Cupcake Karma

There must have been some divine intervention going on when I decided to have my visiting family members help out in deciding who has the best cupcake in DC. Get this – we drove to three different bakeries (two in Georgetown and one in Dupont Circle, both neighborhoods notorious for NO PARKING) and I found parking right in front of each bakery. Right in the middle of the afternoon!!! Now that’s some serious cupcake karma, y’all! Just TRY to convince me that God wants me to eat healthy…

The visitors (left to right) my nephew James (15), my little sister Tree, my big sister Patty, my niece Kayla (13), and my mom Ginny, all came to visit DC for a long weekend. In addition to trudging around seeing the sights in the 97-degree heat (“Look! There’s the Washington Monument! There’s FBI Headquarters! There’s my out-patient rehab clinic! There’s the Capitol!”), I thought it would be fun to sample some of DC’s designer cupcake offerings. As you may know, the boutique cupcake bakery trend has hit DC with a vengeance and has shown no sign of slowing down anytime soon. We figured we could handle 4 different bakeries over the span of 4 days/3 nights.

Here are the contenders:

Red Velvet Cupcakery

675 E Street NW
Washington, DC 20004

http://www.redvelvetcupcakery.com

Cost: $3.25 per cupcake ~ Value: 3/5

Not a bad price, but not a great one either.

Service: 3/5

Service was no-nonsense, but felt a little rushed. There was a line and the space is rather small and awkward, which probably creates a need for staff to keep things moving, but the staff weren’t exactly warm and fuzzy. A smile would have been nice. You’re selling cupcakes, folks, not burial plots.

Selection: 3/5

Red Velvet Cupcakery has a good basic selection of cupcakes, including their signature cupcake the Southern Belle, a classic red velvet cupcake done just right. Other selections we tried include Peanut Butter Cup, B-Day, Black Velvet, and that day’s special, the Peach Cobbler Cupcake.

Comments: This Penn Quarter outpost is characterized by fluffy, moist cakes and even fluffier, lighter-than-air whipped frostings. The crowd favorite was the Peanut Butter Cup, with a light, whipped peanut-butter icing with a hint of saltiness. The Morning Call cupcake (espresso-chocolate cupcake with espresso-dusted buttercream and a chocolate covered coffee bean on top) was another crowd-pleaser. These were the first cupcakes we tasted, and Ginny’s impression was that they would be “hard to beat!” The Devil’s Food cupcake had just the kind of rich, dense chocolate flavor you look for in that type of cupcake. James kept scraping the paper liner with his teeth! Can’t take that boy anywhere…

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Georgetown Cupcake

3301 M St NW
Washington, DC 20007

http://www.georgetowncupcake.com

Cost: $2.75 per cupcake  ~ Value: 4/5

A solid, reasonably-priced cupcake for the value-conscious snack-hound.

Service: 5/5

We found all of the staff to be knowledgeable, super-friendly and well-trained. They kept the line moving along at a brisk pace, without making you feel rushed. Impeccable service. Special kudos to cupcake-packer extraordinaire Rob Dickers, whose hand is prominently featured in this cupcake-packing action shot.  This guy is delightful, and a real pro!

Selection: 3/5

Georgetown Cupcake has a fantastic, extensive selection, certainly worthy of a 5/5 rating. However, the day we visited the availability was limited, and several of the selections we were looking forward to (including the Salted Caramel and the Peanut Butter Swirl) were simply not on the menu. We found that the menu on the day of our visit was rather mundane. In fact, there were no selections AT ALL with peanut butter, which I consider to be a major flub for any cupcake bakery, any day of the week. Selections we did try included the Red Velvet, Chocolate-Squared, Vanilla-Squared, Toffee Crunch, and Chocolate Mint.

Comments: Already very popular and known for lines up the block and wait times in excess of an hour (we waited outside the store about 15 minutes on a Monday at 4 pm), Georgetown Cupcake is about to get even bigger with it’s own reality show “DC Cupcakes” having premiered on TLC July 16th, 2010 at 10 pm. Specialty ingredients like Vahlrona chocolate and Madagascar bourbon vanilla, as well as designer toppings like fondant flowers truly make these cupcakes extra-special. The cakes were dense and moist and the frostings ranged from a thick, rich slab of ganache on the Chocolate-Squared cupcake to the fluffy vanilla-scented cream cheese frosting on the classic Red Velvet cupcake. James thought the mint flavor in the Chocolate Mint was something special and authentic, and just about everyone agreed that the Red Velvet was the best we tasted. The Toffee Crunch had real toffee flavor, and overall these were undeniably the prettiest cupcakes we saw. While James asserted that the flavors were superior, he doubted that the superiority of the cupcakes outweighed the wait-time differential required to obtain the actual cakes. This would have to be taken into serious consideration…

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Hello Cupcake

1351 Connecticut Avenue NW
Washington, DC 20036

http://www.hellocupcakeonline.com

Cost: $3.00 per cupcake ~ Value: 3/5

Average value, but would the cupcakes be above-average?

Service: 2/5

Unfortunately, on this particular day, the service was rather indifferent and not very friendly.

Selection: 2/5

We were met with a very limited selection when we visited. We were told that more cupcakes would be available later in the day. (Again, no peanut butter!!!) Luckily, we were able to snag the very last Vanilla Gorilla (banana cupcake with vanilla frosting), which had come very highly recommended. We also grabbed the Dreamsicle (orange cupcake with vanilla cream filling and orange buttercream, pictured), You Tart (lemon cupcake with lemon cream cheese icing), and a couple of HC Originals (think basic vanilla and chocolate combinations). In all, the selections were not diverse enough to excite these experienced chow hounds!

Comments: Aside from the exceptionally good Vanilla Gorilla (they got the banana cupcake JUST right), we all agreed that Hello Cupcake’s offerings, while good, were not great. One taster commented that they were almost like – gasp! – supermarket cupcakes. With such heavy competition here in DC, Hello Cupcake did seem to fade into the background a bit for this group of tasters. However, kudos go out to this bakery for offering both a gluten-free and a vegan selection every day.

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Baked and Wired

1052 Thomas Jefferson Street NW
Washington, DC 20007

bakedandwired.com

Cost :$3.85 per cupcake ~ Value: 2/5

A bit spendy, but in all fairness the cupcakes are a bit bigger that the competition.

Service: 5/5

A neighborhood style and a homemade look of all the baked goods gives this place a special kind of vibe that makes you want to stay and hang out for a bit. We interacted with three different staff members and they were all super-charming.

Selection: 5/5

Baked and Wired has an excellent, fun selection of cupcakes and on the day we visited we were overwhelmed with exciting choices. Some of the imaginative selections we tried included the Chocolate Doom, Razmanian Devil (lemon cupcake with raspberry jam center and lemon buttercream icing), Chai Latte, and the Unporked Elvis (banana cupcake with peanut butter icing and chocolate drizzle.)

Comments: Baked and Wired was not originally on my short list for this cupcake sampling, but after the uproar among my friends, I had to add it to the itinerary at the last minute. (This was not such a big deal, since it’s only a few blocks from Georgetown Cupcake, and as we know, the parking gods were on my side with this endeavor.) This place has a loyal and vocal following, and with several of my friends insisting they offered the best cupcake in town, I knew we had to check it out. The cupcakes are the biggest I’ve seen, and we were the most excited about trying these selections compared to the other contenders. In fact, Tree and Kayla and I had driven over to pick up the cupcakes and we were tempted to pull over and eat them in the car. We were going to come home empty-handed and tell the rest of the family: “Mayor Fenty has called for a city-wide moratorium on cupcakes until the City Council agrees on a budget for the fiscal year!” But in the end we agreed that even though Ginny and James might buy this ridiculous story, Patty would never fall for it. Baked and Wired cupcakes definitely had a homemade texture and flavor. However, some of the comments on the icing indicated that it might be “too sweet.” We were disappointed to find that the Unporked Elvis cupcake was really just a mundane banana bread, and the peanut butter icing left a lot to be desired. However, we could tell that this bakery uses high-quality home-style ingredients, and they accomplished a taste just like homemade. In all, Baked and Wired really is delightfully different than the other places.

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So who’s the winner? Believe it or not, we were split right down the middle with Ginny, Tree and Patty voting for Red Velvet as the overall winner, and Kayla, James and I voting for Georgetown Cupcake. Since ties are so lame, I decided to break the tie myself and give a few extra points for the cupcakes we agreed were the prettiest. Therefore…

Overall Winner of Spice Boy’s Best in DC: Georgetown Cupcake ~ Great textures and flavors, high-quality, gourmet ingredients and special fondant toppings and touches gave Georgetown’s flagship cupcake bakery an edge over the rest.

Runner-Up: Red Velvet ~ Penn Quarter’s stately southern-style lady is not to be missed. Moist and light cakes and fluffy frostings made this contender a very close second place!

Honorable Mention: Baked and Wired ~ Even though this bakery wasn’t really in the running with the others in terms of overall cupcakes, their imaginative flavors and neighborhood vibe made them worthy of a special mention and definitely another visit. I can’t wait to try their biscotti, too!

The longer I’m around, the surer I am – family is what it’s all about. Throw in a few baked goods, and things just don’t get any better! In the end, does it really matter who has the best cupcake? Nah! The fun is all in the sampling and spending time with your peeps. Enjoy life!

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A Weekend on the Cape

My favorite place in the whole, wide world is Cape Cod. The ocean, the smell of scrub pines, the cranberry bogs – when I’m surrounded by it all, I immediately relax (for proof, see pic below of me asleep in hammock.)

It’s no secret that when I travel, I tend to plan my trips around where and when I can stop by my favorite eating establishments, and find new ones. What can I say? It’s an alternative lifestyle. Having spent summers in East Harwich since I was a kid, each visit the Cape is no exception. To me, Cape Cod also means family, and on my recent weekend visit there I was able to see most of my clan.

I tend to agree with critics when it comes to the great Cape Cod fried clam debate. The consistent winner of all the critics’ choice awards seems to be Cooke’s Seafood (locations in Mashpee, Hyannis, and Orleans), and I have to agree.

I’ve tried MANY a fried clam all over new England – enough to make a cardiologist gasp – and I always come back to Cooke’s. On this trip, my sister Tree, my Mom and I visited the Orleans location (Route 28),where we were unable to eat inside the restaurant or on the patio like normal people, since the dogs were in the car and they couldn’t be left alone for 5 seconds. (Leaving them all alone at the house was out of the question because Tree is insane. Don’t even ask.) Anyway, we had a lovely picnic under a tree on the outskirts of the parking lot, with a nice water view. The WHOLE clams (clam strips are a travesty and will not be discussed here) were plump, sweet, and succulent as usual, with a coating just as crispy, crumbly and delightful as can be. Tree enjoyed a New England delicacy, the coffee shake. She is, after all, our resident authority on fancy drinks (see “Notes from Costa Rica,” which details her love affair with mango smoothies.)

You may be aware that the very bane of my existence is picky eaters, and my dear sister unfortunately happens to be one. Oddly, though she’ll be vexed by something as innocuous as, say, a large chunk of tomato, she happens to love mussels. Yes, mussels, those oil-dark, oval, bearded mollusks that only 7% of the population will even look at, let alone put near their mouth. Though many believe they are evil incarnate, those in the know will tell you that these shelled beauties are sweet and meaty, and lend themselves to any number of simple, delicious preparations. Inexplicably, Tree loves them. And I love her for it; sharing mussels has become one of our sibling bonds.

So on the odd occasion that Tree and I find ourselves alone together, like on one particular night on the Cape, we decided to cook up a batch. This time, we steamed them up in a spicy tomato sauce with wine and fresh basil, fra diavolo style.

Mussells Fra Diavolo

Serves 4

2 Lbs Mussels, cleaned and de-bearded

1 28-oz can crushed tomato

1 Tbsp olive oil

1/2 onion, chopped

4 cloves garlic, minced

1 tsp oregano

1 tsp red chile pepper flakes (more or less to taste)

1 Cup dry white wine

pinch of sugar

fresh basil leaves, torn

salt and pepper

1/2 lb spaghetti or linguini, for serving

1. Using a pot that has a tight-fitting lid (you’ll need the lid later), heat the olive oil over medium heat and sauté the onion until translucent, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic and red chile pepper flakes and sauté for an additional minute or two.

2. Deglaze the pan with wine and stir in the tomato, oregano, and sugar. Season the sauce with salt and pepper and bring to a simmer. Simmer until the flavors come together and the alcohol cooks off, 10 – 20 minutes. Taste for seasoning and adjust accordingly.

3. Bring the mixture to a boil and add the mussels. Cover tightly and boil for about 8 minutes, shaking the pot occasionally, until the mussels have opened. Throw in the basil, reserving some for garnish, and give the pot a final shake.

4. Serve the mussels over pasta with or without cheese, depending on which side of the seafood-and-cheese controversy you fall upon. I think it’s kind of nutty to say that EVERY seafood flavor clashes with EVERY cheese out there and none of them could possibly pair well. I like to eat the mussels off the top of the dish, then sprinkle parmesan over the pasta. It’s delicious. Call me crazy.

I take a backseat to my brother-in-law Jimmy, the true cook in my family, the grill-master. I must say, everything he touches turns to gold. Therefore, I decided to make a few easy appetizers for our family dinner the next night, while Jimmy took charge of the grill. My niece Kayla assisted me with some really easy no-cook smoked salmon bites. All of the ingredients are available at Trader Joes (we stopped at the one in Hyannis at exit 6). The smoked salmon there is really a good deal! If you can’t find “popped” style potato chips, a sturdy potato chip, like a kettle chip, will work fine.

Smoked Salmon Bites

(Adapted from Bon Appétit Magazine)

4-oz sliced smoked salmon

1 bag Popped Chips (available at Trader Joe’s)

2 Tbsp crème fraîche

1/2 tsp lemon zest

baby arugula leaves

fresh chives, chopped

Mix the crème fraîche with the lemon zest. Cut the salmon into bite-sized pieces. Lay out the chips on a platter. Top each chip with an arugula leaf, a piece of smoked salmon, a tiny dab of crème fraîche, and a sprinkling of chives. These are wicked easy bite-sized appetizers everyone will love.

What better way to finish a meal – or to finish a lovely weekend with family – than with a sweet treat? My family’s favorite sweet shop on the Cape is Herbert’s Stage Stop Candy (411 Main St, Dennis Port, MA). They have fantastic fudge in every flavor imaginable ($7.95 a pound), and lots of old favorites like truffles and turtles. For me, the star of the show is Stage Stop’s cranberry cordials, which make a great gift for folks back home. They are local cranberries enrobed in scrumptious milk or dark chocolate – a true taste of Cape Cod.

I’ll be back soon…