The taxi driver failed to realize that 83rd was one way, so we had him drop us off at the corner and decided to hoof it the half block to Nicole’s Upper East Side apartment. Jade and I toted the white shopping bags, embossed with pastel colored logos, as if they were armored and handcuffed to our wrists. We walked with purpose; passersby instinctively gave us a wide berth. We greeted Nicole and Kelly, who waited for us outside on the front stoop. A knowing smile swept across their faces as they eyed the white paper bags; cupcakes have that effect on people.
Cupcakes are still serious business, even though the overabundance of buttercream sweet nostalgia has become stale with baked good consumers recently. The gourmet cupcake bubble formed first in Manhattan more than a decade ago, as it took a couple of years for the Sex in the City fan base to actually make it to the West Village and Magnolia Bakery. And since then, hundreds of cupcake-only bakeries have dotted the American landscape from coast to coast.
With so many options for cupcakes in the city, who has the best NYC cupcakes? We took it upon ourselves to find out, to have a Royal Crumble and award the “CRUMBYs”, as we have affectionately dubbed them.
We decided upon a mix of cupcake industry stalwarts and hot new up-and-comers.
In the Plaza Food Hall
One West 59th Street, Concourse Level
New York, NY 10019
Billy’s was founded in 2003 and was the second bakery I visited on one of my first NYC trips in the mid 2000’s. They currently have three stores in Manhattan. One in Chelsea, one in Tribeca, and the one I visited in the Plaza hotel. Billy’s has a range of items from layer cakes, to cupcakes, to pies and cookies. Although I can’t speak to all of their products, their banana layer cake was to-die-for. All of their products are made on-site daily.
Buttercup Bake Shop
973 2nd Ave
New York, NY 10022
Buttercup Bake Shop was the winner of our first ever cupcake contest three years ago. The owner was one of the original founders of Magnolia and went out on her own to open Buttercup in 1999. There are currently two store locations, including one in Manhattan in midtown east, and another store in White Plains, NY. Buttercup bakes all of their products on-site daily, and have a range of products from cookies, to bars, to pies, to puddings, to bundt cakes, to layer cakes and cupcakes.
Discovery Times Square Museum
226 West 44th St
New York, NY 10036
Best known for their hit TV show on TLC, DC Cupcakes, sisters Katherine and Sophie traded their successful business careers to open Georgetown Cupcake in 2008. They currently have stores in Washington, DC, Bethesda, MD, NYC, Boston, and Los Angeles. Their NYC locations are in SoHo and at the Times Square café I visited. Georgetown Cupcake specializes in cupcakes only and offer a large variety of flavors (100 flavors, according to their website!)
Midtown West, Theater District
1240 Ave of the Americas
New York, NY 10020
Magnolia is arguably the first bakery to start the cupcake trend. They opened their first location in the West Village in 1996. I learned about Magnolia via Sex and the City, although it has also been featured on Saturday Night Live, The Devil Wears Prada, Spin City and others. Magnolia has six Manhattan locations, as well as stores in Chicago and Los Angeles. They also have four international locations in Kuwait, Lebanon, Dubai, and Doha, Qatar. Although best known for their cupcakes, Magnolia also offers pies, layer cakes, cheese cake, muffins, cookies and bars.
Kelly Roska is a talented baker, creative DIY artisan, a confectionary aficionado and all-around sugar connoisseur. You will often find her at Economy Candy near her lower east side home, or checking off her list of the must-try hot NY restaurants.
Nicole Andersen is an Ivy League-trained Registered Dietitian, who maintains a pescatarian diet and always tries to eat seasonal and local. Nicole prefers cookies to cupcakes, but was happy to lend her well-trained palate to our cupcake contest.
Stacey Freeman (me) loves darn near all goods which are baked. Although I would choose a chewy bar or cookie over just about anything else, I can’t pass up the sugary sweetness of cupcakes.
The Scoring System
We based our scoring on two flavors, vanilla (both cake and frosting) and red velvet. Because both flavors are popular (red velvet is still the national favorite), we were virtually assured each bakery would carry them, thus giving us true apples-to-apples comparisons across bakeries.
We also assumed that vanilla was our control flavor; its simplicity, we thought, would be easier on the palette. More about how wrong we were later.
We would judge the cupcakes on four criteria: appearance, frosting, cake and overall taste.
We decided to start with the vanilla cupcakes because we were concerned that we would burnout if we started with red velvet. In hindsight, the red velvets were much more tame in flavor comparison, so perhaps we should have started there.
We began scoring by discussing the physical appearance of each cupcake and rated them accordingly. As for the vanilla cupcakes, all three of us preferred the hand-frosted appearance of Magnolia and Buttercup to the piped-frosting on Billy’s and Georgetown’s cupcakes. Nicole also felt an unexplained aversion to blue frosting, so Magnolia’s green with brightly colored sprinkles was the clear winner, with Buttercups’ similar green frosting and simple white sprinkles a close second.
Although Georgetown’s white icing with colored sprinkles was pretty, most of us agreed that white frosting is just boring compared to its pastel competitors. Billy’s blue piped frosting was crooked, exposing some of the yellow cake underneath, so they came in last for sloppy appearance.
The red velvet appearance scores were fairly straight-forward. We all adored the hand-frosted, clean appearance of Billy’s red velvet cake, so it was the clear winner. We also loved the tiny red heart on the Georgetown cupcakes, for a close second. Third and four places were only slightly trickier because Magnolia’s frosting looked very greasy and Nicole disliked the look of the red sprinkles on Buttercup’s version.
The Magnolia red velvet cupcake was the only cupcake of all 8 purchased that I was actually disgusted to try. The frosting on the red velvet had an unexplainable sheen to it, which made it look oily and artificial. None of the other cakes, including Magnolia’s vanilla, had this odd glossy-latex-paint-on-plaster-wall look to them. Kelly and I found that it simply looked gross.
Tasting distinct differences between the frostings on the vanilla cupcakes was very challenging. Buttercup and Magnolia’s were almost identical. They are extremely sweet, especially when eaten alone. Kelly thought Billy’s frosting had an aggressive powdered sugar flavor.
Georgetown’s frosting was different — definitely fluffier, less dense, and less sweet. Since I’m a sucker for the sweetness, I preferred Magnolia’s with Buttercup as a close second. Nicole opted only to score the appearance and overall taste, rather than delve into the individual frosting and cakes. Kelly and I shared similar ratings with Magnolia and Buttercup in first and second, she preferred Georgetown for third and Billy’s in fourth, whereas, my third and fourth were swapped.
The red velvet frosting was a bit easier to judge. As I expected, none of us liked the Magnolia frosting. It was as greasy as it appeared and just yucky. Billy’s frosting came in first with the best cream-cheese frosting. Kelly and Nicole preferred Georgetown’s for second over Buttercup, in third, because it was lighter and not as sweet. I preferred Buttercup’s frosting the most, because it had only a mild cream cheese flavor and was much sweeter than the other competitors.
The vanilla cake was probably the most challenging thing to judge. Most of the cakes tasted very similar, but we all noted that Billy’s cake was extraordinarily dry. I still liked it, though, because it had specks of vanilla bean and a rich vanilla flavor. My least favorite cake was Georgetown’s because it had a bit more of a savory quality, almost like a biscuit. Like the frosting, Magnolia and Buttercup’s cakes were nearly identical in flavor, although Magnolia edged out Buttercup with moistness.
The red velvet cakes were similarly difficult to judge. I expected most of them to have the rich chocolate quality that I associate with red velvet, but this was not the case. The Magnolia red velvet cake was a frightening bright red. Similarly, the color of Georgetown’s red velvet cupcake did not seem in any way natural. Billy’s and Buttercup’s cakes were richer in color and flavor than the two previously mentioned.
For the vanilla cakes, Magnolia just edged out Buttercup, by a mere two points. When I am in NYC, I will steer straight toward whichever of these two bakeries will require the shortest commute. Both vanilla cakes have sugary sweet frosting and a rich and moist vanilla cake. They both live up to the decade-long hype that started the cupcake revolution. I would not try Georgetown’s vanilla cake again, although they do have such a broad range of other interesting flavors that I’m sure would be worth a try. I have enjoyed desserts at Billy’s before (especially that banana cake), so I will just try other things rather than their vanilla cupcakes.
As for the red velvet cakes, Billy’s was the clear first-place winner with the best combination of cake and frosting. As for the rest of the cupcakes, our opinions varied somewhat. Nicole liked the lightness of the Georgetown version, whereas, Kelly rated buttercup in second. All of us rated Magnolia in dead last. Despite the scoring, I actually preferred Buttercup’s red velvet cupcake the most with Billy’s in a close second. Red velvet is not my favorite, but I’d be happy to eat Billy’s or Buttercup’s versions again.
The CRUMBY for Best Vanilla Cupcake in NYC goes to Magnolia Bakery.
The CRUMBY for Best Red Velvet Cupcake in NYC goes to Billy’s Bake Shop.