Monday, January 30, 2012

Kickass Cupcakes: Buckle your seat belts, Boston!

The"Lucky" cupcake

Sara Ross and her cheeky crew at Kickass Cupcakes are nothing short of mad scientists when it comes to cupcakes, and their cheerful store in Somerville qualifies as half bakery, half laboratory. In a way, you know what you're going to get every time: fresh, natural ingredients whipped into cute-as-buttons cupcakes.

The Sammy

Peppermint cupcake

But on any given day, be prepared for new flavors, new themes, and just plain odd combinations. These are called the Limited Edition cupcakes, and, like Forest Gump's box of chocolates, you never know what you're going to get. At the start of the week, there were fig newton cupcakes, a grainy muffin filled with fig jam and topped with a little beret of chocolate. By the end of the week, there were "Couch Potato" cupcakes, lovingly strewn with every conceivable Super Bowl nibble. (Cheetos on chocolate cupcake? Oh, yes!)

This willingness to make outrageously unexpected treats is where Kickass Cupcakes really shines...and occasionally veers into the realm of something non-cupcakey. I realized this as I bit into a "crisp," a twice-baked cupcake that has been dipped in chocolate and pretty sprinkles. "So, it's like a biscotti?" I asked, and the women behind the counter nodded enthusiastically. But as I chomped down on it, I belatedly realized that you must nullify a biscotti with a beverage, otherwise you're looking at a trip to the dentist.  Luckily, they have some tasty drinks at Kickass, including fresh milk from the Dairy Bar. 

But there is one speciality at Kickass that requires no explanation, and it is the one thing which you really MUST try: the deep-fried cupcake sundae. Mind-blowingly good and completely worth waiting for the Friday-Saturday-Sunday trifecta on which it is available. From the outside, it will look like a coffee cup with whipped cream and a cherry on top, but, oh, inside there is a layer of local vanilla ice cream, topped with a vanilla cupcake with cream inside that has been lightly battered and deep-fried right before your eyes. Crisp and hot outside, lovely warm cake inside. And, oh yes, topped with real whipped cream (not the aerated sugar puff from a can, but the real stuff, very nearly as substantial as the ice cream). 

Don't be fooled by appearances. This sundae is a heavy weight! And it rings in at only $5, which means that it is comparable to having a modest amount of ice cream from J.P. Licks down the street. So why not walk a few blocks farther and step into the lab? 

P.S. If you come after 5 p.m. on the last Monday of every month, you'll be just in time for "Happy Hour"! I went this evening and had truly some of the most outrageous, inventive goodies ever, all based on Dogfish Head Ale. Lemon cake with ale gelee center and rasberry jam? Check! Chocolate cupcake with stout frosting? Check! Maple soaked cupcake with ale syrup and juniper candy? Check! Coming back next month to see what's new at the Kickass? You better believe it!

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Thursday, January 26, 2012

Enter the Critics: My cats take on the "kittycake" at Kickass Cupcakes!

It is either genius or folly to include cupcakes for animals (the "pupcake" and the "kittycake") at a bakery, so you have to credit the folks at Kickass Cupcakes for having the nerve. And while I continue on with my week's "work" of sampling the Kickass Cupcakes for humans, I decided last night to test the kittycake on my cats. It's advertised as a cheesy cupcake sprinkled with catnip and topped with a goldfish cracker. For cutes alone, it scores off the chart.

Now, enter the critics: Miss Pickles and Esme Applebutter, criminal geniuses with MFAs in food critique. Miss Pickles, the panther of the pair, was first up to inspect the kittycake, circling and sniffing in a way that seemed to indicate interest.

Perhaps it was the fact that I was photographing her every move or maybe the stern lecture I'd given her to be fair in her review; Miss Pickles spun on a dime and abandoned the cupcake to its fate. I broke it up into bits, thinking that might seem more familiar to the kitty palate. But after Esme Applebutter had one sniff, she turned on her fluffy haunches and sashayed to the end of the table, holding her tail up in a definitive gesture of flipping the bird.

So, there I was, alone at the table with a crumbled kittycake, thinking maybe I had a defective cake, or worse, defective cats. What does a cheesy catnip cupcake taste like anyway? I picked up a bit and before I could weigh the ramifications of my actions, I popped it in my mouth. Now, keep in mind, there are many human foods that cats and dogs simply can't eat. So I wasn't expecting a huge burst of flavor. But it seemed to me that there ought to have been at least a hint of cheese or the aroma of catnip. But no, it was just a very plain cake with the texture of sourdough and a hint of honey. Had I just paid 2 bucks for a bit of bread that my cats would never eat?

Not in my America! After some soul searching, I did what any determined cat owner would: I followed my cats around the apartment with the cupcake and pleaded with them to eat it. Pickles practically sprained her neck looking in the other direction when I put the plate in front of her again.

This from a cat that has tried in her day to steal bites of chimichangas, seasoned curly fries, olives, and even pieces of lettuce! On the brink of admitting defeat, I tried one last time, extending a piece to the minxy queen bee. And, Hallelujah! The cat had a little nibble. And a little nibble turned into a moderate nibble. And pretty soon, she was having a bit of a go at it.

Esme, on the other hand, continued to recoil as if I was putting a live cobra in her face.

I guess it goes to show that you can't please all the puddies all the time. Cats simply aren't as eager as dogs to try food that they're unfamiliar with. But in the end, Pickles was very happy with her share of the kittycake, and continued snacking on it throughout the evening. I have to interpret this as two paws up for the kittycake!  

Reminder: Do NOT feed your cat or dog chocolate. It will make them sick! The "pupcake" at Kickass Cupcakes is made of carob, which dogs can tolerate.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Lyndell's Bakery: You're Home!

You know a bakery is good if it's been around 100+ years. Vagaries of the economy notwithstanding, if you've been selling cake for a century, you're doing something right. And Lyndell's, open for business since 1887, is definitely doing something right. A ten minute walk from Davis Square on Broadway, Lyndell's let's you know about a block away what you're in for with its old-fashioned red and white sign of a jolly chef dancing. It's a portent of the good-natured ladies behind the counter and possibly of an urge to do a happy dance once you walk in the door. 


You will first be met with that intangible quality that can't quite be quantified in any other way than taking a deep breath and being met with the scent of doughnuts, cake, Italian cookies, cream puffs, pastries, pies, and bread all jumbled together. You know, the smell that thrilled you as a kid, when you walked into your local bakery and your mom told you to pick out a treat. Eons could be spent dwelling on that dilemma at Lyndell's, as I don't think it's possible to pick just one treat. Luckily, I didn't have to!

I went first for Lyndell's specialty, their half moon "cookies." I put that in quotes because the disk of light, fluffy cake is nothing like a cookie, and when frosted with thick, dark chocolate and vanilla creme icing, it really has left the realm of cookie far behind. Call it a flying saucer of cupcakey goodness, but don't call it a cookie, please.

When you've satisfied yourself as to the deliciousness of the moon cookies, proceed directly to the danishes, cinnamon buns, and other breakfast pastries. This is where the old world influence shows: yeasty bread laced with layers of cinnamon, twisted around dollops of raspberry jam and laced with sugar glaze. This, with a cup of Lyndell's coffee, is breakfast heaven. And judging from the number of goodies they make each morning (and sell that same day), a goodly portion of Somerville agrees.

After your moon cookie and danishes,  veer to the doughnuts that, in and of themselves, justify Lyndell's existence. Cool, creamy custard stuffed into a chewy dough and topped with a dark chocolate glaze: the Boston creme is the apex of what a doughnut can be. It turns out that bliss can be bought folks; and it only costs 95 cents at Lyndell's. You really only want to get one per person though, as this plump baby packs enough goodness to fill you up for the morning.

After you have oggled the cupcakes, considered hauling home several of their pies (including a lemon pie, which the Bakery Babe will have to sample on another round), and generally loaded yourself up with as many boxes of goodies as you can carry, the final touch is the old fashioned machine they use to throw twine over your bakery boxes. No kidding, a machine from the 1950s that ties twine for you.

I really couldn't ask anything further of a bakery, except perhaps some tables to sit at. But carrying your goodies home to eat is a small price for the ultimate comfort pastries.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Verna's Donuts: Bliss in a Bag

When I was a kid, my town was packed with doughnut joints that had sit-down counters and waitresses that wore beige polyester uniforms and poured coffee into brown ceramic mugs...yes, the 1970s, bad years for fashion, but good years for doughnuts. Well, Verna's has that kind of homemade goodness with the thrill of a little kitsch thrown in. Go into the unassuming building on Mass Ave. and you will find an oasis of plump, fresh, unimaginably good doughnuts gleaming off the trays at you.

Now, you may ask, what makes an outstanding doughnut? The first thing you will notice about Verna's is that the doughnuts are about double the size of a regular doughnut, with a little heft to them. Basically, they're the size of NY bagels and twice as heavy. You may look at the dazzling array and the cheap prices and think, "I'll take ten." But be warned, if you try to eat more than one of these bad girls in one sitting, you will soon realize just how filling they are. And that's part of the old-fashioned charm for me, the idea that you can buy a single doughnut and a plain cup of coffee for two dollars and walk away feeling that you're filled up and ready for the morning. 

Not that picking just one is easy. They have an army of tempting creations: the boston creme doughnut with custard filling and your-grandma's-fudge-frosting on top, the chocolate twister, the cake doughnuts like blonde inner-tubes covered with everything from snowy powdered sugar to cake crumbs to coconut. And the secret criteria by which I judge all doughnut joints: they offer not only raspberry jelly doughnuts, but the elusive lemon jelly doughnut.  

The ladies behind the counter are  goold ol' Massachusetts gals, and the few tables inside are filled with regulars. Just be sure you get there before noon...Verna's closes her doors at 4 p.m. on most days (earlier on the weekend), and you can bet those freshly made lemon jelly doughnuts are probably gone by noon.