GET THEE TO A CUPCAKERY
In New York, cupcakes have become the calling card of every wedding, bridal shower, and girls get-together, thanks in large part to the show Sex in the City (which we can also thank for the popularity of the cosmo among tourists, as well as the “Sex in the City tour”). But Brooke Siem and Leslie Feinberg’s foray into the world of cupcakes was not for the love of Carrie Bradshaw, but instead for the love and appreciation of a good, stiff drink. You may imagine the master bakers to be two sugary-sweet friends clad in matching aprons, baking up a storm, but in fact the pair behind the Lower East Side’s Prohibition Bakery are much more like mad scientists who also happen to be borderline alcoholics.
Forget red velvet and buttercream, which can be found pretty much everywhere (and bore me to tears). Rather than the now-iconic Magnolia bakery, the girls are instead inspired by something else–the trend of mixology that has invaded New York over the past few years.
The girls aren’t really alcoholics; they just truly understand the importance of–and components that go into– making a truly perfect cocktail, and have dedicated their business to translating everyone’s favorite mixological specimens into perfect cupcake form.
Their cupcakes are truly creative, and true to life. In fact, if you pop a few, you may get a little buzz on. With flavors like Hot Buttered Rum, Mulled Wine, Pretzels & Beer, and White Russian, they’re hard to resist, and they pack more of a flavor punch than regular chocolate or vanilla. Each bite of the mini-cupcakes is packed with complex bursts of flavor.
I couldn’t wait to pick the brains of this genius team, who has successfully paired the two things New Yorkers love most–booze and cupcakes–in a way that is both high-end and artfully delicious.
Lori Zimmer: We all know that cupcakes have being a thing since Sex in the City. How did you get the idea to give it a twist?
Brooke Siem: It was sort of a drunken accident that turned into something legitimate. Leslie and I had just recently met, and neither one of us was happy with our employment situation. Leslie loved baking and I liked coming up with new culinary ideas, so we just started playing around and giving cupcakes away to our friends. They got so excited, and encouraged us to come up with more varieties, even requesting some for parties. We quickly decided to get a DBA and register a partnership at the courthouse just in case, but I don’t think either one of us really realized the potential at that time. We were both still actively looking for “real jobs” and thought this would be fun way to pass the time until someone expressed interest in hiring us. We never got those job offers.
LZ: How did you first get started, prior to the Clinton Street store?
Leslie Feinberg: We started out tinkering in Brooke’s apartment. I think the White Russian and the now-defunct Cosmo were our first recipes. Our friends were our very willing test subjects. It’s good to hang out with bakers.
BS: Like many others who started a food business, we started baking out of my apartment. Once we started to get real orders, it became a giant pain in the ass, so we started moonlighting at a catering kitchen just around the corner from our current retail store. We would go in after everyone left, around 10 o’clock at night, and then stay until everything was done. We had many long, delirious nights in that kitchen.
LZ: We’re imagining you both sitting on the floor among a dozen open bottles of liquor, getting “inspired” to create new flavors. How do you decide on what cocktails will translate well to cupcakes?
LF: New flavors come from all over. Sometimes lightning strikes. But also, sometimes, our favorite cupcakes come out of necessity. The Bee’s Knee’s, for instance, was born when Saveur Magazine was courting some liquor advertisers, and wanted something featuring a specific gin. We didn’t have any gin cupcakes yet, neither of us being gin drinkers, but I knew the Bee’s Knees would work, and that it would fit with our brand perfectly. There is also the Blackberry Mojito, which was made for a “purple” event. I have a feeling that one will re-emerge someday as a permanent menu item.
BS: That particular scenario has happened on occasion, but it’s more likely that we do our research at a bar. We approach a cupcake like a drink. The cake serves as the mixer (lime juice, ginger ale, etc.), the filling is the dominant booze of choice–perhaps with some added aromatics–and the frosting serves as the platform for additional booze and subtle flavors. For example, we’re working on an Old Fashioned, which has an orange cake, a bourbon core, and a cherry/bitters frosting. It has all the components of an Old Fashioned in a glass, but it’s re-imagined to be presented in a cupcake. The trick is to find balance and to keep everything from getting too sweet. It’s not enough for us if it’s only “kind of like” the drink. If it’s not accurate, we either start over or we scratch it entirely. It’s pretty obvious to us what will make a good cupcake. I don’t think we’ll be seeing a dirty martini cupcake anytime soon, because, I mean, olive frosting? Blech. But we do have some loftier, unexpected ideas. I’d love to make a Michelada or a Bloody Mary cupcake happen. I think it’s possible, but it’s certainly not at the forefront of our upcoming flavors. Very often, the more conceptual flavors come to us at unexpected times. I’m a big fan of getting the next great idea while in the shower. That’s how the Scotch & Cigar and the Pretzels & Beer came about.
LZ: Does your “research” mean you’re drinking every night of the week?
BS: I don’t think we’re “researching” every night, but we’re located right next to Culture Fix, a fantastic wine and beer bar. Between the stress of owning a business and the fact that Culture Fix has tacos, it’s pretty likely that you’ll find at least one of us there after closing on most nights.
LF: Not as much as people think, but it is a necessary aspect of our research–our jobs are tough, what can we say? Thankfully for us, New York has an enormous and diverse bar scene, particularly “speakeasies,” which have been popping up everywhere for the last few years. It makes for a lot of “research opportunities.”
I’ve also been known to make my special margaritas from time to time, particularly when things go awry.
LZ: We’re assuming boozy cupcakes don’t attract your usual Magnolia customer. Who or what is the most fun customer/event you’ve created cupcakes for?
BS: Part of why I’m so happy doing this is because of the kind of customer we attract. “Typical” cupcake customers tend to be a little wary of what we do, and we’re fine with that. There are plenty of small businesses that will do a great Red Velvet cupcake, but it’s just not something we are ever going to do. The most fun customers are our repeats. We have these two guys who come in every Sunday night. They look all big and tough, and are basically the kind of dudes I’d want on my side during the zombie apocalypse. They come in, each get a handful of baby cupcakes, and get so excited if we have a flavor they haven’t had before.
We love creating cupcakes for liquor brands. It gives us an excuse to play and find new flavor profiles. We just developed a cupcake for Macallan Scotch for their holiday party, and we’re hoping it becomes the official cupcake of Macallan.
LF: We have a lot of fun customers, particularly being located in the Lower East Side. My favorites are the people that have been living in this neighborhood since before it became the land of brunch and ironic t-shirts. The really unique characters–the artists, writers, neuroscientists, psychics, etc.–are the people that have the most incredible stories. They have really seen it all.
LZ: Do you think the cupcake trend is here to stay?
LF: Absolutely. Cupcakes are not a new concept, and I don’t see them slipping in popularity anytime in the near future. But I do think there will be a thinning of the herd in a few years, as the next dessert craze emerges.
BS: History would certainly say so. That whole cookie trend has been going strong since the 17th century.
LZ: Who is your ideal cupcake customer?
LF: Someone with an enormous expense account would be ideal. Other than that, a more adventurous eater. I hate to disappoint people who want a more traditional cupcake, like a red velvet or a peanut butter and chocolate, but that’s not what we do, and it’s never going to be. We like a customer who will gladly place themselves in our hands, and trust us to give them something unexpected and delicious.
BS: Repeat customers, and anyone who wants to feature our cupcakes on a hit TV show.
LZ: Favorite flavor?
BS: Margarita, mostly because I want to drink margaritas all the time.
LF: I like to mix it up. Pretzel & Beer in the morning, White Russian in the afternoon, followed by a sensible dinner. Right now, I’m a little obsessed with the Hot Buttered Rum–it has brown butter frosting, spiced rum, and a brown sugar crumble. It’s a pretty sexy cupcake.
Prohibition Bakery is located at 9 Clinton Street, just below Houston, and is probably the best idea for catering an event that has anything to do with family.
Written by Lori Zimmer
Edited by Jonathan Metzelaar
Photography by Coco Alexander
Design by Jillian Mercado & Marie Havens
Brooke Siem and Leslie Feinberg, at Prohibition Bakery, 2012, Photography by Coco Alexander