Dining With Denise Neil

Dining with Denise: What happened when I ate 27 cupcakes in one hour

Natalie Cunningham, owner of Natalie’s Sweets & Treats, prepared the winning cupcake at the CityArts Cupcake Challenge. She called it “Wichita Firecracker.”
Natalie Cunningham, owner of Natalie’s Sweets & Treats, prepared the winning cupcake at the CityArts Cupcake Challenge. She called it “Wichita Firecracker.” The Wichita Eagle

It sounds like an awesome job, and in a way, it was.

On Saturday, I was one of three judges asked to sample 27 Wichita-made cupcakes and choose the best ones. We were sacrificing our safe blood sugar levels for a cause. CityArts was putting on its Cupcake Challenge, a first-year event designed to raise money for the downtown arts organization and to find Wichita’s best cupcake.

There. Were. So. Many.

We sampled cupcakes stuffed with rhubarb, cupcakes piled high with lemon frosting, cupcakes topped with pretzels, stuffed with peanut butter cups, spiked with green beans, strawberry cupcakes, chocolate cupcakes, sticky toffee pudding cupcakes, vanilla mango cupcakes, mocha cupcakes, salted caramel cupcakes. It never ended.

We tried to take just one bite of each cupcakes, but sometimes, a second bite was required to find little bits of sweetness buried in the middle. And it’s not like you can subtly discard the cupcake bite into a spittoon like you can at a wine tasting. There’s just no non-revolting way to do that, so swallow you must.

By the time we got to cupcakes 19 and 20, we were all green. By the time we forced the last bite cupcake No. 27 down, we were all sick. My heart was beating too quickly, my brain was swimming, and when offered a cupcake at a birthday party later that evening, I screamed, gagged and ran the other direction.

I may never eat another cupcake again.

Still, I can admit that many of the cupcakes I sampled were excellent. One, a strawberry-chocolate invention, was baked by 11-year-old Elliott Merten, an avid home baker who glittered his strawberries.

Bakers were competing in three categories: Professional, novice and specialty. There was also a people’s choice winner, determined by the crowd of 110 in attendance. (Those lucky people could choose how many cupcakes they sampled.)

The professional winner, Natalie Cunningham of Natalie’s Sweets & Treats, prepared intricate chocolate cupcakes topped with decadent frosting, candied jalapenos and an edible Wichita flag made out of sugar. She called her cupcake “Wichita Firecracker.”

The novice winner was Amy Draut, who prepared a dense lemon cupcake topped with a lavender-flavored frosting. She called it “Lemon Lavender Dream.”

The specialty cupcake was made by Dana Cornell, who prepared a vegan cupcake she called “Horchata Love.” It was chocolate and topped with a spicy, creamy cinnamon frosting, and I had no idea it was vegan. If I was ever eating another cupcake again, which I’m not, I’d ask for this one.

And Kiley Oliphant, who owns a bakery called Sugar Coated, was the people’s choice winner with her margarita-flavored cupcake.

Each winner got a ceramic cupcake created by local artist Rebecca Balocca and Charlotte Martin plus a gift card to a local cake shop.

The event was such a success that organizers are planning a second installment next year. Watch for information.