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The battle of the pastries: Doughnuts vs. cupcakes

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A cupcake from Molly's Cupcakes. (Flickr/Kevin Chang)

In June 2009, TruTv's blog network pitted writer Rachel Kramer Bussel (of Cupcakes Take The Cake) against writer Adam Wade to decide which was better: the cupcake or the doughnut. They ultimately "agreed to disagree" (a cop-out if I've ever heard one), but voters decided that the cupcake argument was stronger, 41 percent to 30.

What's there to glean from this relatively trivial and unscientific battle? That cupcakes vs. doughnuts are the latest contenders in the dessert wars. For WBEZ's Curious City, Claire Reeder wondered, “Who decides what the next hot pastry is?”

A quick history: The cupcake trend apparently began about five years ago. Writing for Slate, Daniel Gross explained that, "The current recession, which started in late 2007, laid the groundwork for the recent proliferation of cupcake stores in American cities. Lots of people know how to make really tasty cupcakes, which are simple products with cheap basic ingredients."

The doughnut trend seemed to spark off not long after that, around 2008 (though probably earlier, since the New York Times article on the subject was written that year, and we know that once it's the topic of a New York Times trend piece, it's probably been a thing for a while). Coincedentally, that was a month after the Times wondered if the cupcake industry had become too crowded — and used Krispy Kreme as an example of a company that had suffered because of overproliferation.

In Chicago, cupcakes seem to still be ubiquitous. Shops you'll happen upon during a walk around the city include (but are very much not limited to) Crumb’s, Cupcake Counter, Sugar Bliss, Sprinkles, Magnolia Bakery and Molly's Cupcakes.

In 2011, Josh Mogerman of Chicagoist bemoaned this loss, wondering: "Have cupcakes crowded doughnuts out of the City of Chicago? Are those treats now relics of a more yeasty yesteryear?" Which would imply that contrary to how it appeared elsewhere, doughnuts came first; cupcakes, second.

To see all the hubbub surrounding the Doughnut Vault, which was named one of America’s best donuts by Food & Wine magazine after a year of operation, would imply otherwise. The lines are so long that it took Christopher Borrelli of the Tribune five tries to finally get his fix, after which he quips, "Six doughnuts: $17. Never again. Besides, aren't meatballs the new thing?"

A loving homage to the Doughnut Vault by Mode Project

One of Jimmy MacMillan's confections. (Courtesy of JMPurePastry)

Perhaps meatballs are the new thing (though hopefully not for breakfast or dessert). But who decides such things? As a youth, I was a huge fan of cooking shows, but it never occurred to me that Jacques Torres could be changing the world with his fantastical fixations, like this ridiculous spun sugar witches hat for Halloween. Does the trickle-down theory work when it comes to dessert trends?

Wednesday on Afternoon Shift, we tried to get the answer to that question from WBEZ's food blogger Louisa Chu, who, when I first asked her about this topic, reminded me that "they keep trying to say macarons or whoopie pies are next." We also talked with Jimmy MacMillan, who is an executive pastry chef who organizes the Chicago Restaurant Pastry Competition (the 2nd annual event takes place this September).

"It's interesting to think that there may be one chef or creative think-tank that's responsible for the next coolest trends, but it's not so simple," said MacMillan. "It's kind of a collective unconscious of chefs working always to do things that are interesting for themselves. And a lot of your childhood memories come into play as we know, and then a way to refine those. So at some point, we all kind of come to the same conclusions."

"For donuts, there's been a few examples out there, like the Doughnut Plant in New York City and you kind of think 'Wow, why don't we have those in Chicago?'" he continued. "And now we do; we have lots of wonderful donuts."

"I think it is actually chefs working who kind of push the envelope," said Chu. "The other side too is also actually food media. It's kind of us who are out here who are covering the trends. And then also, what looks good -- well, that kind of sells a lot -- and us eaters. I know that chefs and the food media there for awhile have been saying 'Cupcakes are dead!'"

Chu clarified: "It's a lot of different sources, but I'd love to find that Wizard of Oz pastry chef too."

But how do these trends get to Chicago? Or do they start here?

"It is somewhat true that when I travel the coasts, you do see some things first," said MacMillan. "Chicago's great at innovating what's already out there. So if a Chicago chef does something, we're hyper-creative, so we're probably going to do it in a different way, and we have our own way and we have our own clientele and we have that thing that we're known for and that's for being dynamic and changing it and I can't think of any better group to be with. So sometimes it starts on the coasts...but things are out there and they're floating around and they end up in Chicago when the time is right."

MacMillan has his own prediction for the new trend, one that was surprising to Chu: "Gelato in ways that you've never seen before," he said. "Molded gelato for plated dessert; magnificent flavors of much higher quality...Cupcakes are familiar, donuts are familiar, but this style of frozen dessert gelato will be organic, small farm, very artisan,  hormone-free dairy, small batches. It'll be fantastic."

And though Chu was surprised by MacMillan's answer (though she quickly cited Swiss Chard gelato as something that's been done in Europe), question-asker Claire Reeder wasn't.

"I kind of had a sense that this might be's really hot around here right now. Everybody's looking for something cold. I've seen some gelato places pop up, so I'll have to keep my eyes peeled." 

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