A colleague recently called me an “extreme cupcaker.” I won’t deny it. It’s been about 10 years since I realized I might have an obsession. It all started with a 2001 trip to New York City, during which I discovered Magnolia Bakery, a small 1950s-inspired bake shop in Greenwich Village that has since branched out to other New York City locations. Recently a friend and I went on a cupcake crawl in Chicago. We hit chains and local shops, sampling classic flavors and more deluxe and unexpected taste combinations.

A colleague recently called me an “extreme cupcaker.”


I won’t deny it. It’s been about 10 years since I realized I might have an obsession.


It all started with a 2001 trip to New York City, during which I discovered Magnolia Bakery, a small, 1950s-inspired bake shop in Greenwich Village that has since branched out to other New York City locations and, more recently, other major cities. (One is slated to open in Chicago’s Loop later this month, although a date has not been announced.)


The cupcakes in this charming, small-bakery-in-the-big-city shop left an indelible impression on me. I’ve returned to New York City twice since that visit, with a college friend, Sara, who also fell head over heels for the old-fashioned bakery with the buttercream-frosted delights. Not only did we make multiple trips down to Bleecker Street to get our fix, we once bought a container to bring some home.


Sara and I recently took the next logical step for a cupcake connoisseur: a cupcake crawl in Chicago. We hit chains and local shops, sampling classic flavors and more deluxe and unexpected taste combinations. Here’s a breakdown of where we went and what we tried:


Crumbs Bake Shop


303 W. Madison St., in the Loop, www.crumbs.com/locations


The ambiance: 1950s-inspired shop; small, with no seating; friendly, helpful staff


The selection: Cookies and Cream


The cake: Rich, moist chocolate


The frosting: Cream cheese with crushed Oreos and whole-Oreo garnish


Comments: The display case at this chain shop, which also has locations in California and out East, was a carnival of oversized, colorful, creatively garnished cupcakes with generously slathered frosting; the luscious Cookies and Cream frosting was reminiscent of Oreo filling. Sara’s take: “I could just eat the frosting.”


Sugar Bliss Cake Boutique


115 N. Wabash Ave., www.sugarblisscakes.com


The ambiance: Small but not cramped; light and modern design; window seating for people-watching


The selection: Banana Banana


The cake: Dense banana cake, reminiscent of a muffin


The frosting: Light, buttery and decadent


Comments: Each cupcake was topped with Sugar Bliss’ signature flower-shaped dollop of light but creamy frosting, and both miniature and full-size cupcakes were available. The “blooming” display case made for a tough decision.


More Cupcakes


1 E. Delaware Place, www.morecupcakes.com


The ambiance: Small and minimalist, with a ceiling-high showcase of artistically crafted cupcakes in various sweet and savory flavors and combinations. If the Modern Museum of Art had a cupcake shop, this would be it.


The selection: Bacon Bacon Bacon


The cake: White with baked-in bacon bits


The frosting: Vanilla with bacon bits and a garnish of bacon brittle


Comments: I love bacon, but baking it into cake and mixing it with frosting is a little over the top for me. The savory bacon aftertaste was the only quality I liked. Sara gave her bite a more positive review: “You know, it’s not that bad, and I don’t even like bacon.”


Sprinkles Cupcakes


50 E. Walton St., www.sprinkles.com


The ambiance: Cramped but colorful


The selection: Cinnamon sugar


The cake: Dense like coffeecake, but less filling than expected


The frosting: A dusting of sugar stood in for icing


Comments: The flavor was pleasing, but I found myself wishing for a light glaze, like on a cinnamon roll. This gourmet shop is a chain, and fans seeking a souvenir can choose from several T-shirt designs or a mix for baking the cupcakes at home.


Sweet Mandy B’s Bakery


1208 W. Webster Ave., www.sweetmandybs.com


The ambiance: Big and bright with two adjoining rooms, plenty of seating and a cheery pastel color scheme


The selection: Lemon cake with raspberry frosting


The cake: Moist and light


The frosting: Traditional buttercream


Comments: These pastel-frosted cupcakes with sprinkles taste like what your grandma baked from scratch. They were the least-expensive full-size cupcakes we came across, in the $2 range as opposed to the $3+ the other bakeries charged. The bakery offered a wide variety of other goodies, too, including ice cream.


Swirlz Cupcakes


705 W. Belden St., www.swirlzcupcakes.com


The ambiance: Whimsical, playful design; a few small tables


The selection: Twixie, inspired by Twix candy bars


The cake: Chocolate, with a layer of shortbread cookie and chocolate ganache


The frosting: Salted caramel buttercream and melted chocolate, with caramel drizzle; Swirlz uses whipped Italian buttercream on all its cupcakes.


Comments: A friendly employee chatted with us, telling us about the cupcakes and offering us each a free sample of another deluxe flavor, lemon cheesecake, which featured a graham cracker crust as the base of a lemon cake with lemon filling and cream cheese buttercream frosting. The lemon was a bit strong for my taste, but I thought the graham cracker crust was brilliant. A note to those with special diets: Swirlz offers many gluten-free and vegan varieties.


Molly’s Cupcakes


2536 N. Clark St., mollyscupcakes.com


The ambiance: Large and lively with pop music playing; wooden swings hanging by chains from the ceiling serve as bar stools; the Sprinkle Station provides extra toppings if ya need ’em.


The selection: Cake batter


The cake: Extremely moist white cake — the moistest cake of the day — with cake batter filling


The frosting: Whipped vanilla


Comments: This cupcake was our favorite of the crawl. The creamy center was a truly delightful surprise for a couple of lifelong bowl-scrapers.


By crawl’s end, we had bloated stomachs and blistered toes, but we also had sweet memories. Would I recommend a cupcake crawl? Absolutely. Just save the bacon for breakfast.


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Want to make bakery-inspired cupcakes at home? Here’s a recipe for Crumbs Bake Shop’s Vanilla Cupcakes:


Crumbs Bake Shop Vanilla Cupcakes


Adapted from “Crumbs: Bake Shop in a Box”


3 sticks unsalted butter, room temperature


2 1/2 cups granulated sugar


5 eggs


1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract


1 1/2 teaspoons almond extract


3 cups all-purpose flour


1 teaspoon baking powder


1/2 teaspoon baking soda


1/2 teaspoon kosher salt


1 cup buttermilk


Frosting:


1 pound unsalted butter


1 pound cream cheese


1 (16-ounce) box confectioners’ sugar


1 teaspoon vanilla extract


Rainbow sprinkles


Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Line a 12-cup muffin tin with paper liners.


In a mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat the butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Then add the eggs, mixing well after each addition, followed by the vanilla and almond extracts.


Sift together the flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt into a small bowl. Then, with the mixer on low speed, add the flour mixture to the butter mixture, alternating with the buttermilk and ending with the flour.


Fill each cup 3/4 full with batter. Bake for about 20 to 25 minutes, or until the center of the cupcakes spring back when touched. Cool completely before frosting.


To make the frosting, cream together the butter and cream cheese until totally smooth. Then add the sugar and vanilla extract and beat until smooth. Frost each cupcake, then place the sprinkles on a plate and roll the sides of the cupcake in them.


Makes 12 cupcakes.