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“I need cupcakes. Cupcakes for science.” I announced to my husband the other evening.

“That sounds perfectly reasonable,” he replied.

“I need them,” I said.

“Mmm-hmm.”

“SCIENCE!” I screamed.

He nodded. Usually I don’t specify why I want cupcakes. It would be like asking why fish need water, or Berkeley needs drum circles. THEY JUST DO. My existence, he long ago learned, is about the acquisition and consumption of dessert-type foods. I’m eating candy even as I type this (I am not kidding. I would not joke about something like this).

My passion for desserts is not new-found. Behold me (far left) with my brother and cousins, circa 1983:

Every weekend was like Lord of the Flies.

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Notice how I can’t take my eyes off the cake. Even at that tender young age, my motivations were clear.

This is not to say that my unbridled and all-consuming cake addiction has made me less discerning on the subject. Quite the contrary: when you have, over the years, eaten as much cake as I (roughly 5-7 times the amount an adult human should), you get very, very picky about the matter.

You become a connoisseur.

Which brings me to the evening at hand. As I had explained to my husband, this time my desire for cake was due to a higher purpose – science. The advancement of mankind was at stake. I was about to have a cupcake-off. I figured it was a necessary evolution of all my travels and dessert eating: I’d pair two cupcakes from different shops around the globe against one other, and declare a winner. After all, if I could use my love of cake to help other people, well, isn’t that the greatest achievement anyone could hope to have? Benefiting our society through frosting?

For my first bout, I selected New York’s famed Magnolia Bakery versus Seattle’s own Cupcake Royale.

Why did I pick these two?

Magnolia was an easy choice. Despite having become quite mainstream and popular in recent years (many blame SATC for it), it’s one of the most famous cupcake shops, ever. It had to be a contender in my inaugural bout.  And Cupcake Royale I chose because it’s my favorite cake shop in Seattle, so it’s pretty easy to pop down there and grab cupcakes, all under some thinly-guised premise of conducting an experiment.

Ah, the lies we tell ourselves.

The only hitch was that I couldn’t exactly conduct a side-by-side comparison. I was last at Magnolia Bakery ages ago. I figured this wasn’t really a problem, because I have plenty of photos to document the experience. And I never forget a dessert (my cousin learned this last night, when we were talking about his gelato shop. I remembered, in astonishing detail, past flavors he had created. He looked … alarmed.)

The only rules were these:

  • I had to eat the cupcake the day of purchase (yeah, like that’s difficult) lest it get stale and taint the results.
  • The entire cake need not be consumed (though really, this is mostly theoretical. A cake has to be truly terrible for me not to eat it. It’s rare, though it has happened).
  • Cake and frosting needed to be evaluated together in one bite.

This last point is the most important. I remember once, as a child, being over at the neighbors’ house while they had cupcakes (they didn’t share. Our friendship did not last long). I watched as my friend Leah and her brother, Kevin (how the hell do I remember this? I was five) consumed just the frosting, leaving behind the naked little hockey-puck of yellow cake.

It was madness. Did they not realize what they were doing?

It’s almost as bad as when I see people scraping the frosting off a piece of cake before eating it. THIS IS NOT TO BE DONE, EVER. Frosting and cake need one another other. They are complimentary elements, yin and yang, black and white. The interplay of the two creates something magical – something far greater that the sum of its parts. To disturb this balance is to disrupt the very fabric of our universe.

I’m pretty sure we could trace the origins of global warming to someone scraping the excess frosting off their birthday cake back in 1926.

But I digress. On to the death match. Which isn’t really a death match at all, unless you consider that the loser gets eaten (then again, so does the winner).

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The contenders:

Magnolia Bakery’s traditional vanilla cake with vanilla frosting (which usually comes in a variety of pastel shades. Mine happened to be mint green).

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Cupcake Royale’s Dance Party with Holly Hobby – a vanilla cake with vanilla frosting:

Photo by the fabulous cakespy, via Flickr.com

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The judging:

Magnolia’s vanilla/vanilla cupcake is iconic – it’s the cupcake that paved the way for so many others. And it really is quite good. I remember the first time I had one, in the years before cupcake bakeries were on every street corner, I was positively tickled. This time, though, it didn’t quite stand up my memory of it. The frosting is thick and smooth (the temptation to make a joke here is overwhelming), and develops a good crust. The cake is fairly dense and has a solid crumb to it – it’s sturdy, but not overly heavy or gritty (though perhaps a weensy smidge dry). The one odd thing about Magnolia’s cupcakes is that the recipe doesn’t call for any salt in either the batter or the frosting- so there’s nothing to cut the sweetness. The flavor comes off as a little flat as a result. I suspect even half a teaspoon would have given it some much needed depth.

Cupcake Royale’s Dance Party with Holly Hobbie has a similar frosting to Magnolia’s, though I suspect here’s a bit of salt thrown in the mix. For whatever the reason, it doesn’t seem to taste quite as sweet, though the consistency (and tendency to develop a crust) is about the same. The cake itself, though, is entirely different: more of a white cake than yellow, and incredibly moist and spongy (almost reminiscent of angel-food cake – I suspect there are beaten egg whites in the batter). The result is an incredibly light cake which is lovely, but one that almost runs the risk of not holding up to the thick frosting on top.

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The verdict:

Cupcake Royale was the clear winner of this match. While the cake was a bit too light in texture, the flavor was perfect. I suspect it was the secret ingredient of salt that helped them escape one-dimensional sweetness. As I noted, the cake was almost white, not yellow – and ideally I’d have preferred something sturdier (more along the lines of the Magnolia’s). In this instance, though, it worked well, playing off the dense frosting nicely.

That’s not to say that Magnolia didn’t have potential – if you tossed a bit of salt into the batter and the frosting, they’d have something truly magical on their hands.

But it just illustrates the fact that someone who does something first doesn’t necessarily do it best.

And so there you have it. Cupcakes, eaten in the name of science. Of course, for these results to have any scientific merit whatsoever, I should probably try and replicate my results over and over and … well, you know where this is headed:

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It’s the same direction I’ve been going in for the last 30 years.

Full list of categories:  Cupcake Death Match » Somewhat Useful Info
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Comments (25)

  1. 1
    Trisha says:

    Delightful! I can’t believe that I’ve never thought of conducting a cake review before. I’d stick around and read more today, but I’m off to visit a couple of local bakeries…..umm….in the name of science…yeah….think I’ll focus on chocolate donuts. ;-)

  2. 2
    Philip says:

    I wonder how Trophy Cupcakes would stack up against Cupcake Royale. I do prefer them to Royale, but I’m not a scientist.

    And speaking of doughnuts, I look forward to the results of that research. Make it happen.

    • 2.1
      Everywhereist says:

      I am about to create absolute chaos with what I’m about to say next but, um … I don’t like Trophy Cupcakes all that much. The frosting is too buttery, and fails to develop a crust. I don’t like it.

      There. I said it.

      • 2.1.1
        Philip says:

        You are entitled to your opinion, no matter how wrong it is. I used to find Royale cupcakes too dry, which is why I switched to Trophy. I think Royale changed/improved as a result. Yes, local cupcake companies move according to my whim.

        That said, they Yellow Leaf Cupcake place on 4th is pretty swell. You should go. In the name of science.

        • 2.1.1.1
          Everywhereist says:

          Everyone is talking about Yellow Leaf, so I think I’m going to check it out. Like, right now. What? I’m unemployed. I do what I want.

  3. 3
    Itai says:

    Great post! I have had Magnolia cupcakes before in NYC, and I always thought it was the best cupcake EVER. However, after reading your post, I now have my doubts. I’v never tasten Cupcake Royale before…which I think I will have to work on changing…soon :)

    Thanks for a great post!

  4. 4
    Jen says:

    Cupcake Royale’s traditional cupcakes (like the vanilla you tested) have left me slightly disappointed, however, their carrot cake & pumpkin cupcake are two of the most wonderful cakes I’ve ever tasted. Highly recommend you give em a shot!

    • 4.1
      Everywhereist says:

      Jen – Truth be told, my favorite CR cupcake is the red velvet. That one REALLY doesn’t compare to Magnolia’s red velvet. But that’s another post … :)

  5. 5
    Colleen Collins says:

    You’ve tried West Seattle’s Coffee to a Tea? http://www.sugarrushbakingcompany.com/ Imagine Alice in Wonderland mixed with Anthropologie eclectic design. Stir in Parisian bakers and cotton candy lightness. The cupcakes are well, you can judge that. I go for the baristas, the flower boxes, and the non matchy matchy beauty. Oh, damn girl, the cupcakes (and scones) are good too. :-)

    • 5.1
      Everywhereist says:

      Colleen – you just used Anthropologie and cupcakes to describe a place. I want to LIVE there.

      • 5.1.1
        Colleen Collins says:

        Haha! Yah, it’s fabulous. Plan a night of it – Ephesus Restaurant (O-M-G!! to die for), cupcakes….. OH and you have to love Husky’s. They have the best candy shelf. Sugar covered watermelon slices, malt balls, and these amazing peppermints the size of a half dollar. They ship them in from Chicago. You’ll look indecent eating it but whatever – totally worth it.

        On another note, how goes the book? I was reading your latest blog post (a reluctant writer myself), and was thinking it’s about time I start on my own. Did you ever ready Ramona Quimby when you were a girl? Ok, so that’s my secret. I want to write a few books based off that character. ’cause she’s so spunky, spirited, rebellious and precocious. I think she’s a great role model for girls. ta ta for now love

  6. 6
    Bekka says:

    Next time you are in LA try: http://www.frostedcupcakery.com/ Yum! Get the salted caramel if you like the sweet & salty mix!!

  7. 7
    cipher says:

    Surely, in the interests of science, you need a wider sample size?

  8. 8
    BlondeBomber says:

    LOVE your blog! I must say that magnolia is one of my favorite cupcakeries of the whole lot. I have yet to get my hands on some of those cupcake royale bad boys, but I imagine I would love them and it would be a dangerous situation. Thanks for spiking my interest!

  9. 9
    Julie says:

    I get you, Everywhereist. As a toddler I split my head open trying to climb up a chair to get to my birthday cake. Four stitches didn’t diminish my passion – I’ll still do almost anything to get me some frosting.

    If you like vanilla cupcakes, you MUST try Susie Cakes in Brentwood, Los Angeles. They are moist, buttery and not too sweet. Simply the best I’ve ever had. Their red velvet is delicious as well.

  10. 10
    Yuliya says:

    I’m hoping you’re planning on trying Georgetown Cupcake!

  11. 11
    Deepa says:

    I too am an avid dessert devotee……in the name of science of course! And u must try Hummingbird Bakery in Notting hill, london. Next time ur there of course….it would be silly to get on a plane just for that…….wouldn’t it?!?! When i lived there i was addicted to their red velvet.

    Also I just wanted to say I have just started reading your blog and LOVE IT. Was reading it on my phone in bed last night and was laughing so hard into my pillow that deeply asleep and snoring hubby woke up and asked if I was ok :)

  12. 12
    Niamh says:

    When you are next in hong kong you should try Sift cupcakes. I get a bit tearful everytime I bite into the salty chocolate caramel. It’s perfection.

  13. 13
    Michelle G says:

    “The result is an incredibly light cake which is lovely, but one that almost runs the risk of not holding up to the thick frosting on top.”

    But, you see, that’s the thing! The cake absolutely DOES hold up the thick frosting. CR makes amazing cupcakes. Magnolia seriously sucks for the very reasons you point out. Being from the NYC area myself, I really do not know why anyone gets cupcakes there. SATC promotion or not!

  14. 14
    Tanya says:

    A. I need you to create a shirt with the slogan I Need Cupcakes For Science. I will buy one for every day of the week.
    B. the look on your itty bitty G face is the most hilarious thing I’ve seen all day.

  15. 15
    Joe says:

    I’m from Connecticut, and here in West Hartford they have this place called “A Little Something Bakery” which is well-known here for having the most awesome cupcakes ever. If you really do travel everywhere, then I’d be curious to know what your verdict is on “A Little Something” cupcakes if you ever find yourself in CT.

    It isn’t the perfect bakery, the guys there only really know how to do cake so their cookies taste cakey and bad. So yea, don’t taste their cookies, but seriously try the cup cakes. And the dirt bombs (these old-school cinnamon-doughnut muffins), I have those like every week for breakfast. I’ve been to NY but not Magnolia (though I have been to the city bakery) and I don’t really know how they would compare, but I’m curious.

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