you had me at hello, or, how i almost fingerprinted somebody



Now then. Where were we?

Oh yes. When last we spoke, I was licking the last bits of chocolate ganache and vanilla cream off my fingers after leaving Buzz Bakery in Alexandria. Since our first foray into cupcake madness began at a place that carried a variety of baked goods, I decided it was time to zero in on a few upscale cupcakeries.

THE HUNT

On a rainy Saturday, we headed over to Dupont Circle in D.C., to check out Hello Cupcake and Red Velvet. Never mind that it was almost impossible to find a parking space on the crowded streets of this area, that it was rainy and windy and we had to walk blocks and blocks to reach these places — no, never you mind. We did this all for YOU, after all, and you’re so worth it, right? Besides, it never hurts to burn a few calories before pigging out delicately tasting cupcake finery.☺

It really is pleasant to be walking along and all of a sudden see a sign that says, "Hello Cupcake." Yes it is. I felt a good vibe the moment I walked in. There’s a long, white carerra marble counter on the left where the cupcakes are displayed, a little seating area on the right, and would you look at those pink chandeliers! It doesn’t feel like you’re walking into a "bakery" at all. More like a little boutique.


Don’t you love the pretty cupcake panels on the wall?


Penny’s architect husband, Bill Bonstra, designed the shop.

Hello Cupcake is owned by Penny Karas, who learned the art of pastry-making from her Greek family. Everything is made from scratch with only the freshest, highest quality ingredients, and they offer about 15 flavors each day. It’s always interesting to see the cupcake names, which sound like characters in a very delicious story: Velvet Elvis, Chococo, Lucy, Peppermint Penny, Pink Lemonade, Heart of Darkness. It was good to see gluten-free and vegan cupcakes on their menu, too. They all go for $3 each.

       
           We love the friendly staff at Hello Cupcake!

Peanut Butter Blossom is their bestseller. The girl behind the counter said You Tart (a "sassy lemon cake with lemon cream cheese frosting and yellow sugar sprinkled on top") is her favorite. So we got one of those lemony babies, a Bailey’s Irish Dream (since I’m Irish), a Raspberry Beret, and for Len, a Chococo. Neither of us cares for peanut butter in our desserts, so we passed on the Peanut Butter Blossom.

Next stop, Red Velvet. Here is where we learn that presentation and atmosphere make a big difference. There are actually two Red Velvet locations — one in Dupont Circle, the other in Penn Quarter. I sure hope the Penn Quarter shop is nicer than the one we saw, which can only be described as BOMB SHELTER. 

It was hard to find, because it’s a teeny tiny shop located in the basement of a brick townhouse. Apparently, they share a space with Tangy Sweet Frozen Yogurt. You step down to enter; it’s dark, stark, and cement-y. A little seating area on the right, stand-up counters on the left, sort of like fingerprinting stations in an FBI office (not that I’ve ever been fingerprinted). ☺

We were the first ones in the shop (they didn’t open till noon), and the guy behind the counter didn’t believe in smiling very much. Come on — you’re selling cupcakes — smiling is a pre-requisite! Now, I had done my homework beforehand, and I had my heart set on their trademark cupcake (Southern Belle), a chocolate vegan/gluten free cupcake called Black Velvet, and B-Day (almond scented butter cake with milk chocolate ganache frosting). "We don’t have Black Velvet today," muttered Mr. Smiley Pants. 

Was he insane? Didn’t he realize the danger of saying such a thing to a middle-aged woman with sore feet who had come all the way from Virginia and waited in the rain? I had my camera! I could report him to the authorities! I could also fingerprint him on one of those strange blocks sticking out from the wall.

"So what else do you have?" I asked sweetly, dreaming of Hello Cupcake again. 

"We have Carrot Cake, Vanilla Bean, Cookies ‘n Cream, and Devil’s Food." (Still no smile.)

"Which do you like best?"

"Devil’s Food."

So Devil’s Food (chocolate buttermilk cake with bittersweet ganache frosting) it was, because I am, after all, trying to find the best chocolate cupcake in our area. Never did find out what their bestselling cupcake is. Could be that the sirens, or the sound of planes flying overhead, or Mr. Smiley Pants diving for cover had something to do with it. Still, if I were confined to a Bomb Shelter, I’d want my cupcakes close by.

THE TASTING

*rubs hands together and licks lips*

Hello Cupcake: Yes, I would definitely go back! The cupcakes were all very fresh and moist, the flavors varied and interesting without being overly sweet. Beautiful crumb texture — light and not doughy.

Len and I both liked the chocolate cake in the Raspberry Beret, but decided a fruity frosting wasn’t our thing. Pretty little cupcake, though.

The Bailey’s Irish Dream was wonderful. It’s Guinness-infused chocolate cake with Bailey’s Irish Cream frosting. Love the rich, full-bodied flavor of the cake. It made dark chocolate even darker, and conjured up memories of Dublin. Yum!

But my favorite Hello Cupcake cupcake, easily my favorite cupcake thus far, is the You Tart! I’m so glad the girl behind the counter suggested it, because I love love loved it. I know I’m supposed to be judging chocolate, but somehow this lemony morsel really made me sit up and take notice. It prompted a steady stream of "mmmmmmm’s" all the way through.
 

Yes, I have a history of lemon meringue pie love and lemon curd tarts love and lemon bars love. When I bit into the You Tart, it was refreshing, a burst of sunshine, a lift on a rainy day. Something magical happens when you blend lemon with sugar. The lemony cream cheese frosting — oh, so smooth, the cake melted in my mouth.

Red Velvet: My favorite was the Southern Belle (as it should be). It was very fresh and moist, the cream cheese frosting not overly sweet, and the cake had a nice texture. Len and I agreed it was better than Buzz’s Red Velvet (freshness factor could have something to do with it). Overall, a fine cupcake, wouldn’t mind at all if it wanted to follow me home on a regular basis.

B-Day (short for birthday), is a classic cupcake evoking childhood birthday party memories. I do like almond flavoring in cookies and cakes, and enjoyed this cupcake, but it wasn’t exceptional. Also didn’t seem as fresh as the Southern Belle, and it was camera shy.

And what of the Devil’s Food, as recommended by our favorite smiley cupcake pusher? Kind of a let-down, to tell the truth. Cake a little doughy, ganache okay, but hard to eat it all because it was a little too rich. 

Hmmm. The jury’s still out on Red Velvet in Dupont Circle. First impressions mean a lot. Meanwhile, I’m still jonesing for the Black Velvet.

The search continues.

*This post has been brought to you by Chococo, Len’s favorite.

More Cupcakes and Bake Shop Treats here.

Copyright © 2010 Jama Rattigan of jama rattigan’s alphabet soup. All rights reserved.