Cupcake interview with Tara Settembre, blogger, organizer, Los Angeles Cupcake Meetup

Name: Tara Settembre of When Tara Met Blog
Location: Los Angeles, CA
Occupation: Public Relations and Blogger

Tell us a little about what you do when you're not eating cupcakes.

And when I’m not planning LA Cupcake Meetups either? Well then I’m blogging. Since I blog about my life (including my cupcake adventures) I’m always looking for fun things to write about so I try to explore Los Angeles as much as I can so that I can share my discoveries with my readers.

How did you get into cupcakes, and when did it cross from a minor obsession into a major one?

I used to live a block away from Magnolia Bakery in Manhattan and saw how this little bakery shop went from being a corner go to spot to being in Sex and the City and seeing the long lines form. It became a love hate relationship since the large tour bus would come down my street and annoy me with extra traffic, but then again as soon as the lines were gone (usually late at night) I’d sneak over for a vanilla cupcake with my friends, sometimes in my PJs even. Then, whenever anyone from out of town would visit I’d take them there and later to Sugar Sweet Sunshine (like Nichelle’s this is also one of my favorites in NYC). I don’t know when my obsession started through, somewhere around when I first moved to New York (about three and a half years ago). Now, I’m obsessed with even the look of cupcakes, so girly and cute. I own cupcake shirts, buttons, scarves, hats, bags, rings, you name it with cupcakes on it, I’m sure I have it!

You organize the LA Cupcakes Take the Cake Meetup. Which has been the best outing so far and what do you have planned for future events? How many people tend to show up? What's the vibe like at the meetups?

Usually about 20 members show for each meetup, mostly women, although there is the occasional boyfriend happily being dragged along too. The vibe is very social, we just order cupcakes, share with everyone and talk. It’s nice now seeing familiar faces and seeing the relationships among the members form. There seem to be different regulars in each hood in Los Angeles and they usually show up at the meetups that are closer to their area. One of my favorite gatherings was at Cake and Art in West Hollywood. Fellow MeetUp member and owner, Kody, was super welcoming, gave us all free milk, showed us how to decorate cupcakes (even let us try our hands at a few) and had a chocolate fountain setup with fruit for dipping. It was a sugar overload and a fun time hanging at his shop.

Another fun meetup that comes to mind is when we hit up Crumbs in Beverly Hills, shortly after they opened out here last summer. Harley, the owner welcomed our 20+ group and gave us a bunch of cupcakes to try for free. Since his shop is small, like most cupcake stores, we walked a block west of Rodeo Drive and ate in a business park area, making for a fun cupcake picnic. It was a sunny LA day and we had fun trying them all and taking photos. Also, around the holidays we had a cupcake swap at my fiancĂ©’s office space, where the bakers in the group all brought a batch of cupcakes and then we all left with one from each person’s batch. Some of the girls had jaw-dropping creations, I really have to step it up for our next one, because my M&M decorated wreath cupcakes didn’t cut it in comparison. We’re going to have a summer cupcake swap as well and this coming weekend we are heading to Lark’s Bake Shop with Rachel.

You recently judged the Cupcake Challenge. What are the most important qualities a good cupcake should have?

For me the cupcakes have to be moist, I can’t stand dry cupcakes. I also like original and interesting flavors, a new taste that stands out, like how the Blood Orange Fudge cupcake from Culver City’s Essential Chocolate Desserts did during the judging last week. Otherwise it was just what I liked and didn’t like.

You took a cupcake baking and decorating class and learned a few tips. How often do you bake cupcakes? Do you have any favorite cookbooks or recipes?

Well, I’m more of an eater than a baker, lol. I do occasionally bake when I discover some new recipes, I also have the Cupcake-a-day 2008 Calendar that’s provided me with a yummy s’mores cupcake recipe and a strawberry one, but I fear I lack the attention to detail that’s required for baking. However, I just got a beautiful red KitchenAid mixer and silicon cupcake cups, so I hope to start doing some more baking soon.

You used to live in New York, near the famed Magnolia Bakery, and called it your "Kryptonite." Are there major differences between the cupcake scenes in New York and LA?

Well, in LA I feel like the cupcakeries are more than just selling yummy cupcakes, but the whole experience, ie cutesy interiors, selling cupcake nick knacks, etc., so in that respect I feel like most of the LA stores are more over the top than the New York ones. Also, in Los Angeles everyone lately seems to be crazy about mini-cupcakes, organic all-natural ingredients and vegan or food allergy recipes, all of which weren’t on my radar when I was enjoying cupcakes in New York.

Why do you think cupcakes have become so popular lately generally, and in Los Angeles in particular?

It seems Los Angeles has exploded with cupcake shops. Maybe because the city had been eagerly awaiting the New York trend to come there and once it did it just didn’t stop. I also feel that each new shop does bring something different, thus their relevance. Overall though, who doesn’t like a cupcake? It’s comfort food and somewhere fun to go with your girlfriends and family.

What's your favorite LA cupcake?

Hmm as the cupcake challenge proved to me, I like many different cupcakes and varieties. It seems at each LA shop there will be at least one cupcake flavor that I like or something about the place that I find special. The giant cupcakes of Crumbs still hold a place in my heart, but I’m also a fan of SusieCakes in Brentwood--their strawberry cupcake in particular, Vanilla Bake Shop in Santa Monica (it’s my favorite designed store too), Leda’s vegan red velvet (vegan can actually taste good!) and my recent visit to BabyCakes Baking Company in Torrance proved to be really delicious too.

And now for some personal questions…

How often do you eat cupcakes?

Once a week at least.

What's the best thing about eating cupcakes?

The pure decadence of eating a small personal cake? For me though, a good Vanilla Cupcake is like the sigh you let out when you enter your home after a long day of work.

What's your favorite type of cupcake?

Vanilla with buttercream, simple, classic. I’m also a fan of strawberry cupcakes, key lime and orange or raspberry chocolate ones.

How do cupcakes compare/contrast to other baked goods for you?

I’m actually not a cake person. For my birthday’s I’d rather have an ice cream cake or cupcakes, because a cake doesn’t seem to have the same sweetness and taste. Kind of like how Elaine in Seinfeld only eats the muffin tops on muffins.

Is there any innovation you'd like to see made to the cupcake that would improve it for you?

I’d like it if more of the specialty shops boxed their own mixes, providing quick and better alternatives to Pillsbury, Betty Crocker and Duncan Hines mixes.

Do you bake your own cupcakes? Or (even better) have someone who bakes them for you?

No, I’m more of a dinner cook than a baker. My father was an Italian chef born in Italy so I grew up with making sauces and more savory treats than cupcakes. I do bake though and plan on doing more of it.

What's your first cupcake-related memory?

I don’t mean to kill the mood but, my mother always had a picture of my older sister in her wallet and in it she was proudly holding a tray of cupcakes that she was bringing to school for her birthday. Unfortunately she passed away not too long after that photo was taken and I don’t know why, but when I think of cupcakes I always think of that pretty picture of my sister bringing cupcakes to class.

What's the most fun you've ever had with a cupcake?

The most fun with a cupcake? Hmmm that sounds like an American Pie moment, lol. I guess it would be the times when my friend from New Jersey would randomly call me around 10:00 at night when I was living in the City and she’d tell me that she was on her way over and wanted to hit Magnolia and to meet her outside in 15 minutes. I’d be in the middle of schoolwork for my master’s degree and almost ready for bed but would always go. Heck, if she could drive to another state for a cupcake I could walk a block and meet her! We’d then eat them back at my apartment leaving a trail of crumbs behind.

Read our previous cupcake interviews here