We were discussing this at dinner the other night, and then someone posed this very pertinent question on a long Chowhound thread . When we were in New York recently, the line at Magnolia bakery was way out the door. I'm no cupcake fanatic, so I didn't try Magnolia. But I can attest that the cupcakes from Clementine, particularly the coconut, are quite wonderful.
Update: I tried Auntie Em's cupcakes today. I had high hopes for the red velvet, but I was a bit skeptical when I dropped it three times on the way into the house and it remained completely intact. The cream cheese frosting was nice, but the cake was indeed overly dense and a bit dry. I prefer Doughboys red velvet, which is lighter and comes in more of a cupcake-on-steroids size. Auntie Em's coconut cupcake was quite nice, slightly moister with a subtly coconutty flavor.
Auntie Em's coconut and red velvet cupcakes
According to the Chowhound posters, here's the reasons cupcakes have become so popular in the last few years:
1) they're a decadent splurge which are nonetheless portion-controlled;
2) Everyone is looking for comfort and joy, which cupcakes seem to provide, but most people don't have time to bake;
3) they tap into the whole inner-child "I'm going to lick off all the frosting first" thing;
4) it's a fad, which like every other, will soon peak and die.
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When I lived a couple of blocks from Magnolia in the Village, I was puzzled by the existence of huge lines while other, much better local bakeries wanted for business. (The fact that Magnolia was actively nasty to neighborhood children didn't help - the local third-graders all called the place Mongoloid Bakery.)
I finally figured out that what the regulars were hungry for were not the best cupcakes in the neighborhood, but the cupcakes most like the ones that their mothers used to make from a boxed mix. Add plastic-like buttercream frosting vividly tinted with food coloring and flavored with an artifical vanilla reek you could sniff from a block away, and you have the stuff of every six-year-old's red-state birthday party, festivity in the style of Duncan Hines.
The cupcakes at Auntie Em's have, indeed, gone a bit downhill in recent weeks. I didn't get it at first, but read on chowhound board that the one owner that used to do all the baking has officially left the building. Auntie Em's still has some respectable qualities, but sweets ain't one of 'em...
As for Magnolia's cupcakes---I've never understood the long lines. The cupcakes are dry as dirt and (as j gold says) the fake vanilla is a stench to be reckoned with. I'm all for the tapping into the cupcake memories from my youth---problem is, i had a mom who could actually bake!
i beg to disagree. the desserts at auntie em's are great. the cupcakes, cobblers, cookies, brownies, and the food. they have always had a baking team at night, and the woman who left was a half partner. i think with a place that does seasonal and different things all of the time there will be things people like and don't like. it is the nature of that type of place.
i was at auntie em's for lunch today. we stopped by because of the kcrw interveiw. (thanks) we had a cobb salad and a roasted vegetable torte with goat cheese, a piece of black berry pie and a red velvet cupcake. wow! great food, great desserts. what a find.
.. the regulars were hungry for the cupcakes most like the ones that their mothers used to make from a boxed mix. Add plastic-like buttercream frosting vividly tinted with food coloring and flavored with an artifical vanilla reek you could sniff from a block away
ABSOLUTELY! They bear the same relationship to gourmet baking as McDonalds does to gourmet beef