Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Controversial Cupcakes

Cupcakes are enjoying a unique moment of popularity... nay, cultural obsession in the US.

A traditional, simple bakery sweet, long-loved by children and adults alike, cupcakes have recently become a fixture of finer culinary exploration. Eager to move beyond the expected, chefs are experimenting with new savory flavors, toppings, and frosting-cake combinations. Traditional flavors of vanilla, chocolate, red velvet and carrot cake are giving way to wasabi, ginger, chili, and even eggplant, with mixed results. It's certainly culinary innovation, but the most important question remains: does it taste good?
Before we get into it, perhaps we should start here: What, in fact, defines the nature of a cupcake? And what makes it different than a muffin? My amateur suspicion was that muffins are more in the "bread" family and cupcakes are more squarely in the "cake" family, and that ingredients (i.e. chunks of fruit, or lackthereof) and key flavors play a major role. But I turned to an expert to get the real scoop. Here's what my friend John, a baker at Chicago's legendary cupcake shop Sweet Mandy B's, had to say:

"Muffins are quickbreads. Cupcakes are just small cakes. So the difference lies in the ingredients and ratios between them. Quickbreads have a lot more flour than cakes, and generally will use butte as the fat. Cakes on the other hand tend to use oil as their fat and have more sugar." To that I would add that no matter what kind of flavors are used, a cupcake must also somehow be SWEET. For a pastry to hold as a cupcake, there must be a clear sweet note in the flavor profile.

So there we have it. Now, how do the nuevo cupcakes appearing on the current culinary scene match up? With new flavors being added to the mix, the new debate, of course, arises between tradition and innovation: what's better? Traditional cupcake flavors, expertly executed, or unique new flavor combinations that cause our palates to take notice? This very juxtaposition was played out on an episode of the Food Network's Throwdown with Bobby Flay, of which I caught a rerun few nights ago (it originally aired around this time last year).

Bobby challenged Terri Wahl of Auntie Em's Kitchen, to a cupcake challenge. A favorite of LA locals for their giant, soft cupcakes topped with artfully shaped mounds (and I mean MOUNDS) of icing, Auntie Em's only serves four classic cupcake flavors: chocolate, vanilla, carrot cake, and red velvet. Red Velvet, a very classic cocoa (but not chocolate) flavored cake, is the shop's standalone best seller, and that is likely why Terri chose to BRING IT to the throwdown. [Here's her recipe.]

Bobby however, always the innovator, had to create a new cake and frosting flavor combination to challenge Terri Wahl's sublimely executed standard. Bobby went for a "spicy and sweet" flavor profile (his trademark, or so he remarked on the show) with his Gingerbread Cupcakes with Caramelized Mango Buttercream Frosting. It was then up to judges Candace Nelson (Executive chef of LA's famous Sprinkles cup-cakery) and Clare Crespo, author of Hey There Cupcake to decide which was the better morsel. What would it be? The delicious down-home bite or the sintillating new creation? In the end they chose Bobby's Gingerbread-Mango cupcake - a predictable choice from two cupcake conoisseurs, who have spent their days tasing the best of the best traditional flavors. When presented with a new, surprising flavor combination that worked, of course they would be impressed, and bestow the award accordingly. (Candace Nelson also does a lot of flavor experimentation at Sprinkles - some of the more eclectic flavors include ginger lemon, chai latte, and peanut butter chip).

According to our "cupcake rules", Bobby was still within bounds on this challenge - his creation was cake-based, used sweet dessert flavors, and was tasty enough to win over the judges. However, what of the newest cupcakes turning up that are completely throwing the standards of "dessert flavors" to the wind? The addition of such ingredients as teryaki, curry, wasabi and even eggplant begs the question: If you add savory flavors to a cupcake, can you still call it a cupcake?
One of the bakeries leading this new trend is Chicago's Bleeding Heart Bakery with their new offering of Top Chef Chicago-themed "Controversial Cupcakes". Since week 4 of the competition (airing weekly on Bravo), Michelle Garcia (Executive Pastry Chef of The Bleeding Heart Bakery) has been pushing the boundaries with inventive cupcake creations inspired by the ingredients of each week's winning dish. If you watch the show, you can imagine how wacky some of the ingredients are that she has to work with -- especially since almost all of the winners so far have been savory dishes. As I live in Chicago, I had to pop over and try some of these controversial creations, and see how they stacked up to the cupcake rules.

The dish that sparked the whole idea to begin with was Andrew, Dale and Richard's Smoked Salmon with Faux Caviar and Wasabi White Chololate Sauce, the winning dish of week four, which resulted in this creation:
White Chocolate and Wasabi: Yellow cake with a white chocolate glaze, and wasabi-white chocolate frosting. The first forkful yields a provocative mix of flavors -- at first, it tastes like a normal yellow cupcake. But then the wasabi starts to burn a little bit and unleash its sharp aroma. The yellow cake is sweet, light and moist, and the frosting is rich and fluffy, but the wasabi kick at the end is definitely an unexpected eye-opener. I took a few bites and although the composition and texture of the cupcake were spot on, I just couldn't get into the wasabi - white chocolate pairing. It doesn't work for me in a cupcake, but I could see it working with a savory dish. According to the cupcake rules, this one makes the cut because it has a distinguishable yellow cake base and clear sweet notes - the only questionable element is really the wasabi in the frosting, but it's not enough of an offender to put this one outside of the cupcake family.

The second cupcake I tried was this one:
Perplexed: A vanilla cupcake studded with carmelized eggplant, cilantro, and jalapeno, with green curry and lemongrass frosting, topped with a almond crusted tofu nugget. This one comes from the winning dish of week seven: Richard and Dale's "Perplexed Green Tofu". I was excited to try this one as I have enjoyed curry as a element in sweet dishes in the past. The tofu nugget is tough and chewy, but tastes good with the curry-lemongrass frosting - nicely executed. Unfortunately, the cake itself is dominated by the jalapenos. The cilantro and eggplant don't really come through at all, and, when I take a bite with the frosting, even the curry gets a little overpowered. It's dense and chunky, but the yellow cake flavor does come through to an extent. The verdict? I like this flavor combination better than the white chocolate wasabi, but I'm still not sold on it. I would still consider it within the bounds of Cupcake, as it has a distinguishable yellow cake base and clear sweet notes in the cake and frosting. It's definitely pushing the boundaries though.

The third and final cupcake I tried was this interesting little bit:
A Stir-Fry Cupcake. Inspired by this past week's winning dish, it's soy-infused cake studded with carrot shavings, edamame, mint, sesame, and chicken (yes chicken!), topped with a honey glaze and a fondat "noodle". This is definitely like no dessert I have ever tasted before. It actually doesn't taste all that bad, especially with the honey topping, but after a bite or two, it's falling apart, vegetables and chunks tumbling forth, the cake not enough to hold them in. And CHICKEN? You can't put meat in a cupcake and still call it a cupcake. Or whole edamame beans. Seriously. Despite the fact that it's cake-based and has the sweet tone from the honey, I think this one crosses the line - I can't call it a cupcake. But Michelle did, and good to her for putting it out there. I just have to say that after tasting it, I have to respectfully disagree.

So there you have it. In the cupcake debate between tradition and innovation, tradition wins, save the rare instance where some innovative dessert idea is pulled off expertly (as in Bobby Flay's case). The Top Chef cupcakes, with their intense savory ingredients, just didn't cut it for me, although it was a welcome culinary adventure. Although I appreciate new flavors, there's really still nothing that compares to a Sweet Mandy B's yellow cupcake with vanilla buttercream frosting and sprinkles. Mmm-hmm.

On a final note, I think the greater point that the cupcake debate demonstrates is that increasingly today, chefs are pushing the boundaries and forcing us to think of our favorite, common foods in different ways. It's introducing more people to culinary exploration that may not have considered it on their own. So cheers to the chefs like Michelle Garcia who are boldly reinventing the rules. Keep it up!

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