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Surviving The LA Cupcake Challenge: A Judge's Perspective

Cupcakes are the cheerleaders of the dessert world, standing coyly on the side of the pastry case looking cute, perky and, above all, girlie. When bakeries started selling them for $3 apiece, people laughed -- then they lined up to buy. Even with the economy softer than a marshmallow center, this gentrified comfort food's popularity shows no signs of abating. Nothing capitalizes on cupcake mania better than L.A.'s 3rd annual Nesquik Cupcake Challenge. This Sunday, the sold-out event will pit dozens of bakeries and caterers against each other in a ferocious contest to determine L.A.'s uber-cupcake. Wear your buffet pants.

Last year I covered the Cupcake Challenge as an impartial reporter and observer, forcing myself to sample every single cupcake in the name of journalistic excellence. Sound easy? It's like living in the darkside of a pharmaceutical ad. Sweating, shaking, nausea, temporary loss of vision, weakness in the extremities, an intense sugar rush.

This year, I'm judging the Cupcake Challenge, and with 22 bakeries offering 40 cupcakes (up from 17 bakeries offering 34 cupcakes last year), I'm bringing my A-game -- as well as a thermos of coffee, a jug of milk and plenty of roughage. I've been training for the past three months, doing daily 20-minute AMCAP (As Many Cupcakes As Possible) workouts.

Hot new flavors include Sunday Mimosa, Sticky Toffee Pudding, Bananas Foster, Lucky Charm, Amaretto Sour, Irish Car Bomb and (it was only a matter of time) Maple Bacon.

"Creativity will go a long way in this event," says contest organizer Dan Silberstein. "It's one thing if you taste five red velvet cupcakes, but something original will stand out."

As frilly and frothy as cupcakes are, judging them isn't a responsibility I take lightly. The egalitarian nature of the Cupcake Challenge means that anyone who buys a ticket can vote for their favorite cupcake in three categories: Traditional, Original and Overall. Your vote counts just as much as mine. Here's what I look for:

1. Flavor: Does the entire cupcake resonate with its stated flavor?

2. Originality: Well-executed creativity earns major points.

3. Texture & Moistness: Not too firm or too crumbly. Not too dry but definitely not sticky as though it's been saturated in oil after coming out of the oven.

4. Frosting: Does the frosting have a distinct flavor or is it merely a bland gob of sweetness? Does that flavor complement the cake? Is the frosting-to-cake ratio appropriate?

One final, crucial piece of advice from Silberstein: "Don't eat [all of] your first couple of cupcakes. Just take a bite of each. If you eat the whole cupcake, you won't be able to eat anymore."