NEW YORK—This city is crazy for cupcakes. There are cupcake classes and cupcake tours, lines down the block at cupcake bakeries, a cupcake tea at a five-star hotel, and a cupcake truck with 6,000 followers on Twitter.
Some date the cupcake craze to a "Sex and the City" episode in which Sarah Jessica Parker bit into a pink-frosted cupcake outside Magnolia Bakery on Bleecker Street. Nine years later, tourists still flock to the place. Current owner Steve Abrams has opened two more Magnolia shops in the past year, with a third to open soon in Grand Central.
Greenwich Village with Hanika Nishida, a friend visiting from Kyoto, Japan.
"I don't know how long it takes for a trend to end and become mainstream, but apparently we've established an industry," said Jennifer Appel, who was one of Magnolia's original owners and now owns Buttercup Bake Shop on Second Avenue near 51st Street.
"You'd think it would reach its peak but it hasn't -- people are still into cupcakes, and I don't see it slowing down," said chef Melanie Underwood. Her cupcake classes at Manhattan's Institute of Culinary Education always sell out, with long waiting lists.
Not only is the cupcake's small-size portion appealing, but "it's almost like a comfort food for many people," Underwood said.
"They bring a smile to people's faces," said chef Stephanie Grajales, who created the menu for a $25 cupcake tea at the Ritz-Carlton hotel. "It takes you back to elementary school cupcakes on your birthday when you were 5."
Underwood leads cupcake walking tours to various bakeries, and she's noticed that participants have sharply different opinions on which cupcakes are their favorites. "People have such different palates," she said.
Fortunately, the city has so many cupcake outlets that there's a cupcake for everyone, from vegans to sugar addicts to gourmets. Here are 11 places around Manhattan to get the cupcake of your dreams.
BABYCAKES NYC: 248 Broome St., between Orchard and Ludlow streets, Lower East Side, http://www.babycakesnyc.com. When you order, be ready to answer: "Gluten-free or spelt?" BabyCakes cupcakes are vegan: dairy-free, soy-free, egg-free, and most are sweetened with agave nectar. Customers with wheat allergies take the gluten-free ($3.95 each); the spelt are made from a high-protein grain often used as an alternative to regular wheat ($3.25).
But don't worry -- the cupcakes are just as delicious as any made with white flour, sugar, butter and eggs. The lemon is blissful, and the vanilla is so intense and infused with flavor that kids accustomed to bland, mindlessly sweet or artificially flavored vanilla might have to be convinced that this is what vanilla really tastes like.
BAKED BY MELISSA: 529 Broadway, Soho (pick-up window on Spring Street between Mercer and Broadway), http://www.bakedbymelissa.com. The city's cutest cupcakes, beautiful bite-size confections with a tall cap of fluffy frosting. Don't be fooled by the pretty rainbow swirls in the tie-dye variety -- it's vanilla. Other flavors include cookies & cream, peanut butter cup and cookie dough. At 12 for $10, mix and match a dozen.
BILLY'S: 184 Ninth Ave., between 21st and 22nd streets, Chelsea, and 75 Franklin St., Tribeca, http://www.billysbakerynyc.com. Billy's is a popular neighborhood spot, with a classic chocolate cupcake with sugary frosting that will remind you of the ones mom made for your third-grade birthday, $2.25. Specialty flavors like the delicious banana are $2.75.
BUTTERCUP BAKE SHOP: 973 Second Ave., between 51st and 52nd streets, and 141 W. 72nd St., http://www.buttercupbakeshop.com. Stand-outs here include cupcakes inspired by classic desserts like German chocolate cake, rich with coconut; and Lady Baltimore, an almond white cake covered with meringue, cookie crumbs, coconut and a cherry; $2 each.
CRUMBS BAKE SHOP: Locations in New York, Connecticut, New Jersey and California, with 10 in Manhattan including 43 W. 42nd St., across from Bryant Park, and 1675 Broadway, at 52nd Street, http://www.crumbs.com. Cupcakes here are a blast from your sweets-filled past, with flavors like Twinkie, Devil Dog, Heath Bar, peanut butter cup, caramel chew, Butterfinger and Nestle Crunch, in addition to traditional varieties, $2.50-$3.75.
CUPCAKE CAFE: 18 W. 18th St., and 545 Ninth Ave., between 40th and 41st streets, http://www.cupcakecafe-nyc.com. Open since 1988, Cupcake Cafe was a pioneer in Manhattan's cupcake craze, and its cupcakes remain the most beautiful of any in the city. The frosting on each cupcake is a tiny work of art, bearing colorful flower blossoms, intricately rendered in buttercream, a reflection of owner Ann Warren's background as a painter and visual artist.
But while "the cupcakes are the main claim to fame," regular customer Daniel Brewbaker says he also comes for excellent coffee and cafe conversation. "This is the place where friends congregate, and that's what a coffeehouse has always been," he said. One of Brewbaker's favorites is the outstanding walnut cupcake with maple frosting; $2.50 or $3.50.
CUPCAKESTOP: http://www.cupcakestop.com. Check the truck's daily location at http://twitter.com/CupcakeStop.
The cupcake truck's owner, Lev Ekster, graduated in May from New York Law School. Law firm jobs were hard to come by, but Ekster noticed that the bad economy hadn't hurt the long lines outside Magnolia and other cupcake shops. He decided to sell cupcakes.