Cupcakes and the City

Cupcakes on parade at American Cupcakes, San Francisco, CA

On July 9 2000, the world changed forever. HBO’s popular drama Sex and the City, addressed racism and dating a smoker in the same episode. And as Carrie Bradshaw, announced what was to be her biggest relationship that season, viewers watched her grappling with the biggest cupcake in New York City and a nation experienced collective food envy.

The “homme du jour” was a carpenter called Aiden: the “plat du jour” a yellow cupcake, topped with raspberry frosting, from the Magnolia bakery on the lower West Side. Carrie’s fidelity to Aiden lasted four weeks: America’s fidelity to the cup cake is still going strong, and unlike Mr Big, even the sexy French macaron couldn’t dull America’s appetite for these red velvet devils.
In the thirteen or so years since, the cupcake has made a bid for world domination. This is partly due to the fact that, unlike the delicate gallic marvels, the supersized American cupcake can be easily baked at home, providing the housewives of the world with a kind of personal gratification the writers at SATC weren’t thinking of. 
The SATC cupcake was plain sponge, topped with pink buttercream frosting, piped in a simple swirl. The class of 2013 features flavors such as caramel fleur de sel, s’mores, as well as the ubiquitous red velvet, which has become more American than apple pie, (also available in cupcake form).
Back in 2009, I made a late-night pilgrimage to Magnolia on Bleeker Street, still busy at a quarter of midnight. And on a recent Sunday morning in San Francisco, the sunny city serenaded with foghorns from across the Bay, I decided to pay a visit to three of the city’s finest.

 First stop was American Cupcake, on Union Street, the sci-fi interior, adding an ultra-violet tint to my red velvet cupcake. My senses further confused by the incredible scarlet of the moist chocolate cake, I began to wonder how many “e numbers” (or their American equivalent) I was consuming, until I was slapped in the face by the lascivious saltiness of the cream cheese frosting.  This had never been my favorite, as I had always found it a bit sour, but the salt added a new edge, which I am keen to recreate, and added an intense enhancement to the chocolate sponge.

Red Velvet cupcakes at American Cupcake











Next was Kara’s Cupcakes, the quieter branch on Scott Street, rather than the Ghirardelli Square location. Here, I chose fleur de sel: chocolate buttercream on a chocolate sponge, with a salty caramel interior. Maybe it was the temperature it was served at, but this just didn’t do it for me. The buttercream was hard and bland, the cake fell to pieces in my hand, and the caramel interior popped out like an eyeball on to the plate.
Chocolate and Red Velvet at Kara’s Cupcakes













Finally, came Susie Cakes on Chestnut Street. The shop interior had  much more of a mom’s-kitchen atmosphere than the other two and so did the cakes. The raspberry cupcake, was of the original Sex and the City generation: an ordinary sponge, but topped with a deliciously tart strawberry buttercream.
Traditional cupcakes at Susie Cakes


















With the general availability of cupcakes worldwide (even Zurich has its first dedicated store, where English is spoken for the benefit of bored ex-pat banker’s wives) it was great to revisit the cupcake on home soil. Even if American Cupcake’s menu (featuringI kid you notchicken deep fried in red velvet batter) suggests that stores are beginning to branch out to keep custom, I found the great American cupcake alive and well and living at the foot of Pacific Heights. 

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