Here’s a fun challenge to keep you entertained next time you’re stuck in traffic or in the dentist’s waiting room: Can you insert the word “cupcake” into a famous quote to make it funny? We tried it, and are mildly embarrassed by how much fun we had with it:
“You can’t handle the cupcake!” (Jack Nicholson, in A few Good Men)
“Gimme a whiskey, ginger ale on the side. And don’t be stingy, cupcake.” (Anna Christie)
“It’s not the cupcakes in your life that count, it’s the life in your cupcakes.” (Mae West)
Just as dessert follows the main course, the Iron Cupcake Challenge has spun off from the Iron Chef, television’s much loved culinary challenge. And the woman behind it all lives in Milwaukee. Sandy Ploy is the original Milwaukee Cupcake Queen, enticing people local, regional and abroad to pull out their whisks, don their aprons and show what they’ve got … with cherries on top.
Ploy’s blog is a feast for the eyes as well as an entertaining read. The quest for the perfect cake takes her from coast to coast, and she appears in many snapshots with well-known chefs like Jacque Pépin, Marcus Samuelsson, Top Chef’s Fabio Viviani and Todd English.
One recent blog entry highlights how the cupcake trend has reached lingerie retailer Victoria’s Secret, which is selling undies with cupcakes on them, and another talks up the most recent Milwaukee Cupcake Challenge, which was held in the Fifth Ward’s Moct Bar in November. Participants were given the challenge to create cupcakes made with chocolate and another ingredient, and Ploy writes that some 200 people showed up, with combinations as unlikely as chocolate with sea salt or garlic.
The Cupcake Queen reports that Milwaukee is taking a challenge break, so avid bakers can spend the holidays researching new ideas before the next frosted gauntlet is thrown down in January.
Being Outpost people, we wondered about this cupcake trend and how it is being handled by the more ingredient-cautious among us. We didn’t have to look far to get our answer. In Bay View’s Outpost store, Food Ambassador Emily Joy Sielen is busy guiding customers and owners through the aisles, explaining foods and helping them with their diets and menus. But when she’s at home, Emily Joy bakes delicious vegan cupcakes.
Taking inspiration from the book “Vegan Cupcakes Take Over the World” by Isa Chandra Moskowitz and Terry Hope Romero, Emily Joy takes dairy-free recipes and turns out light, fluffy, and yummy cakes. This lucky writer was able to test one or two, and although it might sound unlikely to some, the green tea cupcake was to die for. This took me by surprise, since I loathe green tea. Emily Joy flashed me a conspiratorial smile, and said “Isn’t that great? It’s subtle, mellow and sophisticated.” She’s right about that. The recipe, which calls for green tea glaze and almond flowers, is found in the Moskowitz book.
The book itself is a charmer. The very first line tells you so: “My grandma was a punk chef.” Say no more. The photography is sublime and the recipes range from basic (golden vanilla) to classic (carrot cake with cream cheese frosting) to fancy (tiramisu). A word-to-the-wise chapter titled “How to Make Kick-Ass Cupcakes” is both instructional and entertaining. If you find yourself tempted to try vegan baking for yourself, check the book section of your Outpost — the last time I wandered the aisles of the Capitol Drive co-op, I spied it among the cookbooks.
There must be something sweet in the water in Bay View, because just north of Emily Joy’s kitchen is Honeypie Café on Kinnickinnic — and more fabulous cupcakes.
Honeypie is a new restaurant in the community, serving up Midwestern, locally sourced comfort food (much like the food found at sister restaurant, Comet Café on N. Farwell Ave.). Honeypie is the workday home of Valeri Lucks, co-owner and baker.
Hidden in the kitchen behind a bustling dining room, Valeri turns out cupcakes that prove as popular as anything else on the menu. In fact, some customers skip the entrée and go straight for the sweet stuff. “People come in just for dessert sometimes, and lots of people take cupcakes to go,” Valeri explains. “The vegan red velvets fly out the door,” she adds, “and people love our cream pies — banana and coconut.”
The love of cupcakes is part of the story behind Honeypie. The east side Comet Café was doing a brisk business. Valeri, Adam Lucks (brother and chef) and their co-owners Scott Johnson and Leslie Montemurro had the idea to branch out, opening up a bakeshop next to Comet. Originally, they focused on pies — hence the name Honeypie — but an opportunity in Bay View opened up and the team decided that they could use some extra space. With the birth of Honeypie Café came the chance to hire two full-time and three part-time bakers, and things took off from there.
And what about a bake-off? Has Valeri taken up the Iron Cupcake Challenge? It turns out timing has not been on her side: “I have been asked to do Iron, but the last time it came up, we had just opened Honeypie and I was busy training new people.” Valeri adds it’s something she’d love to do.
Clearly, cupcakes are her passion, and she pays attention to what other bakers are up to. “Whenever I go to New York,” she says, “the first thing I do is get a cupcake from Magnolia.” She’s referring to Magnolia Bakery on Bleecker St. in New York City, a small store so popular that the line extends around the corner, and word has it that the owners have to enforce a 12-cupcake limit on each customer.
So what’s Valeri’s favorite? “Simple vanilla butter cream with chocolate sprinkles. I like the simple, straightforward, good old-fashioned baked goods.” What else would you expect from an owner of a locally sourced, from-scratch comfort food café?