Stop for a minute and imagine your own personal heaven. Maybe there's some clouds, a few harps scattered about, possibly a dove. But now focus on the good stuff. If your heaven looks anything like mine, there are bites of deliciousness as far as the eye can see. I got a chance to actually experience a taste of heaven this past Saturday at Drink:Eat:Play's annual LA Cupcake Challenge.
The hallway outside the ballroom of the Renaissance Hotel was abuzz with excitement. Men and women of all ages clumped together, eagerly studying the ballots that foretold the deliciousness to come. We scanned the forty different flavors, the choices running the gamut from the traditional (chocolate, vanilla and red velvet), to the original (sticky toffee pudding, salted caramel), to the downright mysterious (sunday mimosa, pigs on tap.)
At four o'clock the doors were swung open and the mob swelled into the ballroom. Everywhere I looked mini cupcakes beckoned me with their come hither swirls of frosting. There were towers upon towers of the yummy treats. Just the thought of all that sugar was overwhelming! I grabbed a plate and made it to about three displays before it was full. Clutching the ballot in one hand and the plate in the other, I studied the sold out crowd and began to worry that the purveyors would run out of cupcakes before I'd had a chance to make my way around the room. Besides, I wanted to do this systematically, giving each cupcake it's due, rather then wolfing them down in an effort to get to all of them.
It was at this moment that I spied the very clever team from the CIA (the Cupcake Intelligence Agency.) This foursome had begun to set their plates down at an empty table, leaving one member of the team behind to guard their spoils. Seeing how many cupcakes they had already amassed, I decided to trust them with my little hoard and asked if I could join them. They graciously agreed.
With a home base established, I went about collecting samples from every display and leaving them at the table. The atmosphere in the room grew giddy as the first of many sugar highs began to set in. People's eyes twinkled as the bakers explained their wares. Strangers smiled at strangers as if to say, "Can you believe this is real?!" And everywhere you looked there was the breathtaking sight of mountains of mini cupcakes.
Having collected my treasures, I then went about the delectable task of judging the contest. The first challenge was figuring out exactly which cupcakes were which. The shops that had marked their cupcakes with some sort of label were much appreciated. Sometimes it took the CIA, myself, and our two other table mates to figure out which was which. Cupcaking is definitely a team sport! And now, dear readers, a confession: Although I only took one bite from most cupcakes, by the time I had made my way through the 26 "original" entries I was much too full to attempt the "traditional" entries. But I would like to congratulate Big Man Bake's "Red Velvet" for winning first prize in that category.
The prevailing theme of the year seemed to be bacon (and you know how I love my bacon)! Three separate shops put out a bacon offering with varying levels of success. Far and away the best of these attempts was the "Breakfast Cake" from My Delight Cup Cakery. This consisted of a pancake flavored cake with maple frosting sprinkled with fresh bits of bacon and drizzled with maple syrup. Although I did not "shoot" the entire cupcake in one mouthful like some of my brave table mates, one bite was enough to convince me that these people are culinary geniuses. Willy Wonka may have unsuccessfully attempted to stuff an entire dinner into a piece of gum, but the ladies behind My Delight have truly captured the essence of an indulgent breakfast in a single cupcake (and no one turned into a blueberry at the end!). The cupcake was sweet and salty and moist and creamy and utterly unique. While I didn't vote for it, it was one of my absolute favorites and I am delighted to announce that it won Best Original Cupcake.
My vote for Best Original went to the Caramel Banana cupcake from Jus Minis. Nineteen year old Executive Culinary Director Justin Polacek was actually brulee-ing individual banana slices at the event, giving his table the added excitement of a fiery demonstration. Far from being just for show, those little coins were the perfect compliment to his luxurious cupcakes. The bruleed banana had the satisfying crunch of caramel coupled with the creamy softness of the raw banana. Add to this a cupcake that tasted like a deep and richly flavored banana bread, as well as some silky chocolate frosting (who doesn't love that combo??) and you have one phenomenal cupcake. So phenomenal, in fast, that it won first place in the "Best Overall" category. Congratulations Justin! Here's hoping that this win gives him a chance to start selling his cupcakes in stores in the LA area, not just in Riverside!
My vote for Best Overall went to the Key Lime cupcake from My Delight Cup Cakery (they of the fabled breakfast cake - both pictured above.) Another big trend I noticed this year was putting a surprise filling inside the cupcake. The treats were filled with everything from pumpkin puree to strawberry jam to caramel that oozed forth as if from a truffle. I am all for this trend as it adds yet another dimension of flavor and excitement to the cupcake. My Delight's Key Lime cupcake gave us a spectacular example of how a filling could elevate the taste. They nestled a tart and pungent dollop of creamy key lime filling inside their sweet little cake. They then topped it with a super soft meringue that had just a hint of a crunch from being baked on the outside. With the multitude of flavors and textures, (and my Florida native's love of key lime), this was one of the highlights of the show for me. Here's hoping that My Delight expands out of the Ontario area and comes to LA sometime soon!
Having failed to bring Tupperware, My Delight Cup Cakery was kind enough to give me one of their handy plastic trays, which I loaded down with all the treats that would not yet fit in my stomach. (This feat of ingenuity, coupled with my foresight of wearing expandable pants, earned me the title of Chief of the CIA, an honor for which I will forever be grateful!). It is four days later, and I am still enjoying the fruits of my labor (although I think they will all be gone after today!).
Overall, it had been a day with many highs (see above) and a few lows ("this lavender cupcake tastes like lotion"). I would like to thank Drink:Eat:Play for putting on such a magical event; it surpassed all my expectations. It was even so well organized that by the end there were still plenty of cupcakes to spare! Thank goodness this is an annual event, as I can't wait to experience another day in my own personal heaven.