It started with a fleeting glance across a crowded room. A few years ago, while buying a book at the Virgin Megastore on Market Street, I noticed beautifully decorated mini cakes inside a glass case at the store’s café, appropriately named Citizen Cupcake (an offshoot of Citizen Cake). I wandered over and was taken with a pretty purple one that expertly combined lavender and vanilla. I had never seen anything like it. I bought that cupcake and slowly devoured it, so beginning my unrequited love affair with gourmet cupcakes.
These are not the cupcakes I ate growing up, the ones my mom made out of a box, or those bizarre orange desserts by Hostess. This new generation of cupcakes has amazing flavor combinations like green tea and white chocolate, caramel and fleur de sel, chai and dark chocolate.
Tasting these exotic cupcake creations got me thinking about making some of my own. I often try to recreate the foods I love, and to bake the things I would normally buy – including sweets, like macaroons and biscotti.
Thanks to rave reviews from my tasters (okay, friends), I know my baked goods are often better than the store-bought variety. But when it comes to cupcakes, the pros are a tough act to follow. Over the past few years, I’ve been rather promiscuously sampling gourmet cupcakes around San Francisco – Kara's Cupcakes has a devoted following and the DeLessio Market and Bakery has some amazing miniature creations. Some of my favorite cupcakes are at the Leland Tea Company, a small café in my neighborhood. One day over Red Velvet cupcakes, Leland owner Will Otero mentioned an Iron Cupcake competition. And I was instantly interested.
"You want to bake?" Will asked. "Most people just want to judge."
Here's how it works: Each month, the cupcake committee announces a secret ingredient. Bakers create 48 mini cupcakes (at home) using that ingredient and then bring them to the Bush Street tea house on the last Monday evening of the month for the competition. Volunteer "judges" RSVP on Meetup.com to attend. Not surprisingly, that list often fills more than a week before the competition.
Time to put my baking skills to the test! Bakers can just show up, so I just had to wait to find out the secret ingredient. Past months have included champagne, curry, mint, beer, and pepper. All of those sounded fun to me and I went over ideas in my head. Then they announced the ingredient: bacon.
Huh. Bacon. Don't get me wrong, I love me some bacon, but swine and sweet aren't on the top of my flavor combination list. The first thing I thought of – like others, I'm sure – was a maple-bacon combination. But that seemed too obvious. I started thinking of other bacon combinations I enjoy, like bacon wrapped around scallops nestled in a warm dressing on my spinach salad, or thrown into a Bloody Mary. The frosting, I decided, would be key: I’d bake a bacon cupcake and figure out some funky icing. Scallops, clearly, would not work. Bloody Mary was getting closer. I love prosciutto-wrapped melon; maybe melon icing on a bacon cupcake? That sounded perfect.
For some tips to making the perfect cupcake, I turned to San Francisco baker Brian Wood. He's a bakery and pastry consultant who previously taught at the San Francisco Baking Institute. He had just published a recipe for a maple bacon roll in Modern Baking, and not only agreed to give me some tips, but said he would help me create a recipe. We planned a practice run at his apartment the week before the competition.
Brian gave me a list of ingredients to bring to his Richmond district kitchen. I arrived with three bags of groceries and what I thought was my genius ingredient for the icing of my bacon-melon cupcake – Midori liqueur. Brian smelled the green booze, crinkled his nose, looked at me, and laughed. "I don't think so," he said. (If only he knew how embarrassing it had been to buy that amateur alcohol at my local corner store.)
We did agree on my general concept: that the cupcake would be bacon-flavored with some kind of unique icing. He turned to The Cake Bible for a basic yellow cake recipe and then set out to modify it.
After some initial bumps, the recipe came together pretty easily. He added some olive oil and bacon to make the cake part extra savory, but we agreed that the test batch wasn't bacon-y enough, so I would add more bacon for the actual competition. Then he asked me for the Pink Lady apples he had requested. "How about a caramel apple frosting?" he asked.
He peeled and diced the apples, made caramel out of sugar and butter, and then tossed them into a traditional butter cream frosting. Thankfully, I had recently made salted caramel ice cream so I wasn't intimidated by this process of cooking sugar into caramel. We topped the cupcakes and sampled. The combination rocked; replicating it might not.
The night before the competition, I had bad deadline dreams, the kind where 60 things go wrong AND you're late.
But there was no turning back. I awoke early, had a double espresso, and set out to make the perfect cupcake. First, I caramelized my apples, remembering Brian’s instructions that the longer they sat, the better. Then I cooked the bacon and began to make the batter. Not only did I add way more bacon but I put in a tablespoon of liquid smoke just to be sure. Finally, after making the icing with pureed apples, I frosted the cupcakes and then topped each one with a tiny piece of bacon and a piece of the diced caramel apple. It took nearly six hours in all, but I was proud: my very own fancy cupcakes.
A friend helped me carry my goods – carefully placed in five mismatched Tupperware containers – to the tea shop, where I was the third baker to arrive. Three-tiered display plates sat waiting, set up for each entry. I began to arrange my cupcakes. As the other contestants arrived, I started to get nervous.
They came by cab, by car, and by bus, with some carrying their own tiers to set up. One woman had a display made out of crystal. Others carried their creations in those big pink boxes, like the ones that come from a bakery!
I quickly learned bakers are referred to as "cupcake engineers" and that they mean business. While I sat back and sipped my tea, they spent what seemed like hours arranging their creations. They took photos of their cupcakes, had friends take photos of them with their cupcakes, and chatted about their cupcake ingredients with whoever would listen.
The judges were very excited too, and many seemed like they had a serious sugar addiction. "It feels like an AA meeting in here," observed my friend Ivana.
In all, there were 16 entries.
The tasting began at 7 p.m. About 45 of us lined up with trays. There were teams of four, so you split each cupcake among four people.
My feelings about cupcakes began to change after the tenth little specimen. We had been so in love, but after sampling mine all day and then sampling the bacon-laced handiwork of others, I could barely look at them. And yet, there was nothing else to see or smell. I swished tea in my mouth to try to get rid of all the sugar. And then I relied on the friends I invited to help me score. After tasting all 16, we turned in our score sheets.
The numbers were tallied and at about 8:30 p.m., the moment of truth had arrived. Third place went to The Elvis cupcake, which thoughtfully combined banana, peanut butter, and bacon. Second went to Maple Madness, which was exactly what it sounds like. Then came the award for most creative, which went to the Cinnamon French Toast cupcake, which was very good, but, frankly, didn't taste like bacon.
Then first place was announced, which also went to the Cinnamon French Toast cupcake. I was feeling dejected, but cheered up as my biased friends assured me mine was the best. I laughed at my consolation prize – bacon lip balm – and ran home, excited to eat some vegetables.
The following day, I dropped by Leland for a cup of tea. I still had no appetite.
"I thought you should know that you came in fourth place, just two points behind the third place winner," Will told me. "You were so close, girl."
This new information put a temporary spark back in my relationship with cupcakes. My heart raced, imagining trying again next month with a new ingredient. Then I thought about all the time and energy and calories and decided that one Iron Cupcake competition was enough for me. Me and cupcakes still have a thing, but we are toning it down for a while.
The Iron Cupcake competition is held monthly at the Leland Tea Company. Bakers are always welcome but judges must RSVP in order to participate. Register here . You can find yummy cupcakes, made by someone else, any time at Leland Tea Company or Kara's Cupcakes.
In the meantime, try my recipe for Bacon Cupcakes:
- 6 egg yolks
- 1 cup milk
- 1 ¼ teaspoons vanilla
- 1 teaspoon liquid smoke
- 3 cups sifted cake flour
- 1 ½ cups sugar
- 1 tablespoon + 1 teaspoon baking powder
- ¼ teaspoon salt
- 12 tablespoons unsalted butter (softened)
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 4 slices bacon, crumbled
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. In a medium bowl, lightly combine the yolks, ¼ cup milk and vanilla. In a large mixing bowl, combine the dry ingredients and mix on low speed for 30 seconds to blend. Add the butter and remaining ¾ cup milk. Mix on low speed until the dry ingredients are moistened. Increase to medium speed and beat for 1 ½ minutes. Scrape down the sides. Gradually add the egg mixture in 3 batches, beating for 20 seconds after each addition. Stir in olive oil, bacon and liquid smoke. Scoop the batter into lined mini cupcake pans. Makes about 48 cupcakes. Bake 15 to 20 minutes or until tester inserted near the center comes out clean. Let cool before frosting.
Caramel Apple Frosting:
- 2 Pink Lady apples
- 1 stick plus 2 tablespoons butter
- ½ cup sugar
- 3 cups of powdered sugar
- 2 tablespoons milk
Peel and dice apples. Heat ½ cup sugar in a dry skillet over medium heat, stirring with a fork to heat sugar evenly until it starts to melt, then stop stirring and cook, swirling skillet occasionally so sugar melts evenly, until it is dark amber. Add butter and stir until it comes to a boil. Add diced apples and a pinch of salt and stir until liquid (from apples) is dissolved, about 6 to 10 minutes. Remove from heat and cool. Yields ½ cup of caramel apples. Smear icing on top of cooled cupcakes and top with bacon slice and a piece of caramel apple. Enjoy.