The thing about cupcakes is that they are cute, and sometimes tasty, but there can be a wide variance in taste and price. For this terribly difficult assignment, I picked five local shops that make cupcakes on a regular basis and then evaluated the cupcakes on taste, appearance and price. To make the challenge even more difficult, I transported the cupcakes to a second location to see how they did with travel — \ sometimes you want to eat a cupcake out, but sometimes you want to bring a cupcake to a party or save for cupcake “emergencies.” 

Before I embark on the odyssey that is cupcake tasting, let’s begin with a brief history of the cupcake. The cupcake, perhaps unsurprisingly, does not appear on the scene as what we would consider a “modern cupcake” on a particular date, instead iterations of the cupcake begin in the late 1700s when cakes baked in hearth ovens took a long time to bake. Hearth ovens are difficult to regulate for an exact temperature and heat uniformity, so large cakes often took a long time to bake and sections tended to burn. From this, the cupcake emerged as a time saver in which individual cakes took less time to bake and were less likely to burned because cakes in hotter parts of the oven could be removed individually. While the name of the cupcake is theorized to have come about as either because cupcakes were baked in cups or because of the measuring method used – again cups — the tasty little cakes caught on and became part of the cultural zeitgeist.

The cupcake really became a U.S. phenomenon in the 1950s when muffin tins and paper liners become widely available to consumers, along with boxed baking mixes. According to George Mussen in Scientific American, the humble cupcake was introduced in the U.S. in 1826 and took off with numerous fillings, toppings, and formulations. The small size of the cupcake along with its portability made it a natural choice for American ingenuity. While the original cupcake recipe is thought to have been a downsized English pound cake recipe, the humble cupcake has gone on to high status in the U.S., with the proliferation of cupcake shops and a slight cupcake craze in the U.S. following Sex in the City’s cupcake-focused characters in the late 1990s (season 3, episode 5). Cupcakes continue to be an icon of cultural prominence in the U.S. from the humble vanilla birthday cupcake to the cupcake proposal (red velvet with diamonds, please), the cupcake has a special place in American cuisine.

The ubiquitiousness of the U.S. cupcake landscape, though, means that finding an exceptional cupcake is harder than one might imagine. There is so many ways a cupcake baker can go wrong. Cupcakes can be dry and tasteless, or the frosting can be made from high fructose corn syrup to appeal to the eye not the palate. Even experienced cupcake bakeries can fall prey to the occasional cupcake mistake. With that in mind, let me tell you about m adventures.

Cake Artist’s Studio

Cake Artist’s Studio is located in a sort of weird location on Bloomington Road. It’s a cute building, but it’s blink and you’ll miss it. You don’t want to miss this place though! This is not an eat-in cupcake place; instead the very nice person behind the counter can help you select a cupcake from the many, many different varieties. Cupcakes here come in two sizes, regular and ginormous. I went with the regular cupcake in pink champagne and sprinkles. Regular size cupcakes are $3.50, which puts them in the pricier category, but they are slightly bigger than other cupcakes I have seen. The frosting was very generous, along with higher end decorations. These were the best of all the cupcakes I tried. The cake was light and flavorful. The frosting is clearly real buttercream, with just the right amount of sugar to fat ratio and a light flavor. These are the holy grail of cupcakes in C-U; they are truly tasty and worth finding the building.

1100B W Bloomington Rd
Champaign
T-F 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Sa 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.

Photo by Jessica Hammie

Harvest Market

Harvest Market is a grocery story on Neil Street in Champaign, which includes a hot bar, sushi, an exceptional cheese and deli area, and a bakery. The bakery here is always pretty busy. They have some gluten free options, which is nice if you have that concern. The cupcakes from Harvest Market are $2.99 and fairly large. I chose vanilla cupcakes with chocolate frosting. Both cupcakes included sprinkle toppings. The cake itself was a bit dry on these, although the flavor was good. The frosting was a bit overly sweet, but they were hit with the kids. The sprinkles and frosting looks really nice on these and they did travel well. I would highly recommend these for parties or gatherings were you want to be slightly fancy and bring a treat.

2029 S Neil St
Champaign
6 a.m. to 11 p.m. daily

Photo by Jillian Zwilling

Hopscotch Bakery

Hopscotch Bakery's current location is relatively new, but they most recently sold baked goods through Art Mart prior to opening on John Street. The location has a really nice neighborhood vibe, and the store itself is cute. Hopscotch sells all kinds of pastries, fresh flowers, and some gift items. I selected a very pretty vanilla and fresh berry cupcake. The frosting was a light pink with some raspberry chunks. These cupcakes run 2.98 a piece, but they are a bit smaller than some of the other places I tried. The look of the cupcake was very attractive and I could not wait to try it. Unfortunately, although the cake itself was quite good with a vanilla flavor, the frosting tasted basically like eating straight butter. That said, we have had other cupcakes at Hopscotch that have been much better than this particular one. I wouldn’t hesitate to buy another cupcake from them, but perhaps not the berry one again. This is a very nice to place to go out to have a sweet treat, but the treats do change, so if you specifically want a cupcake you might want to call ahead.

802 W John St
Champaign
M-Sa 7:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.
Su 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.

Photo by Jillian Zwilling

Pekara Bakery and Bistro 

Pekara is a beloved institution in C-U. You can find them in Downtown Champaign or at the new location on Springfield and Prospect in Champaign. They are also at the farmers' market in Urbana, and their items are carried at numerous coffee shops around town. For this article, I wanted to check out the new location on Springfield. While I like the other location, closed parking can be an issue in downtown, and I was just curious to see what the new location would be like. The Springfield location is bigger and had more variety of bakery goods. While the location was not entirely set up at this time, it is a nice location with big windows and lots of seating, and parking is free. There were not a lot of cupcakes to choose from, be I did find a chocolate cupcake with peanut butter frosting. Cupcakes range in price, but are comparable with other bakeries we tried. The cake was super delicious and very moist. The peanut butter frosting was very flavorful and rich. The size of cupcakes here are pretty large. I really like this is a location for going out for a cupcake and a cup of coffee.

811 W Springfield
Champaign
M-Sa 6 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Su 8 a.m. to 6 p.m.

Photo by Jillian Zwilling

Rick’s Bakery

Rick’s bakery is located in Urbana on Philo Road, in a strip mall that has recently been converted into a U-Haul location. Rick’s is not a bakery that really does eat-in cupcakes, instead it’s more of a pick up / to go place. The décor is fairly unassuming with a shop front and a nice mural on the wall. The cupcakes are brightly colored,and include a character ring on the top. Cupcakes are priced at $1.25 a piece. After picking out a vanilla with hot pink frosting and a Trolls ring, and a chocolate with neon blue frosting with an Elsa of Disney's Frozen ring, the guy behind the counter placed them in clear plastic clamshells and we head out. Two cupcakes for under $3 seems like a pretty good deal. Once we got them home, the cupcakes had fallen over in the clamshells, leaving frosting marks all over. The taste of the cupcake was highly nostalgic, reminding me of kids' birthday parties and school functions. The vanilla cupcake is sweet and the frosting is well applied, but the chocolate cupcakes were less chocolate-y than I would have liked. The cupcakes had a light, spongy texture and sweet frosting. The rings made these a big hit with my kiddos. I feel like these cupcakes are great for kids birthday parties, but maybe not so great for adult palates.

2018 S Philo Rd
Urbana
M-F 8 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Sa 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Photo by Jillian Zwilling

Sweet Indulgence

Sweet Indulgence is located on Windsor Road in a strip mall close to Sun Singer and Pandamonium Doughnuts. The location is a bit bigger than it looks from the outside, and there are a few smaller tables to eat at. The décor has a standard bakery feel. I like that Sweet Indulgence has a good variety of things to choose from, including several kinds of cupcakes. I choose a chocolate cupcakes with chocolate frosting and a vanilla with pink frosting. Each cupcake was $3. The cupcakes are pretty big here — definitely bigger than your standard grocery story cupcake. The chocolate cake was rich and but a bit dry. Good chocolate flavor which came through very evenly- the first bite is as good as the last. The frosting was super rich and buttery. As a person who prefers chocolate over sugar, this is a really great cupcake. The vanilla cupcake is also fluffy and very light. The vanilla seemed a bit drier than the chocolate, but not too bad. The pink frosting was very sugary, with a nice hint of vanilla.

1121 W Windsor Rd
Champaign
M-F 7 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Sa 7 a.m. to 3 p.m.

Photo by Jessica Hammie