Food Fight

Food Fight: Battle Cupcake

Cupcakes are by their very definition almost too twee to engage in a battle of any kind. But no foodstuff is allowed to stand idly by in culinary wars, and cupcakes have been pressed into service this week in spite of their soft cakey bodies and mushy frosting heads. And as it turns out, there wasn't much of a battle this week at all.

Cupcakes have experienced a renaissance of sorts lately, cropping up at adult birthday parties, wedding showers, forced office merriment in drab breakrooms and even at weddings -- that staunch bastion of the traditional mega-cake. And what's not to love about them? They're tiny, portable, have endless decorating possibilities and easily please a crowd. Your guests don't all love white cake? Serve an assortment of cupcakes -- something for everybody!

Of course, there are a few things that aren't so lovable about cupcakes. There is the inevitable cake wreck that results from trying to cover dozens of cupcakes with way too much frosting. There is the hard outer layer (and adjoining crumbly interior) that can result from overbaking -- easy to do with cupcakes. And then there's the price. Unless you're making them yourself, cupcakes can be ridiculously expensive at bakeries.

To whit: This week's competitors were Dessert Gallery and Sugarbaby's. Both are known for their baked goods. In fact, Sugarbaby's is known exclusively as a purveyor of cupcakes (and maddeningly feminine interiors, but we'll get to that in a bit). An individual cupcake at one of these places will run you upwards of $3. Since most of us don't have a spare $3 to just throw around willy-nilly on delicious yet trifling baked goods, those $3 cupcakes had better taste amazing.

​We recently interviewed Dessert Gallery's owner and head pastry chef, Sara Brook, in Eating Our Words. She mentioned that her most popular cake was plain old diner yellow cake with chocolate frosting. So, naturally, we chose the cupcake version of the popular cake and also picked up a red velvet cupcake for good measure. Both are highly representative of popular cake flavors in Texas, too, a fact which didn't escape our mind. After all, it's easier to judge something you've been eating (and making) your whole life.

The cupcakes at Dessert Gallery come wrapped in a peculiar outer shell, made of wax paper. Although difficult to remove, you immediately see why they're so cosseted: the cupcakes are nearly half frosting, half cake. Without the tall wax paper wrapper, the frosting would go everywhere. And what frosting it is... Whipped, light, airy, creamy and buttery, it lives up to the "buttercream frosting" description on the menu.

The moist cake underneath the pile of frosting is just as good. And while the diner yellow cake version of the cupcake tasted, indeed, just like a yellow cake with whipped chocolate frosting, the red velvet cake was in a league of its own. The Houston Press receptionist, Abrahan, probably said it best as he gushed over the chocolately cupcake: "This tastes better than any red velvet

​As mentioned above, it's worth noting that merely setting foot inside of Sugarbaby's shop on Shepherd will wring every last drop of testosterone from your withered testicles if you're a man. If you're a woman, you will either absolutely love the in-your-face, shab-baroque-chic, overtly feminine style and want to mimic it in your own home or you will spontaneously vomit upon entering.

That said, Sugarbaby's is exclusively a cupcake boutique -- something which you should figure out rather quickly once inside. They sell all manner of cupcake wrappers, toppers and other accoutrements made specifically for further tarting up their cupcakes for your next party. There's also a section where you can sit and enjoy your cupcake solo with a cup of milk or coffee before your head starts to throb from the dizzying patterns and shiny chandeliers that coat every surface.

For a place that specializes in them, Sugarbaby's cupcakes are astoundingly bad. Perhaps if they only baked cupcakes on the side, this could be slightly overlooked. But their cupcakes are so awful, it's the equivalent of Hitler specializing in human rights. Both the cake and the frosting were hard, answering the tap of my plastic knife with a dull thud. There was absolutely no taste difference between the vanilla cupcake and the "velvet rouge" cupcake -- both tasted of vegetable oil and old flour, without a hint of vanilla or chocolate in either one. The hardened frosting was equally horrible, reminding us dismally of the acridly sweet frosting found on cheap grocery store cupcakes that sell for $5 a dozen.


To carry Godwin's Law even further, Dessert Gallery is the Allied power of cupcakes, handily winning this battle against the Axis power of Sugarbaby's. This was barely a fight at all. One can only hope that, like Germany and Japan, Sugarbaby's will find strength in this defeat to rebuild and focus on something else other than cupcakes -- perhaps luxury automobiles or consumer electronics.

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Katharine Shilcutt