By happy coincidence, this week's review is published on Halloween, a holiday that I've grown to despise (since when, exactly, has this stopped being a day for kids to dress up and trick-or-treat and instead become one more excuse for adults to get wasted (like you need one more excuse, anyway) and try to outdo one another for the cleverest or most scandalous (or both) costume?) but one that is the occasion of my favorite childhood memory of cupcakes. It's also my only childhood memory of cupcakes, but that's neither here nor there.
My birthday is the week before Halloween, and when I was in kindergarten or maybe first grade (I don't remember which, and I might be imagining this memory, or it might have been an episode of Punky Brewster), my mom baked cupcakes for me to take to school and share with my classmates. These were your basic yellow cake mix topped with chocolate frosting. On top of each was a single Brach's Mellowcreme pumpkin, then and now my favorite Halloween candy. Not at all complicated, but absolutely delicious.
Now, you might be thinking, "What's so special about this memory?" You, too, brought cupcakes to school on your birthday or baked cupcakes for your own child to bring to school. Which is my point. The cupcake has a special place in our hearts. It's the perfect dessert. A single serving, by design, but made in batches, so everyone gets their own. No fighting over the piece of cake with the most icing or the candy flower on top. It's an egalitarian dessert. It's a democratic dessert.
It's an American dessert.
Nevertheless, in recent years cupcakes have attained an astonishing level of adoration. The epicenter of the cupcake craze is generally acknowledged to be New York City's Magnolia Bakery, which opened in the mid 1990s. The bakery was immortalized in an episode of Sex and the City and then, a few years later, in Saturday Night Live's "Lazy Sunday" sketch, when Andy Samberg and Chris Parnell head to Magnolia to "mack on some cupcakes."
Finally, in 2007, as the inevitable Sex and the City reunion movie is being filmed, the cupcake craze has come to St. Louis.
Jilly's Cupcake Bar
The cupcakes at Jilly's Cupcake Bar don't look decorated so much as crafted, their precise swirls of buttercream bejeweled with shaved chocolate, peanut brittle or slivers of candied carrots. They are arranged on towers of concentric trays, a cityscape of spangled frosting like something out of a children's storybook or an especially groovy acid trip.
The "PB and 'J'illy," for example, offers thick swirls of pale pink raspberry buttercream topped with a few more swirls of peanut-butter buttercream. A piece of peanut brittle sticks out of the top of the cupcake, chopped peanuts scattered around it. And that's just the frosting. The cake itself is vanilla cake flavored with peanut, with a dollop of raspberry jam in the center.
I wished there had been more than a dollop of that jam; it had a more natural raspberry flavor than the buttercream, which tasted of candy more than of fruit. Still, you can't argue with the pairing of peanut butter and jelly, especially when the peanut butter is bulked up with actual peanuts and peanut brittle.
The "Tiramisu" (offered only on Tuesday and Friday) is vanilla cake lightly flavored by espresso syrup and topped with cream-cheese icing and chocolate shavings. Tasty, though not much like tiramisu. Best of all was the "Carrot Cake," moist carrot cake accented with cinnamon and vanilla. The highlight here was slivers of candied carrot sticking out of the cream-cheese frosting: sweet, but with some depth, and gone in just a couple of bites.
One aspect bedeviled several of Jilly's cupcakes: good or very good frosting, but too-dry cake. So while the "Chocolate Thunder" offered a decadent blend of white chocolate mousse and milk chocolate buttercream, it also featured chocolate cake that, even with chocolate syrup and dark chocolate ganache filling, wasn't moist enough. Same went for the "PB and 'J'illy."
Most Jilly's cupcakes cost $3.50, though basic chocolate and vanilla cupcakes are $3, and the "Coffee Cake" is only $1.95. (I should mention that Jilly's also serves a small menu of breakfast and lunch fare. For this review, however, I restricted myself to the cupcakes.)
The Cupcakery is small and rather plain, a single room at the back of the Central West End's decidedly upscale Maryland Plaza development. It might remind you of a hole-in-the-wall coffee shop, minus all the chachkas: a few tables and chairs, a refrigerator filled with bottles of soda and water, a steaming espresso machine.
Oh, and the best cupcakes you've ever eaten.
The Cupcakery from the owners of the Cakery, in Dogtown has a small menu. There are five regular cupcakes and one or two weekly specials. All have one thing in common: The cake, whether vanilla, yellow or chocolate, is perfect, moist and flavorful. If one day the Cupcakery ran out of buttercream and could serve you only cake, you wouldn't mind.
Actually, two things in common: the cake and being an absolute steal at $2.25 each.
The frosting, while not as elaborate as Jilly's, is terrific. In truth, its simplicity is a virtue. The "Confetti" is the Platonic ideal of the birthday-party cupcake, French vanilla cake topped with luscious vanilla buttercream and, naturally, sprinkles (or "jimmies," as my wife insists on calling them). Likewise, the "Gold Rush" is yellow cake with chocolate buttercream, topped with a small tuile, while the "Double Chocolate" is dark chocolate cake with chocolate buttercream. Both are simple, but divine.
My favorite of the regular cupcakes is the "Peanut Butter Cup," dark chocolate cake topped with peanut-butter buttercream that tastes exactly like the peanut butter inside a Reese's Peanut Butter Cup. Pieces of an actual peanut-butter cup are crumbled over the frosting.
In spite of the fact that I'd already been fitted for my wedding suit, I tried not one, not two, but three of the Cupcakery's special cupcakes. The "Mocha Cappuccino" is chocolate cake topped with a silky cappuccino buttercream and a chocolate-covered espresso bean, which added a welcome depth of flavor to the sweet dessert. Likewise, the tart lemon candy atop the "Lemon Drop" cupcake was the perfect foil for the lemon buttercream (more like mild Meyer lemon than everyday lemon).
The holy grail was the "Red Velvet Cake," an alluring mixture of rich, lightly cocoa-flavored cake and cream-cheese frosting. The only thing that could have improved it might have been a Mellowcreme pumpkin on top. Or maybe I'm just weird that way.