Twin Cities Cupcakes: A Local Taste Test

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

Though the cupcake craze has been kicking throughout the country, particularly on the coasts, for the past few years, the Twin Cities have been a little slower out of the gate. But 2010 is shaping up to be the Year of the Cupcake in Minneapolis and St. Paul. With well-established bakeries touting their individual-sized concoctions and some eager newcomers staking their claim in the cupcake conquest, metro area residents have more places than ever to satisfy their sweet tooth.

But which cupcakes are worth your time, calories, and money? To help our dear readers find the local gems, 10 Heavy Table contributors took on the unenviable task of tasting cupcakes from the six top-ranking bakeries in Minneapolis and St. Paul in our recent reader poll. (Note: Though Winona-based Mon Petit Cupcake ranked high in the poll, its status as a special-order bakery, as well as its distance from the Twin Cities, would have made it difficult to obtain cupcakes discreetly.) Yes, it was quite the sacrifice to spend a recent Thursday evening scarfing down the frosting-topped treats, and most of us had cupcake hangovers the next day to show for it, but it was well worth the time and bloating.

Our methodology: We bought two varieties of cupcake from each bakery, a chocolate and a specialty flavor. The cupcakes were divided into quarters or eighths by our editor and labeled with a letter so we wouldn’t know from which bakery each sample came. Cupcakes were rated on a scale of 1 (low) to 5 (high) for flavor, moistness and texture, and the ratio of frosting to cake, and overall averages were computed for each cupcake. We allowed for brief discussion of each cupcake sampled, and while many cupcakes brought on fierce debates about the proper amount of frosting or the richness of chocolate, the winners in each category clearly rose to the top.

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

Here’s the chocolate category, in ascending order from least favorite to most.

Cupcake Cafe | Claire Huxtable ($1.95)

Flavor   2.15
Moistness / Texture   2.9
Frosting-to-Cake Ratio   2.95
Total   2.67

“Ick! I’d rather never eat chocolate cake again than eat this cake!” That comment on the Claire Huxtable (chocolate cake with chocolate ganache frosting) may seem extreme, but Cupcake Cafe’s all-chocolate version didn’t earn much kudos.

Salty Tart | Chocolate with Surly ($2.50)

Flavor   2.85
Moistness / Texture   2.8
Frosting-to-Cake Ratio 3.1
Total 2.92

This Salty Tart cupcake scored slightly above average for its frosting-to-cake ratio, but lower marks for flavor and moistness brought down its overall score. Many felt the flavor of the frosting on the Chocolate with Surly cupcake overwhelmed the cake.

Sweets Bakeshop | Black and White ($3)

Flavor   2.55
Moistness / Texture   2.95
Frosting-to-Cake Ratio   3.6
Total   3.03

Sweets Bakeshop’s Black and White cupcake was the only one in the bunch with vanilla frosting, and it garnered one of the highest marks for frosting-to-cake ratio among the dozen cupcakes. Tasters cited a dry texture and lack of chocolate flavor, though, which significantly reduced the cupcake’s overall score.

Franklin Street Bakery | Chocolate with Cream Filling ($2.75)

Flavor   3.2
Moistness / Texture   3.3
Frosting-to-Cake Ratio   2.9
Total   3.14

The reaction to Franklin Street’s Chocolate with Cream Filling was slightly schizophrenic: While one taster called it “a miracle of moistness,” a couple others reported the cake was dry and had a slightly metallic taste.

Cake Eater Bakery | Chocolate Salted Caramel ($3)

Flavor   2.7
Moistness / Texture   3.7
Frosting-to-Cake Ratio   3.5
Total   3.3

Cake Eater Bakery’s Chocolate Salted Caramel should really be called Salted with a Little Bit of Chocolate and Caramel because the sodium chloride totally overpowered the rest of the cupcake. “I liked my bite, but I don’t know if I would want a whole one,” one taster wrote. Still, a critical mass of tasters gave it a high enough score to garner second place among the chocolate cupcakes.

Cocoa & Fig | Valrhona Chocolate with Chocolate Buttercream ($2.75)

Flavor   3.75
Moistness / Texture   3.7
Frosting-to-Cake Ratio   3.15
Total   3.53

Cocoa & Fig’s Valrhona Chocolate variety, our winner in the chocolate category, won almost universal praise for the flavor of its chocolate buttercream, but the panel was divided on whether the towering topping was too much for the amount of cake hidden below the surface. “Swoon!” reported one taster, while another noted that it had “a bit too much frosting, but this cake is nice and dense.”

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

Here’s the specialty cupcake category, in ascending order from least favorite to most.

Franklin Street Bakery | Carrot Cake ($2.95)

Flavor   2.85
Moistness / Texture   2.5
Frosting-to-Cake Ratio  3
Total   2.78

Franklin Street’s Carrot Cake cupcake was called out for an overly sweet frosting and for being more like a muffin than a cupcake. A couple of tasters also mentioned that the cake had “too much other stuff” like nuts and carrot chunks.

Salty Tart | White Chocolate Lemon ($2.50)

Flavor   1.7
Moistness / Texture   3.7
Frosting-to-Cake Ratio   3.3
Total   2.9

Salty Tart’s White Chocolate Lemon elicited some interesting comments: “White chocolate should be banned — like a creepy white cloud.” Many tasters didn’t care for the combination of the white chocolate and lemon.

Cocoa & Fig | Irish Car Bomb ($2.75)

Flavor   3.4
Moistness / Texture   3.4
Frosting-to-Cake Ratio   2.6
Total   3.13

The Irish Car Bomb proved to be the most polarizing cupcake of the bunch — the liqueur-infused frosting was too much for many, while others said it had a “lovely flavor,” was “surprisingly better than I thought it would be,” and was a “fave — love the alcohol!”

Cupcake Cafe | Green Velvet ($3)

Flavor   3.1
Moistness / Texture   3.05
Frosting-to-Cake Ratio   3.9
Total   3.35

Though the artificial green color of the Green Velvet caused many to pause at first, upon sampling we appreciated the tang and amount of the cream cheese frosting. The cake seemed “meh” in comparison, but the strength of the frosting kept this cupcake from sinking further in the rankings.

Sweets Bakeshop | Kettle Corn ($3)

Flavor   3.15
Moistness / Texture   3.3
Frosting-to-Cake Ratio   3.7
Total   3.39

Sweets Bakeshop Kettle Corn garnered praise for its crispy kettle corn topping, but also harvested demerits for an overly buttery flavor. “Not too sweet, enticing aroma,” noted one taster.

Cake Eater Bakery | Vegan Raspberry Lemonade ($3)

Flavor   3.95
Moistness / Texture   3.95
Frosting-to-Cake Ratio   3.85
Total   3.92

Our specialty-flavor winner turned out to be the Vegan Raspberry Lemonade, amazing the panel with its refreshing flavor combination and moistness. “I can’t believe it’s vegan” was a common sentiment heard ’round the table. Though some called out the cupcake’s frosting for a slight grittiness, it earned “best in show” remarks from multiple tasters.

People and cupcakes are a fickle pair — what is dense, sugary goodness to one nibbler is overpowering sweetness and sliminess to another. While no one bakery emerged significantly ahead of the others in both categories, our taste test gives you a good starting point for conducting your own research. But a word of caution: Only those with iron stomachs, or massive sweet teeth, should attempt to sample a dozen cupcakes in one sitting. This is one test for which you’ll want to request the untimed version.

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

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Jill Lewis

The great-granddaughter of an Eastern European Jewish baker, Jill Lewis cannot escape her genetic predisposition to carbs. Her love of baked goods, wine, cheese and chocolate may not come in handy for her day job as a Twin Cities PR professional, but it proves infinitely helpful for her gigs as a contributing writer for The Heavy Table and the co-author of the Cheese and Champagne blog. A former resident of Illinois, Texas, Wisconsin and suburban Washington, D.C., Jill now lives with her husband, two young sons and cat in St. Louis Park.

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24 Comments

  1. nicole 03/23/2010 Reply

    Thank god for this post. I’ve been to some of the cupcake shops profiled and i agree with the ratings. I’m obsessed with minature cakes. Wuollet’s Bakery also has some nice stuff, though not specializing in cupcakes, and for the future there is a new cupcake shop set to open in April on 50th and France.

  2. Great experiment and excuse to try a bunch of cupcakes. I’ll join you if you do a macaron taste test ;)

    Lovely photos, Becca!

  3. Jason Walker 03/23/2010 Reply

    I love Salty Tart but you’re totally right that they use waaaay too much frosting.

  4. LOVE cupcakes and I must say the TCs have had delectable cupcakes for awhile now. When I read about their popularity on the Coasts I thought to myself “Ha. We’ve known this secret for years!” You forgot the best kind though: Red Velvet! My favorite cupcake place: A Piece of Cake on Selby. mmmm…..

  5. I disagree there is no such thing as too much frosting on a cupcake! They are simply beautiful.

  6. “I can’t believe it’s vegan” MOUHAHAHAHA! See? We’re taking over. Or something.

  7. morchella 03/23/2010 Reply

    Would it have been more fair to sample one cupcake of the same flavor at each shop and one specialty of each shop and come up with a combined rating? So much of a cupcake is texture that it’d be nice to have a base comparison and then comment on executions of the variations.

  8. morchella 03/23/2010 Reply

    Oops- should’ve read the methodology first… sorry.

  9. Heather 03/23/2010 Reply

    Great post, Jill. Thank you for doing all this intensive research for us. Certainly a feat many of us could not tackle. You gave Trevor and I a reason to go to the “big city.”

  10. Love this post and the photos make me crave cupcakes!

  11. Nanette 03/23/2010 Reply

    Cupcakes here are lacking. Go out east.

  12. Great reviews (even if the cupcakes weren’t)! I especially love the “miracle of moistness” comment. I’ve been wanting to do a Twin Cities cupcake taste-testing tour for my Man Eater blog; this feedback will help shape the itinerary!

    http://www.maneaterbook.com/blog.htm

  13. Joanna 03/25/2010 Reply

    Hmmm, I will have to subject these conclusions to a rigorous examination myself. In the name of science, of course.

  14. define foodie 03/26/2010 Reply

    Dry cupcakes got you down? Try adding some buttermilk….DO NOT SELL DRY CUPCAKES. WAAAY TOO MANY WAYS TO AVOID>

  15. M. Hall 03/26/2010 Reply

    I agree that trying to rate cupcakes can be a subjective endeavor, but that’s a very mediocre performance for Salty Tart, especially considering Michelle Gayer was just nominated for a James Beard award.

    I like Tami’s shout out to Piece of Cake. Love that place, but many of their cupcakes are too heavy on cream cheese based frosting for my taste. Most of their other items are fantastic and they make a respectable black and white cookie.

  16. Because of this post I had to go to get some cupcakes. We went to Sweets Bakeshop: the Breakfast cupcake is to die for!

  17. Nice… I’ve only tried the cupcakes at Franklin and at Cupcakes Cafe from your list. Franklin is OK, but Cupcakes Cafe??? Ugh, if your name has CUPCAKE in it, it better be darn good right? Apparently, not right… Cupcakes Cafe’s ratings are accurate, if not a little too nice. Their cupcakes are awful!

  18. Cupcake Lover 03/31/2010 Reply

    I wish these ratings would include the ingredients like:

    Are they from a box or from scratch?
    Ingredients of frosting: real buttercream or not?
    I avoid preservatives.

    Without this info how will I know what is best?

  19. Soleil Ho 03/31/2010 Reply

    @Cupcake Lover: I would hope that any self-respecting, non-corporate bakery would refrain from using boxed Betty Crocker mixes in their products.

  20. crystal 04/02/2010 Reply

    i order a variety of cupcakes from various locations to celebrate our employees’ birthdays. we have tried cupcake, sweets, and cocoa & fig. hands down our favorite is cupcake.

    we’ve found sweets’ cakes to be generally nasty (dry, poor flavor, weird texture) and their giant gob of frosting on top is difficult to eat–why not actually spread the frosting over the entire cupcake? we will never order from them again.

    cocoa & fig is mad expensive overall and especially for their cupcakes. super tasty, but no crazy selections.

  21. Groupon for cupcakes from Sweets Bakeshop today!

    http://www.groupon.com/minneapolis-stpaul/

  22. can u please share to me the survey questions u used for these as i ned them in our nutrition class … baking cupcakes

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