For the past year or so, we’ve watched cupcake mania catch on in the metropolitan cities around us: Sacramento and San Francisco. But aside from the local Safeway, cupcakes near us were not to be found, let alone really fabulous ones. Earlier this year our world turned around when not one, but TWO cupcake establishments opened their doors (and their registers).
The first one on our list is the first that opened, Kara’s Cupcakes at Oxbow Market in Napa.
They carry regular- and mini-sized cupcakes in about a dozen flavors. We picked up nine for everyone in the office to try. Here’s what we got:
- Java (chocolate cake with espresso buttercream topped by a darling chocolate covered coffee bean)
- Hazelnut Crunch (vanilla cupcake with hazelnut frosting)
- Coconut (vanilla cupcake with coconut cream cheese frosting)
- Banana (banana cupcake with cream cheese frosting)
- Meyer Lemony Lemon (vanilla cupcake with tart lemon filling and lemon buttercream frosting)
- Chocolate Velvet (chocolate cupcake with bittersweet chocolate buttercream frosting)
- Kara’s Karrot (carrot cupcake with cream cheese frosting)
- Fleur De Sel (chocolate cupcake with caramel filling, ganache frosting and fleur de sel)
- Raspberry Dazzle (chocolate cupcake with a raspberry buttercream)
Regular: $3.25 each or $36/dozen. Mini: $2 each or $24/dozen.
Whoa, they’re not cheap. We tried both the regular size and the minis.
In general, our consensus was that the cake portion of the cupcake was excellent. Highly flavorful, very moist and yet dense and firm. It was the perfect texture. Very, very high ratings for the cake.
The frosting, on the other hand, left much to be desired. Half of us ended up scraping the frosting off entirely after the first bite. The buttercream frostings were too oily and tasted almost greasy. The cream cheese frostings were way too light and airy without the rich denseness that we like to see in cream cheesy frostings. Also, the tartness of the cream cheese did not come through—it was way too sweet. Almost without exception we were all disappointed in the frostings. Here’s what one connoisseur/staffer said, “The icing itself had absolutely no coconut flavor and the flakes really should have been toasted to bring out the full coconut flavor, yes I know the white looks very pretty. As for the chocolate: I liked the sprinkles and the cake was okay. The icing tasted and had the texture of curdled cream, not very good at all.”(The only frosting we liked was the ganache used on the Fleur de Sel.) There was also much debate about whether the frosting should cover the entire top of the cupcake; we’re still split on the results.
Further, we were a wee let down on the fairly traditional flavor pairings. For a gourmet goody shop, we expected more ingenuity—we wanted to be shown the possibilities. Don’t get me wrong, we love the classics, but if you’re going high end, then for heaven’s sake take us to a place we haven’t been before.
By far the favorite of the bunch was the Chocolate Fleur de Sel with it’s creamy caramel center and ganache frosting. This was the only frosting choice that came close to passing our muster. As one taster said, “I’d swing by for this one if I was already in the area. But it’s more about the caramel filling than the frosting.”
On the whole, they’re a nice treat if you’re in Napa or over at Oxbow Market, but I wouldn’t drive out of my way just to get there. I feel sad even saying that as we want our local small businesses to flourish, but for the price and the culinary quailty that Oxbow Market consistently represents, we expected more.
If you’re wondering about our picks for cupcakes we’d drive for … stay tuned, it’s coming up.