Cupcakes!

Love at First Bite, Kara's Cupcakes, and That Takes the Cake
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REVIEW Call cupcakes girlie, kiddie, or just plain preschool, but who can resist those so-sweet, too-cute, whimsical morsels? The humble cupcake's still-raging popularity can't be completely attributed to the benediction of desirability bestowed by Sarah Jessica Parker et al. after the guest appearance of Magnolia Bakery's sugared units on Sex and the City, nor to its star turn at socialite weddings like that of aristo makeup artist Jemma Kidd and the Earl of Mornington.

It's the cupcake's retro kitsch pedigree — grounded in the benevolently nostalgic, innocent hue of childhood — that really gets us going. The individual serving size reads as special, invoking the same sort of princess-for-the-day feeling you might have experienced as a four-year-old at your own birthday party. Would that you were iced as immaculately and crowned with candy sprinkles. The very notion of cupcakes allows for more play, more impulsive edible decorations, and more diversity: why settle for one hunk of layer cake when you can have a banana and a coconut cupcake? Because it's really all about the cake — in a petite, perfect, non-guilt-inducing size. You too can be the girl — or boy — with the most diet-ready portion of cake, because as Cupcake! (Chronicle Books) author Elinor Klivans writes, these perfectly manageable sweet things "are sure to charm and delight the inner child in everyone."

So where to tempt a ravenous inner child? Where better than at a sprinkling of Bay Area boutique bakeries almost exclusively devoted to cupcakes? Love at First Bite in Berkeley's gourmet ghetto rolls out 12 to 15 flavors daily, including a Southern-inspired Hummingbird of bananas, pineapple, and pecans topped with cream cheese, and a Matcha Green Tea cake topped with tea-infused whipped cream — both ideal chasers to a Cheeseboard pizza. Kara's Cupcakes off Chestnut in San Francisco's Cow Hollow–Marina District goes the no-less-delicious route with mostly organic ingredients sourced from throughout Northern California. The owners are avid boosters of community-supported agriculture, so you can take the edge off that guilt (thanks to Gilt Edge Creamery dairy products) as you nibble their passion fruit, banana caramel, or chocolate fleur del sel–filled cupcakes.

For a real rosy dose of my latest food fixation, waltz into the two-months-old That Takes the Cake on Union Street for that most mysteriously decadent of cupcakes: red velvet. The bakery's version of the Southern-style, cocoa-infused piece of down-home exotica — colored during World War II, cooks' legends have it, with grated beets or beet baby food — is made with vegetable-based food coloring, vinegar, and cocoa, which turns reddish brown in reaction with the other ingredients. Falling apart in tender crumbs beneath a rich, ivory cream-cheese frosting, the cake is as deeply red as a Dario Argento giallo, as heavy on the rosso as a steak torn from Stuart Anderson's flank, and as rose red as love, my love. All that red coloring might raise eyebrows in some quarters, but who gives a damn, Scarlett, when you have extraordinary beauty and delectable substance in one pint-size, munchable package? (Kimberly Chun)

LOVE AT FIRST BITE Tues.–Fri., 10:30 a.m.–7 p.m.; Sat., 10 a.m.–7 p.m.; Sun., 11 a.m.–5 p.m. 1510 Walnut, Berk. (510) 848-5727, www.loveatfirstbitebakery.com

KARA'S CUPCAKES Mon.–Sat., 10 a.m.–7 p.m.; Sun., 10 a.m.–6 p.m. 3249 Scott, SF. (415) 563-2253, www.karascupcakes.com

THAT TAKES THE CAKE Tues.–Sat., 11 a.m.–7 p.m.; Sun., noon–6 p.m. 2271 Union, SF. (415) 567-8050, www.saralynnscupcakes.com

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