Review: Sprinkles Cupcakes, or My Adventures in Public Eating

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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 Sprinkless 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.
First Impressions:

The narrow storefront devotes most of its window space to the topping-markers design.

The narrow storefront devotes most of its window space to the topping-markers design.

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).

Although I don't quite see the connection between African members of the equine family and cupcakes, I think it adds a dash of whimsy that keeps the pretentious "original cupcake bakery" vibe at bay.

Although I don’t quite see the connection between African members of the equine family and cupcakes, I think it adds a dash of whimsy that keeps the pretentious “original cupcake bakery” vibe at bay.

The Cupcakes:

Note the corresponding multicolored dots that serve as a flavor key.

Note the corresponding multicolored dots that serve as a flavor key.

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.

Our cupcakes -- the S'mores to the left, and the Pumpkin to the right.

Our cupcakes — the S’mores to the left, and the Pumpkin to the right.

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.

The site of our cupcake consumption -- yes, I do see the irony in mocking Sprinkles's cupcake ATM, and then eating Sprinkles next to a bunch of ATMs.

The site of our cupcake consumption — yes, I do see the irony in mocking Sprinkles’s cupcake ATM, and then eating Sprinkles next to a bunch of ATMs.

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.

Note the proportions of the components -- a thin layer of graham cracker crust on the bottom, a solid hunk of cake, and then globs of frosting in which only a very small area is actually toasted.

Note the proportions of the components — a thin layer of graham cracker crust (seen mostly on the bottom of the wrapper), a solid hunk of cake, and then globs of frosting in which only a very small area is actually toasted.

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.

The Pumpkin cupcake -- richly spiced and simpler in its construction. Just cake and frosting in balanced proportions, and both well executed.

The Pumpkin cupcake — richly spiced and simpler in its construction. Just cake and frosting in balanced proportions, and both well executed.

The Verdict:

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.

Sprinkles
780 Lexington Ave (between 60th and 61st)
sprinkles.com

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Afternoon Jam ‘Sesh

I know you were all concerned about the direction of this blog after my last post, but not to worry, this week I’ll be talking exclusively about food. Despite bold pronouncements of New Year’s resolutions to eat more greens and work on my willpower over Oreo temptations, this post puts me right back in my comfort zone of dessert. At least this time I can blame the wild wanderings of my hyperactive sweet tooth on someone else — my good friend Laura.  Laura is also a dessert devotee, but her most fervent affection lies in the realm of jam- and jelly-based confections. So when it came to a holiday gift for Laura, I attempted to think outside the box. Overly informed foodie that I am, I noted the number of bakeries and markets in our neighborhood that offer jam-filled sweets. And so partly inspired by The Grand Cookie Crawl, and partly inspired by my own sugar-related curiosity, I came up with the concept of a jam crawl through the Upper East Side. Obviously, Laura was very much in favor of my inundating her with jammy delights, and so off we went on our sticky adventure.

Baked by Butterfield, one of the bakeries I had singled out in my research (they advertise first as a donut bakery, before any other pastries), is unfortunately  closed on Sundays, so as a backup plan I stopped by my nearby Crumbs Bake Shop before my rendezvous with Laura. I picked her up a Raspberry Swirl cupcake, but since Crumbs is pretty old hat in New York at this point, I felt it was a mediocre placeholder. The Raspberry Swirl cupcake is a vanilla cake filled with raspberry preserves and topped with vanilla cream cheese and raspberry preserve swirled frosting. I’ve actually never had that Crumbs’ cupcake, but I do enjoy some of their other offerings from time to time — their cakes are a little dry for my taste, but I really like their buttercream.

Luckily, there were plenty of more deserving dishes in our near future. Once the cupcake was safely ensconced in Laura’s fridge, we set out on the real route. In my Googling I had discovered that as fate would have it, Laura’s apartment is within five blocks of some of the best jelly donuts in Manhattan. And so very quickly we arrived at our first stop — Eli’s Manhattan.

Eli’s Manhattan

Just one small section of Eli's Manhattan

Just one small section of Eli’s Manhattan

Eli’s is the east side counterpart of the famous Zabar’s. The market has several sections, from the restaurant/cafe TASTE, to the wine store WINE, to the kosher bakery and grocery departments. So, much like Zabar’s, they’ve got you covered from babkas to burgundies. The “jam pockets” at the small stand by the checkout initially caught Laura’s eye, but I insisted we venture further into the store, since it had been the promise of excellent jelly donuts that sent us here in the first place. Eventually we found them in the real bakery section, along with a smorgasbord of pastries — muffins, cakes, turnovers, croissants, anything you could think to pair with a cup of coffee, basically. After a bit of hemming and hawing, Laura decided on an apple turnover, insisting that the gooey inside was basically like eating apple jam. I decided not to argue since it was her holiday present, after all, but I picked up a jelly donut hole for myself, to see if it would live up to the hype.

Turnovers galore!

Turnovers galore! Yes, that’s french toast by the slice next to it, to give you a sense of the enormous variety available.

My little jelly donut hole, next to some iconic black and white cookies.

My little jelly donut hole, next to some iconic black and white cookies.

With uncharacteristic patience and restraint, we somehow decided to collect all the components of our jam fest before diving in, and so carefully stowed the Eli’s goodies and headed off to stop #2 — Butterfield Market.

Butterfield Market

Note the frozen yogurt bar right in the window.

Note the frozen yogurt bar right in the window.

I actually didn’t know that Butterfield Market existed until last week when I walked by it on the way to the subway. Unsurprisingly, I was most interested in Baked by Butterfield, located a few doors down, but the rest of the Market is still worth visiting. It reminded me of some of the smaller speciality markets throughout the city — there was a prepared foods counter full of options like freshly made chicken parmesan and pasta salad, a section with a small variety of interesting cheeses, some harder to find foreign crackers and cookies, locally produced dairy products, etc. However, Butterfield Market does stand out by offering a frozen yogurt and toppings bar, and by featuring select goodies from the bakery every day of the week. Alas, no donuts were on display (clearly a future review waiting in the wings), but amongst the packaged cookies and bars we found traditional Linzer bars, which Laura immediately snatched up. Her mother has an ancient family recipe for Linzer bars, and Laura was excited to compare them to this commercial variety.

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It’s the old-school crosshatching that makes it legit. And yes, raspberry was the jam of the hour.

With our anticipation mounting, we made our way just a few blocks over to our last stop — Orwasher’s Bakery.

Orwasher’s Bakery
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Orwasher’s has actually been on my “weird/wonderful food of NY” list for quite a while, since they are renowned for both their bread and their jelly donuts. Orwasher’s is nearly a century old, started in 1916 by Jewish immigrant Abraham Orwasher. While the company was sold outside of the family in 2009, it continues to supply a number of restaurants through the city with its artisanal breads. But we weren’t there for the raisin walnut pumperknickel. As Orwasher’s proudly boasts on their donut posters– “we be jammin’”.

The bakery itself is a nice size storefront, cozy but large enough to feature a small table or two if they wanted to.  Orwasher’s instead devotes its space to their retail offerings, including jams and nut butters (from Peanut Butter & Co., yes also on my list), artisan cheeses, coffee, different varieties of pickles, and of course bread and pastries. What sets these guys apart, however, is the way they approach their jelly donuts. Each donut is hand-filled to order, using these amazing looking “jam guns” to stuff the fluffy receptacles. They offer a rotating selection of preserves from Beth’s Farm Kitchen in the Hudson Valley (which they also sell by the jar). In our continuing loyalty to the raspberry, Laura selected the red raspberry filling, and I went with black raspberry for my donut (of course I had to get one of my own). We then let our jaws unattractively fall to the floor as the woman behind the counter shot up each of our donuts. Check and mate.

The jam options

The jam options

Unfilled donuts, and the ridiculous "jam-guns" in the background.

Unfilled donuts, and the ridiculous “jam-guns” in the background.

Laden down with our booty, we went back to Laura’s for the final scoring of the jam crawl. The bounty spread decadently before us, we dug in:

Jam to Jam Comparison

The fruits of our not so intensive labor. Clockwise from top left: Butterfield linzer bar, Crumbs cupcake, Orwasher's black raspberry donut, Eli's donut, Orwasher's red raspberry donut, Eli's apple turnover

The fruits of our not so intensive labor. Clockwise from top left: Butterfield linzer bar, Crumbs cupcake, Orwasher’s black raspberry donut, Eli’s donut, Orwasher’s red raspberry donut,                 Eli’s apple turnover

Laura set aside the Crumbs cupcake for a later dessert date, so her rankings were as follows: top pick Orwasher’s donut, followed by the Butterfield Linzer bar, and finally the Eli’s turnover. Unsurprisingly, the Linzer bar (which I also sampled) while well-made,  fell short of the family standard. I think for the most part it’s hard for a plastic-sealed product to seriously compete with anything home baked, especially since Laura’s mother is quite the cook.

Now onto my personal donut battle. Truth be told, it really wasn’t much of a fight. Perhaps I would have been happy with Eli’s contender if I didn’t have Orwasher’s to compare it to. I’m a fairly uneducated donut eater — I grew up with Dunkin Donuts, and despite the protestations of West Coast friends, find Dunkin a pretty inoffensive standard. Eli’s donut hole comes in at about 1.5 times the size of a Dunkin munchkin, but that seems to be because Eli’s is much lighter and puffier. One revelation from my donut adventure  is that Dunkin’s donuts are remarkably dense, which may be why they often form serious lumps in your stomach post-consumption.

Eli’s donut hole was covered with a fine layer of powdered sugar, and inside was filled with bright red raspberry jam. I appreciated the delicate handling of the powdered sugar — often after a bout with Entenmann’s or Dunkin I get concerned that I resemble a shaky-handed cocaine addict.  The filling was very tart, and it totally overwhelmed the mild vanilla flavor of the donut itself. I would probably have had a hard time eating a full size one, but overall Eli’s is solidly superior to a munchkin. The best bet would probably be to buy one in the morning, since I found my donut a little stiff on the outside, although the inside was still soft and pliable.

You can see the wrinkly texture of the outer layer, which was a little too chewy from sitting out too long.

You can see the wrinkly texture of the outer layer, which was a little too chewy from sitting out too long.

Orwasher’s is my real recommendation of the day. Even beyond the adorable novelty of the jam-guns and the fact that you get to embark on a choose-your-own-adventure, donut-edition, the quality of their product is superb. The black raspberry jam was slowly oozing out of my donut as I unwrapped it, revealing how decadently overstuffed the donut was. Unlike Eli’s classic white powdered sugar, Orwasher’s coats their donuts in granulated sugar, which I felt made more of a flavor impact overall, enhancing the dough’s buttery taste. The jam was well balanced and more deserving of being the star of the show, the tartness helping to combat the sweetness, and tasting much more like actual raspberries. One of the best consequences of the filled-to-order system is that the inside of the donut remains dry instead of slowly soaking up the jam and turning mushy (which happens with both munchkins and Eli’s donut hole). Overall, Orwasher’s donut reminded me of a well-made sandwich — you’re not likely to rave about the bread, but if it’s really good quality it heightens the whole taste experience of the sandwich. The only thing that would have made my donut better was it it had been warmed up slightly before being filled. I guess I’ll just have to go back and see if that’s possible.

All right, I'll make the pun -- talk about a donut jamboree!

All right, I’ll make the pun — talk about a donut jamboree!

Between the variety of filling options, the fresh-made ingredients, and the attentive staff, I would definitely recommend paying a visit to Orwasher’s. You can see in the pictures above what looks like a Boston Cream Pie donut, not to mention the assortment of cookies, and the rotating seasonal jams.

All in all, Laura seemed to enjoy our afternoon, so hopefully our jam crawl was a success. I certainly loved sampling new bakeries, and I’m always excited to explore more of my neighborhood. All three of our stops seemed like worthwhile places to take out-of-towners, but for a uniquely New York experience I’d suggest Orwasher’s over them all (I’d also pick Zabar’s over Eli’s for a must-go list, since Zabar’s just comes off as a kookier place). So if you’re itching for something with jam or jelly that isn’t toast or peanut butter, hopefully I’ve provided some viable alternatives. I just hope next year Laura isn’t expecting me to give her her own personal jam-gun.

Crumbs Bake Shop
(various locations throughout NYC, I went to 1418 Lexington Ave)
crumbs.com

Eli’s Manhattan
1411 3rd Avenue, New York, NY
elizabar.com

Butterfield Market
1114 Lexington Avenue, New York, NY
butterfieldmarket.com

Orwasher’s Bakery
308 East 78th Street, NY, NY  10075
orwashers.com