Oh, the humble cupcake. Long a presence in church basements and family picnics, the simple mini-cake + frosting recipe has gone upscale in recent years. It's easy to make a mediocre one, but the bakeries below prove that making a great one is a culinary work of art. The key is to find the proper balance between the cake and the topping. No mathematical formula exists for the exact ratio, but the goal is to deliver both the moist cake along with the sweet (or even savory) topping. Below, you will find literal veterans--and champions of Cupcake Wars, award-winning bakers, and innovative thinkers, all aimed at making a dessert on the go all the more enticing.
10. Yum! Kitchen and Bakery
The name says it all. Yum! is a home for tasty treats of all varieties, and that extends to the cupcakes. Patti Soskin and the team make everything from scratch.at the restaurant and bakery, and that leads to a complete flavor explosion with the cupcakes, be they basics like vanilla or chocolate or the angel-food variety, which takes one of the basic dessert delights and condenses it into an intense flavor experience by adding strawberry whipped cream. (4000 Minnetonka Blvd., St. Louis Park; 952.922.4000.
9. Salty Tart
We like our bakers like we like our pastries: balanced, with just a bit of salt. Never was a bakery so aptly named as the Salty Tart, one of the many reasons to make a visit to the Midtown Global Market. Owner Michelle Gayer is a rock star with flour. She's also a badass chef with some major chops. Her chocolate cupcakes topped with dense, dark ganache are deceptively simple cakes, perfectly sweet and moist. Gayer, a James Beard-nominated chef, brings innovative touches to the delicious little sweets, making everything explode with a unique flavor. (920 E. Lake St., Minneapolis; 612.874.9206)
Owner John Kraus describes the bakery's les petits gateaux as "what a cupcake aspires to be." The dishes are certainly worth a bit of extra cash (they cost about $5 each) to try out. Prick your fork into a snowball-like half-sphere of coconut cream and a glorious mango-passion fruit puree oozes out like a runny egg yolk. Bite into a cylinder of pistachio Bavarian cream to find a thick, strawberry-rhubarb jam; with coconut-almond granola sprinkled on top, it suggests a haute revamp of fruit cobbler. Among the tiny lemon meringues and cheesecakes, a chocolate tart is stacked with thumb-sized profiteroles, like a tabletop set for a Barbie dolls' tea. And it's just as delightful to eat. (4552 Grand Ave. S., Minneapolis; 612.354.3257)
7. Cocoa & Fig
Cocoa & Fig's cupcakes are crowned with frosting in Dairy Queen cone-style lobes piled as tall as their bases. If you can't take a bite without frosting your nose, it's probably a little much. Still, the frosting is among the most ethereal you will ever taste, silky and light as whipped 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, tasting waxy for a millisecond before melting into richness--that puts Cocoa & Fig's cupcakes over the top. (651 Nicollet Mall Minneapolis; 612.333.1485)
This bakery is renowned for all its offerings, but the cupcakes have a special place in our hearts. Why? Well, there is the care that goes into the baking of the cake that makes them light and flavorful on their own. These are not just frosting delivery systems. Then there are the toppings, which perfectly complement the tastes of the foundation. If you want chocolate, there's chocolate -- from the crunchy turtle to the mocha to the milk chocolate ganache. If you want something that's fruit, take in the strawberry vanilla cupcake, which features a vanilla bean cake and strawberry mousse topped with an edible orchid. No matter your desires, the Franklin Street Bakery has something to fit the bill. (1020 E. Franklin Ave., Minneapolis; 612.879.5730)
5. Wuollet Bakery
A visit to a Wuollet Bakery on a Saturday morning makes it clear why this longstanding Twin Cities institution (the first location opened in 1944) belongs on the list. Customers stand two-deep around the counter, purchasing all manner of baked goods, including boxes of the expertly produced cupcakes. The Wuollet folks -- it's still a family-run business, even after nearly 70 years -- know how to make cakes, and that translates into the moist, flavorful miniature versions, be it a classic carrot cake or something like the Raspberry Drop variety, in which a tasty white cake is infused with a raspberry filling and then dusted with powdered sugar. Simple, tasty, and excellent. (Various locations; 612.922.4341)
4. Turtle Bread
Turtle Bread has its fingers in many culinary pies, from artisan breads to deli meals to plenty of delicious sweets, and it excels in the cupcake realm as well. The bakery, which sports several locations around Minneapolis, offers a handful of options at any one time. There are mainstays, such as two flavorful chocolate varieties served with either a chocolate or white chocolate icing to give you your cocoa fix, along with a red velvet cupcake topped with a cream cheese icing. Even regulars get a chance at new flavors, as there are regular cupcakes of the month. (4762 Chicago Ave.; Minneapolis. 612.823.7333)
Riding the crest of the cupcake phenomenon, Sweets -- both the Minneapolis and St. Paul locations -- makes the creation of cupcakes an exact science. The care begins with the all-natural ingredients and then is infused in every step of the baking process. The basic flavors feature a cake that is dense and springy and a light frosting that perfectly complements the toppings. Get beyond that into the more exotic styles and it becomes clear why Sweets offers one of the best cupcakes in the Twin Cities. One petite sweet called Breakfast is frosted with maple buttercream and has its center filled with bacon bits to replicate the sweet-savory tingle of syrup commingling with salt. Kettle Corn is a sweet cornbread topped with honey buttercream and candied corn kernels. And Feisty Goat is a chocolate cupcake filled with caramel and pecans and smothered in a blend of sweetened mascarpone and goat cheeses. There are also seasonal and special items on the menu, such as the Roman Holiday, created for the Guthrie Theater's production of the play, which features a vanilla cake and a strawberry mousse. (4747 Nicollet Ave., Minneapolis; 612.208.0672. And 2042 Marshall Ave., St. Paul; 651.340.7138)
There's no false advertising here. At Cupcake you will find a bevy of delicious offerings, expertly crafted by a team of bakers who love the art of the cleverly constructed and absolutely delicious confection. How about the S'mores one, in which a puck of chocolate cake, as lush as a pudding and as rich as Donald Trump's hairdresser, crouches beneath a marshmallow topping as thick, sweet, and sticky as Tammy Faye Baker in a bathtub full of honey. And it doesn't end there--oh no. At the crown of this rich, thick, sweet, sticky whopper of a whamdinger is a cute little rectangle of graham cracker and a darling little square of chocolate bar. This and the many other creations recently earned owner Kevin VanDeraa the TV Cupcake Wars championship. You can sample several of the selections he used to wow the judges, including the fancy carrot cupcake, the S'mores cupcake, and a Boston crème cupcake, on a regular basis at the bakery. (3338 University Ave. SE, Minneapolis. 612.378.4818)
Sweet Retreat takes a Zen-like approach to making cupcakes, letting inspiration take owner and chef Robin Johnson and the rest of the baking crew to whatever their fancy is at the moment. That doesn't mean there isn't rigorous control of the all-important cake or the ingredients that go into the frostings and other toppings, it's just that there's always a sense of whimsy when you stop in their south Minneapolis location. S'mores and white chocolate raspberry are summer favorites, while the likes of cookies 'n' cream or the self-explanatory Butterfinger are utter flavorful delights no matter the season. Johnson's skills earned her a spot on TV's Cupcake Wars in 2011, where she impressed the judges with a variety of tasty treats, including the strawberry balsamic cupcake. The care that goes on behind the scenes--Johnson spent two years researching optimal moisture and density levels -- comes out in amazing bursts of flavor, making Sweet Retreat an essential stop for any cupcake lover in the Twin Cities. (5013 France Ave. S., Minneapolis. 612.353.6230)