America's Best Cupcakes

By Joel Fineman, Staff WriterFeb. 1, 2012
By Joel Fineman, Staff WriterFeb. 1, 2012, at 12:38 p.m.
U.S. News & World Report

America's Best Cupcakes

At a time of the year when we make daily diet affirmations, cupcakes—those sinister calorie-carriers—slip past our defenses. They're just so small and cute! Whether they are homemade or from the gourmet shop around the corner, cupcakes prove irresistible to coworkers, kids, men, and women. Their delicate appearance, infinite variability, and colorful frosting have enabled cupcakes to conquer the nation (and topple our New Year's resolutions).

In the delicious reign of cupcakes, there have been some standout distributors—shops that not only showcased the delicacies but also aided our addictions. Thanks to a loyal band of cupcake fanatics, these pint-size stores have become institutions, monuments even, to this hand-held treat. For die-hards, stepping up to the altar—oops, we mean counter—of these shops is the delectable conclusion to an oh-so-sweet pilgrimage. And for those in the Midwest, it's a fairly long trek to get to one of the shops listed below. The cupcake trend began on the coasts, but it is slowly (but surely) moving inland. However, the landmarks remain in coastal cities like New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C.

Although Red Velvet seems to be the go-to flavor for customers throughout the country, we encourage you to the try the more creative inventions at these eminent cupcakeries.

Most Creative Cupcake: White Hot Chocolate ($4.50)

Run by Mia and Jason Bauer, Crumbs Bake Shop began serving gourmet cupcakes on Manhattan's Upper West Side in 2003. Since then, the bakery has taken its staggering popularity in stride, opening new locations along the East Coast and in California. Crumbs whips up more than 50 varieties daily; with so many to choose from, expect to find flavors ranging from the tried-and-true vanilla with sprinkles to quirkier concoctions like apple cobbler. If you aren't overwhelmed by the delicious array of goodies, check out the "Colossal Crumb." This cupcake stands more than six inches tall, so you should gather your friends to tackle this treat.

Most Creative Cupcake: Morning-After Mimosa Cupcake ($3)

With her grandmothers' recipes in hand, Susan Sarich found a way to pass on her family treats to a new generation. In Brentwood, Calif., (a suburb of L.A.), SusieCakes opened its doors to sweet-toothed Californians in 2006. The shop's myriad desserts—there are more than just cupcakes here—look simple and tasty, lacking the excessive ornamentation often found at other bakeries. Here, you'll find lemon squares, snickerdoodles, and butterscotch toffee pudding that will bring you back to your childhood. But Susan's inventive twist on the cupcake is what has most people talking. Susie's Signature "Frosting Filled" Cupcakes come in nine regular flavors, including Luscious Lemon, Fluffy Coconut, and Vanilla with Pastel Vanilla Frosting. Meanwhile, seasonal favorites like Salted Caramel Apple and Morning-After Mimosa keep patrons asking, "What's next?"

Most Creative Cupcake: Green Tea ($2)

This suggestively named shop in Brooklyn is so good that it lures Manhattanites away from their sacred island and their own cupcake dealers. Owners Matt Lewis and Renato Poliafito have transformed a potentially ordinary neighborhood bakery and coffee shop into a nationally recognized confectionary. Baked has been featured on NBC's Today Show, the Martha Stewart Show, and the Food Network. And in a survey of 47 New York cupcake purveyors, SeriousEats.com crowned Baked the top shop in the city, citing the Lemon Drop and Sweet and Salty cupcakes in its testimony. One of the nice things about Baked is its willingness to share its recipes with others. You can purchase the shop's recipe book or its easy-to-use mix kit, which contains all the ingredients you need to make your favorite desserts. Despite all the praise and subsequent products, the Baked shop remains a small and friendly operation.

Most Creative Cupcake: Chai Latte ($3.50)

Sprinkles founder Candace Nelson claims that her cupcakes are a natural extension her great-grandmother's legacy. But customers who enter one of Sprinkles' 10 locations will see that Nelson has brought her family's desserts into the 21st century with style. Dominated by warm beige and chocolate brown tones, the sleek design of the shops' interiors puts the cupcakes center stage. Despite Nelson's recurring role on the Food Network's Cupcake Wars, the true stars of the show rest on tiered shelves. Perfectly poised in rows, these cupcakes may be the most recognizable ones in America. Although the treats exhibit militant uniformity, signature colorful dots label each creation, so there's no mistaking what delectable flavor you've selected. With bakeries on both coasts and in the Midwest, Nelson is sharing her cupcakes with more dessert lovers than ever.

Most Creative Cupcake: Hummingbird Cupcake ($3.50)

A landmark bakery if there ever was one, Magnolia Bakery is the oldest shop on our list. The shop, which doled out its first sweets in the summer of 1996, was once a local secret in New York City's Greenwich Village. That is, until Carrie Bradshaw took her Sex and the City gal-pal Miranda (and boy troubles) to the benches outside this quaint bakery in 2000. Since Carrie took a bite of a pink-frosted Magnolia cupcake, fans of the HBO show and cupcake aficionados alike have lined the block for a sweet sample. We recommend one of the more creative flavors like the Hummingbird cupcake, a banana-pineapple-pecan cake topped with icing and toasted pecans. While we encourage you to visit the original store (even with the queue), you can now taste Magnolia's scrumptious desserts at shops in Los Angeles, Chicago, and even Dubai.

Most Creative Cupcake: Bananas Foster Cupcake ($2.75 - September only)

In a highly competitive cupcake market (Sprinkles and local favorite Baked & Wired are just down the road), Georgetown Cupcake remains king—or more accurately, queen—of Washington D.C.'s M Street cupcake scene. The petite sweets served here have been drawing crowds since the shop opened in February 2008. But after the premiere of TLC's popular reality TV show DC Cupcakes, founding sisters Katherine Kallinis and Sophie LaMontagne had a blockbuster hit on their hands. In rain, shine, snow, and sleet, cupcake connoisseurs line up around the block (sometimes for more than an hour) to sample the shop's scrumptious creations. Occasionally, local students will post signs in nearby townhouse windows that taunt customers with statements like: "You know you're in line for a cupcake when the Lincoln Memorial is RIGHT THERE!" And that's when we concede: Some people just don't understand the instantaneous pleasure of tasting the perfect cupcake.

Most Creative Cupcake: Fleur de Sel ($3.25)

If you want a frosted sample of San Francisco, you should ditch the fare at Fisherman's Wharf and opt for Kara's Cupcakes. These dainty snacks and their purveyor adopt the Bay Area's environmental awareness with green vehicles and compostable utensils and packaging. Using local ingredients such as flour and sea salt, the cupcakes quite literally take on the region's flavor. We urge you to try Kara's sweetest creation, the Fleur de Sel cupcake, a luscious indulgence of chocolate cake, caramel filling, and chocolate ganache frosting dusted with sea salt. As her business has expanded to include seven vehicles and six stores in Northern California, founder Kara Haspel Lind continues to attentively care for each detail of the process—from baking to selling—to ensure a delectable experience for her customers. And at the "Tiffany's of Cupcakes," patrons appreciate Kara's mission "to make the world a sweeter place."

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