I’d like to think that beyond providing a shameful tally of my gluttony, this blog also serves as a compendium of “New York Firsts” for me. I live in the city that never sleeps, and goddamit, I am going to have some unique experiences, no matter how early my bedtime is or how retired pensioner-inclined my habits of baking, drinking tea, and playing boardgames are. Well, I stayed true to that attitude during my recent visit to the venerable California-born cupcake chain Sprinkles. Not only did I try a new type of cupcake, but I also had the singular experience of eating in an ATM vestibule. Man, do I know how to party on a Saturday night or what?
Now I know that cupcakes are the hip and happening dessert (after all, they have their own battle show on Food Network — the absurdly titled “Cupcake Wars”), but I’m really not much of a cupcake person. It’s not that I’m against the dish itself — when done properly, a cupcake can be a wonderful melding of textures and flavors that simultaneously evoke the nostalgia for your perfect 1st grade birthday party and more adult cravings like Guinness or bourbon vanilla. But I find that there are so many potential pitfalls that make for unsatisfactory cupcakes — the cake being too dry or flavorless, the frosting being hard or overly sweet, or the inventive combination of a Thanksgiving-flavored cupcake being way better in theory than in practice (savory cupcakes– not my cup of tea … er cake, I guess).
This is why I’ve often been disappointed by the “trendiest” cupcake shops in New York. Don’t tell Carrie or Samantha, but I think Magnolia’s is supremely overrated — their cake tends to be on the drier side, and their frosting, while certainly well-piped and classy yet adorably pastel, tastes largely like pure confectioner’s sugar to me. Recently I also tried the oft-touted Butter Lane — a choose-your-own-adventure cupcake shop in the East Village where you can create your own unique combination from the handful of cakes and frostings they offer. Again, their highly reviewed banana cake was too dense and dry for me, and in terms of frosting, well, I can’t even really remember which one I picked. I think it was the maple pecan, but clearly it didn’t leave much of an impression.
So basically, if you were to offer me an ice cream cone or a cupcake, I’d choose the ice cream 9 times out of 10. But I’ve learned on my NY foodie journey to trust in the palettes of my close friends, and several Californians I know have been after me to try Sprinkles. I tried to go in with an open mind, but if we’re judging a cookbook by its cover, Sprinkles seems to embody all the style-without-substance problems of the gourmet cupcake fad. For one, the owner is a judge on the gladitorial pastry show I mentioned earlier. And Sprinkles’s most recent innovation? A 24-hour cupcake ATM, which sounds plenty helpful for stoners, but begs the question of how those cupcakes can possibly be anything but stale after hours in a dispensary? It just seems like another blatant ploy to take advantage of the cupcake craze. But then again, maybe, just maybe there was a reason that this cupcake mini-empire was so popular. Worst case scenario, I’d hit up Sixteen Handles on my way home.
Despite being the “progenitor of the haute cupcake craze”, as the LA Times put it, Sprinkles has just one small store in New York. Located at Lexington and 60th, the modest storefront is well positioned to capture the throngs of tourists and shoppers streaming out of Bloomies and the myriad other stores nearby. The outside is decorated with various multicolored dots, which seem to be a piece of kitschy design until you go inside and realize those dots are used to differentiate between cupcake flavors (each color combination is explained via a key on the menu). Inside, the bakery has a small collection of ottomans for seating, some retail offerings (shirts! doggie apparel!), and the dominating white counter/display area for the cupcakes. The aesthetic is the same as you see in a lot of the frozen yogurt shops now — modern, sterile white countered by bursts of bright colors, in this case stripes on the wall (and an intriguing zebra wallpaper).
To give them credit, Sprinkles does not skimp on varieties of cupcake offered. There were 8-10 flavors available at the time I went, but if you go on their website, Sprinkles offers a literal calendar of cupcakes, which features flavors of the month, special holiday cupcakes, and on which days those cupcakes will be baked. The sheer multitude of options was a little intimidating, but ultimately Laura and I settled on the January special S’mores cupcake, and the standard menu Pumpkin.
The cakes themselves were reasonably sized — unlike the monstrosities offered at Crumbs and a lot of NY delis these days. Sprinkles seems to use the same size muffin tins that I have at home, and while I appreciate the bang-for-your-buck that you get at Crumbs, it’s nice to know I’m not ingesting the caloric content of a Friendly’s Fribble in one go (yeah regional milkshake references!).
Now here is where the story gets a little odd. When we entered Sprinkles, Laura and I saw that there were a number of open spots for us to sit and eat our cupcakes, and so when prompted by the cashier, we decided to have our cupcakes “to stay” — laid out on a small plate with optional fork and knife. But lo and behold, upon turning around, the place was packed to the gills with tweens and families. Clearly Sprinkles is the place to be at 6:30 on a Saturday night. So Laura and I glumly made our way out of the store into the chill night air, carefully balancing our cupcakes on our plates. In retrospect, it seems obvious that we should have just asked for to-go boxes before we left, but we all do irrational things in the face of impending dessert consumption.
We walked down towards the 59th St. subway station searching for a bench. Obviously sitting in the cold wouldn’t be the best experience, but I wasn’t about to eat a cupcake on the platform for the uptown 6. Please, I have some standards. Finally, we managed to find a bench, and noticed it was right next to a Chase Bank. Somehow, the need for warmth clouded all sense of propriety or pride, and in we went, past the sensible public bench seating and into the ATM vestibule. So yes, I ate cupcakes (and messy ones at that) on the deposit slip table of the lobby of a Chase Bank, amidst the stares of a number of banking customers. I can only assume that Laura’s and my giggling and repeated pronouncements of being loyal Chase customers (which is true) is captured on a security log somewhere. Talk about your fifteen minutes of fame. As I keep finding myself saying — only in New York.
Now as to the cupcakes themselves. The S’mores is billed as a dark chocolate cake with a graham cracker crust, topped with toasted marshmallow frosting. Upon splitting it open, it became clear that the graham cracker crust was not firmly attached the to cake. Most of it ended up collecting at the bottom of the wrapper. To be fair, I’ve had this problem myself when trying to use graham cracker crumbs — too little butter, and the crust falls apart when you try to lift up the cake. However, despite the structural problems, the combination of the dark chocolate cake and the crust was well balanced. The crust was a little dry (hence its crumbly nature), but the cake was nice and moist, with a rich, velvety texture that might have come from the ganache mixed into it. It didn’t have the real bitterness of dark chocolate, but it was sweet without being cloying. I would happily choose that cake as the base for another cupcake combination. Unfortunately, the downfall of the S’mores cupcake came from the marshmallow frosting. I had high hopes because of the visible caramelization of the sugar on top of the frosting, but like many of my experiences with marshmallow fluff, it just didn’t taste like much of anything. Generously piled on top of the cake, the only hint of flavor came from the toasted part on the very top. The majority of the frosting was just a sticky messy that distracted from the superior elements of the cake and crust. While the S’mores was by no means a total disaster, it was far from a successful reproduction of my campfire memories.
However, both Laura and I agreed that the Pumpkin cupcake was pretty special. The cake base was evocative of pumpkin bread without the density of your average quickbread loaf. It retained the lightness of an actual cake, unlike Butter Lane’s banana bread cake, which reminded me of a slice from Starbucks with some icing on top. For Sprinkles’s cupcake, pumpkin was the dominant flavor, but there were clear notes of nutmeg, cloves, ginger — all the spices that make you think of fall and winter. Once again the cake avoided being a sugar bomb, with the sweetness coming mainly through the frosting. Now I am a cinnamon fiend, so I was delighted to see that the frosting was not only cream cheese frosting (win), but in fact cinnamon cream cheese. Truly excellent cream cheese frosting creates a marriage of the sweetness of confectioner’s sugar and the tang of the cream cheese, and Sprinkles totally hit the mark on this one. Between the success of the dark chocolate cake in the S’mores, and the cream cheese frosting in the Pumpkin, I’m eager to try Sprinkles’s version of a red velvet cupcake next time.
All right, Sprinkles, you got me. I now get why you’re so freaking popular. Even with my slightly underwhelming S’mores cupcake, the combination of the flavor options and innovations and the high quality of the cakes themselves makes a second trip a certainty. I’d like to think what really sold me was the fact that the baking itself was clearly still a top priority. It would be easy enough to mass-manufacture these cupcakes, to slack off and know that the brand recognition of Sprinkles would probably be enough to keep turning a profit. But I’m still thinking about that Pumpkin cupcake, several days later, and like I said, I’m not one to linger over cupcakes. I guess it’s kind of like owning up to liking The Beatles — yeah they’re everywhere, yeah, everyone is a fan, but when you come right down to it, they do make some amazing music. I may roll my eyes at the cupcake bloodsport on Food Network, but now I have to admit — the woman behind Sprinkles has some real baker clout.
780 Lexington Ave (between 60th and 61st)