Attack of the killer cupcake

Times Staff Writer

It’s a weekend morning at the Alcove in Los Feliz, and every table on the outdoor patio is laden with omelets and hash browns, huevos rancheros and other big brunchy platters -- except for Natalie Light’s. On it sits a cupcake.

It’s a chocolate chip cupcake the size of a softball.

“I have this every day,” she says, eyeing it with reverence as she sinks her fork into it. “And I come early, or they sell out.”

At Auntie Em’s Kitchen in Eagle Rock, where a line snakes out the door, cupcakes are selling like hot cakes. You’d think this would put owner Terry Wahl’s mind at ease, but no.


“It’s almost at the point now where we’re thinking of limiting how many cupcakes people can buy,” Wahl says. “If someone walks in and says, ‘I want three dozen,’ they would wipe us out.” Not to mention depriving all the jonesing cupcake addicts in line.

All over town, the masses are clamoring for cupcakes.

Leda’s Bake Shop, a new custom-cake joint in Sherman Oaks, is selling a couple of hundred a day. And that’s on top of the special orders that have pastry chef Ledette Gambini churning out dozens more to sate the cupcake-hungry.

Where people have really gone cuckoo over cupcakes, though, is Beverly Hills. At Sprinkles, a “cupcake boutique,” owners Charles and Candace Nelson say they’re selling around 1,000 a day.

A thousand cupcakes! Line them up, and they’d nearly span a football playing field.

Even some serious chefs are caught up in cupcake fever.

“Cupcakes seem to be the thing,” says Annie Miler of Clementine cafe in Century City. “We basically sell as many as we can put out. Sometimes it’s hard for us to keep up.”

They’ve also popped up on the menu of the retro-hip Beechwood restaurant in Venice. Chef Brooke Williamson’s under the cupcake spell too. With three flavors on one plate, “they’re easier to share and more fun,” she enthuses. “It’s one of the most ordered desserts, if not the most ordered.”

There are blogs devoted to cupcakes, and cupcake entries in general blogs. There are tiered stands, ruffled silicone baking cups made just for cupcakes and even a cupcake transportation module -- a plastic container that lets you tote a single cupcake from home to office to beach to Mt. Everest without the frosting getting mussed, even if the cupcake gets turned upside down.

Who knew that the cupcake-itis that struck New York a couple of years ago was so infectious?

Publishers are doing what they can to spread it. On newsstands, cupcake glamour shots populate the pages of magazines. And four cookbooks devoted to cupcakes have come out in the last few months.

But do we really need the Cake Mix Doctor, or anyone else for that matter, telling us how to shrink a cake?

Yes, it seems we do! After all, if hordes are lining up all over town, squealing and swooning over red velvets, dark chocolates, white vanillas and a whole spectrum of cupcake flavors -- and willing to pay around $3 a pop, maybe they’ll be excited to pay $18 for a book telling them how to put batter in a smaller pan.

Because when it comes down to it, it’s a cupcake. It’s just a little cake batter baked in a paper cup and slathered with frosting.

No big deal. And yet, it is.

Talk to cupcake die-hards and they’ll wax poetic about the cupcake’s high frosting-to-cake ratio, its portability, its cachet as a single-serving indulgence.

And with pastry chefs making them over inside and out with designer ingredients and cool designs, that’s icing on the cupcake.

OK, I kind of get it, but not entirely.

I get it when I bite into Sprinkles’ dark chocolate cupcake made rich with Callebaut chocolate and real chocolate sprinkles. I don’t get it when I can barely taste anything in its Madagascar vanilla cupcake -- and yet it’s Sprinkles’ top seller. Go figure.

I get it when I pop into my mouth a carrot mini-cupcake with blood-orange curd and mascarpone frosting from Leda’s Bake Shop and think, wow, who knew a tiny cupcake could be the dessert version of an amuse bouche? I even get it at the Alcove, despite the cupcakes being crazy-humongous, because the chocolate cake is moist and soft and yummy and so is its Neapolitan frosting.

But I don’t get it when my teeth hurt after a taste from the revered Toast Bakery Cafe in L.A. Sure, a cupcake warms the cockles of my heart when it reminds me of my first sugar rush in kindergarten, but if I’m going to drive across town and wait in line, I want flavor too.

Then there’s the red velvet thing. If you had it as a kid, it makes you wistful. If not, it makes you baffled. Why would anyone want plain cupcakes stained blood-red by food coloring? There’s usually a spoon or two of cocoa powder in the batter too, but you can’t taste it.

I try Auntie Em’s wildly popular version (another super-sized cupcake, by the way) and it’s woefully dense and dry. I bite into the one at Beechwood and love how moist it is. But mostly, I confess, I love how the cream cheese frosting tastes.

At Joan’s on Third in L.A., I share a chocolate marshmallow cupcake three ways, then taste a regular chocolate one, plus a coconut for good measure. Good, good, good.

And yet, even when I like a cupcake, I can’t imagine going out of my way for one. If I want one, there’s always a supermarket nearby. I don’t need a pricey, pedigreed cupcake, do I?

I head over to a Gelson’s to find out. The cupcakes in the Viktor Benes case are a bargain at $1.25 each, considering all the $3-plus-or-minus cupcakes so far. And they look the way cupcakes should. They’re all the right size, with perfectly coiffed toupees of frosting and a bright and happy sprinkling of, well, sprinkles. One look at them and I’m 8 again, having a blast at a birthday party.

I eagerly take a bite.

Blech! It tastes like an oily, butterless cotton ball.

I’m aghast. And feverish.

I’m suddenly in need of a good cupcake. Must ... have ... cupcake.

Can I make it to Leda’s or Joan’s or Sprinkles before they close, I wonder?

See you later. Or maybe I’ll see you in line.


Mini espresso cupcakes with chocolate ganache and espresso buttercream

Total time: 1 hour, 45 minutes

Servings: 48

Note: From Ledette Gambini of Leda’s Bake Shop in Sherman Oaks. She recommends this recipe for minis because the buttercream frosting is quite rich. If you do make regular-sized cupcakes, this recipe makes about 24.

Chocolate ganache

1/4 cup heavy cream

1 tablespoon corn syrup

4 ounces good-quality semi-sweet chocolate, finely chopped

1 tablespoon ( 1/8 stick) butter, cut into small pieces

1. In a saucepan, bring the cream and corn syrup to a boil.

2. Remove from the heat and add the chocolate and butter. Let stand for a couple of minutes. Whisk until smooth.

Espresso buttercream

1 tablespoon plus 1 1/2 teaspoons espresso powder

1/4 cup egg whites

1/2 cup sugar

Pinch of cream of tartar

8 ounces (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened just enough to get an imprint when pressed with a finger

1. Dissolve the espresso powder in a tablespoon of water, making a paste.

2. Place the egg whites and sugar in the metal bowl of an electric mixer. Set it over a pan of simmering water, whisking until the sugar has dissolved (so you don’t feel any grains between your fingers). Be careful not to let the egg whites cook at this stage; constant beating is important.

3. Remove from the heat. Add the cream of tartar and, with an electric mixer using a whip attachment, beat on high speed until stiff peaks form.

4. Add the butter a tablespoon at a time on slow speed. It may look like undercooked scrambled eggs for a while, but just keep beating it on low until it comes together into a smooth buttercream, about 15 minutes.

5. Add the espresso paste. If you want a stronger espresso taste, make more paste and add.

Cupcakes and assembly

1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

1/2 teaspoon baking powder

1/4 teaspoon salt

2 tablespoons instant espresso powder

4 ounces (1 stick) butter, at room temperature

1 cup sugar

2 eggs, at room temperature

1/2 cup whole milk, at room temperature

Chocolate ganache

Espresso buttercream

1. Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Put cupcake liners into mini-muffin tins.

2. Sift together the flour, baking soda, baking powder, salt and espresso powder.

3. In a bowl, beat the butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Add the eggs slowly, beating well after each addition

4. Alternately add the flour mixture and the milk to the butter mixture, about half at a time, mixing slowly. Do not over beat; mix only until well blended.

5. Fill each muffin tin three-quarters full.

6. Bake 10 to 12 minutes until the cupcakes spring back when you touch them.

7. Remove the cupcakes from the pan and cool completely.

8. Put a quarter-sized dollop of chocolate ganache in the center of each cupcake, leaving the cake exposed around the edges. (You can use a small teaspoon or a pastry bag; warm the ganache slightly over some simmering water if hardened.)

9. Put some espresso buttercream into a pastry bag fitted with a round tip. Start piping at the edge of each cupcake, working in circles to reach the center.

Each serving: 113 calories; 1 gram protein; 11 grams carbohydrates; 0 fiber; 8 grams fat; 4 grams saturated fat; 27 mg. cholesterol; 38 mg. sodium.