sugar Sweet serves up colorful cakes in fun flavors like pistachio, “Ooey Gooey” and “Lemon Yummy.” But, come summertime, their light, creamy strawberry-lemon trifle is the treat to beat.
The Cakes: Where other bakeries seem to gouge you, cupcakes here cost a Cheapo-friendly $1.75 each. Our tasters tried the Strawberry Cream Cheese, a new addition to the Sugar Sweet menu, and the “Sassy Red Velvet,” which is topped with “The Moose” frosting.
The Verdict: I’ll admit to some surprise that my stand-by bakery did not hold up in this particular competition. With a few exceptions, the tasting team was less than impressed with the Sugar Sweet cakes. The breakdown?
Looks: The Sugar Sweet cakes are unabashedly simple. Bakers here are not concerned with fancy, instead creating simple cupcakes with sunny sprinkles. While the strawberry cake was festive with its pink frosting and sprinkles, the red velvet, with its disheveled whipped frosting, left the team less than excited. (Meredith: “It has a kiddie lemonade stand look.”)
Cake: The strawberry cake came in last with just about everyone in the group, mostly based on its crumbly texture and mysterious flavor (both Tom and Meredith noted that they did not know it was strawberry until told). As for the red velvet, there were similar concerns, though Pete ranked that “giant, delicious sponge” his number two overall pick.
Frosting: The strawberry cake had an unremarkable frosting, neither terrible nor earth shattering. Feelings on the red velvet, however, were far more varied. We ladies found it to be overly sweet and not complementary to the cake, but Tom loved its “whipped, lighter than air” texture.
Overall: I’ll admit that I was a tad disappointed with the strawberry cake, especially given that I sometimes dream about the shop’s incredible lemon cupcake. As for the red velvet, the reviews were mixed, and surprisingly divided down a “battle of the sexes” line, with the gals unimpressed and the guys enjoying both cake and frosting. In all, the shop is sweet and its treats worth trying, provided, it seems, you choose correctly.
Little Cupcake Bakeshop
30 Prince Street
The Vibe: This may be the cutest little cupcake shop in New York. It’s both a blast from the past and a step into a big green future. The black-and-white floor, marble counter and retro clock contribute to a sweet, old-fashioned Americana vibe, but hidden out of sight are sundry modern eco-friendly additions.
The Bakers and Baked Goods: As though it couldn’t get any, um, sweeter, the LCB is owned and operated by three brothers from Brooklyn (they have another store in Bay Ridge), who pay special attention to making their colorful confections with local ingredients—including some that come directly from their own mother’s garden. They also work with local organizations to better the community.
The wide array of cupcakes here ranges from the traditional to the very unique, like the “Mott Street” (tiramisu inspired in a nod to the shop’s location in old Little Italy) and the “Coney Island” (infused with cotton candy flavor in tribute to the shop’s Brooklyn roots).
The Cakes: It seems you pay for the pretty here: $3 a cupcake. In addition to the red velvet, tasters tried the peanut butter, though the choices here are seemingly endless.
The Verdict: When it comes to atmosphere, this bakeshop takes the cake. But what of the cupcakes? The brothers get mega points for variety and creativity, but the cakes themselves were just sort of middle of the road. Here’s what our tasters had to say.
Looks: LCB does a great job with aesthetics, and these were probably the prettiest of the cakes, each with big dollops of frosting and festive garnishes.
Cake: In this category, the goods didn’t fare so well. Nearly all of our judges felt that both cakes were disappointingly dry.
Frosting: Everyone enjoyed the peanut butter flavor, which was yummy but not overpowering, but it was a mixed bag when it came to the red velvet’s cream cheese frosting. Half of us loved the rich buttery frosting, which Pete ranked numero uno because it “packed a punch,” but Meredith felt that the flavor overpowered.
Overall: For the most part, the two LCB cakes ranked among everyone’s second and third choices (out of six cakes). These are certainly not the best cupcakes when compared side by side, but I do say this bakery wins in terms of creativity, ambiance and overall mission. It’s the spot to go for a coffee and cupcake break during your travels.
268 Elizabeth Street
The Vibe: Nestled on pretty Elizabeth Street, literally a block from LCB, Billy’s is tiny and bright, with a cheery turquoise awning and two small tables. Where Sugar Sweet is homey and LCB old-fashioned, this shop wears its sleek modernity in its yellow lights and straight lines. It’s cute, but felt a bit less personal than the others.
The Bakers and Baked Goods: Another former Magnolia employee, Billy Reece branched out on his own in 2003 and now has three shop locations (the others are in Chelsea at 184 9th Avenue and in Tribeca at 75 Franklin Street).
It’s all about simplicity here: basic flavors topped with generous amounts of frosting with little in the way of adornment. As for variety, in addition to the usual chocolate and vanilla variations (and the now quite common red velvet), Billy’s offers banana and carrot cupcakes.
The Cakes: Like LCB, the cakes here run $3 a pop. We tried red velvet and, for variety, banana.
The Verdict: Given its somewhat larger “chain” feel and its well-known history as a Magnolia offshoot, I must admit I hadn’t given Billy’s a ton of credit. But, while the bakery verged on “vanilla” in terms of atmosphere and flavors, its cakes edged out the others overall.
Looks: This is the one category where Billy’s did not really stand out. The cakes were simple and topped with silky smooth pillows of plain white frosting. They’re pretty, but more in a sophisticated sense than a fun “cupcake” sense.
Cake: With the exception of Pete, who said his was dry, all the judges ranked Billy’s red velvet as their first or second of the six, mostly for its consistency and, for Meredith, “a bit of a chocolatey touch.” The banana was also among the top-ranking for its moist cake that Tom likened to a banana bread texture. (Kari, though, did not like the “cakey” aftertaste.)
Frosting: Tom and Meredith both loved the “utltra-rich” banana frosting, but I found it to be on the over-sweet side. The red velvet again topped many of the frosting reviews, with Tom calling it a “buttery with more intense flavor” and Kari raving that the icing and cake “melt together.”
Overall: Though Billy’s seems to place stylish over whimsical when it comes to shop and actual cupcakes, in terms of taste it came out the winner, with both cupcakes taking first or second place for most of our judges.
The Final Verdict
Our elaborate testing mostly proved that everyone has different tastes. While Billy’s ranked highest overall, most enjoyed LCB’s frosting, and I still stand by Sugar Sweet’s other flavors.
In short, Cheapos, I suggest you administer our own test. And, since all three shops are within a 20-minute walk of each other, it would be quite easy to set up a little cupcake crawl.
If you choose to do so, also look out for the cupcake carts that sometimes hang around. There is often one in Washington Square Park (West 4th Street and Thompson Street) and I’ve also seen one on Broadway and Houston.
Also on the route is Baked by Melissa, a veritable hole in the wall at 529 Broadway (the opening is on Spring Street) that serves up teeny-tiny cupcake bites, in crazy flavors like “Smores” or “Cookies and Cream,” for $1 a pop.
Your favorite cake?
Do you have a favorite cupcake in the city? Tell us, Cheapos!