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The Dish

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Owners Debbie Smith, left, and Sandra Wharton at Vanilla Bean’s Biscotti & Pastry Boutique.

Lessons of ‘Wars’

Team perfects baklava cupcake for sale at store

Food Network
Sandra Wharton of Vanilla Bean’s Biscotti & Pastry Boutique competes in “Cupcake Wars” on Food Network.

Vanilla Bean’s Biscotti & Pastry Boutique is closed on Mondays. Owners Sandra Wharton and Debbie Smith haven’t really considered not being closed; there just aren’t the customers to merit opening.

Except for this past Monday.

For the first time, an Indiana business was featured on Food Network’s “Cupcake Wars,” the show that pits four teams from around the United States against one another to see who makes the best cupcake.

Bakers Wharton and Smith were on the reality competition show Sunday night, and Monday brought around plenty of new – and sad; they wanted their cupcakes! – faces to the storefront at 3410 N. Anthony Blvd., as folks peered in at us as we sat and chatted at one of the tables.

“Cupcake Wars” is an hour-long show, and Vanilla Bean exited around the 25-minute mark as the first bakers to be sent home – all over buttermilk.

“You have 45 minutes, start to finish,” Smith says. “It takes a little bit of time to create something, but you can’t use a recipe when you’re there.”

Add that to the fact that the show’s producers are talking to the contestants in little earpieces throughout the whole ordeal – commanding them to smile, remember they’re on TV, be happy – and that the two bakers created a recipe that was a little more complicated than perhaps the time allowed. For 17 of those 45 minutes, the cupcakes need to bake, leaving 28 minutes to create the recipe from scratch and execute the rest of the dessert.

For their challenge, bakers were asked to craft a cupcake based on a traditional dessert. Wharton chose baklava and created a chocolate walnut cupcake stuffed with a pastry cream, which had to be cooked over an open flame. The cupcake had coffee in it, which had to brew. The buttercream was topped with a piece of brittle, which the bakers made from scratch.

The problem started about halfway through the time allotted: Wharton mistakenly added powdered sugar instead of regular sugar to the batter, and it had to be discarded.

After the completed cupcakes came out of the oven, though, Wharton realized the cake was the wrong consistency. She had forgotten the buttermilk, which Wharton calls a tenderizer. It keeps the cupcake from being dense.

“When it was on the plate, I knew it was wrong,” she says. “You don’t know what the other person is doing, so you don’t know whose misstep is going to be bigger.”

Smith is an avid “Cupcake Wars” fan, and she says she has seen judges be absolutely brutal to bakers. Vanilla Bean’s cupcake was tasty, and the judges recognized that their error was a technical one. They loved the flavor of the cupcake, Smith says, and they raved about the local team’s brittle. They told the women they realized their mistake was not intentional.

The women hope this is not their last brush with television, and Smith mentions – I swear I saw a twinkle in her eye – that “Cupcake Wars” has a redemption show, where it brings back contestants who did not win their war.

The exact baklava-inspired cupcake featured on Food Network debuted at the bakery Tuesday and will be available throughout the week. Called The Athena, the cupcake features a deliciously spicy, moist (and not remotely dense; yay buttermilk) chocolate cake with just the right amount of chopped walnuts. It’s filled with pastry cream, which adds a smooth, rich texture to the cake. And the whole thing is topped with buttercream frosting – so good, I’d eat it with a spoon – and a chunk of brittle.

One of the new faces that hoped the shop was open Monday was a young family with a small boy. Smith watched the three approach the store, and she watched the boy’s face fall as they realized the bakery was closed.

“Oh, I want to give him a cupcake,” Smith says.

“Stay strong,” Wharton instructed.

“He’s crying,” Smith says. “I’m giving him a cupcake.”

“He’s crying?” Wharton questioned, and she rushed to the door. “Don’t leave!” she shouted to the family, who had started to get in their minivan.

The boy bounded out smiling as big as his little face would allow, and Smith hurried outside to give him his cupcake.

“It’s my cupcake,” he told his parents.

He wasn’t sharing.

A Blue Moon tasting

Dickey’s Wild Hare (2910 Maplecrest Road; 486-0590) will hold a free beer sampling today at 7 p.m. This tasting, however, is a little different. A Blue Moon rep will be collecting ballots from tasters indicating their favorites, and the winner will be a limited-release autumn craft brew.

The restaurant will have three beers to taste: Caramel Apple Spiced Ale, Blackberry Tart Ale and Dark Chocolate Bacon Porter. That last one is not a typo.

Similar to tasting wine, there is a checklist of things to look for when tasting beer. According to the Blue Moon Brewing Co., this is what a taster should note about her beer:

Appearance – Look at the color and clarity of the beer at eye level.

Aroma – Give your glass a swirl and hold it to your nose.

Taste – Before you swallow the beer, swirl it around your mouth to pick up its full flavor.

Mouthfeel – Does it feel light or heavy? What’s the carbonation like? Should there be more, or is there too much?

Finish – What kind of aftertaste does the beer have? Does the flavor linger? Does it taste smooth and balanced?

The Dish features restaurant news and food events and appears Wednesdays. Fax news items to 461-8893, email or call 461-8462.