CupcakeWhen the woman who helped make Seattle a serious place for desserts sits quietly at a corner table of your  shop, pinching a bit of vanilla cupcake between her fingers, judging the angle of the crown and tasting the pink frosting, this definitive reaction is what you want:

“It’s yummy!” Sue McCown said. “If I may say so myself.”

McCown has more than the usual interest in weighing in on Cupcake Royale, because the pastry chef — you remember her Sex Lies, & Apricot at Earth & Ocean and her “hot cocoa” pasta at the short-lived Coco la ti da — is responsible for a serious makeover of the cupcake empire’s recipe. The creative perfectionist baked dozens upon dozens of batches of Cupcake Royales in recent months, joining owner Jody Hall’s quest for a moister, tastier cake. 

McCown kept careful field notes on the results of changing the recipe’s leavening by a fraction, or substituting dried buttermilk for fresh, or altering the order in which ingredients were mixed. Struggling with one crumbly impasse, she would wake up in the middle of the night, debating what to try next. Her landlord, hearing this, told her “It’s just a cupcake!”

“No,” she said. “It’s not just a cupcake. It’s a really good cupcake.” 

I’ve been interested in hearing about how — and why — Hall brought McCown in to consult. Sure, I’d seen Yelp complaints that Royale’s goods were overly dry, but I’d also heard complaints that Trophy’s frosting-to-cake ratios were unbalanced, and chalked it up to individual tastes. Cupcake Royale was about to open a fourth store. I figured whatever they were doing worked for them.

But Hall, who started the business in 2003, said no. The cupcakes met her standards when eaten fresh, she said — but not everyone eats them that way. They are baked daily from scratch, she does insist on all-natural ingredients… and by day’s end, or if buyers kept them overnight, they wound up dry. She’s not a professional baker, she noted, and the first CR staff baker wasn’t either.

“It was just time to step up.”

That meant finding an expert to figure out how to keep the flavor and “the integrity,” keep using home-kitchen ingredients (butter, for instance, not Crisco), but make a moister cake with more staying power. Bakery manager Melanie Bonadore (former gm of Essential) knew McCown. McCown liked the idea of a business owner who could pour her heart into her own vision, yet remain open to improvements. She spent a month with the Cupcake Royale team, consulting food scientists, tweaking ingredients and methods, testing how the ovens and air temperature and brands used in the CR kitchens affected the final product, and simplifying the recipe for more consistent results. 

Seventy-five batches into the chocolate cupcakes alone, some themes became clear. “Number 57 was the one we kept going back to,” she recalled.

In the end, she changed the original recipe’s mixing process and the order of ingredients. She added expeller-pressed canola oil, and added it to the batter in a particular way, among other changes. And when I sampled a batch of the new versions at the store with McCown and Hall, the vanilla was indeed as moist and yet delicate as my favorite white cake. (I took some home to age, and they passed the overnight test.) The chocolate version took them longer to perfect — that was the crumbly one — but they finally nailed it. And McCown can sleep easy again.

 ”What I love about the cupcake girls and what I love about me is, we wanted it to be perfect.”

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