Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Cupcakes Part 2: Reporting from New York City

After a disappointing start with Billy's Bakery cupcakes, we decided to move on to the intriguing little cakes of Sprinkles. The first Sprinkles Cupcakes store opened in 2005 in Beverly Hills and has now grown into 10 locations across the United States. And earlier this year on May 13, Sprinkles opened its first store in New York City. Just in time for my arrival in New York.

Sprinkles was founded by Candace Nelson, a pastry chef and entrepreneur who also happens to be a judge on Food Network's Cupcake Wars! How cool is that?

Sprinkles is located at Lexington Avenue between 60th and 61st streets in New York City. The funny thing was when I realized I walked right past Sprinkles trying to find the said store along Lex. How could I have missed its flamboyant facade?!

Upon walking in, I was greeted by the ladies behind the counter gleefully, as did the Sprinkles' signature bold and bright colors painted on the wall. The wall was also lined with assembled boxes, cupcake towers, merchandise and cupcake mixes which added to the modern and playful ambience.

Tubes of cupcake premix line the walls of Sprinkles Cupcakes

But when it came to their cupcakes, the owners decided to go the other route. The cupcakes looked understated and minimally adorned. The colors were kept within a neutral palette, with color only coming from the gumpaste dots that indicate the cupcake's flavor. It looked very stylish and modern yet maintaining its mouth-watering appeal.

As with my purchase at Billy's Bakery, I decided to get a box of four. I got dark chocolate, vanilla milk chocolate, vanilla and of course, red velvet. 

We tried the vanilla first. First thing I noticed is that this was a cupcake that you could really sink your teeth into, being that it was larger than the usual 3-ounce cupcake. The cake was moist and dense with  an intense vanilla flavor. The icing was thick and had good body, though to me it tasted like good store-bought icing. My brother-in-law found the icing too sweet which was probably caused by the confetti of sprinkles on the icing. My sister disagreed that it was too sweet but agreed that the icing would indeed be less sweet if there were less of the white sprinkles. I didn't care much for the sprinkles. In fact, I think it distracts you from the smoothness of the icing.

We moved on to the Red Velvet with high expectations because it did look quite appetizing. Upon biting through the layer of icing, I found that it had very faint cream cheese flavor. It was more like an old fashioned buttercream than cream cheese icing and that thoroughly disappointed me. The cake however was moist and chocolatey without being overly red. It was a good cupcake, but its not the red velvet that I am used to. I have to tell you that I tried the gum paste dots as well. And as soon as I bit into one of those things, I deeply regretted it. I think I might have knocked out a filling. They were really hard and really bad. They tasted like plastic and had no business being on top of a good cupcake.

We moved up in the hierarchy of flavors (light flavors first) and tried the vanilla milk chocolate. I got very excited with this cupcake, to tell you honestly. The icing smelled really good and aromatic and it did smell of good quality chocolate. The vanilla cake underneath was as expected, moist and dense and delicious. The icing however was the winner. While it didn't taste unique or sophisticated, it did taste like birthday cake icing which made that cupcake very comforting and satisfying.

Last on our agenda was the Dark Chocolate Cupcake. This had a strong chocolatey aroma, almost like a bar of dark bittersweet chocolate. It was great to know that the icing did not taste any different. It tasted rich and sophisticated. We immediately called it a 'grown-up' cupcake upon realizing that it tasted pleasantly bitter and sweet. The icing compensated though for the lack-luster chocolate cake that sat beneath the dark crown of chocolate. It was moist and dense but lacked the depth and intensity found in the icing. It was a good cupcake but we all agreed that it could have been much, much better.

To sum up my Sprinkles Cupcakes experience, I would have to say it was above average. The cupcakes were good and pleasant to eat. They tasted and looked more sophisticated than Billy's Bakery cupcakes. You could tell that they used good chocolate and vanilla and worked hard on their cake recipes. But at the end of the day, they are just cupcakes. It's a $3.50 cake with icing on it. That to me is quite pricey. And in the culinary melting pot that is New York City, I could get more than just a cake with icing on it for $3.50. I could get ice cream from the Chinatown Ice Cream Factory, a welcome treat in the sweltering NY summer heat.

Black Sesame and Pistachio Ice Cream; Chinatown Ice Cream Factory

Or I could get a Payard Chocolate Fondant or Chocolate Eclair. Okay those were 4 bucks a pop but come on, for 50 cents more, you get an ACTUAL gourmet treat! Oh my goodness, were they good!!!

Chocolate Fondant aka Flourless Chocolate Cake from the Payard Patisserie, Bastille Day at 60th Street.

Raspberry Tarts

I just died.

780 Lexington Ave
bet 60th & 61st Sts.
NY, NY 10065

65 Bayard Street
Manhattan Chinatown
New York, NY 10013

Friday, July 8, 2011

Cupcakes: Reporting from New York City!!!

After a nerve-wracking visa interview and a 19-hour flight, I am back in New York! Being here does not only mean I get to attend my sister's wedding, but I could also get to try all the cupcakes that have been made famous in New York City. It has been a tiring but fun week with dinners and lunches to go to, friends and family to meet, preparations leading to my sisters wedding and of course, discovering the city that is New York.

After mustering all my strength and confidence to venture into the city alone without the aid of a 3G-enabled phone (which would allow me to access maps and routes anywhere in case I get lost), I was able to navigate through the avenues and streets of NY much easier than I thought. The city is set up in a grid, and the subway system in a similar manner. There are so many subway stops scattered around the city that wherever your destination is, there is bound to be a train or bus that can take you there or a walkable distance from it. Taxis are abundant, and they are very convenient to use; however, fares can get expensive and you will be under the mercy of the New York City traffic. My mom laughed at me as I headed out earlier today as she said, "You haven't even gone to Divisoria alone and here you are going around New York!"

NY Cakes, Flatiron District

Weekend Market at Union Square Park

Le Bronx

Bakeries at Arthur Avenue, Bronx

A variety of olives, capers and pickles--Arthur Avenue Market
Deli at Arthur Avenue Market

Olives and Pickles at Teitel Bros.

Oh. My. God.

Cakes at De Lillo's

De Lillo's
Espresso and Cannoli at De Lillo's, Little Italy, Bronx.
So after a couple of afternoons spent exploring popular parts of NYC, I made plans to get cupcakes at Billy's Bakery, Magnolia Bakery and Sprinkles Cupcakes, which would prove to be a challenge because they are nowhere near each other. First stop was Billy's Bakery. I went to their location at Chelsea, and I have to say, I found the place very charming. The yellow subway tile and vintage wallpaper gave the shop, well, a vintage feel. The AC was a welcome relief from the summer heat. The bakery had one table and banquet seating so this definitely discourages lingering around. The gentleman behind the counter was very helpful, though he was lacking a smile that I would have really appreciated. And it wasn't even a busy afternoon.

Billy's Bakery; 184 9th Avenue, between 21st and 22nd Streets

I got a box of four cupcakes: red velvet, chocolate chocolate, carrot cream cheese cupcakes and of course, vanilla vanilla. At $11.00 for a box of four, it was a bit pricey. The cupcakes looked like they had the old fashioned buttercream frosting because of the crust it seemed to have. And since I ran the risk of letting the frostings melt in the summer heat, the crusting buttercream gave me a little more confidence to carry them around city while I get my other cupcakes.

After Billy's I headed straight to Magnolia Bakery, then at Sprinkles Cupcake (which I will blog in other entries). It was a long day so I looked forward to rewarding myself with a taste of Billy's Bakery cupcakes.

So after dinner at home, I took out the cupcakes so Mama, my sister and I could taste them.
We had the red velvet with cream cheese frosting first, as this is one of the more, if not the most, popular flavors of cupcake in the city.

Red Velvet Cupcake

Red Velvet - $3.00
I have to say I was stunned when I found myself unimpressed with the Red Velvet. The cake base looked moist but upon taking a bite, the cake was the opposite. It was dry with a faint chocolate flavor. The frosting was more like a buttercream than a cream cheese frosting, with the tell-tale sign of crusting on top. At some point, my sister said that the cupcake tasted like boxed mix. It did provide some comfort, but so can a box of Kraft Mac n Cheese or a steaming bowl of sinigang.

And so we moved on to the Yellow Daisy cupcake: a yellow cupcake with a vanilla frosting and dainty sprinkles on top. I thought this cupcake was really cute, but to be honest, this was charming at best.  The first thing that hits you is the sugary frosting that has very little vanilla flavor and the texture is a little denser than I would like. And after lugging the box around NYC in the summer heat while weaving in and out of human traffic, how could the frosting even survive?! Does Billy's Bakery use, dare I say it, SHORTENING?! Meh, I'm not really entirely opposed to that (SHOCKING!), but for the price they are asking for these 3oz cupcakes, they'd better be using some butter.

As with the Red Velvet, this was a little comforting, but at $2.50 a pop, this comfort does not come cheap. (And there's comfort I like waaay better. There's a liquor store in Long Beach that sells San Mig Light for 2 bucks. Hehehe.)

Yellow Daisy Cupcake (Vanilla Vanilla) - $2.50
Already getting full from all the cupcakes, we reluctantly tried the classic chocolate cupcakes. This cupcake smelled of good cocoa, and the cake looked like it had plenty of it. We found the frosting a little too sweet, but it compensated for the lack of flavor in the cupcake, which was surprising because it did smell like it had plenty of good cocoa. It also had good body to it, and I really like a frosting that you could sink your teeth into. The cake was again a bit dry but this was more enjoyable than the rest of the cupcakes we already tried.

Chocolate Chocolate Cupcakes - $2.50
By this time, Mama and my sister had already raised the white flag so I was left to taste the carrot cupcake by myself. It was a good thing that I saved this for last because I liked this the most. The cupcake had discernible bits of carrot and walnut that provided body and texture. It also seemed to have shredded sweetened coconut in the batter which helped with the texture and moistness but that did very little to add flavor. The cream cheese frosting was a miss though, because it had very little of the tang that I like in cream cheese. The frosting crusted as well, which leads me to believe that there is more sugar and butter (?) in the frosting than cream cheese. The cake was great on its own, and the frosting was a superfluous addition.

Carrot Cupcakes - $3.00

I wish I had more cupcakes from Billy's to try, but at $11.00 for a box of four, and two more bakeries to visit, I might not have enough money for the train ride to Long Beach. So I will give my best effort to be fair.

If I were asked to rate Billy's from 1 to 10, 10 being the highest, I wouldn't. People come to Billy's for a number of reasons. They could be seeking comfort, seeking to satisfy a sweet tooth, or seeking attention. But if I'm seeking for great cupcakes, this would be one of the last places I'd look. For a place known for its cupcakes, Billy's disappoints. They were okay, okay, but it wasn't exactly the roll-my-eyes-in-ecstasy and I-just-died-and-gone-to-heaven experience I was made to expect from some reviews. But hey, they're cupcakes. They are fun, and not to be taken too seriously. With that said, would I come back to try the rest of the cupcakes? Only if I'm not paying. Would I recommend Billy's? Yes, go at least once. Is Billy's worth the hype? Not so much. Billy's worth the calories? Absolutely....not. But heck, I'm not complaining! I'm in New York City!

And that wraps up my 1st of several cupcake report from NYC. Next in line, Sprinkles Cupcakes! (Gosh I sound like a dork.)

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

New York Bound!

Jason Mraz once tweeted, "All that u need, to have all that u want, will be provided, as if by magic, once u know what u want and do something about it every day." And truly as if by magic and with the help of a most accommodating travel agent, the US tourist visa that not too long ago I decided that I wanted, is on its way to my doorstep.

My sister is getting married, and thanks to the generous consul who granted me my visa, I can actually bear witness to such an exciting and memorable event, and maybe even walk her down the aisle if she so wishes. I just could not believe my luck when I was told that my visa interview has been confirmed at an earlier date despite the lateness of my application. But because of the limited time I had to prepare prior to the interview, I only had a bank statement and one employment certificate to show whatever ties I had here in the country. A dark thought was looming at the back of my mind--that there was no way a consul would grant someone like me a visa. I could barely sleep the night before so when I got to the interview, I was on the edge. My hands were so wet I could've messed up the barcode on my passport. Seeing applicant after applicant get the dreaded blue slip was just making things worse, and the NBA finals on the gigantic flat screen did very little to distract me. But just when I thought I blew my chances when I inadvertently displayed my nerves to the consul, he shrugs it off, says that there was no reason to be nervous and then goes on to tell me that my visa has been approved. I could not help but smile from ear to ear, but I was glad I managed to keep myself from doing the happy dance. At some point in the interview, I was so sure that he was going to deny me the visa when he asked if I'd be interested working in New York City, the 'biggest pastry mecca' around, and I retorted, "I'd go to France, officer. Not New York." He grants me the visa anyway. 

And with that, I am New York bound!

I am looking forward to her big day, but I am also very excited to experience the New York I never got to see back when I was still working on the ms Veendam.

With the sister in some NY deli; she's talking to Mama on the phone! -- NY 2010

Flat Iron Builing

Yale University

Imagine Circle, Strawberry Fields (John Lennon Memorial). Central Park, NY

I am so excited to do some research!!! And by research I mean trying out as many cupcakes as I could afford. Some sell theirs for 4 bucks a piece! Silly, I know.

Here's a list of cupcakes I'd really like to try:

Magnolia Bakery

photo from www.magnoliabakery.com
Not only did this bakery increase cupcake awareness in the US, but it has also managed to turn the humble cupcake into a fashionable pastry, with its frosted little ones appearing in cameos on shows like Sex and The City. There is just no way I'm leaving the states without trying their best sellers.

The Buttercup Bakeshop

photo from buttercupbakeshop.com
After working for a few years as business parter to Allysa Torey of Magnolia Bakery which they opened in 1996, Jennifer Appel decides she wants her own bake shop and opens The Buttercup Bake Shop in August of 1999. It would be interesting to see if she has kept the same recipes from Magnolia or made them her own.

Billy's Bakery


So Magnolia Bakery did start it all. Billy Reece (who is now Lauren Reece after estrogen therapy and gender reassignment surgery) who worked in Magnolia Bakery for two years, opened Billy's with two partners back in 2003. Eventually, her partners decide to buy her out, but Billy's Bakery remains to be successful without her. I wonder how these will compare to the Magnolia and Buttercup ones? Will the student surpass the master?

Eleni's New York

I have been to Eleni's in Chelsea Market before but I was not able to try their cupcakes. Though better known for their playfully decorated sugar cookies, they also have a large selection of cupcakes (more like muffins! I think they were about the size of my fist!) and I would definitely try them this time.

Georgetown Cupcake

I would have to travel 4 hours for this beauty, since Georgetown Cupcake is located in Washington, DC. 
Georgetown Cupcake is the home of DC Cupcakes, a reality show on TLC that follows owners and sisters Katherine and Sophie while they manage and operate the cupcakery. For a cupcake bakery to get its own TV show, their cupcakes better be good.


Claiming to be the 'world's first cupcake bakery,' Sprinkles Bakery has been serving cupcakes (and only cupcakes) since 2003. Getting inspiration from where else, Magnolia Bakery, they opened the first Sprinkles bakery in Beverly Hills in hopes of making a 'better cupcake.' From their flagship store in California, Sprinkles has grown into 10 locations all over the states and they are planning to open more branches in locations including London and Tokyo. Both of the owners are investment bankers, which could partly explain Sprinkles' rapid growth. And just last May, they opened their first branch in NYC! Which means I don't have to travel all the way to the west coast to try these intriguing cupcakes!

Apart from all these delicious-looking cupcakes, I would definitely try to enjoy the culinary delights that NYC has to offer. I am looking forward to bumping into celebrities too!

New York City, see you in a bit!!!

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