I hope you’re ready for an epic blog post. Usually my posts are a quick read – just photos, short description/story, and recipe. However, this is the story of my first baking competition, which was a 3 day marathon of baking, frosting, and then serving cupcakes to over 1,000 people, so it requires a little more explanation.
Where do I begin? I’ve mentioned that I was in a cupcake competition a few times here and my Facebook fans and Twitter followers were able to follow along with some of my journey. Quick recap for new readers: I was invited to participate in the 10th annual Sacramento Chef Challenge. This year they added a new event, Battle Cupcakes, which pitted pros and amateurs head to head in a competition akin to the TV show Cupcake Wars. Luckily, we found out the secret ingredient ahead of time and were able to bake the cupcakes and create a display at home. The day of the battle we had 3 hours to put it all together, frost the cupcakes and serve them to 1,000+ people.
The theme of the competition was “Hot Summer’s Night” and the secret ingredient was ginger, so we had to tie that all together in the cupcake flavor and display. After lot of recipe testing, I ended up with a Ginger Root Beer Float Cupcake and a retro drive-in movie theater display, both ideas from my brilliant friend Lauren. She and another great friend, Hannah, became my trusty cupcakin’ sidekicks for the battle.
You’re probably wondering how I managed to make cupcakes for 1,000 people from my home kitchen. Thankfully, we only had to have a piece for each person, since they had to try several cupcakes. I chose to make regular sized cupcakes and cut them into fourths, rather than make 1000 mini cupcakes. That’s still 250+ cupcakes, and I actually ended up making many more…
See, despite the fact that I had this (extremely organized and clean) checklist for each batch of cupcakes, I forgot to double one of my ingredients when I doubled the recipe. Not just any ingredient either – I forgot the double the secret ingredient! I ended up with 8 dozen cupcakes with half as much ginger as they were supposed to have. Which meant they didn’t taste like ginger at all. Ugh. Those cupcakes went into the display and we did serve a few at the end, but it was a painfully realization at the time.
This is how much root beer and concentrate I had at first. After the ginger debacle, I actually had to buy more.
After testing out recipes using different combinations of ginger beer, root beer, fresh ginger, and ground ginger, I found that root beer and ground ginger came together for the best flavor. I tried several brands of root beer and settled on Capt’n Eli’s Root Beer, which I found locally at Nugget Market. It’s sweetened with cane sugar and has wintergreen oil, anise, vanilla and other spices and flavorings, which gives it a strong, spicy root beer flavor. The cupcakes came out extremely moist and light, with a strong root beer flavor at first and lingering ginger aftertaste.
Baking 360 cupcakes took me 3 sessions in the kitchen, each a few hours at a time, over 2 days. It wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be – it was actually a lot of fun (minus the ginger fiasco). I find baking very calming and simple: measure, pour, stir, measure, pour, stir. You just follow the directions and end up with a fluffy, moist cupcake. It’s not unlike magic.
The fun part came on day 3. The morning of the event I set out to make 27 batches of frosting (I wanted some extra just in case). That means 27 sticks of butter. Paula Deen status, right? If you ever need this much butter, I recommend going to Costco – it only cost me around $12! After mixing up all that buttercream, I became an expert at filling a piping bag. Usually I make a real mess at doing that, but practice makes perfect. I ditched the method that uses a tall glass to hold up the bag and simply held the bag with one hand and filled with the other. Sounds obvious, but I always thought the glass method was better.
After making a crazy amount of frosting, Hannah came over to finish up a video for our display and make a drive-in sign. She make a vintage-looking video of a behind the scenes glimpse of me baking the cupcakes for our drive-in theater’s movie:
From left to right: sparkly drive-in sign, miniature concessions stand, tiny fences surrounding dirt scrapbook paper, fake moss, and an Ipad movie screen, and at the far right a Cupcaketree cupcake stand lined with red ribbon.
After packing up 2 cars full of cupcakes, frosting and display materials, we set off for InAlliance in Sacramento. We began to set-up the display at 3pm and the competition (frosting the cupcakes and passing them out) began at 4pm.
After we set up our display, we were able to look around at our competitors’ displays as well. We found out they all made 3-4 different flavors and some had much bigger displays than ours. At this point, I started getting really nervous. I only made 1 flavor (the info we were given didn’t say anything about multiple flavors) and our display wasn’t very grand. It was cute, but it looked very homemade and not very impressive until you got up close and could see the details.
Above, left: you can see Vanilla Bean Gourmet Cupcakes used a backdrop and had a large homemade cupcake stand. Middle: Jennifer Urias made a Gillian Island’s themed display and tied in 3 mini cupcake flavors to it. Right: Sassy Sweets by Monique used brown sugar to imitate sand (which made the room smell heavenly!) and had a large tower for cupcake trays.
Photos by Melissa Johnson, via her Instagram: bestfriendsforfrosting. Left: me with our display as we were setting up. Right: Me, Melissa and the Cupcaketree.
Melissa Johnson, from Best Friends for Frosting, was one of the judges and stopped by our table to check out our display, Instagram some photos, and taste a cupcake. It was my second time meeting her and she is so sweet!
Lauren, me, and Hannah with our display
Here is our finished display. I added mini cupcakes to the concessions stand (see below), retro toy cars to the cupcakes in front of the movie screen, cupcakes with red striped straws to the Cupcaketree, Hannah’s movie playing on the screen, and a tray of cupcake pieces for people to sample. We also wore some fabulous aprons that Lauren made with my blog logo.
Photo by Melissa Johnson, via her Instagram: bestfriendsforfrosting
A close-up of my favorite part, the mini concessions stand with mini hot dog, root beer float and hamburger cupcakes. A lot of people stopped to ooh and ahh over the cute stand and the cupcakes topped with retro cars (not pictured).
Here are my teammates in action. Lauren helped keep the cupcake samples flowing while Hannah drew the crowds in with her enthusiastic explanation of our cupcake display and flavor. I wish I had taken a video of her doing her pitch – she was unstoppable!
A view of the room from our table. It was a nonstop crowd for a few hours as people waited patiently to try each cupcake. We had a great response to the cupcakes. One family even went around the room, tried each one, and came back to explain in detail why they liked mine the most. They said that the others were fine, but that they didn’t have much flavor. The great thing about these cupcakes is the flavor keeps going, plus they’re extremely moist.
I met people who said they didn’t like ginger, others who didn’t like root beer, but they all enjoyed the cupcake (after we worked hard to convince them to just try a piece). The last hour or so of the competition, we had a endless flow of people who came in saying they things like: “I was sent to try the root beer float cupcake.” “I was told I had to try it.” “Someone told me this was the one to vote for.” I can’t even count how many people came back for seconds (and thirds) after trying it. At this point, my hopes started really rising that we were going to place in the top 3.
After 4 hours of slicing and serving cupcakes, we were finally done. And then the waiting began…it took them longer than expected to count the ballots, so we had to stand around and wait, wondering who had won. The decision was 50% from the public’s voting and 50% by judges (Melissa Johnson, Kristy DeVaney, local news anchors Melissa Crowley and Bryan May, John Paul Khourny, Certified Culinary Specialist and Executive Chef, and Russell Michel, Executive Chef and 2010 Sacramento Chef Challenge Champion).
After much suspense it was announced…
3rd place: Jennifer Urias
2nd place: Carlos Mares (Vanilla Bean Gourmet Cupcakes)
1st place: Stephanie Nuccitelli (!!!)
I ran into a few judges after the competition and they commented on how much they enjoyed my cupcake. I think the fact that I focused on one flavor and really nailed it was to my advantage. I can’t tell you how many batches I baked and how many ways I tweaked the recipe until it was just right. One judge mentioned that you could really taste the secret ingredient, which is the whole point of having a secret ingredient to showcase.
I was overjoyed at the immense reaction I got from my cupcakes. I love baking and I knew that I was a decent baker, but it’s a completely different thing to have dozens of strangers (including professional chefs) gush over your product. It was a very special day and made all the recipe testing, 8 dozen messed up cupcakes, hard work and frustration worth it.
I have to give a huge thank you to my friends for helping out. Without Lauren and Hannah, I absolutely could not have done the battle or come in first place. Lauren kept things running smoothly behind the booth while Hannah worked tirelessly pitching people the cupcakes nonstop for almost 4 hours. You’re both amazing friends and I owe you each a huge favor!
If you got all the way through that, I’m impressed. Thanks for reading! I will be posting the Ginger Root Beer Float Cupcake recipe in a couple of days so you can try it out yourself.
Edited 7/3/12: The recipe is now published – see my Award-Winning Ginger Root Beer Float Cupcakes post.