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Sweet Retreat fights Cupcake Wars on the Food Network

Our local Sweet Retreat chef Robin Johnson appeared as a contestant on the Food Network's "Cupcake Wars" last night, and she nearly took home the grand prize.

She says the show was an immense pressure-cooker.

"They kept handing me little pieces of Milky Ways, because I thought I was going to faint," she said. "They had to keep powdering my nose."

Contestants on the show competed for a $10,000 grand prize.
Contestants on the show competed for a $10,000 grand prize.
Michelle Bruch

In a final test, Johnson baked 1,000 cupcakes in just two hours to display at the World Series of Poker.

Despite an early flub with caramel, the judges praised Johnson's cupcakes: homemade caramel pecan topped with gold dusting and chocolate ganache, her famous white-chocolate raspberry, and chocolate cake with cayenne topped with buttercream and cinnamon. But the judges awarded the grand prize to a young chef who works out of a food truck in San Diego.

Johnson landed a spot on the show after sending in a "crazy" audition tape in which she talked about vegetarian cupcakes and kissed a dog out in front of her France Avenue shop.

She celebrated the show's August 23 airing with a party at the shop. The store was packed with friends and family who drank wine and nabbed mini cupcakes from the display tables. The crowd later walked over to Mozza Mia to watch the show over pizza, pasta, and drinks.

Johnson opened Sweet Retreat--a store she calls her "midlife crisis"--16 months ago. A former travel agent, she was inspired to open the shop after walking into a tiny San Francisco café for coffee.

"I had a cupcake for breakfast, and it was the most delicious thing I ever had in my life," she says. "I thought, 'I could do this.'" She loved the idea of running a "happy place" for customers.

She spent two years researching optimal moisture and density levels and making hundreds of trial cupcakes.

The judges on the Cupcake Wars provided plenty of positive feedback on her baking, even if the applause wasn't as deafening as in the room at Mozza Mia.

"I was really happy to participate," Johnson said. "This is the Super Bowl for any cupcake maker."

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