Cupcakes from (left to right): Eclipse Chocolat, Influx and Cupcakes Squared. Photo by Candice Woo.
As I was helping frost dozens of cupcakes for a friend's birthday party, I was thinking about the insane appeal of these mini cakes. The continuing proliferation of neighborhood bakeshops is a reflection of our collective cupcake craze—it's a food phenomenon that preceded, and looks like it'll outlast, the frozen-yogurt fad. Nostalgia aside, the cupcake is just the right size for a sweet fix. It's the perfect dessert that you can hold in one hand while holding a drink in the other. Just try a chocolate cupcake paired with a chocolate-y stout or porter.
Swirls of cupcake frosting and glittering sprinkles provide a feast for the eyes; peeling off the paper liner feels like you're unwrapping a pretty package. But, obviously, taste matters, too. Though they're of simple construction—just cake and frosting—things can go bad. Cupcakes can often be as dry as sawdust, with frosting so greasy it tastes like whipped shortening, or grainy from un-dissolved sugar or over-mixing. The best cakes are moist, with a fine and tender crumb and well-defined flavor, with frosting that's not too sweet or heavy, but light and creamy, whether it's made from cream cheese or butter.
Influx Café (1948 Broadway in Golden Hill) has long been one of my favorites. Its red-velvet cupcakes are legendary—made by co-owner Gina Bledsoe—with cylindrical caps of frosting topped with fresh fruit. Other flavors include coconut and a traditional chocolate—all good options—though, on a recent visit, the cream cheese frosting was a bit grainy. The cupcakes are kept in a refrigerated case, so make sure to let them fall to room temperature for optimal consumption.
Just up the hill, South Park's The Daily Scoop (3004 Juniper St.) is primarily an old-fashioned ice-cream parlor, serving locally made Niederfrank's ice cream in a cute, checkered-curtain setting. But it's the cupcakes that I crave. Scoop's red-velvet cupcake, with its swirl of cream cheese frosting is great, so moist and tender. There's also chocolate, chocolate peanut butter and seasonal flavors like pumpkin. The cupcakes are made in small batches daily—and snatched up quickly—so call ahead to reserve one.
Cupcakes have come a long way since the cake-mix-versions of our youth, and Eclipse Chocolat's cupcakes (2121 El Cajon Blvd. in North Park) are as eclectic as the shop's chocolate lineup of artisan truffles and candy bars. In fact, they're kind of like giant, cake versions of Eclipse's truffles, with varied fillings and a glossy, dark-chocolate glaze. Flavor combinations run from toasted barley and ale to ginger green tea. I find the yellow-cake-based cupcakes a tad dry, though the Kentucky bourbon caramel cupcake has a nice, boozy flavor that pairs well with the chocolate topping. But the chocolate cakes, moist from the crème fraiche in their batter, are usually delicious. I'm partial to those with a burnt caramel filling, spiked with chile or sea salt.
The gimmick with Cupcakes Squared's cakes (3772 Voltaire St. in Ocean Beach) is that they are, in fact, square. They have a denser texture than most—moist and slightly chewy, like a rich muffin or buttery sweet bread. No food coloring is used, which means the red-velvet cupcake is a mellow shade of light cocoa. Chocolate flavors are not Squared's strong suit, but I really like the fruit-based cupcakes, including the banana-nut, coconut-lime and, especially, the lemon, with its tangy topping of lemon buttercream. I appreciate that instead of all-purpose cream-cheese frosting or basic buttercream, each cupcake gets its own custom flavor.
Dedicated sweet shops and coffeehouses aren't the only places to find cupcakes. You can have one to cap off a good, sit-down meal, too. Tender Greens at Liberty Station occasionally features a very tasty red-velvet cupcake among a rotating selection of consistently great homemade desserts, and Burger Lounge offers fine red velvets at all four locations.
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