Dining Out: Crumbs and Magnolia

In my family cake is something you have on birthdays. My aunt is a mix girl, my mom makes them from scratch. I cannot make a yellow cake to save my life. But I love cupcakes- not the Hostess variety mind you, but the real thing. As a child I remember school birthdays were celebrated with cupcakes.

Flash forward two decades and I have discovered that NYC is a place to find great cupcakes. Who’da thunk?

Cupcake cafes have been popular there for several years. I read an article in The Times about a prospective grad student who, while looking at schools, elected to stay in NYC because daily stops at a local cupcake store were so much a part of his life.

Magnolia at 401 Bleecker was featured in an episode of the popular show, Sex and the City. One of the owners opened another place- the Cupcake Cafe. There’s even a cookbook.

Magnolia at is unique in that it is a self service operation, with fresh baked cakes shuttled from kitchen to the bay window/display/buffet counter every few minutes. It is also so small that people are let in 5 or 6 at a time to put together their own sampler of these sweet treats, and because of this there is usually a line around the block. Unlike a lot of shops that have jumped on the cupcake bandwagon, Magnolia keeps it simple by offering vanilla or chocolate cake with various frosting permutations- white vanilla, pastel shades of vanilla (blue, purple, yellow, pink) and chocolate. The sprinkles are little sugary discs that dapple the drifts of frosting like cherry blossoms and they are innocuous in taste as sprinkles should be. The cupcakes cost about $1.75 each and come in the usual large size and a smaller size that can be consumed in 3 bites and therefore will presumably make you feel less guilt if you are calorie conscious, which I am not. The bakery case offers such colorful delights as mini white chocolate raspberry or key lime cheesecakes, carrot cake, red velvet, but the true afficionado will only have eyes for the cupcake.

The dilemma after snagging your prize is whether to indulge then and there or to take it home, sit and savor with tea or milk or whatever your fancy. I usually save them for the bus ride home, which means they sit in their box, balanced on my fingertips for the last few hours of my sojourn in the city (I tend to hit Magnolia just before I go).

Crumbs on Amsterdam between 75th and 76th on the Upper West side is a little roomier, less drab, and offers more schmance (ie ‘fancy-schmancy’) for the buck. At $2.50 per piece, the cupcakes are about the same size, but the flavors are heavier. The buttercream frosting in vanilla is tasty, but with raspberry it seems a little lopsided. The berry flavor is tart and doesn’t mesh well with the vanilla. In addition the vanilla cake didn’t taste as light as I would have liked. Luckily I bought a small one. The chocolate cupcake with vanilla buttercream was much better- I bought a large one for myself and for Von, who I don’t think had tried Crumbs before. I bought it on Monday: my jones was such that when we realized that we were on the wrong side of Bleecker to go back to Magnolia and had to go back uptown to retrieve my stuff so I could make my bus, Susette took us from 86th and Amsterdam to Crumbs in a cab so that I could get my fix. She had the driver wait for us, and then brought him a small cupcake, which just shows how fantastic she is. Anyway, the cupcake weathered a bus trip and was in and out of the fridge for a day and a half. When I finally got around to eating it on Tuesday after work it was fabulous. The cake was moist and chocolatey, the icing was intact (ie still on the cupcake) despite being wrapped in foil and tucked into a shoulderbag for 6 hours on Monday, and the buttercream flavor perfectly complimented the cake in terms of flavor and texture. Add a glass of milk and you have decadence.

[The pic is of Cakelove‘s fare. Cakelove is located at U St. and 15th in NW Washington, D.C. The one of the left is lime frosted vanilla and the other is raspberry frosted chocolate. Cakelove is not very good, but that’s just my opinion.]

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