Cupcake Wars: Food Network's New Cupcake Competition Show Premieres Tonight

Note: Our summer intern Leah Douglas spends most of her time eating and learning about food culture and policy. And thinking about cupcakes! —The Mgmt.

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Nice guns. [Photograph: Food Network]

Have you ever looked at a small, beautiful cupcake and thought, "The preparation of this cupcake was not nearly combative enough for me!!" Well, then Food Network has the show for you. Tonight a new season of Cupcake Wars premieres. The reality show allows professional bakers to battle it out for a chance to showcase their cupcakes at a high-profile event. On Sunday, a sneak peek episode premiered—here's the basic run-down.

The Competition

Four bakers enter Round One, with hopeful expressions and sous chefs waiting at their baking stations. The first challenge in Sunday's episode was a taste challenge. The bakers were presented with two tables, one laden with sweet ingredients, the other with savory. They had 45 minutes to create a cupcake using one ingredient from each table. In this round, Hollis Wilder of Sweet! bakery in Orlando, Florida, made the risky decision to serve a salmon-lemon cupcake with caper frosting. Somehow, this cupcake was delicious and the judges put her in the lead.

Hmm. I'll believe that one when I taste it.

In Round Two, the bakers whipped up three additional cupcake flavors, in 75 minutes. They chose from among the best-sellers at their bakeries, and presented to the judges. I was impressed that all the bakers were even able to pull off such a feat. Making one batch of cupcakes alone takes me about an hour!

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[Photograph: Food Network]

The judges tasted each cupcake carefully and discussed the merits and failings of each cake base, frosting texture, and flavor combination in exacting detail. According to my calculations, the judges got to sample 13 different cupcakes during this show. It's a hard job, but someone's gotta take the hit, I suppose.

After each round, one baker is eliminated. So going into Round Three, only two bakers remained. They had to prepare a whopping 1,000 cupcakes, consisting of the four flavors from the prior two rounds, in a mere 2 hours. They were provided with four additional sous chefs to help them pull off this Herculean task. They also had to design a presentation showpiece for the celebrity event, to display all the hundreds of diminutive cakes. (They got a carpenter to help them with that.)

After much drama, yelling, pastry-dropping, and commercial breaks, the two bakers were done. A winner was chosen, and the event appeared to be a rousing success.

Congratulations to Hollis Wilder and her salmon-lemon cupcake. She thought outside the box, made beautiful cupcakes, and in the end made a more exciting presentation piece than her competitor.

The Judges

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Candace Nelson at Sprinkles Cupcakes bakery. [Photograph: Sprinkles Bakery]

There are two regular judges on this show. Florian Bellanger is head chef and co-owner of Mad-Mac, a madeleines and macarons distributor to retail shops across the country. Previously, he trained under Pierre Herme, and later worked as pastry chef at Le Bernadin.

Candace Nelson is founder and owner of Sprinkles Cupcakes, often touted as the world's first cupcake bakery (they now have eight branches and are expanding rapidly). I participated in an phone interview with Candace to learn more about her approach to this new show, and to her successful business.

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Classic Sprinkles cupcakes. [Photograph: Sprinkles Bakery]

What is Candace looking for in a contestant? Well, judging by the salmon cupcake, they're looking for inventiveness. "If you make a simple cupcake and you don't go outside of your comfort zone, and that cupcake tastes amazing, you're gonna get great points from the judges. But what was really amazing to see when people stepped outside of that comfort zone and tackled an ingredient like smoked salmon, like Hollis did last night, and made it just fly." As she later put it, the successful risk-takers can "make believers out of the judges."

Alright, so a savory cupcake sounds interesting—but it also sounds a lot like a muffin. Candace spells out this crucial difference between cupcake and muffin: "I think a cupcake is all about the texture, and the moistness, and the lightness. And then of course you gotta have the frosting. Muffins don't have frosting!" Good point. A naked cupcake is no fun.

She went on to talk more about why Cupcake Wars is a fun and exciting project for her, and the cupcake industry. "I think it's a window into the world of cupcakes... what's funny is, when my husband and I opened Sprinkles five years ago, people thought we were completely insane. And the reality is, cupcakes are a legitimate industry right now. I think the cupcake's appeal is really universal, so I think the show's appeal will be really universal."

So what's in the future for Candace? "Right now, we're really focused on expanding our locations. We're opening five new locations in the next six or seven months, we're pretty busy doing that." And what about expanding the product line, beyond just cupcakes? Candace doesn't have a concrete plan, "but I wouldn't rule out the possibility of going in to other dessert items in the future."

To check out Cupcake Wars, tune in on Tuesdays at 9 p.m. ET, on the Food Network.