People have been expecting a cupcake backlash. People have predicted that cupcake stores would wither in a tough-as-nails economy. People have been wrong.
The tiny-cake craze started at New York City's Magnolia Bakery in the mid 1990s, the buttercream-topped success immortalized on Sex and the City begetting more cupcake spots. Sprinkles, Crumbs, Baked — a couple of years ago they began popping up in every U.S. city. There are mail-order cupcakes, exotic cupcakes, risque cupcakes, girly cupcakes and cupcakes for men (see butchbakery.com). Here in the Tampa Bay area, Nicole Rogers was the first to take the plunge, opening the Cupcake Spot on Dale Mabry in Tampa in December 2007. She subsequently moved that shop to MacDill and opened a second location on Central Avenue in St. Petersburg.
Since then, as the market has rolled gloomily along, cupcakes have proliferated. Some say it's like lipstick sales. Forget the big splurge item: An $8 tube of vermilion and a $3 iced confection are quick pick-me-ups.
Not all have been successful. The short-lived Cupcakes, Cupcakes! on Linebaugh in Westchase succumbed quietly. But two other recent additions have decidedly different takes on the cakes.
Patti Reed, from a Pennsylvania Dutch family, learned to bake at the knee of her aunt, Mary Bretiuz, when she was 4 or 5. Fast forward: She makes cream puffs for her husband. He swoons. She decides to make cupcakes filled with the same creamy custard he adores. More swooning. A career in hotels finally gives way in July 2009 when she launches Patti-Kakes in St. Petersburg.
Tucked in the corner of a modest shopping center near a Big Lots! and Chuck E. Cheese, the little order-at-the-window shop is painted with bright fuchsia ribbons and cupcakes. There is tinsel and garland, animatronic parrots and bears — in all, a child's fantasy. Reed's cakes, though, have grownup sophistication.
Stand at the counter and flip through her "look book" of cakes. These flights of fancy are like projects Duff Goldman's team might dream up on the Food Network's Ace of Cakes. She molds flowers, butterflies and shells from fondant. She re-creates Tiffany's signature blue box, a circus elephant and a little girl's princess tiara sitting atop a stack of rose-strewn pillows (all cake).
When people come to pick up a cake at Reed's shop, she photographs them with the finished masterpiece. Her aim is to have a Facebook page festooned with her cakes and customers. But even if you're not a would-be bride in the market for three tiers of joy, Patti-Kakes has got you covered. She points to a refrigerator case off to one side of the shop and begins to list: "This one is strawberry, filled with cream and topped with chocolate ganache; this one is devil's food with Swiss meringue buttercream made with Madagascar vanilla bean; that one is white cake with Hershey's buttercream."
Despite her shop's riotous decor, Patti-Kakes' cupcakes are classical and sophisticated looking. The best one? Hard to say, but the lemon cake filled with lemon curd and topped with Swiss meringue lemon icing might have edged out the carrot cake with Swiss meringue buttercream for top honors.
Cupcakes for grownups, one might say. The same holds true for another newcomer, Frostings, Etc., in Tampa's bustling SoHo district. Baker Sharon Tabasco got her start as many of us did: her Easy-Bake oven and those packets of mix rendered delicious by a single lightbulb. From there she graduated to real ovens, baking for casinos in Atlantic City. She and co-owner Joe Barbato set up shop in Hyde Park last year, with the aim of feeding the neighborhood's carousers and businesspeople. With late hours and sophisticated flavors, Frostings has won the heart of South Tampa.
Betty Crocker would be flummoxed: There are champagne pear bellini cupcakes (perhaps the best offering) and chocolate Guinness beer cupcakes (second best). In a rotating array of more than 30 flavors, you'll find dulce de leche cupcakes, tiramisu cupcakes with mascarpone frosting and a buried ladyfinger, even chocolate caramel-filled cupcakes topped with sea salt — all trendy, all with outrageous garnishes. There are traditional flavors suitable for kids, but you'll also find adult concoctions like port wine chocolate brownie with Brie.
The shop itself has a funk factor that invites sitting a spell on one of the bar stools or benches after making a selection from the pastry case. Peel back the paper liner and decide: a cake bite, an icing bite or a combo.
What explains the persistent popularity of the cupcake?
"It's different, it's affordable, and it's a feel-good," says Reed.
Laura Reiley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read her blog at tampabay.com/blogs/dining.