When Paula offered me a sample of her charming cupcakes (pictured above), I of course jumped at the chance! So last weekend when she was in Bethesda delivering some cupcake samples to a few brides-to-be, we met up and chatted for a little before I headed off with my box of delicious treats!
Paula has over 20 tantalizing flavors available on her menu. The little sugar flowers garnishing the top of each cupcake are adorable, and Paula handmakes them all herself. As a matter of fact, in terms of design, Couture Cupcakes prides itself on being able to create pretty much anything their customers can come up with. Additional costs do apply of course, but you can view the gallery on the website to check out some of the past creations. I've copied and pasted a few of them below.
Now onto my favorite part - tasting the cupcakes! The first one I tried was Pamela. Pamela, known as the brownie cupcake, is a chocolate brownie cupcake with vanilla buttercream and a caramel swirl. This one is definitely on the top of my favorite cupcakes of all time list. The buttercream frosting is not at all sweet, which was surprising considering it's buttercream, but that's a good thing here because the brownie itself is so rich. Moist and gooey with a chocolate center and a caramel kick, it was delicious.
Next up, Summer. Summer is a lemon rum cake with a homemade lemon curd center topped with a lemon buttercream. With all those lemon components, you might assume this cupcake would be overpowering, but it's not. The cake was very dense, like a pound cake, but was still nice and moist. The frosting was the same as the one used on Pamela, but obviously with a lemon flavor. The lemon curd center was sweet and almost pudding like. Lemon-lovers and non-lemon lovers alike with enjoy this.
Sophie. This chocolate cake cupcake topped with a Cookies n' Cream buttercream was decent. While the very mild buttercream worked great on Pamela & Summer, I thought this cupcake could have used a bit sweeter frosting. This cupcake was by no means bad, I think people will enjoy it especially if they aren't a big fan of sweet frostings, but in my opinion it was not as great as the former two had been.
Maya. Cinnamon is one of my favorite flavors, so I was really looking forward to this one. Maya is a spicecake topped with cinnamon infused buttercream. The cake here was great; when you cut the cupcake open, it's amazing how the smell of cinnamon from this one little cupcake actually fills the air! The cake was strong and fantastic. So I hate to say that the cinnamon infused buttercream didn't hit the spot for me with this one, but I thought it could have been a little bit richer. Maybe it was just that the cake was so bold that it made the buttercream come across a little bland. It didn't really bother me though, I just wiped off the buttercream and ate the cake alone!
Lady Bourman. This vanilla cake cupcake has a homemade custard filling topped with chocolate ganache; it's Paula's Boston Cream Pie cupcake. The custard filling was great, not too sweet and with a pudding-like consistency. The vanilla cake was moist and buttery, and the chocolate ganache frosting was rich and a nice change up from all the buttercream frostings I'd been eating! I really liked this one.
Ruby is a chocolate cake topped with strawberry buttercream and a strawberry coulis. The buttercream was once again very mild; the basic buttercream used on the first four I tried but with a strawberry twist. The chocolate cake was moist; I think it was the same chocolate cake used in Sophie. While I liked this cupcake, I was hoping for a little more here...maybe one of the signature fillings or some bits of fresh fruit? The cake was good but because the frosting is so mild, all you can really taste is the chocolate cake.
Shannon. This cupcake is a vanilla cake topped with milk chocolate buttercream. For my personal taste the cake was a little too dense for what I like a vanilla cake to be, but that aside, the vanilla flavor was good and the cake was moist. I think this is one flavor where a more bold frosting would've made a huge difference. If I had a choice between Shannon and one of the other 6 flavors above, I would choose one of the others.
My overall review? Couture Cupcakes look fabulous; owner Paula Domenge is truly what her title says - a cupcake designer. But she's also a fantastic baker. Aside from my opinion that the Shannon vanilla cake could've been a little fluffier, all of the cake portions of the cupcakes were terrific. Many had strong, unique flavors that I have yet to taste in a lot of the storefront cupcakeries in the area...and that brownie cupcake is to die for!
If you read all of the above reviews, you notice that my main discrepency was with the buttercream frosting. Paula uses a very mild buttercream, which works out great on the cupcakes with a strong and bold cake, but on the more basic cake flavors like vanilla and chocolate I personally would've liked to taste something a little sweeter or stronger in flavor. I keep saying "I personally" because I know frostings are all a matter of taste. While some people have a sweet tooth and enjoy the sugary goodness of a sweet buttercream, others can't handle or simply don't like it, some even going as far as to wipe it off. So once again, I believe that frostings are all a matter of personal taste.
You should definitely give Couture Cupcakes a shot. And you don't need a special reason, there's always an excuse to order some cupcakes! Friends coming in town for the weekend, hosting a party, giving someone a gift, catering a meeting, whatever the event, I really encourage you to pick up the phone and give Paula a call. You won't be disappointed! For more on Paula and Couture Cupcakes, check out the interview below:
1. What inspired you to start Couture Cupcakes?
When I lived in Beverly Hills, the now famous Sprinkles had just opened across the street from my hair salon. I couldn't resist their cupcakes; I would indulge myself every time I went for my monthly hair appointment. When I moved to DC, I noticed there were no cupcakeries here and the bakeries that had cupcakes just didn't make them the way Sprinkles did. I yearned for my cupcakes so I started making my own using my family's cake recipes. I started Couture Cupcakes after working on an ad for a local jewelry store. When presented with the task of creating an ad for a 9 carat diamond, I had to think of something as desirable and feminine to pair it with. Cupcakes came to mind immediately and I enlisted the help of a local pastry chef to make my visual come to fruition. The two of us worked for a month on creating an intricate and ornate cupcake to put the ring on top of. The tag for the ad was "Just A Little Frosting." You can see the ad on my blog: cupcake-goddess.blogspot.com
2. How long have you been baking and decorating? I see that your mother played a part in helping you grow your menu of delicious flavors. Is baking big in the Domenge family?
I have been baking for as long as I can remember. In my house, my mother has an old snap shot of a little red headed toddler stirring a pot of custard- I think I was 3 years old when that picture of me was taken. Baking and cooking are the fibers of my family. Being French Mexican meant hours upon hours in the kitchen preparing gastronomic masterpieces with my Grandmother and Mother. When I launched Couture Cupcakes, it was only natural to include my Mother since I consider her to be the Mexican version of Julia Child.
3. Before you moved to DC, you lived in Beverly Hills. How would you compare the west coast cupcake craze to that in DC?
The beginnings on the west coast were very different from the East Coast, well DC at least. Sprinkles launched and everyone thought she was crazy. People in California watch every calorie! But when she opened 2 hour lines formed daily outside her tiny Santa Monica Blvd storefront. It was shocking....until you tried one, then you understood. She made the ideal cupcakes and great original flavors (like the Chai Tea Latte, my favorite) and no one cared about how fattening those delicious cakes were. But we all braced ourselves for the trend to end. Since everything in L.A is cyclical, trends stop as soon as they start. But not with cupcakes. Soon other cupcakeries launched like Yummy Cupcakes and Crumbs, but unlike DC, the flavors were totally different. It seemed to me that every cupcakery wanted to be very very different from the next. So they made an unbelievable effort to be extraordinarily different. Here, I find that the cupcake craze is based on the cupcake itself, not the quality of them and the uniqueness of the flavors. When I moved here I was a bit disappointed since I was spoiled with a large selection gourmet cupcakes.
4. I love the naming scheme for your cupcakes. How do you come up with new names and new flavors?
It all started with my friend Duracell. I knew her from boarding school. She was nicknamed Duracell because her hair was the same color as the top of a Duracell battery. She loved carrot cake. I mean, LOVED carrot cake. This was the first flavor I developed and I just thought of her when I made it. I thought it would be wonderful to name each cupcake after someone I knew because it would give the flavors personalities. I create new flavors from listening to clients and friends. Sometimes I find flavors when I listen to childhood stories or other times by talking to friends about a recent trip they took where they ate something memorable. I always credit my clients and friends who inspire me to create flavors by naming cupcakes after them. And they love it! Pamela was my latest creation and that one was named after my dear friend Pam who took such great care of me after a horrible car accident when I was in L.A. She helped deliver brownies I made to the firemen that helped me. So, the Pamela cupcake, a brownie cupcake, had to be named Pamela (Pam).
5. On your website, www.couture-cupcakes.com, you mention that customers can submit their ideas for new and fun flavors, and possibly even have the cupcake named after them if it makes the cut! Has anyone done this yet?
Yes! A new flavor called Alani was submitted by a client who's daughter is named Alani. She asked me for a coconut cupcake, but it had to have pineapple in it because she loved pineapple and she was from Lanai (which is where Dole pineapples are grown, or were grown). She asked that if I created them, I would name them Alani. So I did! Patti, Kayla and Ruby all came from people who submitted requests and ideas.
6. Are there still new flavors to come?
Yes, of course! The holidays are coming up and we will be launching our seasonal flavors for Thanksgiving and the Holidays. I'm hoping to have them up on the site by October. You can expect a apple cinnamon cupcake, a pumpkin spice cupcake, a maple leaf and walnut cupcake and if perfected, a sweet potato cupcake. Yum!!!
7. Speaking of flavors, what is your favorite flavor of cupcake?
Hmmm, that's a tough one. I love all of them. But I have to say that my favorites are those with fillings. There's nothing more divine than to bite into a cupcake to find a gooey filling inside.
8. What do you think separates Couture Cupcakes from the competition?
A cupcake is ordinary, a Couture Cupcake is extraordinary. There is nothing better than taking a simple traditional dessert and making it an artistic and edible marvel. Whether baking 400 cupcakes for a wedding or 3 dozen for a toddler's birthday party, every order gives me the opportunity to create something unique. I tried to model my company like the ones on the West Coast. All of my cupcakes are gourmet cupcakes, some of the flavors are as unique as the presentation. I researched for 2 years to find the best ingredients to make the best cupcakes. I don't use Valrhona for example. I find it a bit bitter. Instead I combine two French chocolates since, to me at least, the two yield the best chocolate cupcake and frosting. My frosting is not just butter and confectioners sugar, it's a gourmet buttercream that takes time to make and must be cooked to ensure perfection. But I don't stop at taste. Presentation is everything.
9. Are there any future plans to open up a storefront?
Oh yes! We are looking to open a storefront the beginning of next year. Where? I have narrowed it down to two cities. Now it's a matter of finding the right spot.
10. Anything else you'd like to add?
I hope that the cupcake craze continues to grow on the East Coast and that more and more people become inspired to open their own cupcakeries. Or even better for anyone to walk into their kitchen and create their own unique flavors and creative presentations. Cupcakes are fun and a wonderful way to get children excited about baking and cooking. It just takes a little time and a whole lot of imagination.