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'Cupcake Wars:' The D.C. naughty or nice list

food for thought

<p>It's the season for sweets and snacking, but how does one pick a single cupcake to enjoy in a city spoiled for choice?</p>

It's the season for sweets and snacking, but how does one pick a single cupcake to enjoy in a city spoiled for choice?

Being home for the holiday season means expanding my food journey outside of Durham. I’m exploring Washington, D.C., home to the Lincoln Memorial, Washington Monument, a plethora of museums and, of course, delicious foods — especially cupcakes. 

Along with Old Bay seasoning and lacrosse, cupcakes run through the DMV’s veins. Maybe it’s because I was born in Southern California, but I have never found the idea of waiting for an hour outside Georgetown Cupcake in 30 degree weather that appealing. 

Biases are hard to ignore and one of mine was that Georgetown Cupcake is overhyped. In order to challenge and question my opinion, I decided to taste test three popular cupcake bakeries in order to find the best shop in the D.C. area. Sprinkles, Baked and Wired and Georgetown Cupcake enter the ring — who will win the title of Cupcake Champion?  

To measure their greatness, I chose a standard vanilla cupcake and seasonal favorites from each store. In order to diminish any possible biases, I “hired” a top-rated cupcake-taste-tester (my dad) who picked the seasonal flavors and arranged the cupcakes so I did not know the bakery associated with each cupcake.

With eight different cupcakes in front me, no idea where they were from and the everlasting fear of a possible sugar coma, I picked up my fork to conquer the cupcakes. 

Cupcake 1

Baked and Wired: Vanilla

“Vanilla cake with vanilla buttercream”- Baked and Wired

With an almost cartoonish casing of frosting, the white vanilla cream is perfectly placed on a heaping cake base. Although I first assumed the large portion of cake would overpower the frosting, that was not the case. As soon as the frosting reached my mouth, I was reminded of every childhood birthday cake I had enjoyed. The frosting was sweet and delicious, perfectly complementing the rainbow pearls decorating its top. The yellow-hued cake base had a light vanilla bean flavor that ushered the frosting into the spotlight. As a proud frosting connoisseur, I wished there was more frosting on this cupcake because I could not get enough. 

Cupcake 2

Baked and Wired’s Seasonal

My Guess: Chocolate Peppermint 

Correct Flavor: Peppermint Patty Cakecup

“Chocolate cupcake with a peppermint infused chocolate satin frosting and minty candy cane sprinkles.” - Baked and Wired 

When I say this cupcake is rich, I’m not talking Kim Kardashian rich —  I mean full-on Bill Gates rich. The hauntingly dark-brown frosting matched its cake base, leaving no light at the end of the chocolatey goodness tunnel. The chocolate frosting is so powerful, though, it would be difficult to enjoy and comfortably eat the whole cupcake. There was a hint of peppermint in the aftertaste, but unfortunately, the slight remnants of candy cane were overwhelmed by the dominant chocolate flavor, unwilling to share center stage. On my initial bite, I did not receive a taste of peppermint, but the flavor grew once the candy canes, innocently sprinkled on top of the cupcake, were in view. I’m hoping it was not a placebo effect, as I should be able to guess the flavor of the cupcake without knowing it beforehand. 

Cupcake 3:

Georgetown Cupcake’s Vanilla

“Classic Madagascar bourbon vanilla cupcake with a vanilla cream cheese frosting topped with a fondant flower or other seasonal decoration in assorted colors.” —Georgetown Cupcake

Decorated with a light blue snowflake, the creamy white frosting lay on the vanilla cake like newly fallen snow. The frosting, generously placed on the body of the cupcake, is light and airy while leaving a creamy vanilla on my tongue. The frosting packs enough flavor ]without leaving you quenched and in need of a refreshing glass of water. The cream-colored cake beautifully contrasts the snow-toned frosting and complements the creaminess with a light vanilla bean flavor. 

Cupcake 4

Georgetown Cupcake’s Seasonal 

My guess: S’mores with Mocha

Correct Flavor: Mrs. Claus’ Cocoa

“Chocolate cupcake, stuffed with marshmallow, and topped with a Callebaut milk chocolate buttercream frosting, Callebaut dark chocolate curls, and a white fondant snowflake.” - Georgetown Cupcake

A pillow of light brown frosting bedazzled with a white snowflake rests on top of a rich dark brown cake base. I was excited to try this mystery seasonal flavor, but was sadly disappointed by this cupcake’s lack of a holiday spirit. Although the festivity of this cupcake is scarce, its chocolate flavor is as comforting as reading a holiday story by the fireplace. Inside the moist and delicate cake sits a fancier and more elegant version of Marshmallow Fluff with a crown of mocha-flavored frosting. 

Cupcake 5

Sprinkles’ Vanilla

“...soft, delicate cake is perfumed by the sweet flavor of pure vanilla for an effect that is simply... heaven.”- Sprinkles

The white puff of frosting is glazed with tiny white sprinkles disguised as coconut flakes. I greatly appreciate the generous amount of frosting that was evenly placed on top of a cream-colored tinted base. The frosting, although light, had a sweet flavor that reminded me of Betty Crocker’s “Rich & Creamy Vanilla Frosting”. Do not get me wrong, I could eat a large portion of that frosting on my own; when I am purchasing a cupcake from a bakery, however, that is the last flavor I would want to taste. My bite was then followed by a semi-dry cake bottom that had no hope of masking the frosting’s sweetness. Unfortunately, I would not drive to D.C. for this cupcake when I could go to my local grocery store, grab a $1.50 container of pre-packaged frosting and taste the same flavor (with plenty of spoonfuls to spare). 

Cupcake 6

Sprinkles’ Seasonal

My Guess: Chocolate Peppermint

Correct Flavor: Chocolate Peppermint

“Belgian dark chocolate cake with bittersweet chocolate peppermint frosting, sprinkled with crushed peppermint candies.”- Sprinkles

Layered with shards of broken candy cane, the frosting was hidden by the large amount of peppermint bits decorated on top. However, from a different angle, an obviously thin layer of dark brown frosting skims the surface of a dark brown cake. As soon as I took a bite into the cupcake, my tastebuds were met with extreme peppermint flavor due to the candy cane bit wedged in the back of my teeth. Without the candy cane on top, the peppermint would dissipate and leave a plain and simple chocolate cupcake. The cake is very moist and doughy with an elegant and pure chocolate flavor that is matched by the chocolate frosting. I was hoping that the candy canes were not the only way I would be able to get a peppermint flavor, but without the candy canes on the top, this cupcake would have as much holiday spirit as Ebenezer Scrooge. 

Cupcake 7

Sprinkles’ Seasonal 

Guess: Gingerbread

Correct Flavor:  Gingerbread

“...spiced ginger cake topped with cream cheese frosting and dusted with cinnamon sugar adorned with a gingerbread man decoration.”- Sprinkles

A smiling dark brown gingerbread man forms a snow angel in the maple-colored frosting trickled with brown sparkles. Beneath the frosting lies a perfectly formed base of cake that looks like the epitome of gingerbread: a beautiful autumn-toned brown that radiates the earthiness of cinnamon. The sweetness of the frosting is paired nicely with the moist cake and gives a very calm and muted taste of gingerbread. With gingerbread, I hope not to feel an overwhelming taste of sweetness. The spices should be in the limelight, and I got just that. 

Cupcake 8 

Georgetown Cupcake’s Seasonal

My Guess: Gingerbread

Correct Flavor: Gingerbread

“Gingerbread cupcake topped with a cinnamon-infused cream cheese frosting and a fondant gingerbread man.” - Georgetown Cupcake

If gingerbread were from Beverly Hills, then this cupcake would be driving a Porsche into a gated community. Transforming a standard gingerbread flavor that you would enjoy during your childhood, this cupcake adds a layer of maturity through its frosting. Gifted with a taste of mascarpone, the gingerbread frosting becomes rich and creamy, similar to a sweet cheese on a charcuterie board. The frosting is evenly layered onto the moist and delicate cake beneath. Both complement each other’s flavors: the frosting exuding a rich cream flavor, without feeling overly starchy or heavy, matches the cake's light and airy gingerbread flavor. Out of all the seasonal cupcakes I tried, this one was the most festive, radiating as much holiday spirit as the Hallmark channel. 

Cupcake Conclusion

While eating some of these cupcakes, I felt as though I was sipping hot chocolate after running outside in the snow. Others, however, felt like a drag through muddy sugar-slush. 

To my own surprise, the cupcake company that I had given the most criticism to in the past reigns supreme — Georgetown Cupcake. Their vanilla and seasonal cupcakes were the most flavorful, sophisticated, delicate and delicious cupcakes that I tried. I now understand why so many people file outside their storefront; maybe one of these days I will be inducted into their line-waiting fan base.

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