There were no warnings posted at the entrance of the Cupcake Challenge in Hollywood. Guests who climbed the dark staircase of the Montmartre Lounge were greeted by two gorgeous cupcake displays, innocent-looking two-bite treats, pale pink and topped with heart-shaped strawberry slices from Leyna’s Baby Cakes on one side and Hotcakes’ red-velvet samples on the other. Not a word about diabetic comas, insulin shock or even sugar highs. But after a few hours eating at least 2,500 calories’ worth of frosting, chocolate, butter and sprinkles, hundreds of dazed munchers lay strewn on couches, surrounded by thousands of mangled, half-eaten cupcakes. To find the best cupcake in L.A., one must eat a lot of them. And with proceeds from Drink:Eat:Play’s Cupcake Challenge going to the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation, we convinced ourselves that it was our duty to eat these cupcakes — it was for the children. Sunny women handed out pens and ballot slips, reminding us not to forget to vote.
My first taste, Leyna’s delicate pink cupcakes with a strawberry filling baked right into the center, was delicious and not too sweet. But I was on guard — being the first, it was bound to taste great.
Cake Girl offered maple-pecan cupcakes topped with a candied nut nestled in a butter-cream frosting. Another red velvet, this one from Famous Cupcakes, claimed to be all-organic, with chocolate sprinkles giving it a little crunch. The din in the room started to rise along with our glucose levels. Pace yourself, that’s the key, I thought, while gathering a plate of Mrs. Beasley’s lemon-meringue, peanut butter and chocolate-ganache cakes, wolfing them down seconds later, and then, not content with just cupcakes, joining the line where a dozen wines were being poured.
In preparation for the event, I’d watched an online interview with radio food critic Merrill Schindler, who said that the best cupcakes are ones that make his teeth hurt with sugar — he eats the frosting first, then the top, and finally the cake. After my first half-dozen cupcakes, I completely rejected the Schindler method. Most of the Challenge bakers knew not to go overboard on the sweetness, and their best cupcakes had contrasting flavors that made them stand out from the rest. When possible, I decided, you should try to get a bit of everything in your mouth on the first bite, not dismantle it like some mere Oreo.
A consensus began to form among the throng, around a certain marshmallow-topped chocolate cake from My Little Cupcake, which also offered a vanilla cake soaked in coffee, with a coffee-cream and chocolate frosting. Even the wine pourers kept sneaking around the corner to get the marshmallow ones. Not bad, but the coffee cream had a lot more flavor going on.
I began to avoid anything made with chocolate cake or red velvet, which seldom had another flavor to cut through the sweetness. And I wasn’t alone. “If I never see another red-velvet cupcake again, I’ll be happy,” said a fellow cupcake taster named Natalie Finn. The exception was the Lucky Devils chocolate cupcake: Belgian-style double ale mixed into a devil’s food cake with cream-cheese icing that was shaped into a pool containing beer-caramel sauce, all topped with spicy Beer Nuts. Beer + nuts + cupcake = heaven.
Many of the best cupcakes contained nuts or peanut butter. Violet’s Cakes from Pasadena had a banana cake with peanut-butter frosting. The Oinkster in Eagle Rock had an incredible peanut-butter-and-jelly cupcake that made me promise myself not to fill up entirely on pork next time I go there.
I kept finding tables still crammed full of cupcakes I hadn’t yet tried. My taste buds felt burned out. “I’ve got to get out of here,” Finn said to her friend Marc Miller. “These people are like 2-year-olds now. Cars are going to be crashing into each other all over the place.”
I asked how many they’d eaten, but they had no concrete answer. “I’ve got crazy eyes behind these sunglasses,” Finn said. Indeed, the heat, the sugar, the wine — it’s a level of intoxication most people seemed unprepared for. The room took on the atmosphere of an opium den shortly before dawn. Some people never left their couches, ordering companions to fetch them more cake. Others stood over the cheese trays, finding the saltiest crackers and Brie to cut the sugar. Most of us just wandered about the abandoned towers of cupcakes with single bites taken out of them, discarded only because we could eat no more.
Well, maybe a couple more. Burbank’s Yummy Cupcakes offered one that tasted exactly like a root beer float. And the Key lime cupcake from Vanilla Bake Shop in Santa Monica took sweetness to a level that left the dozens of others in the dust. The Violet’s brownie-chunk cake was the best chocolate variety I had tried.
As I stumbled toward the exit, I found myself back at Leyna’s table of strawberries, still piled high with treats, but with fewer takers. I let the cupcake guardians sneak a peek at my ballot, with Leyna’s and Lucky Devils at the top, and got wide grins in return. Then I tried to drive home without bouncing my car into a dozen others, like the amped-up 2-year-old in need of a nap whom I knew I’d become.