Red Velvet: A Cupcake Postmortem
Trends is dining have an amazing ability to take a long-standing food item and, through a series of twists and maybe a bit of recontextualizing, make it ubiquitous and, eventually, tiresome. Not matter how delicious a food might be, if it gets caught up in the zeitgeist, the over-saturation point is inevitable, the arrival of the backlash like clockwork. Take cupcakes: long endorsed by screaming, grade school kids--frosting-smeared faces singing happy birthday while fidgeting behind shrunken chairs--suddenly became chic and classy. The trend made cupcakes a pastry more emblematic of Carrie Bradshaw than children, with bakeries like the Beverly Hills-based Sprinkles endorsed by Oprah. Cupcakeries sprouted up around the country; wedding cakes were shrunk down to individual, foil-wrapped servings.
Trendy? Or just plain tasty?
The cupcake fad seems to largely be "over" now, a statement made so forcefully by some that it seems like the small, frosted cakes are suddenly extinct, impossible to purchase, bake or eat. Macarons, they say, are the new pastry to covet. But aren't cupcakes still delicious, even if eating the right flavor from the right bakery doesn't make you in vogue anymore? My ten year-old self is certain that they are, so I tracked down a few for a comparison--one from the old-guard Long Beach bakery and restaurant Jongewaard's Bake n' Broil, the other from the trend-riding cupcakery Frosted, in Belmont Shore. Red velvet--the standard-bearing flavor of the cupcake fad--was the common denominator, because as far as I'm concerned, cream cheese frosting should always be in style.
Jongewaard's is a time machine of a restaurant, with the array of white cakeplates holding a variety of pies and baked, frosted creations acting as the backdrop to the U-shaped counter where Bixby Knolls residents have dined on the simple, Americana meals and desserts since 1965. With a seemingly endless supply of baked goods and fresh-faced waiters working part-time while still in high school, the whole vibe is very Midwestern and mid-century, with the food largely following suit--burgers, pot roast and chicken-fried steak all featured on the savory menu. But the "bake" in Jongewaard's name is the main attraction, with the red velvet cupcake living up to the high standard the restaurant sets for itself. The pastry is slightly larger than the more dainty trend-following cupcakes, the cream cheese frosting--not too sweet, but rich and tangy from good dose of what is likely Philadelphia-brand schmear--laid on thick. The cake was deeply red and thoroughly moist, the chocolate flavor coming through nicely. There is something about the proportions of cupcakes, especially those flavored with chocolate, that make them prone to drying out, so the fact that the Jongewaard's red velvet was perfectly baked to be moist all the way through the center was quite a feat, with credit due to their expert baking staff.
The Frosted Cupcakery is a much less homey space, with the design leaning more towards the modern, the cupcakes displayed like jewels or watches in a glass-fronted case, small candy circles marked with a cupcake image dotting each crown of frosting. Frosted has a broader, more creative range of flavors, including their ice cream-filled cupcake creation, with other contemporary flairs including cakes with Nutella-flavored frosting. Their cupcakes were smaller than those from Jongewaard's, with the prices notably higher despite the lesser serving. The red velvet flavor was dotted with a red candy, the frosting boasting enough cream cheese, but a bit too much sugar, making it lean a too far towards cloyingly sweet. The cake was moist and very red, but the chocolate was less noticeable than in the Jongewaard's pastry, making the Bixby Knolls bakery and restaurant the victor in this episode of the Dueling Dishes.
The cupcake may be slipping out of style, but that could be a good thing. Instead of biting into one and having it mean something, an act of eating wrapped up in pop and consumer culture, the sweet will go back to being something that can be enjoyed with the messy, reckless abandon of those grade school birthday parties. And if the tastemakers are right, we could get some excellent macarons in the near future, which I, for one, would certainly have no problem with what so ever.
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