08 May 2011

Let Them Eat Cake: Cupcakes in Paris

You would think that in the land of crazy delicious French pastries, there would be no room for a sweet treat from the United States.  France is known around the world for its éclairs, its macarons, its Paris-Brest and its chocolate confections.  Yet lately, a challenger has entered the game.  Bakers here in Paris, inspired by their love for my native land, somehow decided that the cupcake needed to come to birthday parties and weddings in la Ville lumière.  And the trend keeps growing.  Now, there are many areas in Paris where you can buy cupcakes, some run by French and others by Americans.  Heck, you can even buy them at Monoprix, the big Parisian supermarket chain or Picard, the French frozen food chain.  I decided with all of this cupcake madness going on, someone needed to go on a cupcake hunt.  Americans and French alike needed to know what a good cupcake should taste like and where to find them.  That someone was me.  Cupcake huntin’ is hard business, but someone’s gotta do it.

What Makes a Good Cupcake ?

Cupcakes can go where éclairs and Paris-Brest cannot.  They are versatile, and can be decorated in amazingly elaborate ways.  Proof of this can be found in the book Hello, Cupcake!  Cupcakes can be made to look like dogs, cats, Van Gogh’s “Starry Night” and sharks.  They can be formal (i.e. for a wedding) or informal (birthday party treats, fun thing to make with kids).  In fact, sometimes they can look so deceptively good, but yet taste so disappointingly blech…that’s how versatile they are.

For me, a cupcake should be moist.  I hate dry cake.  If I have to drink a glass of milk to eat half a cupcake, then it’s too dense or dry or both.  In France, it seems like many of the cupcakes I’ve tried are just dense and/or dry.  They remind me of a Madeleine.  Maybe that’s the way the French like them, and that’s ok.  There’s no one universal set of criteria for cupcake deliciousness factors, but I think for a lot of people, a moist cake is key.

Another criterion for me was flavor.  When I bite into a cupcake, I am going to anticipate the tangy citrusy notes of a lemon cupcake to tickle my taste buds.  I want to savor the richness and magical flavor combination that is chocolate and buttercream.  If I see vanilla beans in the icing and the cupcake, then by God, I know it is going to taste intensely of vanilla.  I don’t want to taste whipped air or have flour flavor pissing off my tongue.

Third criterion was presentation.  As I said before, cupcakes can be such a versatile pastry.  When you make homemade cupcakes, you may give it your best shot, but your presentation might be less than desired.  Yet, those, are made with love and your family will not critique you for a dollop of icing when you were going for a nice spiral look.  Heck, you made cupcakes in a world where home baking is being replaced by frozen or store bought goodies.  However, when you go to a bakery that professes to be a pro at cupcakery, then you expect a good presentation for the $4 you are paying for each cake.    Furthermore, I am a sucker for icing.  The more the better.  So, if I see a cute little cupcake with frosting 1 ½ inches thick on top, then I am a happy camper.

Now that I put what my criteria for the cupcake hunt were, let’s get to the contenders, shall we?

Ze Hunted Cupcakes

I picked three stores before going and then one at random.  Beauty Cakes came across my radar because its owner messaged me on Twitter when she saw me complaining about a lack of good cupcakes here in Paris.  So, I figured if she is willing to message me and tell me her cakes would change my mind about Parisian cakes, then I would take her up on it.  Next I picked Synie’s Cupcakes after a visit to her website.  Let’s just say the photographs of cupcakes with what seemed to be a lot of icing lured me in.  A friend of mine alerted me to Chloé.S Cupcakes since the store is near his apartment in Paris, and told me they were quite good.  The last store was Atelier des gâteaux, because I came across it while leaving Synie’s, saw cupcakes, and said, “What’s another couple of cupcakes?”

Beauty Cakes

Ruthy Avayou's cute little tearoom adds a touch of pink to an otherwise grey residential street in the 17th arrondissement of Paris.  Decorated in the style of American 1950s soda shop, you'll find vintage napkin holders with a cupcake theme (of course) and very adorable, flowery tea sets.  In the cupcake case, the frosting was spiraled and sparkly.  The cupcakes were decorated with cute sugar violets and roses.  All in all, they were quite attractive.  I admired Ruthy's attention to detail and aesthetics before I even took a bite.  Fab and I ordered lemon meringue and dark chocolate ganache cupcakes, along with some Kusmi Earl Grey tea.
Tea and cupcake time! (Photo by Fab)
Both cupcakes were very rich in flavor.  The lemon merengue frosting was fluffy and creamy and enhanced by a lemon curd between the cake and the icing.  The dark chocolate had an intensely dark chocolate flavor to it, and the ganache really added to it by adding a creaminess to an already dense cake.  It was very much like a moelleux au chocolat in cupcake form.  The lemon merengue was more moist than the dark chocolate cupcake, and I actually preferred Fab's to my own.  My chocolate favoritism tricks me again.

All in all, Beauty Cakes get an A for Presentation, a B+ for texture/moisture, and an A for flavor.

Lemon Meringue + Tea Cuteness (Photo by Fab)

Beauty Cakes
83, rue Nollet - 75017 Paris

Synie's Cupcakes

Synie's little shop in the 6th looks as if it could be a little cake shop in Anytown, U.S.A.  There is a cupcake fridge case, and then a few tables where people can sit and enjoy their scrumptious delights.  Synie's Cupcakes were the closest cakes I have found in Paris to the lovely cupcakes I used to buy at Muddy's Bakeshop in Memphis or Magpies in Knoxville.  The buttercream was really rich and actually a buttercream!  It was dense and very flavorful...and there was lots of it on the cake!

Cupcake Trio, Synie's

The cake was moist in all three cupcakes that I bought, and they melted in my mouth.  Being Southern, I had to buy the Red Velvet cupcake, and it tasted just like home.  The cream cheese icing was not overly sweet, allowing the tanginess of the cream cheese to come out.  I could not get over how moist the cake was.  I was in love.

Mega Frosting!
Anything that was vanilla had visible vanilla bean in the frosting and cake.  I generally don't go for the double vanilla cupcakes, because I find them to be dull, but hers were just fantastic.  The icing was creamy but still light on the tongue.  The chocolate cake in the chocolate/vanilla cupcake had a good density to it, not too rich that it was a heavy cake.  The chocolate shavings on top added an elegant, yet simple touch.

Chocolate and Vanilla Cupcake, Synie's
Synie's Cupcakes get an A+ all around.  I know that happens rarely in France, but this lady takes the cake!

Synie's Cupcakes
23, rue de l'Abbé Grégoire - 75006 Paris

Atelier des Gâteaux

As I was leaving Synie's with cupcake bags in hand, I saw this delectible store right next door.  I thought to myself "That's pretty ballsy..."  As I peered in the window, I could see not only cupcakes, but whoopie pies, which are not quite as popular here in France...but they are on the way.  I entered into the store, and saw two women busy in the kitchen making more whoopie pies, and a well-stocked supply case.  I struck up a nice conversation with the nice lady working the front of the house, and she told me that soon they would be giving lessons on whoopie pies, in addition to their cupcakes.  She was very charming and seemed pretty excited about having an American in her store. (I love when the French still get excited about Americans!)

The two cupcakes I purchased were really cupcakes with a French Touch.  I bought salted butter caramel and Nutella.  They were both really pretty, topped with a macaron top (more French Touch).

Ze cupcakes: Nutella and Caramel au beurre salé
I was a tad bit disappointed by the Nutella cupcake.  There was a vanilla cupcake underneath the Nutella frosting, and it was dense...basically a madeleine instead of a cupcake.  But at least it was moist!  The frosting didn't have the punch of Nutella flavor.  It had a very light chocolate flavor, that to me, didn't really taste like Nutella at all.  It was a bit sweet as well.  I can make the same comments on the caramel cupcake.  Pretty, but lacking on flavor.  And the cupcake was once again like a madeleine. 

Atelier des Gâteaux gets an A for presentation and a B on flavor and texture. 

Atelier des Gâteaux
23, rue de l'Abbé Grégoire - 75006 Paris

Chloé.S Cupcakes

Chloé has been getting some good press throughout Paris and the world.  Her really pink shop has been used in KitchenAid ads for their pink mixer.  And yes, it really is that pink.  She advertises in her job adverts that you have to like pink.  The décor is really cute, which is probably thanks to her former career as a Graphic Artist/Marketing professional.  Chloé.S is particularly known for her sugar and gluten free cupcakes, using agave syrup as a sweetener, which is somewhat of a rarity here in Paris.

Chloé.S Pink Cakeshop
I'd like to think I came to Chloé.S on a bad day.  I waited for a really long time before being helped.  I have become used to a slower service time in France, but considering I was the only one in line, I was a little baffled.  When I was finally acknowledged, I ordered a lemon cupcake and an Oreo cupcake to go, and moved on.  I was hoping that the cupcakes I just bought would be worth the wait.  And the 3.50 Euros.

Lemon and Oreo Cupcakes, Chloé.S
Disappointment struck again when I stopped by Fab's work for a pause cupcake.  We attacked the lemon cupcake first.  The lemon cupcake was covered by a sticky white glaze that was sloppily plopped on top.  The cake itself lacked any flavor, and in fact tasted very much like flour.  I passed it to Fab to make sure it wasn't just me.  It wasn't.  He agreed it had a strong flour flavor and that any lemon flavor you could taste, came from the frosting on top.  We moved on to the Oreo cupcake, which was better, but not by much.  It was dry.  The cake was flavorless.  The icing was sweet and apart from the Oreo that was stuck on the frosting, tasted more like Nutella.  As I thought about this post, I kept thinking maybe I took a gluten free cupcake, and that's why it tasted weird to me.  But it was in no way marked, and the guy at the store failed to tell me if it was gluten free or not.  Presentation doesn't just mean how your cupcake looks, but also means making sure that your customer knows what they are getting.  Overall, my visit to Chloé.S was not a good one to such an extent that I am not sure I am willing to go back and give it a second try.

Chloé.S gets a C all around.

Chloé.S Cupcakes
40 rue Jean Baptiste - 75009 Paris

I will say, in the end, that no matter how I felt about the cupcake stores mentioned above, I really admire these women for starting their own businesses here in Paris.  Especially because it involves a new product to the Parisian/French market that is not part of the native pastry culture.  That's sweeter than any cupcake can ever be.

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