Cupcake Expose: Finding the Biggest and Best

Used to be that your only cupcake options were yellow or chocolate cake with white or chocolate frosting—maybe a smattering of sprinkles, if you were lucky. How times have changed.

Cupcakes have taken Chicagoland by storm. The recent opening of the Chicago outpost of Sprinkles, the famous L.A.-based cupcake bakery, saw hour-long waits in withering heat and humidity. And wedding cupcake towers are all the rage, replacing expensive, fussy wedding cakes and delighting guests.

In our quest for cupcake perfection, I agreed to taste my way across oceans of buttercream and cream cheese frosting, zippers and muffin tops be damned. It’s a tough job, but someone has to do it.

So where are the best cupcakes on the North Shore to be found? Read on!

Baked By Betsy
Park Ridge
The flavors are basic, but oh-so-tasty and made with all-natural ingredients. And if you’re looking for a cupcake cake (individual cupcakes grouped together and frosted as one), this is the place! Their red velvet cupcake with cream cheese frosting is perfection.

Baker Boys Bakery
Highland Park
Their balance of moist cake to not-too-sweet frosting is just right. Don’t miss the fresh frozen custard with red velvet cupcake chunks mixed in. Cool cupcake flavors: Lemon Meringue, yellow cake topped with a cloud of meringue icing and filled with lemon curd; and the P.B. Cup, chocolate cake with ganache filling and peanut butter buttercream, topped with a mini Reese’s Cup. All are $2.75.

The Bent Fork
The buttercream is on the sweet side, but people come from miles away for a taste of these delectable treats. Look for the adorable side room stocked with kitchen stuff and serving pieces. Cool cupcake flavors: Strawberry Fields, fresh strawberry-flecked cake with strawberry buttercream; Multiple Lemon Oh!, lemon cake with fresh lemon curd and lemon buttercream; S’mores, chocolate cake with marshmallow buttercream, chocolate drizzle and a mini s’more on top. Minis $1, Regular $1.75-$2, Baby Cakes $3.50.

Deerfields Bakery
Deerfield, Buffalo Grove and Schaumburg locations
This North Shore stalwart has gone cupcake crazy! They even make a gluten-free version (yellow or chocolate, with your choice of ganache or buttercream frosting), a dozen minis for $8.95. Cool cupcake flavors: Mocha, chocolate cake with mocha buttercream; Snickers, chocolate cake with caramel frosting and a mini Snickers bar; Carrot cake with cream cheese frosting. $1.69 for gourmet cupcakes; $1.29 for regular.

Fraiche Bakery & Cafe
This local gem has generously sized cupcakes with excellent frosting. Make sure to leave them at room temperature for an hour to optimize the buttercream texture. Cool cupcake flavors: Grasshopper, chocolate ganache-filled chocolate cake with mint buttercream; Caramel Butterscotch, yellow cake with caramel buttercream; Retro, vanilla buttercream-filled chocolate cake with chocolate ganache icing and a white swirl (any resemblance to a Hostess cupcake is purely intentional!). $3-$3.50 each.

Sweety Pies
What happens when a whole family—mom, dad, sister and brother—opens a bakery? A whole lot of yummy! Cool cupcake flavors: Boston Cream Pie, custard-filled yellow cake with ganache frosting; Black Bottom, chocolate cake with cream cheese filling and dark chocolate frosting. $2.50-$3 each.

Three Tarts Bakery
If you aren’t seduced by the gorgeous frosting sunflowers and snowflakes on top of their cupcakes, there’s no hope for you. Happily, they taste great, too. Cool cupcake flavors: Banana cake with poured chocolate ganache; Apple-spice cake with caramel buttercream; Orange buttermilk cake with lemon buttercream and a candied lemon slice. $1.60-2.65 each.

Heading downtown? Check out these cupcake-only specialty shops, which rotate through a dozen or more funky and inventive flavors every day:

Passion Fruit Meringue or Goat Cheese Basil? Decisions, decisions. $3.50-$5.25 each.

The Chai Latte and Ginger Lemon cupcakes rock. And the graphics are awesome. $3.25 each.

Chocolate-dipped strawberry and Twixie are faves. Two gluten-free choices available daily. $3.50 each.