On a recent Friday afternoon at Nadia Cakes, Abby Jimenez was reminded, yet again, that she’s sought-after. She settled onto a pink and brown sofa in her Maple Grove shop, placing herself amid a pack of mildly starstruck youth. Momentarily setting aside everything that goes along with being the CEO and executive chef of a most beloved cupcake shop, she smiled for a photo for the umpteenth time.
It was only several months earlier that she stood under the lights of the Cupcake Wars kitchen and watched the judges as they considered her Triple Berry cheesecake. They parsed its constituent layers: the dark graham cracker crust, cream cheese filling, sour cream glaze; the pond of berry compote kept in check by swirls of fresh vanilla bean whipped cream. They leaned in toward one another between bites to whisper and nod, betraying no glint of pleasure, no furrow of distaste. Opposite them, Jimenez was in the throes of inner torment: I messed this up. I gave them subpar cheesecake.
Then judge Florian Bellanger declared it the most amazing cheesecake cupcake he’d ever tasted, and Jimenez felt her world shift.
That’s not to say her career before Food Network success was without auspicious turns. An early maternity leave found Jimenez attending cake decorating classes at a local craft store, where she took so naturally to fondant that she began making and selling specialty cakes from her Los Angeles home. Tutorials, baking books, trial, and error taught her how ingredients mix, and why some cakes turn out dense and mealy, others light and fluffy. As orders piled up, Jimenez worked seven days a week to build the kind of cakes that are now tackled by a team of four. She had three refrigerators and three kids in diapers. Such was the rhythm of life for two years.
Then in 2009, Jimenez and husband Carlos found a space for Nadia Cakes — thusly named after their second daughter — in Palmdale, California. They charged its entire opening on credit cards. “We used everything,” Jimenez recalls, almost in disbelief. “We didn’t even have change for the registers on opening day.”
Demand was instant and unrelenting. It took only a few weeks for Carlos to quit his job and become full-time CFO of Nadia Cakes, a year to pay off the credit card bills. Wild success in Palmdale assured that a second location was feasible, wherever that may be. The desire for more affordable living and a better school system prompted a nationwide sweep in which the couple traveled to 23 states, trusting that the one they loved would have a spot for Nadia Cakes. They found what they were looking for in Champlin, Minnesota, and eventually set up shop just 20 minutes south.
Now sufficiently broken in after its July opening, the Maple Grove store has fallen into a stride that far outpaces the one required in Palmdale. A rotating cast of nearly 135 cupcake flavors (plus daily chef specials) takes center stage in turn, ranging from gourmet (Orange Chocolate Truffle) to zany (Sunk’n Drunk’n Irishman). Among them, 10 are regulars in the bakery case. It would be in their familiarity, in their very basic and approachable flavors, that we would find whether quality exists within such quantity. We would discover what a self-taught baker — one whose formal training amounts to a handful of craft store classes — could really do.
And so we begin where every cupcake appraisal ought to begin. What does a pastry chef do with the most basic of cakes, meant to headline a single ingredient with no added bells or whistles to distract (except the requisite rainbow sprinkles, of course)? For Jimenez, the answer comes in gallons and gallons of Madagascar Bourbon vanilla bean paste. The stuff shows up in almost all of her cakes, but you notice it most in the aptly named Vanilla Vanilla. Tiny black specks of it pepper the tender cake and fleck a thick and remarkably balanced buttercream. (Jimenez doesn’t like when she can pick out butter or sugar as the dominant force in a frosting, so she’s written a buttercream of nearly perfect stasis.) The resulting taste isn’t pushy or cloying; it’s a natural, confident vanilla.
A worthy contender can be found at Edina’s Sweet Retreat, where the vanilla cakes are indisputably moist and the frosting has more buttery leanings. The combination is all-around softer and creamier than Nadia Cakes’ leveled rendition, but it also sits a bit greasier and heavier.
Then there’s the Triple Chocolate, a bustling cake made with Ghirardelli semisweet chips that are blended into a fine powder. Melted Callebaut milk chocolate is folded up into a cream cheese frosting that covers the cake, and the ultra-creamy mass is ensnared by chips and drizzles of semisweet and white chocolate. Visually it’s overwhelming, but take a bite and all the noise merges into two humming notes of dark and milk chocolate.
A few pans down the bakery case is the Peanut Butter Cup: the same chocolate cake, but with creamy peanut butter taking up residence in the cream cheese frosting. The peanut taste isn’t as pure and nutty as the one you’d find on the Chocolate Peanut Butter at Cupcake in Minneapolis. But compare the chocolate cakes alone, and the difference is far from subtle. Next to Nadia Cakes’ rich, weighty cake, Cupcake’s version literally falls apart into dry crumbles that taste faintly of cocoa. This stark contrast is a testament to the care and quality ingredients that go into Nadia Cakes’ cupcakes. When the specialty shops are charging an average of $3 a cake, they need to deliver something substantial.
That brings us to the Brownie Cupcake, prized by Jimenez merely because it exists. “Brownies don’t like to be cupcakes,” she explains. Baker’s chocolate is melted down with butter and sugar for that classic fudge brownie taste. Then the dark, gooey base is joined by a tricky combination of oil and eggs that keeps the baked cake from sinking in the middle, as it is so inclined to do. Were it to fall a smidge, we’d never know for the cloudlike dollop of cream cheese frosting that occupies its cracked surface.
The Lemon Drop is another cake that Jimenez had to coax into proper form. She wanted light and fluffy, but so often lemon cakes take on a dense, coarse crumb from the casual handling of lemon juice and chemical leaveners. Her answer was to omit juice altogether and instead infuse lemon by way of a “special” extract (“trade secret!”) and a filling of lemon curd. According to Jimenez, it’s the most adored by her customers. But be warned: Contrary to lemon’s light and breezy reputation, this cake holds heavy flavors, from the cream cheese frosting to the bold lemon cake to the undoubtedly divisive wallop of curd in the middle.
You may be better off sinking a spoon into the Fresh Strawberry before memories of pink, saccharine cakes become too vivid. Forget them all; this one’s different. The frosting alone — pureed berries whipped into buttercream — tastes like a strawberry patch on the Fourth. The cakes come out grayish and rustic, kept down to earth by a pound of berries per batch, cut chunky so you meet the seeds and pulp. They’ll be back next year when the fruit is again in ripe supply. For now, they’ve been replaced by a chocolate chip vanilla bean cake that’s cleaved down the center by a thick column of cookie dough and topped with vanilla bean frosting. We’ll manage, somehow.
And finally, a nod to the season. When you have in your possession the secrets to a war-winning cheesecake cupcake, you don’t let fall come and go without feeding pumpkin pie filling into your old vanilla standby and spicing it with nutmeg and cinnamon. At Nadia Cakes, this creamy autumn filling is scooped onto a crust of crumbled bakery cookies left over from the day before. Whatever they may be — chocolate chunk, gingersnap, peanut butter — they’re blended with sugar, butter, and cinnamon to taste. These same crunchy bits crown the familiar heap of vanilla bean whipped cream, cleverly reinforced by cream cheese so it’s sturdy enough to weather the ride home, and — more importantly — to hold aloft a beautiful marbled fondant leaf. As for taste, the cupcake’s kinship to pumpkin pie is startling, and perfectly capable of triggering involuntary flashes of sweet potatoes, stuffing, and the Macy’s parade. This one’s not a regular, but like any of the 135 flavors, it can be ordered by the dozen in advance.
Otherwise, you’ll just have to do what thousands of other seemingly normal people are doing: Stalk the Nadia Cakes Facebook page, bookmark the Daily Cupcake Menu on the website, plan your schedule around the availability of a certain flavor, and pack a camera for the trip — just in case Abby Jimenez steps unwittingly into the open.
Cupcake shop in Maple Grove
11650 Fountains Dr, #207
Maple Grove, MN 55369
HOURS: Mon-Thurs 10-8; Fri-Sat 10-8:30; Sun 10-11
CUPCAKE RANGE: $2.95 regular, $3.25 filled, package deals for packs of 4, 6, and 12