When Jody Hall opened the original Cupcake Royale/Vérité Cafe in Madrona in December 2003, she says it was the first cupcake bakery to open outside New York. Has it really only been five and a half years? An entire generation of toddlers are being raised by parents who had cupcake wedding tiers. Cupcake cookbooks and tattoos now abound. In the past few months alone, Seattle has seen Trophy Cupcakes expand to a second location, the Yellow Leaf Cupcake Co. arrive in Belltown, and in two weeks, the grand opening of Cupcake Royale's fourth location at 1111 E. Pike (next to Boom Noodle).
Since the beginning, Cupcake Royale has been known for its good timing and smart marketing, but the reputation of the cupcakes themselves didn't stand up so well to the increased competition. Hall's been getting some press lately for hiring pastry chef Sue McCown (Earth & Ocean, Coco La Ti Da) to revamp her basic vanilla and chocolate recipes, which were originally developed by Hall and another non-commercial baker -- and in need of tweaking. I wasn't a big fan of the plain Cupcake Royale cakes (though I'd stop in for carrot cake and red velvet). But this week I tasted the new version, and found McCown's master recipes much, much better -- the vanilla crumb is finer and more delicate and the chocolate cake moister, even after a day sitting out on the counter. But that's not the only change Hall and new head baker Melanie Bonadore have been making behind the scenes.
They've just gone locavore.
"We been watching what's been going on in food, and were keenly aware of the shift toward local food," says Hall. "Melanie's background is at Essential Baking, but before that she worked on a Skagit Valley farm. We've been wanting to buy more stuff locally." These days their boxes are printed in Ballard, the butter and canola oil comes from Washington dairies, but the crucial part of making their cupcakes locally sourced was finding a supplier for Washington wheat.
Even though Washington is one of the nation's top wheat-producing states, switching to local flour isn't just a matter of heading to the store and picking up bags of Stone-Buhr. The more you scale up a baking recipe from, say, a 12-cupcake batch, the more precise you have to be with your measuring and mixing. Cupcakes are especially tricky to measure and mix, says Bonadore, since professional bakers are making hundreds of individual cakes at one time, and if you mix the baking soda in unevenly, for instance, it kills an entire batch.
In addition, commercial bakers don't just ask for "all-purpose" or "cake flour," they have to specify precise levels of protein and gluten in the flour. "The recipes are so particular that if the protein is off a little bit, it really affects the batch," Bonadore continues. "Plus we don't put any additives in the batter like many bakeries do to level [the protein content] out." In fact, the protein/gluten figures change seasonally depending on the variety of wheat grown, and large-scale bakeries have to keep adjusting their recipes throughout the year.
Up until this past weekend, Cupcake Royale had to rely on large-scale distributors to provide the specific flour they needed, and their distributors couldn't specify where the wheat was grown. A few months ago, Hall's friend Kristin Hyde, of the sustainable-food marketing firm Good Food Strategies hooked the bakers up with Shepherd's Grain, a flour manufacturer that buys wheat from 33 Eastern Washington farmers dedicated to sustainable (i.e., till-free) farming practices. Shepherd's Grain was able to custom-mill a cake flour to Hall and Bonadore's exact specs.
"That allows us to have 66 percent local sourcing," says Hall. "The only ingredients not local are sugar and vanilla, plus food colorings and flavorings in the frosting." More and more, Bonadore is celebrating the local-foods connection through the monthly special cupcakes. June featured Rainier cherries, this month Skagit Valley strawberries. August will highlight either raspberries or peaches, and September wild huckleberries from Foraged & Found.