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Wednesday, Jan. 13, 2010

Making Milwaukee Sweeter, One Cupcake at a Time

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The cupcake, that humble single-serving dessert of bake sales and birthday parties, has passed the tipping point of culinary trend, and gained momentum as a full blown culinary epidemic. Many date the cupcake craze to 2000, with the airing of a “Sex and the City” episode in which Carrie bites into a pink-frosted cupcake outside Magnolia Bakery on New York’s Bleecker Street. Since then, hip “boutique” bakeries specializing in killer cupcakes have been sprouting up all over the country, and they seem to be riding out the recession. In 2007 Sandy Ploy, the senior art director at Greendale-based Taste of Home magazine, was researching cupcakes for an article the magazine was publishing. Inspired by the cupcake zeitgeist, the California-native started a blog titled “No One Puts Cupcake in a Corner,” her musings on all things cupcake.

A year later, Ploy and her friends were drawn to the newly opened Fratello’s in the Third Ward for the chef’s notorious cupcakes. One friend warned the young server, “You know you have the Milwaukee Cupcake Queen here,” pointing to Ploy. After a long wait, Chef Jeff Reinke himself walked out to the table to serve the queen his carefully prepared cakes in full-force. Soon, the two were exchanging baking smack-downs every other week during the informal cupcake bouts they were hosting with friends. Ploy put forward her trademark bacon and dark chocolate cupcake. He had her try one of his signatures, a cake flavored with milk-steeped tobacco. Other bakers began to show, and by April 2008, the first official IronCupcake: Milwaukee challenge was launched at the riverfront restaurant.

For each monthly event, competing bakers create their cupcakes according to a given ingredient, often unique flavors and textures not typically found in your grandma’s cupcakes, like wine, soda, curry, wasabi and mustard, to name a few. Last summer, Ploy and Reinke began asking local businesses to partner with them for the challenge, and they, in turn, would pattern their ingredient challenge after the business, and give a portion of the cover to a local charity. So when IronCupcake: Milwaukee partnered with Boswell Books, the organizers challenged the contestants to create their cupcakes based on a book title or character. For the challenge, competitors bring eight to 10 dozen mini cupcakes for sampling, and for a mere $7 cover charge, anyone can be a judge.

Over the course of a year, IronCupcake: Milwaukee moved from Fratello’s to the Irish Pub to accommodate the multiplying cupcake crowd. Event planner Karen Schoenung of My Party Places noticed that with an average of about 200 judges, and 20 to 25 bakers at each competition, IronCupcake was clearly outgrowing its digs. “There were more people than space,” Schoenung remembers, and she offered to host the event at The Moct, a spacious renovated industrial warehouse, also in the Third Ward.

For this month’s competition held on Monday, Jan. 18, IronCupcake: Milwaukee teamed up with Blatz Liquor to challenge the contestants to make the best cupcake using beer as an ingredient. Tasters will have the opportunity to win prizes donated by Wisconsin breweries, and a portion of the proceeds will go to the Wisconsin Brewers Guild. Michelle Garcia, Food Network Cake Challenge Baker, and owner of Smash Cake and Bleeding Heart Bakery in Chicago, will be on hand as a celebrity judge. “I have been a fan and follower of the progression of the competition from the beginning,” Garcia says. “I am looking forward to seeing what new and exciting flavors and techniques these folks have come up with using both cupcakes and beer, two of my favorite things on earth.”

The Milwaukee Cupcake Queen, who has visited more than 60 cupcake shops, and uses the word cupcake as a verb, has inspired a number of spin-off competitions in cities such as London, Las Vegas, and San Francisco. She also hosts an online recipe and photo competition called IronCupcake: Earth, which has attracted more than 425 bakers from over 20 countries. For Ploy, the joy of her reign is in meeting the cupcake aficionados of the world. Her growing success, which could easily include sovereignty on the Food Network, is just icing on the cupcake.

IronCupcake: www.ironcupcakemilwaukee.com and www.ironcupcakeearth.com

The Moct Bar: 414-273-6628/ 240 E. Pittsburgh Ave.,/ www.themoct.com

My Party Places: www.mypartyplaces.com