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Operation Cupcake

As cupcake shops pop up all over the East Bay, we send one brave sweet-toothed man out to get to the bottom of the phenomenon.


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It’s another sunny day in Orinda. At a table by the entrance to a Theatre Square cupcake joint called Republic of Cake, a slender young woman with long blond hair sits alone, with a box of cupcakes, eating them. With genuine concern in his voice, owner Peter McNiff asks if she plans to eat the entire box by herself. She doesn’t hear him; she is listening to her iPod. Something bad has happened in this woman’s life. She is here for therapy.

Indeed, anthropologists who study cupcakes theorize that 21st century cupcake people like her originated in New York City, after four fictionally skinny women on TV regularly were depicted finding solace in their barren lives by eating cupcakes. Their antidepressant treats were said to be from a real-life Manhattan bakery called Magnolia. Soon, lines at Magnolia stretched for blocks. Long lines are the best advertising in New York, where it is important to eat where everyone else is eating. Soon, an incipient society was born. Cupcakes surged into the crowded, agitated foreground of the trivial American consciousness. They became a cottage industry, a blank canvas for frustrated artists, a source of hipness for the frustrated unhip. There even have been cupcake wars. I saw something about them on the History Channel. Although it might have been the Food Network.

Now, some fickle commentators are saying the cupcake has grown tiresome, that its modern moment has come and gone. But if the cupcake thing is over, as Yahoo reported recently, if it has lost its cultural momentum, the East Bay cupcake scene appears not to have gotten the word. With artisan bakers sprinkled strategically from Berkeley to Livermore—and with Bay Area favorite Kara’s moving to Walnut Creek this month and Sinful Bliss Cupcakes set to open soon in Pleasant Hill—the heart of the cupcake trend seems to be pounding like that of a six-year-old with a mouthful of frosting.

So, to accurately assess the state of the East Bay cupcake, and to find out what the bakers are doing to keep their cupcakes fresh, I went on an epic cupcake binge. I have eaten like a sugar junkie given one month to live. I have eaten cupcakes while driving, while working, while chatting with friends, and just before brushing my teeth for bed. I have eaten cupcakes for breakfast, cupcakes for lunch, cupcakes for brunch, cupcakes for nothing. Even though I have not eaten cupcakes for dinner, I have rushed through my evening meal with the intent of getting to the half-dozen cupcakes in a neat little box in my kitchen. My teeth hurt.

I found strange and surprising flavors, cupcakes sublime and ridiculous, flashy cupcakes and motherly cupcakes. I learned a dirty secret all cupcake-makers share. And I rode a roller coaster of sugar rush and crash that made me want to avoid sugar for the rest of the year. I won’t even eat an apple right now.

Knowing I will need some help in the tasting department, and being manipulative and desperate for love, I wait to begin my research until Sweet Tartmy favorite nieces arrive from the East Coast for their annual visit. At the airport, I announce that I have a cupcake assignment. I have never been more loved or venerated. By them. Finally, they see me as a big-time journalist.

We have only one day before heading off for a road trip, and I have an afternoon appointment with my therapist to talk about my cupcake situation, so our time is limited. Together, Caitlin, 20, an avid baker, Libby, 16, an avid enjoyer of sugary things, and I, middle-aged and an avid hedonist, head out on a Great Race cupcake run, starting, as calm and collected people, with Sweet Tart in Concord.

Inside, the tables are white. There is a long case, with a large sneeze guard. From the 20 varieties, we order six cupcakes, including a mint chocolate chip and a toffee nut espresso. Sitting in Concord’s quaint, busy town square, the girls and I eat two cupcakes each. Some bakers, not just cupcake bakers, use excessive sweetness to disguise a lack of flavor, but Libby says the vanilla is tangy. It tastes like vanilla. Caitlin says she can detect the cream cheese in the red velvet frosting.

I’m struck by what turns out to be one of the welcome effects of this cupcake surge: variety. I suppose it was inevitable. This is an age of rampant trendiness, to be sure, but also of culinary exploration and experimentation. (I’ve had meat ice cream and meat cocktails, for crying out loud.) Combine culinary swashbuckling with intense competition, and you are bound to come up with some interesting flavors. Often, they go too far, like fried chicken cupcakes, for example. And meat ice cream.

The profound outlier at Sweet Tart is a taro cupcake. Think of taro as a tropical sweet potato that’s purple. I’ve read that taro is one of the earliest plants our species cultivated. But somehow, it took us about 10,000 years to make out of the exotic tuber a purple cupcake, with peaks of purple frosting piled on top. Sweet Tart’s taro cupcake perfectly embodies the taro experience, capturing a taste that is nutty and sweet, that always feels familiar even if you can’t quite place it, as if, after all these millennia, the flavor is stored deep in some collective human memory.

Looking across Salvio Street at the cupcake joint, I keep thinking, “Something else should be right there. But what?” Something about the setting of Sweet Tart has a familiar character but seems out of place. I think about the white tables, the sneeze guard, the mint chocolate chip cupcake. It hits me that Sweet Tart feels like an ice-cream parlor. Could cupcakes be usurping the role of ice cream in our culture? 

Walnut Creek Baking CompanyWe hop in the car and head for Walnut Creek.

Walnut Creek Baking Company is a full-service bakery. I like it because of this. It isn’t chasing any trend, and I want to see if a nonboutique bakery can compete in the brave new cupcake world. By the time we get there, we encounter pretty much the only thing at a bakery that can make you sad: large trays empty but for a few tantalizing, taunting crumbs, which I would eat if the bakery would let me. The bakery has a problem: spontaneous cupcake hoarders who come in unannounced, in the morning, and take away cupcakes by the dozen. They leave only a scant selection for those of us who show up midafternoon, desperate for a fix.

Fortunately, the two flavors left today are classics, perfect for judging quality: double chocolate and vanilla with buttercream frosting. The three of us agree to share them, but I can see in my nieces’ usually bright and pretty eyes a certain dubiousness, a dark fear they won’t get their fair portion of cupcake. I even catch tiny, calculating wrinkles in their young foreheads. Cupcakes can drive a wedge between the closest of family members.

In the meantime, the clerk insists we not eat the cupcakes until they have been warmed to room temperature or we will not get the full effect of the buttercream frosting. I like her passion. I even like her bossiness. She is smart. She’s done this before. She can tell by our watering mouths and our amplified, rapid conversation that these cupcakes, once purchased, will be consumed with alacrity. So, she warms them with a quick blast in the microwave, and we take them to a table on Locust Street.

The clerk’s effort was worth it. The frosting, so beautifully swirled on top of the rich, black cake, is airy, mousselike. In substance, it is almost as if it’s not there at all. But in flavor, it is true to the sacred word “chocolate.” Consuming it is like breathing sweet oxygen. I begin to wonder, worry even, that modern cupcakes have become more about the frosting than the cake, which I kind of think they were when I was a kid. But now that I, and cupcakes, have supposedly grown up, conscious appreciation of cake seems like the mature thing to do. Maybe next time.

I also begin to wonder if my nieces and I will ever be able to stop talking. Simultaneously. Among the three of us, we have eaten eight cupcakes in about an hour. With great effort, we force ourselves to focus long enough to decide to try one more place before bracing ourselves for the crash. We drive three blocks, over to Broadway Plaza, to Frosting Bake Shop. I park illegally.

Inside the shop, my rapidly shifting eyes are confronted with vivid oranges and reds onFrosting Bake Shop the signs and walls. Both the shop itself and its cupcakes are bright and sleek. Much of the baking operation is visible behind display cases, in which cupcakes are lined up with relentless precision, like some kind of Bauhaus architectural mock-up.

In fact, three years ago, owner-baker Karen Tripp left her quarter-century-long career as an architect to become a professional baker. Back then, she had gained some fame in the North Bay, with a side business baking cookies. When it was time to open a bakery, the cupcake wave was gaining energy. She had tasted the New York cupcakes. And she was aware that Sprinkles, a national chain with a location in Palo Alto, had begun spreading the word and the frosting across the country.

With all this in mind, after having expected cookies to be her bread and butter, Tripp instead opened a cupcake shop. She hasn’t sold a cookie since. Her place in Walnut Creek is thriving.

Her best-seller is everyone’s best-seller and the biggest mystery to bakers: red velvet. Most customers don’t know what red velvet is or what it is supposed to taste like. They don’t know that it is made with vinegar. And they really don’t know the secret cupcake bakers have kept, until now: They are nearly unanimous in their dislike of red velvet cupcakes.

“It’s tasteless,” says Tripp. “If you had a blindfold on and tasted one, you wouldn’t even want it.”

We order one anyway. They’re so pretty. The girls and I agree to order six cupcakes, but pledge to save at least one for my wife. I have my doubts if we will be able to keep this pledge. Peanut butter bliss, cookies and cream, chocolate obsession, red velvet, something called a Margaritaville, and something called a mash-up—these are not the cupcakes your mother baked for you to take to school on your birthday. As I survey the selection at Frosting, I worry that too much effort has gone into the fancy, swirling, pyramidal dollops of frosting that top off the cakes so boldly. Could someone be trying to distract me from a lack of flavor?

Obviously, I’m starting to come down, so as soon as we’re heading west on Highway 24, I tell Libby, in the backseat, to hand me my peanut butter bliss. I’m excited because a jauntily aslant peanut butter cup is wedged into the frosting. I swerve the tiniest bit out of my lane as I shove it unceremoniously into my mouth. At the same time, in the passenger seat, Caitlin takes a more civilized bite of her red velvet.

Miglet's Cupcake ShopYou’d think we’d be jaded, sated, overly sated, after having consumed, in an hour or so, a normal person’s cupcake allotment for the year. Instead, Caitlin and I express a kind of shock, not diabetic shock, but the shock of two people who share a genetic sweet tooth and an appreciation for achievement in baking. Caitlin declares that the taste of chocolate, often undetectable in red velvet, is clear and present, while the frosting is rich, and the cake moist. Meanwhile, I’m finding that the taste of the peanut butter frosting I’m licking from all over my face blends seamlessly with the chocolate of the cake in my mouth. It is so perfectly moist that it becomes one with the frosting.

“Imagine a whole cake like this,”says Caitlin.

“This is what cupcakes are for,” I tell her.

Then, I hear, from the backseat, in a tone of bitter resentment, “I’m glad you guys are happy.” I’d forgotten Libby was back there. And I’m surprised to find she is displeased. She’s been spooning her way through the mash-up, a layered pseudocupcake in a plastic cup, with alternating levels of frosting, cake, sprinkles, and gummy bears.

“It’s too much sugar,” she says, and this is the last thing I ever thought I would hear her say. She’s been digging out the gummy bears but still can’t take it.

“Who would eat this?” she asks, plaintively. “Who is it for?” 

Apparently, in this one case, Tripp has overreached. Great artists will do that.

I am late for my appointment. The girls are on a happy sugar high, but soon they’ll be coming down. Not like a Trainspotting coming down, but still, I would like to get away before it happens. At home there is an argument, there might have been tears, then we all fall asleep at 6 p.m. Ride over.

Teacake Bake ShopNevertheless, a week later, on my first solo cupcake safari, I miss them. Especially when I am sitting in my car staring down at six colorful piles of sugar from Teacake Bake Shop in Lafayette. Teacake is a small chain. It advertises chic cupcakes for sale. It offers Twitter-themed cupcakes. The small shop on Lafayette Circle feels modern and a bit cutesy and carefully assembled. The shop is attended by young women apparently of high school and college age, working the kind of first job they will brag about, rightly, for the rest of their lives.

It’s late morning, and I am trying to resist eating the six cupcakes I’ve ordered, so I stare. Something about the no-holds-barred marketing of the Teacake cupcake makes me pensive. The cupcakes are piled high with frosting. They look better than candy. The sight of them makes my heart race. I think that what makes them extra enticing, to a grown man anyway, is that at first, you can’t see the cake inside its little paper cup. You see only the icing, which you know will be soft and sweet, and it’s something like a woman with beautiful hair who is wearing gloves, and you can’t wait for the gloves to come off. But what am I going to do with six women, I mean cupcakes? 

I eat a chocolate sour cream cupcake with dulce de leche frosting, and while I am in heaven, I also feel that the frosting-to-cake ratio for Teacake cupcakes favors the frosting. This lack of proper proportion seems unnecessary, given the moistness of the cake. But the beauty and sophistication of the cupcakes seem perfect for this little square in Lafayette. Later, when I taste the purity of Teacake’s chocolate cupcake and the sprightly tangerine in the shop’s daily special, I can see why Diablo readers picked Teacake as their favorite in July’s Best Of issue.

Still, the absence of my nieces, my inability to withstand the temptation of a Teacake cupcake before noon, and the constant sugar-induced ups and downs of my days leave me in a strange, unpleasant mood. As I hit the highway, I shove a vanilla cupcake in my mouth, check out my frosting-covered face in the mirror, and make my way to Orinda and Republic of Cake. It’s pretty close to lunchtime.

That’s where I see the woman alone with her box of cupcakes. I’m not sure whether to be happy she has found some comfort or to dwell on the tragedy of her inevitable comedown. My mood points me toward the latter, but I do hope she finds some peace.

Republic of Cake baker Chih-Chung Fang is known as much for his savory cupcakes as for his sweet. I’m pondering my choices when owner McNiff tries to check on the depressed woman. This moment of kindness for a stranger lifts my spirits a little. It reminds me that the East Bay is big, but its towns are small towns, in the best sense of the term. I ask him how business is, and he says if you can’t make money with a bakery in this location, you’re not trying hard enough.

Today, along with many sweet choices, there is also a pizza Margherita cupcake and a chili lime cupcake. Offhand, neither strikes me as an appetizing cupcake flavor. Offhand, each is delicious. Each finds its savory spot, without being disrespectful to its sweet cupcake soul. The pizza cupcake achieves a nice balance between mozzarella-tomato tanginess and devil’s food sweetness. The chili lime is actually spicy. Its onion cake is sweet like corn bread. It would be perfect with a bowl of chili or some posole. The next morning my wife catches me eating a Republic of Cake berry cupcake for breakfast. I assure her that the fruit is fresh and juicy and good for me. The cupcake is great with coffee.

The Republic of Cake experience reinforces my feeling that small and local are best, and perhaps key to surviving a waning trend, especially when it comes to food.

Cupkates is an itinerant van that moves, outlawlike, around Berkeley, Emeryville, and Oakland. My first thought when I heard about it: so typical. These hipsters always have to make things difficult, have to make even an all-American thing like a cupcake seem exclusive.

You have to check the Cupkates website or Twitter or Facebook each morning to find the day’s precise cupcake coordinates. I wonder if this gimmick is the attraction more than the cupcakes dispensed. The van is scheduled for downtown Oakland at noon, and I expect there to be a bunch of hirsute, plaid-shirted slackers emanating a contrived insouciance, pretending to be too cool to eat whatever cupcakes they have bought ironically. I would like to be one of them.

Tiffane’s Cupcake and Cookie BoutiqueAs usual, I’m wrong. Fifteen minutes before the van opens for business, there is a line around the block. And instead of hipsters, it is full of regular old downtown office workers, alone or in small, fairly excited groups, waiting for their cupcakes, on what is perhaps the one day of their week that seems tolerable.

Cupcakes that find you. It’s a nice scene, actually. I love Cupkates for having a salted caramel cupcake. But the design, with a small dollop of frosting that leaves a lot of cake showing, seems a bit racy to me.

On my last cupcake trek, I head out to the Tri-Valley. Miglet’s Cupcake Shop in Danville specializes in vegan and gluten-free baked goods. It provides safe sweets for people with celiac disease and for families dealing with autism. According to Miglet’s, 30 percent of its customers have no particular dietary restrictions. They just come in for the cupcakes. I can’t say I don’t taste the difference, but neither do I miss the gluten. Perhaps that’s because I am experiencing the coconut in the coconut cream cupcake. Or the lemon in the luscious lemon. Just as it ought to be. Others to whom I give Miglet’s cupcakes don’t even notice that the cupcakes are gluten free. That is probably because they are so moist and sweet. They are also pretty. And the staff at Miglet’s seems to be on a happy humanitarian mission: to provide a common pleasure to people for whom such treats are otherwise off-limits.

Finally, in Livermore at Tiffane’s Cupcake and Cookie Boutique, I find the least pretentious East Bay cupcake operation of all. The shop is like a bright pink cupcake cave. Today, it’s watched over by a pretty, kindly grandma who turns out to be Tiffane’s mom. Tiffane’s cupcakes are big, muffin shaped, and mild mannered in appearance. No pyramidal swirls, nothing purple, no gratuitous sugar flowers or Twitter logos. Just down-home cupcakes that look as if they were baked and frosted by a mom, albeit a very competitive mom. A mom who thinks that if she makes the best cupcakes for cupcake day, her children will know she loves them and they, in turn, might love her just a little bit more. I love her just a little bit more for this. Tiffane gets her fruity cupcake ingredients at the farmers market. For her lemon cupcakes, she makes her own lemon curd. She literally injects her orange cupcakes with orange cream. She mixes coconut flecks into the vanilla frosting on her coconut cupcake. I want some milk.

As my season of the cupcake winds down, my steering wheel is sticky, my notebook stained with chocolate, and my keyboard lined with crumbs. If before, I saw the cupcake as a kind of icon, a classic, I now see it as a blank slate, as well. I’m convinced that what will keep these East Bay bakers afloat after the fad recedes is their individuality—the way the personality of each baker becomes a key ingredient, the way each place reflects its town—and the eclectic, food-nutty East Bay as a whole. Whether it’s the ice-cream parlor feel of Sweet Tart, the bright elegance of Frosting, the outlaw mobility of Cupkates, or the innovation of Republic of Cake, people will find a very particular thing they like, and they will keep coming back. The cupcake endures.


Address Book
Where to get your cupcake fix in the East Bay

Cupkates
» Berkeley, Emeryville, and Oakland
(see website for location schedule), (510) 384-6544, cupkatesbakery.com. $3 per cupcake.

Frosting Bake Shop
» 288 Broadway Plaza, Walnut Creek, (925) 407-7064, frostingbakeshop.com. $2.75 per cupcake.

Miglet’s Cupcake Shop
» 480 San Ramon Valley Blvd., Ste. A-2, Danville, (925) 831-9016, migletsgf.com. $3 per cupcake.

Republic of Cake
» 2 Theatre Square, Ste. 151, Orinda, (925) 254-3900, republicofcake.com. $.85–$2.75 per cupcake.

Sweet Tart
» 2151 Salvio St., Ste. G, Concord, (925) 363-0074, sweettart-treats.com. $2–$3 per cupcake.

Teacake Bake Shop
» 5615 Bay St., Emeryville, (510) 655-0865; 35 Lafayette Cir., Lafayette, (925) 283-9900, teacakebakeshop.com. $3 per cupcake.

Tiffane’s Cupcake and Cookie Boutique
» 184 South K St., Livermore, (925) 449-7500, tiffanescupcakes.com. $3.50 per cupcake.

Walnut Creek Baking Company
» 1686 Locust St., Walnut Creek, (925) 988-9222, walnutcreekbakingcompany.com. $2.50–$3 per cupcake.

 

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