I just don’t get cupcakes. I know they’re the latest boutique food craze and have been for some years. But I just don’t get it. Cake does not rank high on my list of favorite desserts. I’ll gladly opt for homemade pie, cookies, brownies, or in a pinch a decent flan. But cake? I’m ambivalent. And cupcakes pose the same etiquette problem as salad greens and spaghetti: how to eat them neatly and politely. A worthwhile bite of cupcake includes equal amounts of cake and icing. Not easily accomplished when today’s cupcakes tower from chin to nose. I’ve tried nibbling around the edges, breaking off half of the cake portion from the bottom, smearing icing up my nose, and I’ve finally settled on a plate and fork to dissect the darn thing. Eating a cupcake with a fork? Kind of ruins the experience, doesn’t it?
I came to the cupcake craze a bit late in the game a few years ago. Since I had only watched distilled re-runs of Sex in the City on TBS, I had apparently missed out on Magnolia Bakery, a New York City cupcake shop featured in one episode. When I arrived before check in at a West Village hotel early one Saturday morning, I wandered the length of West Eleventh Street and was initially drawn to the fine vanilla scent wafting from the vents of the corner bakery. A few hours and a latte later, I passed Magnolia Bakery again and found a line snaking out the door and around the corner. In the rain. I still had no clue, other than the vanilla scent trail, why so many people would wait out a Saturday morning drizzle, but I was alone in the city and didn’t have to be anywhere until the afternoon, so I dodged a few umbrellas and squeezed a place in line. Thirty seven damp minutes later, I arrived at the front doors to find the secret: cupcakes. Magnolia Bakery set an industry standard in size and innovative flavors that many shops have challenged (and many critics argue have surpassed). I’m no authority; I was just pleasantly surprised to find an improvement on the boxed cake mix and tub icing cupcakes of birthday parties in my youth.
I may be willing to pass on cupcakes if a rhubarb pie is in sight, but it seems the dining public at large is not. Just this weekend at a Memorial Day picnic, I eavesdropped on a conversation dissecting the various merits of cupcake shops in the Pittsburgh area. Come to think of it, this is the second cupcake conversation I’ve overheard that has involved opinions delivered with a vehemence normally reserved for politics and religion. A quick visit to UrbanSpoon’s passionate reviews of Pittsburgh cupcake shops left me with raised eyebrows and the feeling that various lovers and haters had been screeching at me through my computer screen. When tempers flare over a buttery dome of flour and sugar, even I have to put down my crème brûlée crusted spoon and take note. So Little Friend and I made a pilgrimage this week to Vanilla Pastry Studio in the East End.
As I’ve said in earlier posts about other East End establishments, I’m a fan of this neighborhood’s contrasting elements. I parked across the street in the CVS parking lot (an illegal move, since I wasn’t a CVS customer, but dragging around a toddler gives me certain dispensations. I hope.) and as I rummaged Little Friend out of the backseat, my moves were mirrored by a homeless man rummaging “treasures” from the dumpster next to me. Across the street, the tidy and inviting storefronts of Paris 66 and Vanilla Pastry Studio beckoned. Unlike Magnolia Bakery, VPS lacked a line of salivating customers, but a painted wooden cupcake set up on the sidewalk left little doubt of my destination. The pastel store with its whimsical armchairs set against the front window are the perfect setting for the dainty, sugary goodness waiting inside.
I chose Vanilla Pastry Studio because it was the winner in the cupcake debate of the past weekend. While brides-to-be in Pittsburgh have all, I’m sure, heard of VPS, it’s been seven years since I was married, and even then my five-tier cake was prepared by a part-time prison guard who found cake baking on the side to be a relaxing break from her day job. The cake set me back a whopping $1 per wedding guest. It was finger-licking delicious. Nevertheless, I’m not in the wedding cake league of Vanilla Pastry Studio whose cakes, if they haven’t been already, should be featured in Martha Stewart weddings. Such fine attention to detail on the wedding side of things clearly translated to the plates of cupcakes arrayed along the shop counter.
The highly touted, lightweight, frosting-crowned cupcakes are the offspring of owner April Gruver, the self-styled Sugar Fairy of the East End. Her culinary pedigree includes some impressive restaurants and locations, an expertise that surely helps Vanilla Pastry Studio remain a strong contender in the best-cupcake-ever debate. When the cupcakes are priced at $2.25 a piece, it also helps me to think I’m paying for her enlightened experience as much as the dessert. I didn’t hold back. I ordered half a dozen cupcakes.
Lemon. Red Velvet. Chocolate Fudge chocolate. Simple flavors with understated decorations meant these cupcakes had nothing to prove. They knew they were delicious. Because mixes are outlawed in this particular bakery, each flavor is made from scratch in the open, airy kitchen visible through French doors in the back. Little Friend and I opted for the Red Velvet and Chocolate Fudge cupcakes and actually managed to make it home before smearing crumbs and frosting all over our faces. I prodded my cupcake delicately with my fork. Little Friend did the ol’ scoop and smear method with her bare hands. “Yum, yum, yum,” was Little Friend’s expert opinion. I agree.
Now that I’ve checked one cupcake shop off of my list, I have to admit I still feel unprepared to venture into the stormy waters of opinionated reviewers. What would make me feel more prepared? Well, it’s a hardship, but I guess I’ll just have to keep making my rounds, one cupcake at a time.
Vanilla Pastry Studio is located at 6014 Penn Circle Street | Pittsburgh, PA 15206 | (412) 361-2306. Their hours are Tues – Fri: 9am – 6pm, Sat: 9am – 4pm, and Sun: 10am – 2pm. In addition to scrumptious cupcakes, the bakery also offers cakes for all celebrations, breakfast pastries, homemade cookies, and Lollys (the bakery’s signature dessert-on-a-stick creations).