We are in the midst of a culinary renaissance and from coast to coast, the latest muse of confectioners is the cupcake. Gone are the days of a simple, moist chocolate cake crowned with a sweet, creamy spiral of vanilla frosting, occasionally adorned with a smattering of rainbow-colored sprinkles. The cupcakes of today are baked, stuffed, topped, torched, and the possibilities of this new frosted frontier are limited only by the imaginations of the scientists of the saccharine. From birthday parties to boutique bakeries, the purveyors of this cupcake craze have eschewed traditional two-flavor combinations in order to tempt our palettes with complex treats that represent the latest in dessert innovation.
Cupcake mania hit Providence this weekend as the first Rhode Island Food Fight event was held at the Spot Underground on Elbow Street. The sell-out crowd savored scores of surprising flavors: cinnamon roll, ice cream sundae, Thin Mint, and banana Nutella to name a few. Contestants unveiled their delectable delights for a panel of judges comprised of prominent Rhode Island foodies. David Dadekian, food critic and photographer who runs eatdrinkri.com, was thrilled to be asked to judge the contest. “Rhode Island has a great food culture. I was excited to see the inventiveness of the Rhode Island cupcake scene,” he said.
Jim Nellis and Casey Spencer were responsible for the creation and organization of the entire event. The duo started Rhode Island Food Fight in order to promote fun and friendly competition for local restaurants and to provide these small businesses with more exposure. They plan on holding monthly contests all over Rhode Island, each focusing on a different aspect of the local food culture. “On the horizon right now, we have plans to have contests for best pizza, salsa, and food trucks,” Nellis said. Both he and Spencer were satisfied at the turnout and the flow of the event. “I’m happy that everyone here was happy and people got to eat some wonderful cupcakes,” she said.
The competition attracted over a dozen South Coast bakers, some well-established, some yet-to-be-known. One of those up-and-coming cupcake alchemists was Westport’s very own ChanyCakes. Started in July 2011 by 21 year-old Chantal Allen, ChanyCakes is based out of her home. The Bristol Community College student, who will be receiving her Associates in Fine Arts this semester, began baking as a hobby when she was 18. She impressed her friends and family so much, they began dropping hints that she should take it a step further. “So many people said I should start a business, so I took their advice, and it began to work out,” she said. When she decided to have a go at starting a cupcake shop, she went back to the basics first. “I started simple, making plain chocolate and vanilla cupcakes, working on frosting recipes,” she said. “It wasn’t until I officially started ChanyCakes that I really started playing with all the crazy flavors.”
Crazy is an understatement. She lists no less than 16 flavors on the ChanyCakes Facebook page, including red velvet, pumpkin spice, and banana chocolate. “My most popular cupcakes are probably chocolate peanut butter, cookies and cream, and lemon,” she said. Since she caters for any event from showers to weddings to birthdays, Allen works with her clients to customize their cupcakes. In the past, she has made cheesecake cupcakes topped with cherries and sangria cupcakes, made with a home-made wine syrup to enhance the fruit flavor of the cake. The Food Fight was her first competition and she featured three flavors: margarita, cup of joe, and pineapple bliss. “For a few weeks before the competition, I was experimenting with some new flavors. I decided on going with cup of joe and the pineapple cupcake because I had never tried them before,” she said.
Weeks before the competition, Allen was carefully planning her strategy. After all, one can’t expect to make 300 cupcakes in three days without a hiccup or two along the way. “I had a whole binder of all of my notes and a calendar for what I had to do each day, and a check-list. Being organized helped me out a lot,” she said. Despite her meticulous timeline, things didn’t exactly go off without a hitch. Her panic moment came when her KitchenAid mixer broke mid-way through her process. “My grandmother had to lend me her KitchenAid so I could finish on time.”
Allen takes all the trials and tribulations with a fair amount of casual confidence and a good deal of business sense. “I participated because I knew it was going to be great exposure for me and my business and I really enjoyed the overall experience,” she said. Though ChanyCakes didn’t place in the final voting, Allen is ready for the next contest. “I think the biggest thing I learned from this was how to improve my time management. I did a good job in general, but there were things I could fix. But now I know what it really takes to prepare for something like this and I will be even better at future events.”