Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Review: Cupcakes of Chicago

So last weekend, I went to Chicago for a business trip to the American Economics Association conference. I am obviously qualified for such things, because I took Principles of Economics pass/fail and I passed (barely). It felt cool and exciting and grown-up to go on a business trip in a new city, and even though I spent most of the time in the sub-sub-sub-basement of the Hyatt Regency trying to sell books to economists, I did get to explore Chicago a bit. And I loved it! It’s totally charming. With the brilliant blue sky and the balmy weather (balmy for Chicago in January, anyway), it seemed like the whole city was welcoming me. When I was walking in Millennium Park, there was a large group of pre-teen girls who appeared to be on some sort of class trip sitting on a wall and getting filmed for the news, yelling on the cameraman’s cue, “HAPPY NEW YEAR! WE LOVE THIS WEATHER! WE LOVE CHICAGO! WE LOVE FOX NEWS!” Okay, so maybe not totally charming.

Obviously, when one goes to a new city, the most important thing one must do is check out the local cupcake scene. I got some recommendations from my officemate Katy, last seen being awesome here, as she went to University of Chicago. Unfortunately, I had very limited time – I usually had to grab a cupcake from whatever place was nearest to the Hyatt during my lunch break – and the places she suggested too far away. But I wanted to give them a shoutout anyway, because I’m sure they’re delicious. Molly’s Cupcakes and Twisted Baker, we shall meet again.

But what about the cupcake places I actually did get to visit? The first one was called Sarah’s Candies, so even though it wasn’t technically a cupcake store (or even a proper store at all – it’s a storelet located in the Macy’s inside the old Marshall Field’s building), I had to go in! Like almost all cupcake emporia, it was aggressively feminine, which was ironic in this case since this branch of Sarah’s is located in the men’s undergarments section of Macy’s. The clerk was very friendly and she definitely wanted me to get one of those Customer Loyalty cards, but I declined because I don’t live in Chicago. The flavor selection was pretty limited, and I decided on a black-and-white cupcake ($3.00 plus tax), where the one side of the cupcake was white cake with white icing and the other was chocolate with chocolate icing. I wonder how they do that! (the cake, not the frosting). Anyway, the cake was fluffy and delicious, light as a feather. The chocolate side of the icing was fine, nothing to write home about, but the vanilla side was very disappointing. It was way too sweet, to the extent that you could taste the grains of sugar. It was the only non-buttercream-frosted cupcake in the store, so I can’t generalize about the quality of their frosting, but the vanilla icing kind of ruined what was otherwise an enjoyable, if unremarkable, cupcake experience.

The other cupcake place that won the coveted Closest to the Hyatt Regency Award was Sugar Bliss, on North Wabash Avenue. According to their Web sit, they “specialize in gourmet cupcakes” which are “extra moist” and “decorated with our signature Sugar Bliss bloom,” the petal design you can see in the photo above. They had a lot more flavors than Sarah’s, as well as a more neutral brown, blue and pink color palette. Plus, they have mini cupcakes, which are a cupcake reviewer’s best friend (and a cupcake vendor’s favorite rip-off device). For $1.50 each plus tax, I treated myself to a chocolate mint and a chocolate caramel cupcake. I also shared them with my new pals over at the Columbia University Press booth, to see what they thought. We were in agreement that the chocolate mint was the more interesting of the two, with a bold, intense mint flavor in both the cake and the frosting, plus the wedge of peppermint patty on the top. I waited to cleanse my palate before trying the caramel, but they did not, so I’m going to discount their opinion on that one. Oh well, not everyone can be a professional. Neither the chocolate cake nor the frosting made a particularly strong impression on its own, but when I combined the airy cake with the velvety frosting with the chewy caramel wedge, the overall effect was quite pleasing. I would be interested in trying more flavors at Sugar Bliss.

So there you have it. I definitely want to go back to Chicago – probably not in January next time – and I’ll have to try the places that Katy recommended. Plus, I go to a couple of these conferences a year, so y'all can expect Cupcakes of Denver, Cupcakes of San Diego, Cupcakes of New Orleans, etc. in the future I was explaining my review process to my boss and he called me the Derrida of cupcakes (because I deconstruct the cupcakes). I kind of like that for a blog name…

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