Not-so-sweet things

Figuring out the worth of pastry's latest trend, one cupcake at a time.
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By David Tamarkin
Photograph by Jabari Zuberi
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The latest trend in cupcakes is the savory cupcake, and a savory cupcake begs an obvious question: Isn’t that just a muffin? Ask that of a cupcake slinger at More Cupcakes (1 E Delaware Pl, 312-951-0001) or Chaos Theory Cakes (2961 N Lincoln Ave, 773-281-2353) and you might get an eye roll and a curt “no.” At which point you can ask the next obvious question: Isn’t a savory cupcake kind of…gross?

To answer that one, we visited both bakeries and sampled their offerings. As you might expect, there were some surprises. First, most of these “savory” cupcakes were plenty sweet. Secondly, both bakeries seem to have reached for the same ingredients—though, as we discuss below, some are better than others.

Bacon
Bacon desserts aren’t necessarily new—Coco Rouge and Vosges have been putting bacon in their candy bars for years. But whereas it’s usually the bacon’s salty properties that make it a good pair with sugar, the folks at Chaos Theory have decided to home in on bacon’s smokiness. Thus, their bacon-chocolate cupcake is akin to eating a brownie in the middle of a forest fire—an altogether odd flavor that doesn’t inspire the kind of cravings that bacon and chocolate do separately. At More, bacon is put to a more intuitive use: It’s paired with maple syrup, the result of which is pleasant if you’re a pancakes-and-bacon kind of person to begin with.

Curry
The Madras curry cupcake at More, slathered with goat-cheese icing and topped with puffed rice, is indicative of what all its savory cupcakes are like: unusual yet sensible. The soft curry flavor of the cake is interrupted (pleasantly, that is) by a swirl of sweet black raspberries, which marries perfectly with the tart goat-cheese icing. In Chaos Theory’s curry cupcake, the spices are much more aggressive but not so much that it can’t be saved—the curry works well with the chocolate ganache frosting, highlighting cocoa’s often overlooked spicy, bitter notes.

Tomato
Chaos Theory’s Caprese cupcake (pictured, above left) has bits of chewy mozzarella baked into the tomato cake and basil stirred into the icing, and neither addition does the cupcake any favors. In More’s BLT cupcake (pictured, above right), the vaguely sweet cake is filled with salty pieces of bacon, smeared with a completely savory ranch “icing” and topped with fresh slices of tomato. It’s jarring at first—no cake has ever tasted like this—but it works so well that it’s perhaps the most convincing proof that cupcakes can swing both ways. (How More came to associate ranch dressing with a BLT, however, we have no idea.)

Tried-and-true pairings
One of More’s best cupcakes is its Brie-Champagne-grape cupcake, a sweet-and-savory pairing that operates on (and supports) the theory that if a combination works in real life, it will likely work in a cupcake, too. That theory is quickly debunked by Chaos Theory’s spinach and purple-onion cupcake, though, where the nice, slightly herbal spinach cake is topped with an icing with a perplexing onion note. Spinach and onions work in a salad; this cupcake suggests we should leave them there.

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