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Friday, February 27, 2009

Thing 143: Hello Cupcake

It's Cupcake Madness! Click here for the bracket and the judging sheet. Check out previous contenders Red Velvet and Couture Cupcakes and Cakelove.

This small shop on the south side of Dupont Circle is delightful. Delightful!

We ordered two 'control' cupcakes (vanilla cupcake with chocolate frosting), the "heart of darkness" (devil's food with chocolate ganache frosting and chocolate chips), tiramisu (espresso cake with mascarpone frosting, dusted in cocoa), "you tart!" (lemon cake with an insane lemon cream cheese frosting), and oh dear God, the "velvet Elvis" (banana cake with peanut butter frosting). This was also the only cupcakery that we visited that regularly bakes gluten-free cupcakes, and also vegan cupcakes, although we didn't try any because we do so enjoy butter and white flour.

My first thought, when I was looking at the cupcakes, is that this is what cupcakes are supposed to look like. These are stereotypically the ideal cupcake -- small cakes held in paper, frosting swirled high on top with little sprinkles or candies on top. Then the taste. These taste like the ideal cupcake. It's the ideal frosting to cake ratio -- vanilla and chocolate in perfect, complimentary quantities, the cake light, the frosting thick, all different tastes and textures at once.

Then, the specialty flavors. "You tart!" was palest yellow, sour and creamy at once, ridiculously good. Heart of Darkness was super rich, almost like a brownie mixed with fudge. But the velvet Elvis. Without ruining the outcome, the velvet Elvis was the single best cupcake I ate on the crawl. And apparently, they only bake it on Mondays and Thursdays, so plan your visit accordingly. But all these cupcakes were marvelous, I think you can't really go wrong at Hello Cupcake.

These cupcakes scored above-average in all categories, but got especially high marks for frosting, amount of frosting and creativity. These were also the cheapest cupcakes we ate, at $3 a piece, and scored high on value as a result. Comments from my team included "really good," "big cake, big frosting," "you may do me on this cupcake," "the peanut butter banana was unbelievable...doable," "nice amount of frosting," "best aesthetic so far," and "prettiest cupcakes, banana peanut butter is amazing!"

The composite score was a 4.2 -- a solid lead above Cakelove and a strong competitor in the Western bracket. Can it beat my personal favorite though, Baked and Wired? Who will advance to face Georgetown Cupcake in the Fabulous Four??

Happy 2nd blogiversary! One year ago: One Year, One Hundred Things, two years ago: the mission statement, Wonderland trivia, and Cowgirl Creamery.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Thing 142: Cakelove

It's Cupcake Madness! Click here for the bracket and the judging sheet.  Check out previous contenders Red Velvet and Couture Cupcakes.

Cakelove was the original.  Before cupcakeries were a dime a dozen, before Sex and the City made cupcakes flirty and commonplace, Warren Brown had a dream.  He was a government worker, droning on at a job he didn't like, and during his free time, he was baking cakes.  His coworkers reaped the rewards of his after-hours experiments as he adjusted butter and sugar levels, coming up with perfect butter cream and seductive, layered combinations.

Now, Warren owns six Cake Loves, the Love Cafe, is a minor local celebrity and even has his own show on the Food Network.  He is a pillar of the business community.

But can his cakes compete??

I had my doubts.

Truth be told, I don't much like Cakelove cupcakes anymore.  Sure, there was a time in my life when I asked a coworker to drive from Fairfax to U Street to pick some up for my birthday.  And when I was a having a quarter-life crisis I gave very serious thought to taking Warren's offer of a minimum wage job just to learn the secrets of good baking.  I still think his cakes themselves are about the best in town (that chocolate/vanilla/raspberry/butter cream/ganache monster being my favorite).  But the last few times I tried his cupcakes...well, they were dry.  I thought the cake was dry, and the frosting was fine, but not great.  

I don't know if Warren has re-calibrated his cake recipe, or if Cakelove was just having a good day, but when my team came to evaluate the cupcakes for the bracket, they were good.  Really good.

As per the bracket, we ordered three "control" cupcakes (vanilla cake, chocolate frosting), as well as one salted caramel cupcake, and one maple butterscotch.  Cakelove uses a very traditional butter cream, and I had to restrain my team from eating the cupcakes right away -- the frosting needs at least 20 minutes to come to room temperature or it just tastes like butter.  

But once we cut in and tasted, we really liked them!  The cakes were more moist than I remember, and the frosting, though not particularly thick, was rich and well-flavored.  The maple butterscotch in particular was a big hit, though I was partial to the salted caramel.

At $3.25, these were priced about average, and were average-sized.  Overall, these cupcakes scored above-average on cake, size and amount of frosting, with average or low scores for icing and creativity.  One person even checked the 'yes' box on the all-important "this cupcake makes me want to say 'do me on this cupcake'" criteria, a sentiment we all came close to sharing. 

Comments from my team included "do me with butterscotch," "maple butterscotch very good, salty caramel good too," "maple butterscotch almost 'do' worthy," "control - buttery, cake good, maple butterscotch - incredible, best yet," "did not like it," "big, but control was too buttery,""pretty good, almost do me good," and "cake moist!".

The overall score for Cakelove? A 3.6!  0.5 points more than Couture Cupcakes!!  Cakelove advances to the Tasty Two!!  

Who will make it from the Western Bracket??  Check back to find out!

Monday, February 23, 2009

Thing 141: Couture Cupcakes at ACKC

It's Cupcake Madness! Click here for the bracket and the judging sheet. Check out previous contender Red Velvet.

Artfully Chocolate Kingsbury Confections (ACKC) sells local cupcake brand Couture Cupcakes, which are, as the name might imply, rather fancy. So fancy in fact, that we couldn't order a control cupcake (ie, a vanilla cupcake with chocolate icing). Did this set Couture back? Not necessarily. But my team is hard to please, and once again their socks were not knocked off.

This time, absent the control cupcake, we ordered a vanilla cupcake with pink cinnamon icing, a chocolate cupcake with raspberry frosting and two chocolate cupcake/brownies with whipped cream and caramel.

The vanilla and cinnamon one ended up actually being my favorite of the three -- the icing was light and airy, a highly whipped cinnamon-flavored buttercream. The chocolate cake with raspberry struck me as too sweet, and the chocolate brownie one was dense and rich -- delicious, but not a perfect cupcake, more like a good brownie. Also, at $3.65 these were the most expensive cupcakes on our crawl.

Comments from my team include "too sweet, icing was light and delicious," "cinnamon was the worst, they got better," "don't like cinnamon, the chocolate and raspberry was dry," "didn't like choice of flavors, but liked chocolate/caramel," "liked the cinnamon frosting, cake was moist for vanilla," "prefer cake type and icing type," "enjoyed chocolate caramel," and "eh..." These cupcakes scored low on value and size, and earned slightly above average marks for cake and icing.

The overall score was a 3.1 -- 0.6 more than Red Velvet! Couture Cupcakes advances to the Fabulous Four, set to face off with CakeLove...

Friday, February 20, 2009

Thing 140: Red Velvet

It's Cupcake Madness! Click here for the bracket and the judging sheet.

Red Velvet is a closet-sized store front facing out to 7th Street in Chinatown, with a towering cupcake poster inside the entrance, a pastry case full of cupcakes, a small bar that looks out on the street, and not much else. Luckily, they are affiliated with the new Tangysweet next door, and you can take your cupcakes there for sitting and staying if you are so inclined.

But what of the cupcakes?

As per the rules we set up for the cupcake crawl, we ordered two 'control' cupcakes (vanilla cake with chocolate icing), and then ordered the titular red velvet cupcake and a chocolate cupcake with peanut butter frosting.

Sad to say, utterly average.

The vanilla cake had a coconut taste going on, and was kind of crumbly. The chocolate frosting was a dense ganache, and there wasn't all that much of it. The red velvet was a bit better, and the chocolate cake with peanut butter frosting was delicious -- the frosting light and salty/sweet, the cake chocolatey and moist with mini chocolate chips strewn throughout.

Comments from my team included "not a fan," "not a fan of control, but enjoyed red velvet and peanut butter frosting," rather have a milk chocolate frosting," "chocolate peanut butter delicious," "peanut butter icing delicious, red velvet good, cake mediocre." Overall, Red Velvet scored low marks for value and size, and average marks for cake, icing and creativity. The composite score was 2.5 out of five.

Will that be enough to beat Couture Cupcakes to make it to the Fabulous Four?? Check back to find out!

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Cupcake Madness!

Over the past year there has been a glut of cupcakeries opening, and I have meant for the longest time to get to the bottom of which one is best.  For once and for all, who has the best cupcake?!  Can Baked & Wired hold its own?  Or do the upstarts Georgetown Cupcake, Hello Cupcake and Red Velvet have it beat?  Can CakeLove, DC's original cupcakery and the one that spawned all the imitators, still compete?  Or has the old-timer been replaced?  

There was only one way to answer my questions:  CUPCAKE MADNESS!  I gathered up nine committed friends, mapped out a course and wrote up some basic judging criteria.  

Folks, I made a bracket.  And if you scroll down, you can also see the judging sheet.  You, too, can play along!!  Cupcake Bracket  
The bracket turned out to be a tiny bit flawed -- I'll get to that at the end.  But in the meantime, I'll be posting for the next couple weeks about each cupcakery, our thoughts and notes, our likes and dislikes, leading up to the tasty two, and ultimately, the Cupcake Champion.  Who will take home the title?!  Place your bets in the comments.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Thing 139: SpeakeasyDC

Eye of the Tiger.  If It Makes You Happy.  Take Me Home, Mountain Roads.

We all have songs that trigger intense memories, that put us right back into a time and a place in our lives, that make us giggle or blush or weep.  Dr. Dre's Keep They Heads Ringin' puts me right back in Mr. Nelson's seventh grade science class.  Stacey's Mom brings me back to driving the snow covered roads of pre-caucus Iowa in 2003 and the intense pull of first love.  Nelly's Hot in Herre drops me in the midst of the happy reunion of roommates in those first few days of senior year, after we'd all returned from various studies abroad and couldn't tell our stories fast enough, a jumble of words and photos spilling all over each other, laughing and dancing and printing out Nelly's lyrics and attaching to them to the fridge so we could try to memorize them in idle moments.  

But while these songs and countless others bring up intense memories and feelings of time and place for me, it is decidedly harder to spin these feelings into great stories, with a beginning, middle and end, with a lesson or a poignant moment or laughter strewn throughout.  Which is exactly what the storytellers at SpeakeasyDC have learned to do.  

SpeakeasyDC offers workshops and performances for storytellers -- seasoned or beginners.  Every month the group gathers for performances, and every month has a theme.  February's theme was "Mixtape" and all the stories revolved around a song.  Some stories were funny and alive with embarrassment, others were personal and quite poignant.  

Mike got up to tell us about a rather unfortunate incident that occurred while he was running on the treadmill.  Just as Eye of the Tiger came on, he, er, lost control and had to flee the gym quickly and in a haze of blushing embarrassment.  He'd crafted it so that we were all laughing out loud, and he laughed with us at his own misfortune.  Suji told her story of trying to find love, centered around her love of music and in particular her love of There's a Light That Never Goes Out, by the Smiths.  It was quiet, honest and real -- an unglamorous look at the good and the bad decisions we make in the pursuit of love.  And Meredith told us the story of her sheltered Mormon roommate her freshman year of college, a funny but mean tale of revenge, humiliation and the "h-word" in If It Makes You Happy.  

I love story telling.  I love the Moth podcast, I love This American Life, it's one of the reason I love improv, and why I primarily read fiction.  I have a great respect for those who can tell good stories, dropping in important details that matter later, keeping people enthralled the whole time.  And if you feel your story telling skills could use a tuneup, SpeakeasyDC also holds four-week workshops, in which you learn the fundamentals of the craft, and ultimately get to perform in open mic settings such as these.

This event was held in the upstairs room at Station 9 (which is huge and awesome, by the way.  Does anyone know anyone there?).  It cost $10, and they had full food and drink menus available, though we'd eaten prior to arriving.

Full disclosure, the Boyfriend and I left at intermission.  Not because we weren't enjoying ourselves -- we really were -- but because this event is simply too popular.  We couldn't find a place to sit, and we got tired of standing on the edges of the crowd (one of us was in heels no less).  We will return, but we will get there early, and I recommend you do the same.

I've started corporate blogging, too!  If you just can't get enough of me over on DC365, or if you are interested in seeing a completely different side of my life, I am one of the contributors of Aristotle's new blog, In The Know.  Pop over and check it out over!

Friday, February 13, 2009

Thing 138: The Carlyle Club

My friend Kate and I, we love old dance movies. One afternoon, we mulled a bottle of wine, baked a dozen pumpkin muffins, and watched Follow the Fleet and On the Town. We love Swing Time and Shall We Dance. We adore Fred and Ginger and Rita and Gene.

And so for Kate's birthday, of course, we had to hit the Carlyle Club. A few short steps from the King Street metro, you, too, can glam it up and be transported back to the 1936, Fred-n-Ginger, supper club glory days.

Alright, so it wasn't quite as classic as we'd pictured it and we were among the most dressed up and glam-ready. But, the table were clothed in white, the waiters were clothed in maroon vests and bow ties, the martinis were dirty and the band was big.

Funny thing about the band -- while it did throw in a foxtrot and a tango or two, its repertoire was all over the map. Pink, The Eagles, Cher (!), Frank Sinatra, you name it and they can and did play it. And the great thing is the crowd is nearly nondiscriminating, they cut the rug to any song the band will play. The crowd was all older than us, and for the most part really good dancers -- one gets the feeling they are all regulars and may even had met in a ballroom dancing class of some sort. For the rest of us Ginger wannabes, well, we muddled through as best we could, cheek to cheek and with only the occasional toe-step.

We did not have supper, and truth be told, I couldn't even bring myself to try a cocktail (I was at a work conference last week that pushed my liver past the bounds of human decency), so I cannot vouch for any of the creature comforts. But our group had a fabulous time, and I think this would be a great date or night out for any couple or group of friends who feels like dressing up and breaking out of their usual rut. Gene and Rita would be so proud.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Thing 137: Ford's Theater

So...there's good news, and then there's bad news.

The good news is that the Ford's Theater renovation is complete, and it is beautiful. The lobby is light and open, with lots of glass and shiny grey and white tiling. There's a fancy gift shop where you can buy Abraham Lincoln bobbleheads and huge novelty pennies that cost $6 each. There's information on the walls about the history of the theater. Lincoln's great coat will be on display in the lobby shortly (though you can see his blood and the bullet that killed him here). And the theater itself is beautiful, with a beautiful ceiling, a broad and newly done stage and yes, comfortable seats. For those of you who had been to the old Ford's Theater, you'll know that comfortable seating is a huge upgrade.

And it is pretty remarkable to sit in that comfortable seat and look up at the box in which Lincoln was shot. The history is mighty and duly appreciated.

But now for the bad news...the play they're re-opening the theater with is really, really bad.

I was offered the chance to see a free preview of "The Heavens are Hung in Black" last week. In the spirit of my new year's resolutions, I went with it. And, like the lesson I learned with the Iranian film festival, when you indiscriminately do things that are free, sometimes they are no good at all.

Where to start? The show lasted three hours (with two intermissions) and had not a scrap of dramatic tension throughout. It told the story of the months between the death of one of Lincoln's sons and his issuing of the emancipation proclamation. There are interminable dream sequences in which Lincoln rather heavy-handedly debates whether or not to free the slaves with various historical figures, but all along we know exactly what he's going to do and so these dream sequences just feel like they're Art. Art with a capital "A" as in "I have something very important to say" (doesn't the best art often say something very important without announcing itself so loudly?).

The non-dream sequences benefited from very good acting. The cast overall, Mary Lincoln in particular, were all good, they just didn't have much to work with. The scenes with Lincoln, his Secretary of War Edwin Stanton and his Secretary of State William Seward -- his team of rivals you may have heard something about -- were devoid of any sense of urgency or any aspect of, well, rivalry. And Lincoln, known for his intelligence and his bons mots, makes so many quips in the face of every possible situation that Act 2 feels an awful lot like an episode of "The West Wing: 1862."

There's also an extended scene in which Lincoln stumbles upon a group of actors rehearsing Shakespeare. This gives Lincoln an excuse to expound on Hamlet and how he is a tragic figure who spent too much time equivocating and ultimately died in the pursuit of truth and justice. My head hurts from all the hitting over it.

But perhaps the most offensive bit was at the end, with an overt shout-out to Barack Obama himself, a reference that could have been left unsaid. Because we are all pretty aware that Lincoln emancipated the slaves and now we have a black president. But thank you for drawing that line for us, we might have missed it otherwise.

Phew, I've had all that anger bottled up for a week now, and it feels good to let it go. I do encourage you to pop your head in and see the new digs, but do not stay for the show -- hopefully the next one will be better. And I promise that Thing 138 will be more fun. It features 100% more dancing, and that's a good start, right?

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Thing 136: Aatish on the Hill

It's not an earth-shattering tip, but when one is trying to stay on a budget, ethnic eateries are a good option. For whatever reason it's the holes-in-the-wall that often offer the boldest flavors for the best prices.

In that vein, I offer you Aatish on the Hill (warning: that site may give you seizures). A friend and I visited this Pakistani and Indian tandoori joint in an effort to find inexpensive and gluten-free food. The restaurant isn't the greatest one you'll ever go to, but the food was good, the service was very attentive (free rice pudding!) and we thoroughly enjoyed ourselves as we caught up over plates of spiced and fragrant curries.

We ordered the botti kabab -- tender grilled pieces of lamb which we dipped in cool raita -- and shared that to start. And we ordered matar paneer (Indian fresh cheese and green peas in creamy curry) and aloo saag (potatoes cooked in spinach with sweet spices) and ate them with rice until there was nothing left. I love paneer, how it takes on the flavors surrounding it, kind of like tofu, but heartier and squeakier. And I love the sweet spices of Indian spinach, the cinnamon and clove and cardamom, and the creamy softness of the spinach.

Did this meal rock my world? No. But it was good, inexpensive food served with sweet and attentive service, and we did practically lick the plates the clean.