Cake Eater, Sweet Retreat, and Cocoa & Fig bakeries furthering the cupcake craze

Cocoa & Fig's mini cakes are like edible works of art
Jana Freiband

Just when you thought the cupcake craze was over, the sugary puffs are back with a vengeance, like a yard full of dandelions you thought you'd mowed off. So if you and your gal pals are looking for a place to parse the incredible plot twists of the new Sex & the City sequel—the fab foursome riding camels in the Arabian desert, Carrie bumping into Aiden in Dubai—you have several new options.

The first of this year's spate of cupcake-focused bakeries is Cocoa & Fig, the retail outlet of a catering company owned by Laurie Pyle and her husband, Joe Lin. Pyle is a pastry chef trained at Culinary Institutes of America and a onetime Chi-Chi's employee who worked her way up to a job at one of Thomas Keller's Bouchon Bakeries. The storefront, in the skyway of Gaviidae Common, looks like it belongs in Martha Stewart Living, with its gallery-style displays of elegant baked goods. Flour, butter, eggs, and sugar are the new gems and precious metals, it seems.

Cocoa & Fig's cupcakes are crowned with frosting in Dairy Queen cone-style lobes piled as tall as their bases. "Is there such a thing as too much frosting?" I asked my friend as I stretched my jaw to fit both cake and icing inside. "Do you hate America?" he responded.

If you can't take a bite without frosting your nose, it's probably a little much. But the ratio is driven both by aesthetics and customer preference, reflecting the arms race of Americans' ever-sweetening tastes. That doesn't mean I'd ask Cocoa & Fig to hold back: Its frosting is among the most ethereal I've ever tasted, silky and light as whipped butter.

The secret? Most cupcakes are frosted with American-style buttercream, Pyle explains, while she uses an Italian meringue buttercream. The sugar is cooked so it fully dissolves and then is added to whipped egg whites and butter.

The cupcakes can look more ornamental than edible, topped sundae-style with fresh raspberry buttons or dotted with tiny chocolate balls. Some resemble miniature mannequin heads after a trip to the beauty shop, covered in little chocolate curls. And the cupcakes taste as beautiful as they look. Lemon frosting has the fresh sting of real lemon juice; raspberry tastes as true as pureed fruit. While the cake is properly moist and dense, it's that frosting—voluminous and nearly foamy, it tastes waxy for a millisecond before melting into richness—that puts Cocoa & Fig's cupcakes over the top.

Pyle also makes scones, brioche, and chocolate bouchons, which are like dense brownies, smoky and dark. And there are pastel macaroons if you're so inclined. (To me, the famous French confections seem like the food of Barbie dolls, more style than substance with their crusty, eggshell-like lids and chewy interiors.)

At Cocoa & Fig, carrot cake comes in sandwich-cookie form, with cream cheese frosting spread between two muffin-top cakes. Peanut butter sandwich cookies have a smooth, creamy filling that's definitely an upgrade on the Girl Scouts' Do-si-do. For a smaller indulgence, the bakery sells two-bite peanut butter balls and cake balls—cake mixed with icing and covered in chocolate—on sticks. And lest your blood sugar start to spike, there's also quiche: flaky crust and a custard-smooth filling loaded with hunks of vegetables, meats, and cheese. It's delicious, yes, but be sure to pick up a cupcake, too.

ACROSS TOWN, in the former home of Premier Cheese at 50th Street and France Avenue, Sweet Retreat has positioned itself more toward the family crowd. The shop has bright pink walls, and its most prominent decor—aside from the bakery case—is a giant photo of a cupcake-eating tot. Owner Robin Johnson is a mom with a home economics degree whose first job out of college was in new-product development at Pillsbury. Now that her children are grown, she decided to get back into the food business.

Compared to Cocoa & Fig, Sweet Retreat feels more fun and less precious. Johnson's baking style is homier, and the cupcakes are frosted with icing that's piped out through star-shaped tips. The shop sticks strictly to cupcakes and cakes, baked fresh from scratch daily. Johnson hews mostly to classic flavors, though some are tricked out with extra flourishes—the Oreo cupcake, for example, has a tiny cookie on top and a full-size one baked into the bottom. To ensure a fresh product, Johnson doesn't refrigerate or freeze her cupcakes, and various nonprofits have benefited from donations of the day's unsold wares.

On a recent visit to Sweet Retreat, a young woman behind the counter asked me if I needed help making my selections. "I can tell you which ones are good and which ones aren't," she said, expressing a little more honesty than most salespeople would. Her supervisor immediately jumped in to assert that all of the cupcakes were good—and I'd mostly agree. If you're looking for a basic vanilla, chocolate-chocolate, or banana-chocolate (cutely topped with a banana Runt candy), Sweet Retreat has you covered. My favorite cupcake, though, was the more adult-oriented Mocha, a chocolate cupcake with fluffy, coffee-flavored frosting. The only one I thought missed the mark was the Red Velvet—great cream cheese frosting but bland cake.

Kids will surely be pleased by Johnson's forthcoming line of candy-filled cupcakes (M&M's, Butterfingers, etc.), and parents will appreciate that Sweet Retreat will deliver any order of a dozen cupcakes or more for a $12 fee. "I wanted to do something that makes people smile and brings a minute of happiness to everyone's lives," Johnson says.

THOUGH CAKE EATER would be a more appropriate name for an Edina bakery, the new Seward shop is still a great fit for the beloved Clicquot Club building. While the shop is more than welcoming to families—there's a kids' happy hour every weekday from 3 to 5 p.m.—compared to Cocoa & Fig and Sweet Retreat it has an edgier vibe, in spite of its cheery wares and Day-Glo paint.

Cake Eater is co-owned by Sheela Namakkal, the baker behind the Miel y Leche cupcakes famously sold at Mitrebox stationery shop. Her business partner is Emily Moore Harris, who ironically grew up without eating much sugar as a child. When I inquired about the Faux-Stess cupcake, a vegan version of the Hostess classic, Harris admitted she hasn't ever eaten a real one. "I've never had a Twinkie," she added. "I don't even know what one is supposed to taste like." (For the record, the Hostess ones aren't great, but the Faux-Stess could use a boost in chocolate flavor to live up to its archetype.)

Cake Eater's strength is in its bold, experimental style. The bakers rotate their selection of flavors from a list of more than 150(!) options. Since Harris and Namakkal both come from savory cooking backgrounds, they favor cupcakes in which sweetness is cut by a hint of acid or spice. That means you'll find Elvis cupcakes made with banana cake, peanut butter-marshmallow mousse, and a bite of bacon on top. Or an ever-changing White Mystery cupcake, filled with, when I had it, fresh strawberry and a hit of balsamic vinegar.

Some combinations didn't fare as well as I'd hoped, such as the Mango Chili Lime, which is better in theory than practice, unless the idea of washing down a slice of cake with a spicy margarita appeals to you. Among the other sweets, including scones and brownies, I really liked the Salty Oatmeal cookie, but I couldn't get past one with a chocolate chip/raisin mix. To me, those two things never match, like wearing black and navy, but this is from a person who eats gorp by picking out only bites of peanuts with either raisins or M&Ms, and never the two together.

Namakkal's baking is a boon for vegans, as she often has several selections for those on animal-free diets, including white cake studded with fresh blueberries and another with strawberry and coconut. I wouldn't recommend them over their egg-and-dairy-based counterparts, but their texture—a constant challenge for vegan baking—is respectably light and springy.

However, a few basic things at Cake Eater bombed, including the Chocolate Bomb. How can I not like a chocolate cupcake? When its chocolate cake and chocolate frosting aren't very chocolaty. And also when the frosting, an American-style buttercream, is gritty. I found this to be the case with most of the Cake Eater cupcakes I tried. Not only did the frosting have a crust, but the layer beneath reminded me of dental office toothpaste.

Criticizing someone's cupcakes seems on par with telling someone you think their baby is ugly, but as much as I like Cake Eater's style, the gritty frosting really spoiled my experience. (This may not bother everyone, like the Peep lovers who puncture the animals' plastic package and let the marshmallows "air toast" before eating them.) But I did find one creamy-frosting exception among those I tried—an outstanding chocolate cupcake with salted caramel frosting—which is certainly worth seeking out. 

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Cocoa & Fig

651 Nicollet Mall
Minneapolis, MN 55402


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