"People are afraid of it because the flavors are so unusual," McCall says. "I have to force it on them, and then they're like, 'Oh, my God, what is this?' It really doesn't matter if you don't like coconut or pistachio. Once I get people to try it, they love it."
McCall's not bluffing. The signature dessert from her baking business, Sugar Jones, beat dozens of entries to win best original cupcake at last year's inaugural Los Angeles Cupcake Challenge, the local food competition that's most likely to induce a diabetic coma.
This year's Cupcake Challenge, which is organized by a local company called Drink, Eat, Play, promises even tougher competition with 19 bakeries and caterers (up from 15 last year) serving 34 entries in three categories: traditional (chocolate, vanilla or red velvet), original (anything goes) and overall. With the absence this year of Leyna’s Kitchen -- whose Strawberrilicious concoction won best overall cupcake at last year's competition -- the field is wide open.
For a country singer and actress who fell back on baking as a financial lifeline, McCall has big ambitions. "I think it's going to be tougher because there are a lot more bakeries this time. Last year, I really wanted to beat Vanilla Bakeshop because I worked for them a short amount of time -- and I did for best original. But it's a different competition this year. What I really want to do is to sweep the whole thing," she says.
She's working on two creations: Blackberries & Cream and something called Casanova's Kiss, a cupcake inspired by her favorite flavors of gelato: chocolate-hazelnut and pistachio. But the competition too is stepping up with such creations as the Chocolate Malted Milkshake from Delilah Bakery, Blood Orange Mango Creamsicle and Mexican Hot Chocolate from Layers, Lavender from Melli Belli Desserts, Chocolate Bread Pudding from the chefs of the Oinkster and Boho, Sweet Potato Pie from Southern Girl Desserts and a Lemon-Blueberry-Mascarpone cupcake from the Renaissance Hollywood Hotel, which is hosting the event.
In addition to more competitors from Orange County and a larger space, changes include a lower entry fee for this year's Cupcake Challenge, which has dropped by $20 thanks to the addition of Nesquik as a sponsor. For $40, attendees at the Roosevelt can eat up to 34 mini-cupcakes (one of each flavor) and guzzle all the milk and coffee they want. And thanks to a new judging system, the voice of the people will be stronger than ever, according to Eat, Drink, Play organizer Dan Silberstein. Last year, the judging was weighted 50/50 between a handful of local food writers and the mass of regular-folk attendees. This year, the votes of the judges, who include Gustavo Arellano of the OC Weekly and Lindsay William-Ross of LAist .com, will count as five votes each instead of half the total.
If we are on the brink of a recession-driven "cupcake backlash," it hasn't hit Los Angeles, the epicenter of the upscale cupcake trend. "I'm not sure you can sustain a business on $4 cupcakes," Silberstein says, "but I haven't been to a bakery in the last six months where there weren't people buying cupcakes."
Go to www.latimes.com/cupcakes for a Google map of cupcake bakeries in Los Angeles and Orange County. Click here for to access the Great Los Angeles Cupcake List.
Los Angeles Cupcake ChallengeWhere: Renaissance Hollywood Hotel, 1755 N. Highland Ave., Hollywood
When: 1 to 4 p.m. Sunday
Contact: (310) 709-3969, www.drinkeatplay.com/cupcakechallenge/