Good Life

Dollop of sweetness

Sara Bintrim, left, assistant pastry chef at *ndulge cupcake boutique, and Rebecca Altmann, executive pastry chef, talk while working in the kitchen of the store on College Avenue Thursday, October 14, 2010. CDT/Christopher Weddle
Sara Bintrim, left, assistant pastry chef at *ndulge cupcake boutique, and Rebecca Altmann, executive pastry chef, talk while working in the kitchen of the store on College Avenue Thursday, October 14, 2010. CDT/Christopher Weddle

With a little help from “Sex and the City” and a struggling economy, the modest cupcake most people associate with classroom birthday parties has become fashionable as well as nostalgic.

Local bakers and caterers say they’re seeing increasing numbers of brides ordering towers of cupcakes in place of traditional wedding cakes. But the trend is most apparent in the opening earlier this year of two cupcake shops in State College: *ndulge, at 206 W. College Ave., and Sugar on Top at 1211⁄2 E. Beaver Ave.

“We want to take over the world, one cupcake at a time,” said Rebecca Altmann, executive pastry chef at *ndulge, which opened May 14.

On the HBO series “Sex and the City,” which ran from 1998 to 2004, the characters were often seen eating cupcakes from the Magnolia Bakery in New York City. Since then, bakeries devoted entirely to cupcakes have sprung up in metropolitan areas across the country.

The form and versatility of cupcakes are appropriate, given the current economy, said Donn Selkowitz, owner of *ndulge. People can pay up to $40 for a full-size cake, he added, and they would probably feel guilty if they either threw some of it out or ate the entire thing.

“Here, in this nice little portable cupcake, you can buy as much as you want,” he said.

Selkowitz, a Penn State alumnus who worked at local radio stations in the mid-1970s, opened *ndulge after running an advertising agency for 25 years in Rochester, N.Y., where he still lives. The bakery offers 22 regular flavors of cupcakes, along with weekly specials and flavors inspired by Penn State football, such as “Tackle Temple.”

The most popular flavors, Altmann said, are chocolate peanut butter cup, vanilla, chocolate, red velvet, lemon and key lime. The more unusual offerings include the root beer float, in which cream soda is added to the batter; and Altmann’s personal favorite, the mocha cola, which features the trifecta of chocolate, coffee and cola.

“We don’t just do your mom’s cupcakes,” she said.

Selkowitz said he has tried to integrate his business into the community by catering corporate events and donating to nonprofit organizations. The bakery also has a mascot, “CC,” which makes the rounds at local sporting events, and an “*ndulge Mobile” — a Mini Cooper with a three-foot cupcake on top. He said he is negotiating for a second location in State College, and would like to open stores in Bellefonte, Philipsburg and Altoona.

For Shaunda Lohse, owner of Sugar on Top, opening a cupcake bakery was a matter of necessity. About a year ago, Lohse, a mother of three, separated from her husband and was living in a local women’s shelter. Her sister urged her to bake cupcakes and sell them, she said. She was skeptical at first, but finally took the advice and was paid $30 by a neighbor for 24 of her raspberry lemonade cupcakes, made with Meyer lemon zest and frosted with raspberry buttercream frosting.

She opened her shop June 22.

“I’m an entrepreneur at heart,” said Lohse, a former day care center owner.

Sugar On Top offers eight daily flavors of cupcakes, including “Banana Split Sunday Morning” (Lohse’s favorite), “Orange U Glad” and “ChocoNutButterCup,” her top seller.

Lohse said her baking is inspired by personal experience. Customers are most curious about her “Pancakes & Bacon” cupcake, which is frosted with a maple syrup buttercream glaze and topped with a piece of candied applewood bacon. Her father made pancakes and bacon for breakfast all the time while she was growing up, she said, and her teenage son suggested that she create a pancake and bacon cupcake.

Lohse will soon compete against the country’s top cupcake bakers on the Food Network show “Cupcake Wars,” in which four bakers face off in three elimination challenges. The winner is awarded $10,000 and the opportunity to showcase his or her cupcakes at a celebrity function.

Lohse said she tries to create a “cozy vibe” at Sugar on Top. The walls of the bakery are painted bright pink and green, and customers can relax on couches and watch TV. She also offers free Wi-Fi, a karaoke machine and a vinyl record player, and would like to start hosting open-mike nights.“I want people to feel like they’re at home,” she said.

Both *ndulge and Sugar on Top encourage their customers to suggest ideas for recipes. With the goal of proving that cupcakes can be hearty meals, and appealing to a wider array of consumers, both bakeries are experimenting with savory cupcake recipes, as well as vegan and gluten-free offerings.*ndulge is working on a recipe for a pulled-pork cupcake, Altmann said, and Lohse is developing a “Fork and Knife” line featuring flavors such as chicken-garlic and chicken and waffles. She is especially excited about a recipe she devised that uses a polenta batter with a braised oxtail on top of the cupcake.“This is like the Willy Wonka of cupcakes,” she said.

In addition to the two specialty shops, other local bakers and caterers have capitalized on the cupcake craze. Heather Luse, owner of Delectable Delights, a catering business in Centre Hall, said she has seen an upswing in demand for cupcakes at weddings in the past few years. Having made cupcakes for her own wedding in 2002, she says, cupcakes are cost-effective and save time, since people don’t have to cut a cake. Most people stick with basic flavors such as vanilla and chocolate, she said. But she can make “pretty much any flavor you can imagine,” including buttercream and red velvet. “Any flavor you can do with cake, you can do with cupcakes,” Luse said.

Mary Hilliard, owner of Dolce Vita Desserts, sells homemade desserts on her website, www.dvdesserts.com, and is in the process of opening a shop in Lemont. She said many brides are forgoing traditional cakes in favor of cupcake “towers” or “trees,” in which tiers of cupcakes are arranged on a stand.

“It really allows brides, if they choose to, to have variety,” Hilliard said.

All of the bakers and business owners agreed that a cupcake is an economical treat that makes people feel better, especially during difficult times.“They’re cupcakes,” Altmann said. “They’re cute, they’re fun, they should send everyone out of here with a smile on their face.”

Here’s a recipe from *ndulge Executive Pastry Chef Rebecca Altmann for “Perfectly Pumpkin” cupcakes with cream cheese icing:

Ingredients:

1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon baking soda

1 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/2 teaspoon ground ginger

1/2 teaspoon ground cloves

pinch ground nutmeg

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 cup butter, at room temperature

1 cup granulated sugar

2 large eggs

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

3/4 cup solid packed, canned pumpkin puree (not "Pumpkin Pie Filling")

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Place your oven rack in the middle of the oven. Line 12 muffin cups with paper liners, or spray each cup with a non-stick spray.

In an electric mixer or with an electric hand mixer, cream butter and sugar together until light and fluffy. Add in the vanilla and the eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Scrape down the sides of the bowl and make sure everything is well mixed.

Sift together the flour, baking soda, ground spices and salt.

With the mixer on low speed, alternate mixing in the dry ingredients and the pumpkin puree in three additions, beginning and ending with the flour mixture. Fill the muffin cups evenly using two spoons, or an ice cream scoop. Place in the oven and bake for about 18-20 minutes, until a toothpick inserted in the center of one of the cupcakes comes out clean. Frost when completely cool. Cream Cheese Icing:

4 ounces cream cheese, room temperature

2 tablespoons butter, room temperature

1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

1 1/2 cups powdered sugar, sifted if clumpy

In an electric mixer, or with a hand mixer, beat the cream cheese until smooth. Add the butter and beat until incorporated and smooth. Add in the vanilla and slowly add in the powdered sugar. Beat until fluffy, 2 or 3 minutes. Pipe or spread on top cooled cupcakes.

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