Thursday, November 17, 2011

Sacramento Cupcake Wars means more cupcakes for me

I'm officially done with all my NPC Competitions for the year...and you know what that means. Yes, that's right.  I can have chocolate again. Whoohoo!

And there is no better way to satisfy my sweet tooth than with cupcakes. Plus, I've actually had a couple cupcake shops call me up over the last month to see if I could interview them, but I was holding back.  What fun is doing an expose on Sacramento cupcake wars if you can't taste as you go?

But I'm not the only one going ga-ga over cupcakes.  The owners of Icing on the Cupcake, Esther's Cupcakes and Drizzle Cupcakes told me they can't keep up with the demand.  In fact, they say customers are asking for more cupcakes in more locations.

Chuck Meridith and Christee Owens are the owners of all four Icing on the Cupcake locations. They opened their first location in Rocklin in 2007 and then expanded in 2010.

“We were bursting at the seams in our original location and there was a cry for more. In 2010 we opened on July 1 in Folsom. The Sacramento location opened in October 2010 and west Rocklin in June 2011,” said Owens.


So why are their cupcakes so popular?  Owens says their claim to fame is their scratch recipes. Everything they make –from icing to cupcake bases – comes from old family recipes that they make by hand.

“It’s all these old fashion recipes. It’s different from supermarket cake. It’s dense and rich and very old fashion,” Owens said. “We are known more for our frosting than anything else. We have a butter cream, cream cheese and a chocolate fudge frosting that is just amazing. It’s so old fashion and so homemade. It’s all from scratch.”

Meridith and Owens say Red Velvet is their best selling cupcake followed by their signature cupcake, Pink Delicious. This is a dark chocolate cupcake frosted with pink vanilla butter cream. Their more unusual flavors include maple bacon (only available on Sunday), Chai and Beehive which is vanilla cake filled with Bavarian cream and honey and topped with a honey amaretto butter cream.

“We have at least 15 to 18 bases,” said Meridith. “We are always coming up with new monthly flavors. Right now we are asking our Facebook Fans to come up with October’s flavor.”

But get this...Meridith says their customers aren’t customers anymore. They are more like extended family. They follow them, give them advice on new flavors and are passionate about certain flavors.

“Some people only come on Tuesday because they love the strawberry cupcakes. They know our menus and come on specific days,” Owens said. “We have so many requests from our fans and where they want the next location to go.”

Mmmm....Strawberry.  I know where I'm going to be on Tuesday.

They say they are working on deals for two new locations now, but aren’t ready to announce them just yet.


Esther’s Cupcakes is another one of my favorite cupcake shops.  It's on Fair Oaks and is just as popular as Icing on the Cupcakes. I must say, I love, love, LOVE her Earl Grey and Lavender cupcakes.

Plus, you also have Esther, the baker, the taster and the cupcake maker. 

Esther San is an adorable woman who knows what's she's talking about when it comes to gourmet food -- including her cupcakes.  She opened her shop about a year and half ago and has captured the gourmet cupcake market in the city.

“Sacramento is my home and where my community is. I’m excited to create another Paris or New York here. I mean, why not? We’re ready for more gourmet food,” Esther said. “I’ve traveled far and wide, and have been to all the European cities, Napa and around the US. I want to bring all that and more here. We are ready.”

Esther says she’s not worried about the different cupcake shops in the market place because every customer has a preference. She says even though Icing on the Cupcake is technically the competitor, she sometimes refers her clients there if they live closer or if they prefer sweeter cupcakes.

Esther’s most popular flavors include Meyer Lemon, Vanilla Bean and Crème Brule, but it’s her unique creations that keep her customers coming back for more. Some of Esther’s signature flavors include Green Tea and Caramel Macchiato Coffee cupcakes -- which I haven't tried yet, but they are on my list.

Esther believes desserts are just another part of the meal and that you should be able to taste all the different aspects of the ingredients. You should be able to taste the fruit, the butter, the cream and every element of the dessert. She also says desserts don’t need to be overly sweet. They should be a nice balance of different ingredients.

“I’m a dessert addict. I thought why do cupcakes have to have teeth-hurting icing? Why do they need to be so traditionally sweet?” Esther said. “I wanted to make regular desserts in the form of cupcakes. I enjoy Crème Brule and thought it would be nice to put it in the form of cupcakes.

Esther’s icing is also different from traditional cupcake icing. It’s more like cake icing and the frostings vary like they do on different cakes such as the chocolate ganache icing she has on her chocolate cupcakes.

Like her fellow bakers, Icing on the Cupcake, Esther's sales are booming and she is getting ready to expand.

“I can’t tell you where but we are expanding to a second location by the end of 2011. I plan on opening several bakeries in the future.”

Oh how secrets intrigue me. You know I'm going to be haunting her until she reveals her new location.


Then there's Drizzle Cupcakes. Drizzle is a newcomer to the Sacramento cupcake market. Opening only in June 2011, cupcake designer Rob Porter is still in culinary school and graduating next spring. His cupcake business started with a baby show in May, and has grown almost organically from there.

“I thought I would keep it nice and easy, but in the last month and a half. It’s blown up. I’ve got orders coming out of my ears right now,” Rob said.

Unlike Icing on the Cupcakes and Esther’s Cupcakes, Drizzle doesn’t have a storefront and Rob only accepts online or phone orders. He does have a website, but most of his orders are coming from word-of-mouth referrals. He says he's getting order after order for events like retirement parties, baby showers, store events and more.

“People are saying they’ve heard about my cupcakes and have to try them. They want me to make them two dozen, three dozen,” Rob said. “It was quick. Really quick. I never expected it to do what it’s done so far.”

His most popular flavors are Banana Toffee cupcakes with a praline and cream cheese frosting, a lemon cupcake with fresh blueberries on top and his Vanilla Cherry Almond cupcakes. He says if he’s going to make a lemon cupcake, it’s going to taste like lemon. It’s not going to be so sweet that it’s going to make you pucker. But his true cupcake secret is his icing.

“I have my own frosting that I’ve come up with that’s not your basic butter cream. It’s more flavorful and a little more rich than regular butter cream,” Rob said.

Rob started the business now thinking he would gradually get the word out about his cupcakes. This way when he graduates from culinary school, he would be ready to open up a shop.

“I want to do something like a dessert diner, but on a bigger level. Not just cupcakes, but everything you can imagine dessert-wise,” Bob said.

So, sweet, decadent or whimsical…which cupcake shop is my favorite? I love them all! Plus, there are few others like Vanilla Bean (they have a peanut butter and jelly cupcake that is to die for) and Cupcake Craving that I've also checked out recently and totally recommend.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Test Driving the Lodi Wine App

Randomly driving around the wine area.
There’s an App for nearly everything – including some for wines. So naturally when I came across the one for the Lodi Wine Area, I not only had to download it, but I had to take it out for a test drive.

Here’s why -- usually when I visit a wine area, I either do a bunch of research online beforehand or I drive aimlessly through the area hoping to come across something that could be good.

I bet you can guess which one I do most often. Yup…that’s right. Random driving. I know. Not exactly the most efficient way of spending a Sunday afternoon, but when on a quest for seeking out potential new wines, I’m willing to try anything.

Let me say, having an iPhone App to help guide my way was fantastic. It was almost like having a wine treasure map at my finger tips.

The friendly dog at Spenker Winery
Once I got to Lodi, I pulled over and powered it on. Instantly it showed me all the wineries that were within 1 mile, 5 miles and even farther. Then if I wanted to be fancy, I could search for a specific Lodi winery, view tasting room hours, get driving directions, view upcoming events and wine specials as well as restaurants and hotels. Bonus.

According to the App’s GPS, Spenker Winery was less than a mile away down one of the side roads. I hadn’t heard of it, but the App told me they were dog friendly and had tours -- not that I had a dog with me, but I liked the concept.

I was sold. It was time to check them out.

It turns out there’s a reason I hadn’t heard of Spenker. They sell most of their grapes to other wineries so you won’t find them in any store. The wine they do make, they sell only at the vineyard.

“We have a Muscat and Zinfandels,” said Kate Spenker, who was pouring that day.

Kate Spenker
Tastings are free at the Spenker Winery and the first vintage Kate poured was a 2008 Zinfandel. It wasn’t bad. Milder in taste than other Zinfandels I’ve had. It wouldn’t be great with a steak, but would be a nice easy-drinking wine to serve at holiday parties.

She then poured their 2002 Zinfandel. They only have a few cases left of this one so if you drop by for a taste, you may want to pick some up now. This Zinfandel is more full-bodied compared to the 2008 vintage. The flavors are more pronounced, but it’s still fairly balanced.

While sipping my wine, Kate filled me in on the history of the winery. She said her great-great grandfather bought the land from the family who owns Jessie’s Grove in 1902, who was also a Spenker. But get this…they only became a winery in 2004. So what were they doing all that time?

“We used to do watermelon,” Kate said. “In the 1900s, Lodi was the watermelon capital of the world.”

I did not know that. Good wine and good trivia. My day was off to a good start.
So where was I going next? Hmm…now that I had my Zins, it was time to savor some other reds. All I had to do was pull out my new snazzy app and search by varietal and voila! More new wineries to choose from!
By the way, the Android version isn’t ready yet, but they tell me it’s coming soon.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Bucket List: Going on a Ghost Hunting Investigation

Ghosts scare the crap out of me…yet, I can’t resist seeking them out. If there’s a haunted castle, hotel or restaurant in the area, then I’m there hoping (and kind of not hoping) to see if I can see a spirit or two.

So being a ghost-lover, one of the things on my bucket list was to go out with an official ghost hunting team and check out a supposedly haunted place for real. Yes, that’s right. I wanted to see the ghosties for myself with the special equipment and everything. I want the complete experience -- and then not sleep for a week.

Charlotte Kosa, the founder of California Haunts, totally gets my ghost craziness – that’s because she’s got a little bit of a spirit addiction of her own. She told me she’s one of those people who is afraid of the dark, which surprised me because she’s been conducting ghost investigations for the last 10 years.

“I got into this because my house is haunted. Very haunted. I grew up with it and it scared the living daylights out of me so I had to understand it,” Charlotte said.

The more I spoke with Charlotte, the more I couldn’t wait to find what (or who) I would see on my investigation with her team. She agreed to let me to tag along while they checked out the haunted Sequoia Restaurant in Placerville.

The old mansion was built in 1853 and many guests to the restaurant and staff members have mentioned seeing strange things happening over the years -- ranging from doors closing and bottles moving to seeing actual ghosts.

“We usually get Class A EVPs at this restaurant. We record and hopefully pick up voices from beyond,” said Caren Clarke, one of the mediums on the California Haunt team.

Warning -- I'm about to impress you with my nerdy ghost gadget knowledge.

EVPs stand for Electronic Voice Phenomena. It's not as complicated as it sounds.  Basically EVPs are sounds or voices that are caught on recording device - which is standard ghost hunting equipment for the team. On the Sequoia investigation I tagged along on, they captured a man's voice on the device while checking out the women's restroom. At the time, we didn’t hear it, but later when they played back the tape, it was there. Creepy.

"I checked with Dave, the restaurant manager, and there were no men working on the first floor during the EVP time. We also did not pick up on anyone in the hallway via a static video cam," said Charlotte, when I asked if there was a chance the voice came from someone in the house.

The group started out the investigation by doing a baseline reading on the building. This way they knew in advance where the outlets were and where noises could be coming from. They do this to make sure their investigations are as accurate as possible. They also use a number of different gadgets to help them such as such as EMF readers which pick up magnetic fields and temperature changes, dowsing rods (Caren is holding them in the photo to the left) to help talk with the spirits, and psychics to help them zone in on possible spiritual hotspots. They also have scientists on their team who try to debunk their findings.

“I like to use the PX box,” Charlotte said. Charlotte is a gadget girl like me. “The theory behind this thing is that it will pick up electronic frequencies and the ghost can talk through it. We also use several different types of digital recorders. I’ve gotten my best EVPs on the Sony recorder.”

I admit that I love the spirit gadgets. There's even a ghost hunting iPhone app that one of the investigators was testing out. It measures electromagnetic fields, vibrations and sounds.


The gadgets are cool, but I wanted to see how they find the ghosts.  Good thing the Sequoia House is filled with spirits.  The team told me the spirits of the original owners of the home tended to hang out in the upper rooms. Plus, last time they were there, they discovered ghosts in the attic. But there are two apparitions who have been spotted often.

“The ladies bathroom is one of the most active spots in the Sequoia. We are going to run one camera down there,” Charlotte said.

Sequoia staff members claim there is the ghost of an older woman in the restroom. Caren says in the past, she has felt her presence.

“She gets very jealous of young women who look in the mirror. I have never seen her, but sometimes visitors or people who work here see her,” Caren said. soon as she told me that, I had to pee, but there was no way I was going to go in that house.  Like I said, I like to hunt for ghosts, but they scare me.

The other apparition who has appeared in front of guests is a young woman. She tends to hang out on the second floor by the staircase. She sounded much less scary to me and if I had to run into something spooky, I was hoping it would be her.

“Supposedly, the owners and a lot of the employees have seen a woman apparition come down these stairs in a long flowing dress. I’ve talked to a lot of the employees over the years and many have said the same thing,” said Caren.

Caren says she hasn’t seen this spirit either, but seeing an actual ghost is rare. She says capturing an apparition on a camera is the holy grail of ghost hunting. They haven’t captured one on film in the Sequoia, but at the Woodland Opera House, they took three shots back to back and could see a Catholic school girl coming into the frame.

the unexplained hot spot
 “We could see this girl coming into focus. That was really exciting,” Caren said. “Sometimes you can see them with your eyes. It depends on how they want to manifest themselves. Sometimes you get vibes and feelings. It’s a pseudo-science. A lot of people don’t believe in it, but that’s okay.”

So while I didn't see an actual ghost on this investigation, I did witness one really creepy thing.

While checking out the bathroom where the old woman is supposed to hang out, one of our EMF readers picked up a hot spot on toilet stall above one of team members. The hot spot only appeared when Caren was asking the ghost questions using the dowsing rods and disappeared later on. 

Very spooky.

To find out more about California Haunts, visit their website at

Friday, November 4, 2011

Running away to Miami for the weekend

You can never go wrong with a weekend getaway to Miami – or at least, I can never wrong. I love the whole Miami vibe. I love the food, the fashion, the people, the ocean and the shopping.

The weather doesn’t even to be good for me to have a good time. In fact, even in the rain, I find the city is beautiful. There's something to be said about palm trees swaying in the wind and the ocean surf crashing up on the beach.  I can watch the waves forever.

Last time I went, it stormed the whole time which is rare for Florida at that time of year. But it forced me to stop and relax instead of trying to cram in paddle boarding, cycling and everything else I had planned. Instead, I enjoyed some quality down time in my favorite city.

So what did I do?

Well, I spent a couple nights in the Fort Lauderdale Ritz.  This is not as decadent as you think as the price of this hotel is actually cheaper than many of the South Beach hotels. 

Except for the one flaw of being a $40 cab ride from South Beach if you want to go clubbing, the hotel has everything you could want. It's on the water and there's a running path so you can jog along the beach for miles if you want.  Plus, it's got a great pool and the restaurant is nice.

 But there is one other perk of the hotel which makes rainy days into happy relaxing days and that is their wine bar.

The wine bar also happens to have a really good tasting menu. I ended up tasting a 2009 Sella and Mosca "La Cala" Vermentino from Sardinia, a 2010 La Chapelle Gordonne Rose from France and a 2007 Villa Matilde "Falerno del Massica" from Italy.

In addition to relaxing with some interesting wines you don't find in your average store, you never know who is going to be the hotel with you.

While sipping wine and nibbling on cheese, I ran into a guy who gets paid to be Sean Connery’s double. Now that’s an interesting job!