Cupcake shops seem to garner a cultlike following in the District. Much like political lines, Washingtonians usually stick with their one tried-and-trusted shop — the bakery that they swear by for every birthday celebration, office party and, yes, occasional sweet fix. They’ll passionately defend their allegiances and launch into lengthy explanations as to why their shop warrants the long waits or has the best treats in town.
The city has enduring loyalty to the portable confection more than a decade after the cupcake boom of 2007. Chains have come and gone (R.I.P. Hello Cupcake and Curbside Cupcakes), and the treat doesn’t have the same red-carpet cachet it once did, but it still has a fierce following.
And now that Magnolia Bakery — the New York City-based confectionery arguably responsible for launching the global craze after brief cameos on “Sex and the City” and “SNL” — has launched in the nation’s capital and is in competition with the same boutique bake shops it once inspired, it seemed time for a cupcake challenge.
To find out how the newcomer compares with the old-timers, Washington Post staffers conducted a blind taste test of seven shops — the Sweet Lobby, Red Velvet Cupcakery, the CakeRoom, Magnolia Bakery, Sprinkles Cupcakes, Baked & Wired and Georgetown Cupcakes — and tried a vanilla and chocolate variety at each store.
Why vanilla and chocolate? Well, the ability to make an omelet is often a test of culinary skill, right? Same goes for these classic flavors. They’re iconic — and representative of the quality one might expect from flashier flavors (cough, red velvet and salted caramel).
Each cupcake was rated on a scale of 1 to 5 (5 being the best), based on flavor, texture and appearance, and with its pretax price. As to what makes a winner, these butter bombs are best when tender and moist. Lesser ones are overpoweringly sweet, dry or, worst case, tasteless.
So, did a homegrown cupcakery take the top prize, or did a global brand swoop in and win over our taste buds? Read on to see how our contestants fared.
Vanilla average score: 1.4
Tasting notes: “Hard pass — both the cake and frosting are greasy.” “Stale cake and tasteless icing that’s been whipped to oblivion.” “Not worth the calories.”
Chocolate average score: 2
Tasting notes: “The icing has a weird medicinal, almost minty, taste. It’s not pleasant.” “Moist, chocolaty cake, topped with greasy and bland frosting.” “The taste just isn’t exciting.”
Overall average score: 1.7
Vanilla average score: They were out of vanilla bean cupcakes, unfortunately, so we weren’t able to test it.
Tasting notes: Boo hoo.
Devil’s Food average score: 2
Tasting notes: “Very firm and overbaked.” “Dry, cottony cake that does not taste like chocolate.” “They put all the effort into the frosting (fudge) and none into the cake (box mix).”
Overall average score: 2
Vanilla/Vanilla average score: 2.4
Tasting notes: “Sugary-sweet birthday cake.” “Mild vanilla flavor.” “Cake is dry, but the cream cheese frosting makes up for it.”
Double Chocolate average score: 1.8
Tasting notes: “Cake is dry, less flavorful and has a strange aftertaste.” “Frosting manages the feat of being both too sweet and bitter.” “Overly sweet.”
Overall average score: 2.1
Vanilla average score: 1.4
Tasting notes: “Ick. Can I give it a zero?” “Grainy frosting that tastes stale and like off-fridge flavors.” “Bland, forgettable cake.” “Cake texture like Entenmann’s.”
Chocolate average score: 2.8
Tasting notes: “Cake is moist, not too rich and really yummy.” “Hate the icing — thin, not chocolate-y enough.” “Moist cake but not a lot of chocolate flavor.”
Overall average score: 2.1
Vanilla average score: 2.8
Tasting notes: “Really moist, chewy cake with a frosting that isn’t over-the-top sugary.” “The decoration is pretty but [the cupcake] tastes almost stale.” “Cake has a nice, mild vanilla flavor.” “Tender cake, but not super flavorful, and frosting tastes like a fridge.”
Dark Chocolate average score: 2
Tasting notes: “Slightly sweet, slightly dry and less chocolate than you’d expect.” “I liked the frosting more than the cake, which I found bitter.” “You need to take a cake and frosting combo bite in order to get a hint of chocolate.”
Overall average score: 2.4
Vanilla Vanilla average score: 3.4
Tasting notes: “These are gargantuan! Fun for Instagram, [but] way, way too big for one person.” “Tender and buttery cake.” “Frosting has a salty finish, which is welcome, and the cake is pretty light.” “Best frosting.”
Chocolate Cupcake of Doom average score: 2.8
Tasting notes: “My kind of cake: dark-chocolate frosting with lots of cake.” “Cake is delicately sweet and not too bitter.” “Frosting is smooth, luxe and satisfyingly decadent.” “I wish the cake had more flavor, but the texture is spot-on.”
Overall score: 3.1
Vanilla² average score: 2.8
Tasting notes: “Smooth, tangy vanilla-y cake.” “You can taste the vanilla in the cake, but it might be the driest of the bunch.” “Soft, almost melting frosting.” “Cake tastes like an institutional box mix.” “I went back for seconds.”
Chocolate² average score: 3.8
Tasting notes: “Very dense, rich cake with a thick, fudgy frosting.” “You could call this a brownie and get away with it.” “Chocolate ganache is shiny, great and almost tastes like a good chocolate bar.” “A balanced sweet and bitter flavor.”
Overall score: 3.3
The winner of the sugar showdown proved to be Georgetown Cupcakes’ silky ganache cupcake, which also took the top prize in The Post’s cupcake tasting in 2008. The store, famous for its show on TLC, is at times derided by Washingtonians as a tourist trap — given the long lines — but obviously has earned its due. The No. 1 for vanilla went to local favorite Baked & Wired, which received merits for its light, buttery cake flavor and frosting. Want to try both? Head to Georgetown, where both of the stores’ flagships are located.
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