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Food Issue 2012: CL samples the coolest cupcakes 

Walking the Red Velvet carpet to Charlotte's cupcakeries

The love affair that started in elementary school has grown up. Cupcakes are no longer the shy schoolgirls they once were. Some local bakers have put inventive and wildly creative spins on the wardrobe of cupcakes.

Of course, Red Velvet is still on the roster, but so are bacon and sweet tea. CupCake Delirium, a food-truck business, offers the wonderfully delicious yin-yang of cupcakes: The Elvis, a rich banana cake with peanut butter butter-cream frosting spiked with two strips of lean candied bacon.

Meanwhile, sweet tea cupcakes are available at CupCrazed Cakery, a Fort Mill shop owned by Heather McDonnell. She's the baker who garnered national attention last September when she won the Food Network's popular reality show Cupcake Wars.

Cupcakes are not new: Hostess has been selling packaged cupcakes since 1919. Eighty years later, the HBO girlfriend show Sex and the City created a lust for cupcakes when characters Carrie and Miranda devoured artfully swirled tiny cakes in front of The Magnolia Bakeshop in Greenwich Village. The cupcake business at Magnolia took off after that episode aired. By 2003, the store reported selling 3,000 cupcakes in one day and bringing in over $40,000 a week in cupcake sales.

What's not to like? Cupcakes are sweet and do not require utensils; they are portable and come in small yet calorically deceiving sizes. "We girls learned early that good things come in small packages," says Brandi Phillips, owner of The Blushing Bakeshop.

Additionally, cupcakes have one fundamental feature. "Cupcakes are just happy," says Tiz Benson, owner of one of Charlotte's oldest bakeries, Tizzerts. "They are happy little treats and very affordable."

Nationwide, many speculate the cupcake trend has peaked. Not so, says Michelle Miller, co-owner of Polka Dot Bake Shop: "The whole trend, beginning with Magnolia, just keeps going."

Add entrepreneurial instinct to the factors of nostalgia, girl culture, and the need for an affordable indulgence in bad economic times, and the recipe for the cupcake trend is set.

Now, corporate chains, too, hope to capitalize on the craze that started out at a quirky bakery in a funky lower Manhattan neighborhood. Crumbs Bake Shop, Inc., is the largest U.S.-based cupcake specialty store chain. Crumbs outsources the baking of its cupcakes to commercial facilities. Last year, Crumbs' management announced an expansion into 200 locations nationwide by 2014; however, recent sales have not met market expectations.

Meanwhile, the Nashville-headquartered Gigi's Cupcakes will open a store in the Sharon Corners Shopping Center in SouthPark during the first quarter of 2012. Gigi's has more than 50 stores in 18 states.

Though the chains may have Charlotte on their expansion list, local bakeries are serving righteous, and sometimes off-beat, baby cakes right now. They come through three main outlets: food trucks, bakeries, and cupcakeries. Charlotte currently has two cupcake food trucks. Some regular bakeries sell cupcakes as well: Sunflour Baking Company (2001 E. 7th St.) has eight flavors daily ($3 each), and Nona's Sweets Bakery (9331 JW Clay Blvd.) typically has nine flavors daily ($2.75). Of the cupcakeries, most have expanded their product lines. Cakepops (cake on a stick) are popular as well as cookies, bars, and wedding cakes.

The question of where to find the best cupcake sparks much debate among aficionados. Some fans demand an exacting ratio of cake to icing. Most cupcakes here have a 3:2 ratio, cake to icing. All the shops I visited in Charlotte carry the area's favorite cupcake: Red Velvet, an improbable red cake, moist and tender, but not too sweet with a cocoa base note. The icing is a rich puff of soft cream cheese. But I found Red Velvet cupcakes have a varied taste profile around town.

Here's a rundown of where to get your cupcake fix, listed in order of their "coolness" factor:

CupCake Delirium

(Cool because of the bacon factor)

Venue: Truck; 704-458-9389.

Website: www.cupcakedelirium.vpweb.com, Facebook, Twitter

Cost: $3 each, 4 for $10, 6 for $15, 12 for $30

Vegan and Gluten-Free: Available with pre-order

Last April, Shannon Turrell and Russ Falkowski opened CupCake Delirium in "Baby Blue," a food truck devoted to cupcakes. Turrell, who has been in the restaurant business for 25 years, and Falkowski moved to Charlotte from the West Coast.

Delirium's cupcakes, sealed in upside-down, clear plastic, medium-sized drink containers, push the creativity envelope, but not at the expense of flavor. The Elvis, a rich banana cake with peanut butter butter-cream frosting spiked with two strips of lean candied bacon, is quite delicious. The Elvis is not the only bacon cupcake; they also offer Six Degrees of Heaven Bacon, a maple cupcake with maple butter-cream icing with a track of candied bacon. Falkowski noticed that some customers take off the bacon and eat the strips separately, but he advises to lay the bacon flat — like a roof — and crunch down through all the layers of flavors.

Traditional flavors hit the mark here as well. In fact, their moist carrot cupcake is the best of that flavor category in town.

CupCrazed Cakery

(Cool because of its homey interior and, obviously, its victory on a national reality show)

Polka Dot Bake Shop

(Cool because of its nod to the Latino community by offering a Latino cupcake)

1730 E. Woodlawn Road; 704-523-5001

Website: www.polkadotbakeshop.com

Hours: 7:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday

Cost: $2.50 each or $25 per dozen

Gluten-Free: Wednesdays and Saturdays (but they keep a few in the freezer)

In 2007, business partners Jennifer Chapman and Michelle Miller opened Charlotte's first cupcake emporium. The small shop offers at least nine to 12 varieties daily. Standout flavors include Chai tea and the Latino-inspired cinnamon sopaipilla. Their most requested cupcake is the Tuxedo, a devil's food cupcake with a cream cheese chocolate chip filling, cream cheese frosting and chocolate shavings.

On varying levels of cake plates and in rows behind the display rests the daily assortment, including Red Velvet with cream cheese icing, Oreo and cream, carrot cake, and chocolate with chocolate buttercream. Polka Dot bakes fresh each day. Leftover cupcakes are donated to nonprofit organizations.

Tizzerts

(Cool because of its old-school bakery style, with a glass display case fronting the sidewalk)

In Suarez Bakery, Park Road Shopping Center; 704-375-7400

Website: www.tizzerts.com

Hours: 8:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday

Cost: $2.50 each or a half-dozen for $16.50

Gluten-Free: None

Tiz Benson started Tizzerts, Inc. in 1995 and became known for her bars, cakes and exquisite flower artwork. In 2009, she began a "temporary arrangement" with Suarez Bakery to share the Park Road Shopping Center location. She's still there, and the arrangement has had positive results for both companies. One immediate benefit for Benson was the ability to sell her creative cupcakes to walk-in customers.

Tizzerts' most popular cupcakes are vanilla and chocolate; however, her lineup includes Tangerine Dream, a white cake with orange filling and a citrus frosting; Hot Chocolate, which becomes a S'More in summer with a dusting of graham cracker crumbs; and, Benson's personal favorite, Boston Cream Pie Cupcake with vanilla filling, which is a small serving of that traditional cake.

SweetCakes Bakery

(Cool because of its use of a North Carolina sweet wine as the primary ingredient in one of its cupcakes)

20017 North Main St., Cornelius; 704-895-5800

Website: www.sweetcakesbakery.com

Hours: 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday

Cost: $2.75 each or $30 for a dozen; mini cupcakes are $1 each or $11 per dozen

Gluten-Free: Wednesday and Saturday

The mother-daughter team of Brenda Lord and Heather Allen opened their shop in 2010 after several years baking at home and selling at the Davidson Farmers Market. Lord says she uses as many local ingredients as possible, especially local eggs and local strawberries. "Our strawberry cupcakes are popular and we make them year round," she notes.

Each day, SweetCakes offers 12 to 20 flavors. Among the rotated cupcakes are Mississippi Mud Cupcake with a brownie base, a layer of marshmallow and a fudge frosting; NC Blackberry Wine Cupcake with blackberry wine icing; and Almond Joy, a coconut cake with chocolate frosting, almonds and coconuts.

The Blushing Bakeshop

(Cool because of the "adult" [liquor, that is] content)

14825 Ballantyne Village Way; 704-369-5800

Website: www.theblushingbakeshop.com; specials are Tweeted

Hours: 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Friday and Saturday

Cost: $3 each or 6 or more $2.50 each

Gluten-Free: Wednesday and Friday

Vegan: Thursday and Saturday

New owner Brandi Phillips, a self-described "PTA mom who likes to bake," bought the business last August. Since then, she has added cookies, wedding cakes and birthday cakes. Phillips offers at least 10 flavors of cupcakes every day. The most popular is Red Velvet with a Southern-styled cream cheese frosting. For many of her cupcakes, she uses a Swiss meringue buttercream frosting, which is not super sweet and compliments the liquor-flavored cupcakes. "It's for the more sophisticated palate," Phillips offers. This icing becomes hard quickly if refrigerated, though.

In the summer, mango and key lime cupcakes headline the roster, but during the winter, Phillips offers a charming Hot Chocolate Cupcake complete with a sculpted dark chocolate "handle."

SAS Cupcakes

(Cool if you're a girl or you like to accessorize your food)

9941 Rea Road; 704-295-1777

14130 RiverGate Parkway; 704-504-2253

Website:www.sascupcakes.com

Hours: Vary daily at both locations. Listed on Website.

Cost: $2 each on Tuesday, except holidays; $3.25 each, 6 for $16, 12 for $32

Gluten-Free: None

At SAS, fresh cupcakes with their signature beehive swirl frosting and monogrammed baking cups sit in cheerful rows. This pretty pink palace may be too "girl," as my son put it, but the cupcakes are sugary sumptuousness. Two-ounce icing shots are 75 cents. SAS specializes in packaging and accessorizing the cupcakes. The sprinkle table is low enough that even a preschooler can manage.

SAS is a chain of three, with the original in Delaware and the other two here in Charlotte. SAS bakes fresh every day; leftover cupcakes are delivered to the local firehouse.

Southern Cake Queen

(Cool because the owner drives a pink truck)

Venue: Truck; 704-287-8314

Website: www.southerncakequeen.com

Cost: $3 each

Gluten-Free: None

Owner Emma Merisier got behind the wheel of her pink Southern Cake Queen food truck in February 2011 and parked near Price's Chicken Coop on Saturdays. "I sell traditional Southern cupcakes. It was the right fit," Merisier says. Her cupcakes got noticed and she received invitations to the Huntersville Farmers Market, Center City's Chow Down, and private events. She communicates with her customers through Twitter.

Merisier's most popular cupcakes include Crimson & Crème (Red Velvet) with a cream cheese frosting, and Strawberry Cake with pureed strawberries and a pink buttercream icing. She keeps at least six flavors on hand and these change seasonally. Merisier's truck won't be out again until the weather is warmer; until then, she's catering events.

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